Libel actions are meant to be cases for re-establishing reputations, confounding malicious gossip and allowing the litigant to emerge in a state of unblemished purity. Anyone contemplating such litigation should be warned that those who start libel actions often emerge with their reputations in tatters and, on two notable occasions, end up in prison. Lord Jeffrey Archer and most famous of them all, Oscar Wilde found the entrance to the libel court a direct path to gaol.
Indeed, the steps that led from Wilde's charge against the Marquess of Queensberry to hard labour have a sickening inevitability about them. Wilde's conduct through the three trials that followed seems like a deliberate exercise in self-destruction. The public drama was activated by Queensberry leaving a note at the Albemarle Club addressed to 'Oscar Wilde posing somdomite [sic]'. (It is interesting to see what variations the word gained in these proceedings; Edward Carson, Wilde's cross-examiner, called Huysmans's À Rebours a 'sodomitical' book.) The reaction of any sensible man to the note would have been to take the advice of the majority of Wilde's friends, which was to tear it up and forget it. The way to disaster was to start a private prosecution for criminal libel. The charge necessarily called for the defence of justification. From then on it was Wilde, and not his enemy the Marquess of Queensberry, who was on trial, and he had laid himself open to every form of attack. There were no Queensberry Rules.
Throughout these ghastly events Oscar's wife, Constance, behaved impeccably. Wilde was a devoted and loving father, although he left his sons, Vyvyan and Cyril Holland, a lifetime of concealment and embarrassment. In a book that adds considerably to our knowledge of his grandfather's trials, Vyvyan's son, Merlin Holland, has filled in the many gaps left in Montgomery Hyde's edition in the 'Notable British Trials' series. We can now live again through the extraordinary drama of the aborted prosecution of Queensberry and watch Oscar, the great dramatist, elegant in a black frock coat, leaning across the rail of the witness box, uttering wonderful but occasionally fatal answers: even as he is earning the audience's applause for his greatest flights of fancy, he is being led inexorably by the dogged persistence of his cross-examiner, Edward Carson, towards the prison gates.
Merlin Holland has published, for the first time, further passages of the cross-examination. We now know what Carson thought of Huysmans' 'sodomitical' book, and we get a full account of the fascinating exchange. We also have a full text of the evidence in the magistrate's court and Carson's excellent opening speech for the defence. As a full record of these tragic judicial proceedings, it will not only be of use to future historians and scholars but to all of us who love, admire and are fascinated by this extraordinarily brilliant, lovable and self-destructive genius.
The Criminal Law Amendment Act that forbade indecent conduct, short of penetration between men, under which Wilde was finally convicted, had only been passed some ten years earlier and was rightly known as a 'Blackmailer's Charter'. At his subsequent trials Wilde was faced with the evidence collected by Queensberry's defence team for the first trial. This was mostly about limited sexual activity with various consenting rent boys, and a heavy cloud of blackmail hung around the proceedings. (It is now revealed that one significant blackmailing letter was, unwisely, put in evidence by Wilde's prosecuting counsel, although the defence knew nothing of it). The amount of evidence against Wilde was overwhelming, as he must have known when he first told his solicitor that there was no truth in Queensberry's claims.
That he, on that fatal afternoon, as he admitted later, sat lying to a lawyer, was a fact he tended to blame on Bosie, who had longed for a fight to the death against his savage and eccentric father. As Merlin Holland says, the question we would all have liked to ask Oscar was, 'Why on earth did you do it?' Was it another case of the destruction of an older man by an obsession with a young lover? Did he somehow feel that his huge success had become unbearable and want to destroy it? Was he attracted by the danger of lying and thought he could get away with it it? Or was he, as I believe, a confused and kindly man who did not think, as we would not think nowadays, that he had done anything wrong and that he could rely on his irresistible charm, and his talent for finding clever answers to tricky questions to see him through? If this was so, he was horribly mistaken.
There is a story about Oscar Wilde that, I think, should always be remembered. His friend Helena Sickert's father had died and her mother, grief stricken and inconsolable, had shut herself away in her room and vowed that she would see no one. Wilde called and, insisting on seeing the mother, he got her to open her door to him. An hour, two hours passed and Helena waited for the inevitable tears and demands to be left alone. Then she heard an unbelievable sound; her mother was laughing. Wilde had entertained her, had pleased her, had made her feel that life was still worth living. He showed, in that and many other cases, that charm works wonders.
It did not, in the end, work down at the Old Bailey. Perhaps it caused the jury in his first criminal trial to disagree; but then, when any merciful prosecutor or Home Secretary might have decided that he had suffered enough, it let him down badly and he was finally convicted.
Passing the ridiculous sentence of two years' hard labour, Mr Justice Wills said that men who could do as Oscar Wilde did were 'dead to all sense of shame'.(Continues...)