Oscar Wilde in Prison
On the 19th of May 1897, Irish writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving a two year sentence for criminal sodomy and “gross indecency”. He had to go through hard labor and major deprivation, a very problematic situation for a hedonist accustomed to his creature comforts. His experiences in prison were the basis for his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
In a bid to understand the reasoning behind Wilde’s imprisonment, Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) systematically investigated all available evidence about Wilde’s amorous liaisons, his lifelong erotic attraction to men and his subsequent support of Uranianism. The latter was a 19th-century term which referred to the actions of a person of a third sex, neither entirely male, nor female, someone with “a female psyche in a male body” who is sexually attracted to men, later extended as a definition of homosexuality.
Whilst in prison, between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to the subject of his affections and main motive for his imprisonment, Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but keep permanently. In this confessional work, Wilde examined his career to date, his exhibitionist and provocative behaviour and art in Victorian society, describing himself as one who “stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age”. Whilst condemning his lover for being vain, fickle, selfish and self-obsessed in their relationship, Wilde ultimately forgave him and assumed the blame for bringing shame to his family and almost putting his father, John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry in prison for criminal libel. Wilde also charted his spiritual journey of redemption and fulfilment through his prison reading. He realised that he should cherish the darkest of experiences, as they would feed into his writing and enrich it. The end result of this soul-searching process, De Profundis, was partially published in 1905, but in its full version only in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde. Following Wilde’s release, the two former lovers briefly reunited in August at Rouen, but stayed together only a few months, breaking up permanently due to character differences and various pressures. After Wilde’s death and Douglas’ heterosexual marriage, the latter condemned Wilde for his homosexuality, totally distancing himself from him.
Interesting research into Wilde’s experience of the hard hand of the law was conducted by Graham Robb in Strangers: Homosexual Love in the Nineteenth Century (2005). “Flying in the face of post-1980s convention, Robb used crime statistics to suggest that Wilde’s fall was something of a flash in the pan, an aberration that did not particularly affect official views of same-sex practice. Again, this chimes with McKenna’s belief that Wilde-the-individual rather than Wilde-the-lover-of-men was targeted by the government. He reproduces the idea, most recently outlined by Michael S. Foldy, that Queensberry may have blackmailed Lord Rosebery’s government to secure a conviction against Wilde using evidence he possessed of Rosebery’s affair with his eldest son, Francis Archibald Douglas Viscount Drumlanrig).” (review by John Gardiner in History Workshop Journal, No. 58, Autumn, 2004). What a twisted family affair that was, and Wilde appeared to be the flamboyant scapegoat right in the middle of it!
Ari Adut further continues debating the subject by claiming that it was the phenomenon of scandal which brought this situation about. Although sexual practices such as Wilde’s were accepted and common knowledge even in those times, the very fact that his actions had been thrust into the public eye, forced the authorities to take legal action: “For the Victorians, the publicity of homosexuality contaminated third parties and the public sphere as a whole and was thought to yield deleterious provocative and normalizing consequences. Sanctioning instances of homosexuality would entail its publicity and thereby create a scandal. Homosexual acts committed in private were thus undersanctioned by authorities and audiences even when such acts were common knowledge. This was especially the case with elite offenders, since high status multiplied the externalities of the publicity of homosexuality. And audiences and authorities were contaminated—as well as provoked—when Wilde’s well-known homosexuality was unavoidably made public in the course of his legal ordeals. These externalities gave rise to a process of strategic interaction among those affected. During this process, the authorities were stirred to signal resolve and rectitude to the general norm audience through extraordinary zeal. The official acts, in turn, welded the already provoked norm audience against the author. Hence, the very factors that undergirded the underenforcement of homosexuality norms in Victorian England bred overenforcement once Wilde’s transgression became inescapably public.” (Ari Adut, ‘A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 111, No. 1, July 2005).