The Trial of the Sensational Oscar Wilde

The Trial of the Sensational Oscar Wilde
Ed Cohen?s Talk on the Wilde Side discusses the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Cohen explores the lack of legal transcripts of the case which relies on newspaper press reports and accounts to document this lawsuit. His investigations into the clarity of the newspaper accounts found that they ?were themselves highly mediated stories whose narrative structures organized and gave meaningful shapes to the events they purported to accurately represent? (4). In the second part of his book, Cohen discusses Oscar Wilde?s trial and its importance, the results of the fictionalized newspaper accounts of the proceedings, as well as the role of Wilde?s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the legal proceedings.
Oscar Wilde?s trial and conviction were major publicized events during the 19th century. His trial changed the way the public viewed sexual behavior as well as homosexuality and the crime of sodomy. Havelock Ellis, the author of Sexual Inversion, suggests, ?The celebrity of Oscar Wilde and the universal publicity given to the facts of the case by the newspapers may have brought conviction of their perversion to many inverts who were before only vaguely conscious of their abnormality, and, paradoxical though it may seem, have imparted greater courage to others; but it can scarcely have sufficed to increase the number of inverts? (97). The trial created lasting impressions on homosexuals in that it made being so a crime. Cohen looks at the history of the trial and defines, with great detail, the evolving crime of sodomy. Sodomy is defined as ?acts of gross indecency with another male person? (103); however, it has also been known to include a plethora of sexual acts from birth control to bestiality. The initial law regarding sodomy was instituted in 1533, during the reign of Henry viii by the English Parliament. Before this secularization it was considered one of the worst sins against divine law according to biblical doctrine. It changed drastically over time to become a law to constitute morality rather than a trespass of divine law.



Cohen discusses ?The Cleveland Street Affair? as the defining case that brought upon Oscar Wilde?s trial for the crime of sodomy. On July 4th 1889, the Central Telegraph was investigated to find that the messenger boys were prostituting themselves to gentleman. ?The Cleveland Street Affair? became synonymous with homosexuality and sodomy. In a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray by the Scots Observer in 1890, the author writes that the book was unclean, immoral, and lacked sanity. ?Mr. Wilde . . . can write for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys . . . .? (124). This public opinion of The Picture of Dorian Gray may have incited the Marquis of Queensberry to defame Oscar Wilde as a ?Somdomite [sic]? (126). Oscar Wilde took the Marquis of Queensberry to court for libel under the 1843 Criminal Libel Act. This lawsuit escalated into a suit against Wilde. The Marquis of Queensberry?s allegation was that ?Wilde . . . did solicit and incite . . . [another male person] to commit sodomy and other acts of gross indecency? (127). The court could not charge Wilde with sodomy because of the necessary legal proof of penetration which the defense could not supply. However, the defense did have the newspapers to provide ?sensational? accounts in their favor.



Cohen states that the only documentation of the trial was in the press and personal accounts making it difficult to understand the exact proceedings. The 19th century news about the trial was biased and faulty at best. The reports of the Evening Standard, the Morning, and Lloyd?s Weekly Newspaper, among others, helped portray Wilde as ?a particular type of male individual who had a ?tendency? toward committing sexual acts with other men? (131). The headlines aroused attention towards the already risqué character Oscar Wilde and helped depict him as the type of individual who would suit the defense?s allegations. The newspapers described Wilde as ?a languorous, long-haired lover of sunflowers or as an ?utterly? aestheticized utterer of epigrams? (136). This characterized Wilde as the epitome of effeminacy. He is also described as disrespectful of the law and its proceedings. On the other hand, the Marquis of Queensberry is depicted as the model of masculinity as well as ?a profligate and a degenerate aristocrat? (138). These characterizations did wonders for the Marquis?s defense.



The newspapers suffered a setback that they actually ended up using to their benefit. The word ?sodomy,? although used in the courtroom, was deemed ?unrespectable? and could not appear in the newspapers that told of the legal proceedings. The newspapers proceeded to describe the allegation in creative ways that actually incriminated Wilde. ?They negatively characterized Wilde?s behavior as ?immoral,? ?immodest,? ?unnatural,? ?improper,? ?indecent,? ?unrespectable,? ?disreputable,? etc., in order to avoid having to specify positively the actual sexual acts named in Queensberry?s defense? (144). These negative terms helped characterize Wilde as a bad man and as a criminal. The papers also named the crime in ?acceptable? ways calling it ?the gravest of all offenses? (148). This ?news? helped portray Wilde not only as a deviant, but as the guilty party in the case. The newspapers not only helped start this trial inadvertently through the Scots Observer article, but helped paint Oscar Wilde as the criminal and the Marquis of Queensberry as the hero. This is one instance in which the written word helped incriminate Wilde; however, it was his own words that led to his prosecution.



Cohen explains that the defense eventually used Oscar Wilde?s own writing in their arguments. They shifted their concern from homosexual sexuality to Wilde?s literary practice. The Marquis of Queensberry?s plea stated, ?Wilde . . . [wrote] a certain immoral and obscene work in the form of a narrative entitled The Picture of Dorian Gray . . .? (128). They used Wilde?s text to show his sexual deviation as a public threat in that he had influence on young men through his writing. Wilde was held morally and legally responsible for his writings. However, Wilde replied that it was in the interpretation of the texts. Wilde states in court, ?What the sins of ?Dorian Gray? are no one knows, People might think it meant unnatural vice? Every man would see his own sin in ?Dorian Gray? . . . .?Dorian Gray? could only be called vicious when misinterpreted by the vulgar and the illiterate? (163-4). In addition to the ?sexually explicit? writings in The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde was held accountable for letters written to Lord Alfred Douglas, the Marquis? youngest son as well as many other ?related texts? by Lord Alfred Douglas, Francis Bloxham, and Wilde himself. These texts greatly affected the trial and framed the defense?s argument against Wilde in creating a relationship between Wilde, sexually and textually, that combine to show his immorality.



The culmination of the newspaper reports and the interpretation of Wilde?s writings made it obvious that it was in fact Wilde that was on trial. On Saturday 5 April 1895, Wilde was indicted and arrested for committing ?acts of gross indecency with another male person? (168). Wilde had been tried twice, was expected to apologize for his life and work as a writer, and was sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor. ?. . . [B]y the time of his conviction, not only had Wilde been confirmed as the sexual deviant for the late nineteenth century, but he had become the paradigmatic example for an emerging public definition of a new ?type? of male sexual actor: ?the homosexual?? (2).



Cohen?s account shows that Oscar Wilde was a ?sensational? man. His flamboyant personal style was in a sense begging for trouble. However, Cohen asserts that Wilde?s trial against the Marquis of Queensberry was unfair and biased, no matter how popular it was with the 19th century. Cohen notes that W.H. Smith, a now famous newsstand and bookseller, deemed his novel immoral and unfit and many agreed with them. Regardless, the trial shows that The Picture of Dorian Gray spurted the most sensational of court cases in history proving it to be, in fact, sensational as well as incriminating.

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