OSCAR WILDE, Irish writer born (d. 1900); irish playwright, novelist, poet, author of short stories known for his barbed wit, martyred Gay saint (ok….maybe not a saint…), he was one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. As the result of a famous trial, he suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned for two years of hard labor after being convicted of the offence of gross indecency.
Though Wilde’s sexual orientation has variously been considered bisexual, homosexual, and paederastic, Wilde himself felt he belonged to a culture of male love inspired by the Greek paederastic tradition. In describing his own sexual identity, Wilde used the term Socratic. He may have had significant sexual relationships with (in chronological order) Frank Miles, Constance Lloyd (Wilde’s wife), Robert Baldwin Ross, and Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”). Wilde also had numerous sexual encounters with working-class male youths, who were often rent boys.
Biographers generally believe Wilde first experienced his own homosexuality in 1885 (the year after his wedding) with the 17-year-old Robert Baldwin Ross. Neil McKenna’s biography The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) theorizes that Wilde was aware of his sexuality much earlier, from the moment of his first kiss with another boy at the age of sixteen.
According to McKenna, after arriving at Oxford in 1874, Wilde tentatively explored his sexuality, discovering that he could feel passionate romantic love for “fair, slim” choirboys, but was more sexually drawn towards the swarthy young rough trade. By the late 1870s, Wilde was already preoccupied with the philosophy of same-sex love, and had befriended a group of Uranian (paederastic) poets and homosexual law reformers, becoming acquainted with the work of Gay rights pioneer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs.
Wilde also met Walt Whitman in America in 1882, writing to a friend that there was “no doubt” about the great American poet’s sexual orientation — “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” he boasted. He even lived with the society painter Frank Miles, who was a few years his senior and may have been his lover. However, writes McKenna, he was at one time unhappy with the direction of his sexual and romantic desires, and, hoping that marriage would cure him, he married Constance Lloyd in 1884. McKenna’s account has been criticized by some reviewers who find it too speculative, although not necessarily implausible.
Regardless of whether Wilde was still naïve when he first met Ross, Ross did play an important role in the development of Wilde’s understanding of his own sexuality. Ross was aware of Wilde’s poems before they met, and indeed had been beaten for reading them. He was also unmoved by the Victorian prohibition against homosexuality.
By Richard Ellmann’s account, Ross, “…so young and yet so knowing, was determined to seduce Wilde.” Later, Ross boasted to Lord Alfred Douglas that he was “the first boy Oscar ever had” and there seems to have been much jealousy between them. Soon, Wilde entered a world of regular sex with youths such as servants and newsboys, in their mid to late teens, whom he would meet in homosexual bars or brothels. In Wilde’s words, the relations were akin to “feasting with panthers”, and he reveled in the risk: “the danger was half the excitement.” In his public writings, Wilde’s first celebration of romantic love between men and boys can be found in The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889), in which he propounds a theory that Shakespeare’s sonnets were written out of the poet’s love of Elizabethan boy actor “Willie Hughes”.
In the early summer of 1891 he was introduced by the poet Lionel Johnson to the 22-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford at the time. An intimate friendship immediately sprang up between the two, but it was not initially sexual, nor did the sexuality progress far when it did eventually take place. According to Douglas, speaking in his old age, for the first six months their relations remained on a purely intellectual and emotional level. Despite the fact that “from the second time he saw me, when he gave me a copy of Dorian Gray which I took with me to Oxford, he made overtures to me. It was not till I had known him for at least six months and after I had seen him over and over again and he had twice stayed with me in Oxford, that I gave in to him. I did with him and allowed him to do just what was done among boys at Winchester and Oxford… Sodomy never took place between us, nor was it attempted or dreamed of. Wilde treated me as an older one does a younger one at school.” After Wilde realized that Douglas only consented in order to please him, as his instincts drew him not to men but to younger boys, Wilde permanently ceased his physical attentions.
For a few years they lived together more or less openly in a number of locations. Wilde and some within his upper-class social group also began to speak about homosexual law reform, and their commitment to “The Cause” was formalized by the founding of a highly secretive organization called the Order of Chaeronea, of which Wilde was a member. A homosexual novel, Teleny or The Reverse of the Medal, written at about the same time and clandestinely published in 1893, has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but was probably, in fact, a combined effort by a number of Wilde’s friends, which Wilde edited. Wilde also periodically contributed to the Uranian literary journal The Chameleon.
Lord Alfred’s first mentor had been his cosmopolitan and effeminate grandfather Alfred Montgomery. His older brother Francis Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig also had a (possibly homosexual) association with the Prime Minister Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, which ended on Francis’s death in a shooting accident, a possible suicide. Lord Alfred’s father John Sholto Douglas 9th Marquess of Queensberry came to believe his sons had been corrupted by older homosexuals, or as he phrased it in a letter, “Snob Queers like Rosebery”. As he had attempted to do with Rosebery, Queensberry confronted Wilde and Lord Alfred on several occasions, but each time Wilde was able to mollify him.
Divorced and spending wildly, Queensberry was known for his outspoken views and the boxing roughs who often accompanied him. He abhorred his younger son and plagued the boy with threats to cut him off if he did not stop idling his life away. Queensberry was determined to end the friendship with Wilde.
Wilde was in full flow of rehearsal when Bosie returned from a diplomatic posting to Cairo, around the time Queensberry visited Wilde at his Tite Street home. He angrily pushed past Wilde’s servant and entered the ground floor study, shouting obscenities and asking Wilde about his divorce (rumors were rife). Wilde became incensed, but it is said he calmly told his manservant that Queensberry was the most infamous brute in London, and that he was not to be shown into the house ever again. Despite the presence of a bodyguard, Wilde forced Queensberry to leave in no uncertain terms.
On the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest Queensberry further planned to insult and socially embarrass Wilde by throwing a bouquet of turnips. Wilde was tipped off, and Queensberry was barred from entering the theatre. Wilde took legal advice against him, and wished to prosecute, but Wilde’s friends refused to give evidence against the Marquess and hence the case was dropped. Wilde and Bosie left London for a vacation in Monte Carlo and while away, on February 18,1895, the Marquess left his calling card, with an inscription accusing Wilde of posing as a “somdomite(sic)” at Wilde’s Club.