Oscar Wilde's tragic end
It was a bitter conclusion to a life that had so often featured glittering success. Emma Slattery Williams explores the decline of celebrated Irish writer Oscar Wilde
No crowds gathered in May 1897 to see Oscar Wilde’s release from prison. Although Wilde had once been the most famous man in London, celebrated as much for his witticisms and dandyism as his writing, his release took place with little fanfare. It was all in sharp contrast to the scandal caused by the infamous trials that led to the poet and playwright’s imprisonment; court cases that revealed Wilde’s homosexuality to the wider world.
The lack of reporters was a matter of design. On 18 May 1897, Wilde, who spent most of his two-year sentence in Reading Gaol, was quietly transferred to Pentonville. On his release the next day, Wilde was met by More Adey, his friend and editor, and Stewart Headlam, an Anglican vicar who, even though he had never personally met Wilde, had put up bail money on Wilde’s behalf. Once at Headlam’s home, Wilde put on a fresh set of clothes and basked in his freedom. Soon, he was excitedly discussing the many books he had asked people to buy for him, including works by John Keats, Alexandre Dumas and Dante. That evening, Wilde sailed to France and, never to return to Britain, an impoverished existence in exile.
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It was a bitter conclusion to a life that had so often featured glittering success. Born to Anglo-Irish parents in Dublin in 1854, the youthful Wilde won scholarships both to Trinity College Dublin and to Oxford’s Magdalen College, where he studied classics. In 1882, Wilde gave a lecture tour of North America. Scheduled to last four months, his talks were such a hit that he was away for close to a year. From the eerie philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) to The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a farce considered to be the greatest of his stage plays, his writing displayed his enormous range.
Wilde of heart
In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd and they had two sons. But soon after his wife’s second pregnancy, Wilde began a short affair with 17-year-old Robert Ross. It was likely Wilde’s first same-sex relationship. The two would remain friends for the rest of Wilde’s life.
Another affair had far more lasting consequences for Wilde. In 1891, he became a friend and lover of Lord Alfred Douglas, a young man 16 years his junior and known as ‘Bosie’. Unlike Wilde, who managed to keep his homosexuality mostly hidden – except for themes within his work – Douglas was far less discreet and frittered away large amounts of money on young men. Douglas was the son of a Scottish peer, the Marquess of Queensberry, who strongly disapproved both of Bosie’s lifestyle and of his relationship with Wilde.
In 1895, Queensberry visited Wilde’s favourite London club, the Albemarle. In order to provoke Wilde, he left his calling card, which said: “For Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite [sic].” Queensberry was publicly accusing Wilde of homosexuality –a serious charge. Leaving aside the prevailing attitudes of the era, homosexual acts between men in public or private were illegal, and until 1861, could have been punishable by death.
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Acting against the advice of his friends who believed a court case would ruin him, Wilde brought a libel lawsuit against Queensberry. Wilde assured his lawyer that the allegations of homosexuality against him were untrue, and Douglas, who had a difficult relationship with his father, was confident Wilde would win. This confidence was misplaced. Queensberry’s lawyers painted Wilde as a predator and said they could produce several male prostitutes who would testify that Wilde had paid them for sex.
The judge described Wilde’s punishment as ‘totally inadequate’ given the seriousness of his ‘crime’
Queensberry won the case, which ultimately bankrupted Wilde because he became liable for Queensberry’s expenses. Douglas fled to Europe, but Wilde stayed in Britain. A warrant was issued for his arrest. In April 1895, a first trial for ‘gross indecency’ saw the jury unable to come to a verdict. Following a retrial with a less lenient judge, Wilde was found guilty. Onlookers shouted “shame” at him while he was taken down. On 25 May he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour – the maximum sentence that could be given. ‘Gross indecency’ was used to prosecute homosexual acts when sodomy could not be conclusively proven. The judge described his punishment as “totally inadequate” given the seriousness of his “crime”. The damage to Wilde’s reputation, at least in his own lifetime, was irreparable.
Life as Prisoner C33
Wilde was imprisoned, initially at Pentonville, before being moved to Wandsworth and finally Reading Gaol. When being transferred between prisons, he was recognised and had abuse hurled at him. While being forced to wait in the rain on once such occasion, he is said to have remarked: “If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.” While incarcerated, he had to walk for hours on a treadmill and pick oakum – an arduous task that involved untwisting old strands of rope. For someone of Wilde’s talents, the lack of reading material may have come as a greater hardship. Literature was initially restricted to the Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress, until RB Haldane sourced books for Wilde while he was investigating prison conditions. Wilde’s incarceration took its toll on his health, too, as he suffered from dysentery and injured his ear during a fall.
Wilde was at least able to continue to write in prison. Although he was forbidden from penning poetry or prose, letter-writing was permitted – with no restrictions on how long the letter could be. Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to Douglas, which became known as De Profundis (‘From the Depths’), in which he discussed both their relationship and his own spiritual development. Wilde’s mother Jane died in 1896. Her request to visit her son in prison before she died was refused, but Wilde later claimed to have seen her apparition in his cell at around the same time as she passed.
During his time in prison, Wilde underwent a spiritual renewal and intended to convert to Roman Catholicism. On the day of his release, he sent a message to a Jesuit house asking to complete a six-month retreat with them, but this was refused. Realising it would be too difficult now to stay in Britain, he caught a ferry to Dieppe. While he was imprisoned, Constance had taken parental rights away from Wilde. His two sons never saw their father again and their surnames were changed to distance them from the scandal.
Wilde briefly resumed his relationship with Douglas in Naples, but he spent his final years almost penniless in France living between the homes of friends and cheap hotels. He spent much of his time in bars and, when he was recognised on the street, endured public humiliation and abuse. His health never truly recovered from his time in prison, and he claimed to have lost his love of writing. The only thing of note that he completed during this time was The Ballad of Reading Gaol – the experiences of a fellow inmate on death row as well as a condemnation of the Victorian penal system. The poem was initially credited to C33 after Wilde’s cell number.
He wrote many letters to British newspapers condemning British prisons: “The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those who have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.”
On 30 November 1900, Wilde died in Paris at the age of just 46. His friend Robert Ross and a priest were at his side. He was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church before his death. Wilde’s final illness and death have been attributed to syphilis, but it’s more likely that a reoccurring ear infection – possibly caused by the injury he suffered in prison – eventually led to meningoencephalitis.
In 2017, after the passing of the Turing Law – named after the gay codebreaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing – Wilde was among more than 50,000 men pardoned for crimes of homosexuality that, thankfully, no longer exist.
This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.