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The truth about Oscar Wilde


Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment for “gross indecency” is widely perceived as “the great 19th-century martyrdom story”, say Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland on The Rest is History. The playwright is viewed as a “sacrificial victim destroyed by a repressive, old-fashioned, puritanical establishment”. But that’s not quite right. People forget that Wilde was charged only because he himself had sued his lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, for accusing him of being gay. Wilde did this not to make a stand for equality, but because he thought he’d win and get Queensberry off his back. Instead, the defence produced “a list as long as your arm” of Wilde’s young lovers, and the playwright – “absolutely stunned” – dropped the case. Armed with this damning information, crown prosecutors charged him with indecency.

This wasn’t a decision taken lightly. Wilde was good friends with senior politicians including Herbert Asquith, the home secretary. But rumours were swirling that the prime minister, Lord Rosebery, had had an affair with one of Queensberry’s other sons, and the government didn’t want to be accused of a cover-up. At the trial, the presiding judge was almost unashamedly biased towards Wilde, openly questioning whether such an intelligent man would be as “reckless” as the prosecution made out. The jury was unable to reach a verdict, and it was only in a second trial that Wilde was finally convicted. During his two years in prison, he was again given special treatment: spared hard labour; allowed to read books; given a notepad and pen. Of course, none of this is to say Wilde’s treatment wasn’t wrong – homosexuality shouldn’t have been illegal in the first place. But his story isn’t as straightforward as many make it out to be.

🌳😍 Wilde basically had to be smuggled out of Reading prison when he was released. On the station platform he saw a tree and was overcome with emotion, shouting: “Oh beautiful world! Oh beautiful world!” The warden quickly cut him short. “Now Mr Wilde, you mustn’t give yourself away,” he said. “You’re the only man in England who will talk like that in a railway station.”