For LGBT month I’m posting an abridged story about a writer, who we would now consider LGBT, in order to give some perspective on how we’ve developed as a society so far in regards to how we treat literature and authors that are linked with LGBT themes and issues.
In 1895 Oscar Wilde was in a relationship with a young gentleman (and fellow poet) called Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie amongst friends. It was looking like a fine year for the ever popular writer as his new play, The Importance of Being Ernest, was very popular indeed. He was at the height of his powers.
On the 18th February a card arrived for Wilde at his club. One which would change everything. It was from the Marquess of Queensbury, Bosie’s father, and it read ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing somonite’. A misspelt note, but a damning one all the same considering the laws of the time. The Labouchere Ammendment of 1885 made ‘gross indecency’ a crime. This amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act in essence criminalized homosexual acts.
Wilde took offence at the accusation and took Queensbury to court for libel. But Wilde was the one who came under scrutiny in court. For something to be libellous the claim must not be true, and Queensbury’s defensive was that he was merely stating fact.
There was a literary part of the trial that analysed Wilde’s writing as indicative of who he was as a person. One such piece that was analysed was The Picture of Dorian Gray. Some readers believed the text had homosexual subtext which in the eyes of the court further proved Queensbury’s note to be a statement of fact, not a libel. It proved that it was in public’s interests to know that Wilde was a ‘corrupting’ force.
In response to this part of the trial Wilde discussed his views about art and how it is the receivers of art, the readers of his work, that create meaning. Therefore his art was a separate entity to himself once published. This argument was turned against him by the prosecutor, Edward Carson. If the readers give text meaning and they saw his work as immoral then it must, therefore, be immoral regardless of whatever Wilde may say to the contrary. Wilde had surrendered his control over what his text meant.
From the trial:
[C= Carson, W= Wilde]
C-This is in your introduction to Dorian Gray: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written.” That expresses your view?
W—My view on art, yes.
C–Then, I take it, that no matter how immoral a book may be, if it is well written, it is, in your opinion, a good book?
W—Yes, if it were well written so as to produce a sense of beauty, which is the highest sense of which a human being can be capable. If it were badly written, it would produce a sense of disgust.
C–Then a well-written book putting forward perverted moral views may be a good book?
W—No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to people who are not artists.
C–A perverted novel might be a good book?
W–I don’t know what you mean by a “perverted” novel.
C–Then I will suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such a novel?
W–That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
C–An illiterate person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?
W—The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am concerned only with my view of art. I don’t care twopence what other people think of it.
C–The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?
W—I have found wonderful exceptions.
C–Do you think that the majority of people live up to the position you are giving us?
W—I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
C–Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?
C–The affection and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?
W—I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.
C–You did not prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?
W—I have never discouraged him.
Wilde suggests that ‘philistines and illiterates’ would not be able to see his novel as a good piece of art in regards to its quality only, and not any morals they may read into it. Carson points out that such people were in the majority and that Wilde did nothing to stop those who wouldn’t ‘understand’ his novel from accessing it. As a result of this logic Wilde’s art and his own desires were seen as perverse, immoral and a threat to the public in the eyes of the law.
Queensbury was acquitted. After the trial, Wilde was charged with sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde was convicted for gross indecency and sentenced to hard labour.
In 1967, 72 years after the start of Wilde’s legal troubles, the Labouchere Amendment was partially repealed through the Sexual Offences Act of that year, which went some way towards decriminalising homosexual acts.
There is much more depth and detail to the case then I could possibly fit into one blog post so I really recommend looking into it further if you’re interested. Thank you for reading!