essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
THERE SEEMS to be a lot more to say about Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality than his 1895 prosecution as a kind of precursor to Bill Posters. I started by looking at his heterosexuality. Almost everything reported about sexual feelings and practices though was indeterminate, in his reticent age. Then, as now, people found it hard to say what they felt. So we can think what we like as long as we don’t interpret his early life in terms of what we know about his later life. That is what fiction means.
In 1876 Wilde met Lillie Langtry and they became close, perhaps even lovers (Wilde reputedly wrote Lady Windemere’s Fan with her in mind and was instrumental in starting her stage career). In 1878 Wilde fell in love with Florence Balcombe, one of a line of young men smitten with this celebrated beauty (but she later married Bram Stoker). In about 1880 Wilde met Constance Lloyd. They fell in love and married in 1884. It would seem from an inference made from a remark of Constance’s brother (quoted in Richard Ellmann’s biography) that they may have ceased to have sexual relations sometime in 1886. If so (and it’s a very tenuous inference) it was acceptable to Constance, who considered Wilde a normal husband until the revelations made at his trial. Between the ages of 22 and 32 then, Wilde seemed to be charting a typically heterosexual course. Ceasing sexual relations after childbirth was not that unusual for Victorians either, keeping the family small, leaving the wife to care for the children and allowing the husband to find his pleasures elsewhere.
Wilde does appear to have loved Constance very deeply until the day he died. He was an excellent father who adored his two sons. Separation from his family was the greatest grief Wilde had to bear after his trial and may have contributed to his early death. His heterosexual life had been very passionate and, as it was naturally terminated by the notoriety of his trial, one needs to avoid just assuming Wilde was a homosexual who came out of the closet as so many men have done since his time. Wrong headed as it may seem, this is an attempt to look at Wilde’s homosexuality as a pose and as an attack on the society of which he was always an outsider.
To be manoeuvred into risking all he valued, family and fame, seemed to flow logically from all Wilde had come to believe in and stand for (“each man kills the thing he loves”). Yet his only mistake was in not seeing the future.
Wilde has received a lot of attention for his love affair with Alfred Douglas and his subsequent prosecution and conviction for ‘grossly indecent acts’ with young men (which meant homosexual acts not including sodomy, according to British law). Some of Wilde’s characteristics have to be considered in looking at his behaviour towards his wife and friends simply because they are so different to our own we might ignore them (“to ignore one of them could be considered unfortunate, but to ignore two …”).
Firstly, he was a Victorian, a younger contemporary of such a cynosure as Alfred Tennyson the Poet Laureate. He had a personal code about which he felt it unnecessary to draw attention. This code included loyalty to friends. Both Wilde and Douglas showed conspicuous loyalty to one another at times when it did them both irreparable harm and at times when they were not in a homosexual relationship. He was also, it must be remembered, a man of the generation that believed that a woman’s place was in the home, and that her chief fulfillment was in bearing children. To advertise his friendship with Douglas while relegating Constance to home and family was normal for his time, not necessarily homosexual behaviour (apparently Wilde’s involvement with Douglas was not physical for long, being more what he called Greek or Socratic love).
Secondly, he was an Irishman (“the first thing I lost when I left Ireland was my Irish accent”). He had all the Celt’s love of display and carelessness of consequences. This gave another dimension to his republicanism and advocacy of socialism. One is reminded of another witty Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, who also took on the English establishment but got away with it. Wilde felt it important to subvert, to flout, to undermine, the stifling conventions of society in London. It was a revolutionary act. (Many Irishmen of Wilde’s generation and before held the English responsible for the death of millions of their countrymen by starvation. And the British detested the Irish as dangerous revolutionaries). Much of what he did was gesture, which however true to his beliefs did not necessarily reflect his emotions.
Thirdly he was a celebrity. Wilde was born to parents who were both nationally well known, in medicine, in archaeology and folklore, and in poetry. He was a brilliant student, the first of his year at Oxford. He was clearly destined for great things. He grew up with the confidence to flout convention. After early involvement with the theatrical scene he went to America for money and fame and found both, as Charles Dickens had 10 years previously. Increasingly he found it important to make theatrical gestures and paradoxical remarks, to put on a performance, to shock.
Fourthly Wilde was a scholar. Not just the brilliant and fashionable playwright, he was one of the major critical writers of his time, and his learning and knowledge of other cultures made him a square peg in a round hole. The aristocratic society of his day was to a large degree extraordinarily ignorant and insular. In this regard Wilde can be compared to Edgar Allen Poe, who flouted the conventions of his society (dope and underage girls and the cult of death) and was also a brilliant critic as well as a great story writer. Wilde’s erudition was such that he easily found an ideal society to replace the fusty Victorian one he moved in in London, that of ancient Greece, not only the fount of democracy but a society that idealised the relationship between a man and one of his younger contemporaries (not quite homosexuality as we know it but a practice that influenced Wilde enormously. Patronising the rent boys in the slums was a bit of a let down from this ideal but the only alternative Victorian London offered for its practice).
And lastly it must not be forgotten that Wilde’s prosecution was not bought on by his homosexual practice. Alfred Douglas was a much more active homosexual. His brother Francis was a homosexual who had an affair with the Earl of Rosebery, at one time Prime Minister. Homosexuality was fine by the establishment, as long as it did not draw attention to itself. When Robert Ross introduced Wilde to the practice which enabled him to live like an ancient Greek, he introduced it to a man who was then an active attention seeker (“only one thing is worse than being talked about…”) and it was these two traits combined which led to Wilde’s downfall. After all, one mustn’t have a scandal about a queer peer, what? But a writer johnnie was a different proposition.
It would seem that Wilde, though idealising the sexual and other practices of ancient Greece, did not actively start a homosexual involvement, but was seduced by Robert Ross, who may have been celebrity hunting. It was not just about sexual pleasure on his part, for Wilde saw himself as a criminal, one who was expressly at odds with his society, and he saw this as arising out of his function as an artist. Wilde thought art itself, and the artist, himself properly a work of art, were revolutionary and formed an essential function in reforming society. The Impressionists were doing this in Paris at about this time.
An interesting parallel is the Comte de Sade, another great writer, who championed the causes of the French Revolution long before it was fashionable to do so and was such a threat he spent much of his time in prison (released after the Revolution, he was eventually imprisoned again because he protested at the excesses of the Reign of Terror; freed, he wrote against Napoleon and was incarcerated in a lunatic asylum until his death). De Sade chose to write about what was called libertinage, taking it to the most extreme degree. This was a sensitive issue for the members of the Old Regime, a privileged class about to meet their nemesis, and they struck at him. Wilde chose to be flamboyantly homosexual and affronted the many aristocratic homosexuals who wanted to be discreet about it. He had to go. Perhaps Wilde wanted to be sacrificed.
All this is very different from the actions of a man leaving the closet. One might argue that Wilde acceded to Robert Ross, then took up with the rent boys introduced by Alfred Douglas, as part of his job as an artist, influenced by his love of ancient Greece. Ross and Douglas were actively homosexual, but Wilde was pushed. Wilde may have felt obliged to cease sexual relations with Constance because of his homosexuality rather than finding her repugnant because she was female. These are two very different attitudes.
Oscar Wilde was a practising homosexual for the last 14 years of his life. But there are a lot more factors than sexuality in his case. Or are there?
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.