Wildes Second Coming Out

Doug Ireland

When first pub­lished in Eng­land two years ago, Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde won uni­ver­sal crit­i­cal acclaim. The praise was more than deserved, for this stun­ning piece of inves­tiga­tive his­to­ri­og­ra­phy reveals for the very first time how Wilde was a mil­i­tant pre­cur­sor of the mod­ern gay lib­er­a­tion move­ment long before his famous speech from the dock in defense of the love that dare not speak its name.”

Mak­ing use of hith­er­to unpub­lished and uncon­sult­ed doc­u­ments, diaries and let­ters, this extra­or­di­nary book – just pub­lished in the Unit­ed States – also gives a new and reveal­ing por­trait of Wilde’s sex­u­al­i­ty that supercedes all pre­vi­ous Wilde biogra­phies. More­over, McKenna’s book gives us, at long last, a defin­i­tive account of the polit­i­cal cov­er-up of the homo­sex­u­al scan­dals with­in England’s rul­ing and roy­al elites that motored Wilde’s pros­e­cu­tion and trial.

The com­mon­ly accept­ed view is that Wilde dis­cov­ered his homo­sex­u­al­i­ty after he had already been mar­ried and pro­duced chil­dren, when he was seduced by his young friend Rob­bie Ross. It is this ver­sion pop­u­lar­ized in Bri­an Gilbert’s sym­pa­thet­ic 1997 film, the Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed Wilde (star­ring the open­ly gay British actor Stephen Fry, in a sub­tle por­tray­al, as Wilde). The film was based on Richard Ellmann’s admir­ing, Pulitzer Prize-win­ning biog­ra­phy – valu­able, but now made out­dat­ed in many ways by McKenna’s book.

In his care­ful­ly doc­u­ment­ed work, McKen­na demon­strates beyond doubt that the truth is quite dif­fer­ent. By the time he mar­ried in 1884, Wilde had already lived for sev­er­al years with a male lover he’d met in 1876 – the soci­ety por­trait painter Frank Miles. A hand­some man two years old­er, Miles in turn would intro­duce Wilde to the sculp­tor Lord Ronald Gow­er, a noto­ri­ous sodomite, with a pen­chant for rough trade,’” on whom Wilde would base the char­ac­ter of Lord Hen­ry Wot­ton, the cor­rupt­ing prophet of strange sins” in The Pic­ture of Dori­an Gray.

Wilde lat­er recount­ed the day of what he called his sex­u­al awak­en­ing” to his friend and con­fi­dant Frank Har­ris (18561931). A writer, edi­tor, jour­nal­ist and wom­an­iz­er, Har­ris authored My Life and Loves, a mon­u­men­tal auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal por­tray­al of the under­side of Vic­to­ri­an sex­u­al­i­ty that cre­at­ed a scan­dal in both Europe and Amer­i­ca when pub­lished in the 20s.

On the day 16-year-old Wilde left Por­to­ra Roy­al School, where he’d been a stu­dent, a boy a year younger than he – with whom he’d had a strong sen­ti­men­tal friend­ship” – came to the train sta­tion to bid him farewell. In McKenna’s re-telling, as the Dublin train was about to depart, the boy turned and cried out, Oh, Oscar!” Before I knew what he was doing he had caught my face in his hands, and kissed me on the lips. The next moment … he was gone.” Wilde felt cold sticky drops” trick­ling down his face – they were the boy’s tears. This is love,” he said to him­self, trem­bling slight­ly. For a long while I sat, unable to think, all shak­en with won­der and remorse,” Wilde told Har­ris. That sense of won­der and remorse” fol­lowed Wilde to Oxford, where he began his affair with Miles and, as a schol­ar of clas­si­cal Greek, first began to write admir­ing­ly of Greek love,” the pas­sion of an old­er man for a younger.

By the late 1870s, Wilde was already pre­oc­cu­pied with the phi­los­o­phy of same-sex love. He befriend­ed and fre­quent­ed the poet and writer John Adding­ton Symonds, who helped found sev­er­al Walt Whit­man Soci­eties” in the north of Eng­land – the first record­ed Eng­lish groups of gay men found­ed explic­it­ly to dis­cuss same-sex love – and who wrote the pro-homo­sex­u­al A Prob­lem in Greek Ethics,” pub­lished in 1883. He began a cau­tious friend­ship with the homo­sex­u­al essay­ist and crit­ic Wal­ter Pater – the cen­tral fig­ure of the Pre-Raphaelites, who had writ­ten in cod­ed lan­guage of the love of boys – but found him too hes­i­tant, too secre­tive about his sex­u­al tastes.” 

Dur­ing this peri­od Wilde also became famil­iar with the writ­ings of the gay lib­er­a­tionist pio­neer, the Ger­man lawyer Karl Hein­rich Ulrichs (18251895). From the 1860s on, Ulrichs pub­lished dozens of books and pam­phlets pro­claim­ing that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty – which, invok­ing Plato’s Sym­po­sium, he bap­tized Uran­ian love” (from the Greek uri­anos, or heav­en­ly love”) – was nor­mal and nat­ur­al, and argu­ing that Ura­ni­ans should have full social and legal equal­i­ty with het­ero­sex­u­als, includ­ing the right to mar­ry. Wilde embraced both Ulrichs’ phi­los­o­phy and his Uran­ian lan­guage. He and his friends began to refer in their let­ters to the cam­paign for legal­iza­tion of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as the Cause,” join­ing a secret Uran­ian orga­ni­za­tion, the Order of Chaeronea, to fight for it. McKen­na demon­strates that the very title of The Impor­tance of Being Earnest is a Uran­ian pun. … Among less lit­er­ary Ura­ni­ans, earnest’ – a cor­rup­tion of the French uraniste–enjoyed a short vogue as a cod­ed sig­ni­fi­er of Uran­ian incli­na­tions” – as in is he earnest?” to mean is he gay?”

When Wilde sailed for Amer­i­ca on Christ­mas Eve, 1881, one of his most impor­tant pri­or­i­ties was a meet­ing with Walt Whit­man. Wilde’s friend Symonds had engaged in a long cor­re­spon­dence with Whit­man, try­ing to draw out an explic­it dec­la­ra­tion of his sex­u­al tastes, so ill-con­cealed in Whitman’s strong­ly and beau­ti­ful­ly homosen­su­al poems about pas­sion­ate male bond­ing. Whit­man had remained eva­sive. But after his meet­ing with Whit­man (then in his 60s, with a flow­ing, white beard), Wilde wrote 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.

In 1889 – six years before the tri­al that sent him to Read­ing Gaol – Wilde star­tled the lit­er­ary world with The Por­trait of Mr. W.H. This roman à clef drew its title from the W.H.” to whom Shake­speare ded­i­cat­ed a sequence of 154 son­nets. Adopt­ing as his own the well-known the­o­ry that W.H.” referred to the 17-year-old Eliz­a­bethan actor Willie Hugh­es, McKen­na writes, Wilde made his novel’s real hero…the spir­i­tu­al and sex­u­al love that men have for younger men…[It was] a manifesto…closely argued to give cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal legit­i­ma­cy to sex between men and youths…Just as Shake­speare had one great life-affirm­ing, life-chang­ing, immor­tal love affair with a beau­ti­ful boy, so [Wilde’s search­ing] for an ennobling love, for an inspir­ing love, for a love that could tran­scend the mun­dane and enter the sphere of immor­tal­i­ty, began at about the time he was writ­ing The Por­trait of Mr. W.H.

That love, of course, was to be Lord Alfred Dou­glas – Wilde’s Bosie.” But Bosie was not the only homo­sex­u­al son of the half-mad, anti-Semit­ic, alco­holic Mar­quis of Queens­ber­ry. Bosie’s beloved old­er broth­er, Fran­cis, Vis­count Drum­lan­rig, was also a Uran­ian. What’s more, in 1892, not long after Bosie’s love affair with Wilde had begun, Drum­lan­rig had become the lover of Lord Rose­bery, the Lib­er­al Par­ty politi­cian who had been Prime Min­is­ter Gladstone’s for­eign sec­re­tary before becom­ing prime min­is­ter him­self in 1894.

Rose­bery had arranged for his lover Drum­lan­rig to be giv­en a peer­age in 1893, so that he could sit in the House of Lords and assume a junior min­is­te­r­i­al role. But the Mar­quis of Queens­ber­ry – whose right to sit in the Lords had been lost (and thus, his polit­i­cal career thwart­ed) when, as a Scots Peer, he’d refused to swear the oath of alle­giance to Queen Vic­to­ria – took the gift of a peer­age to his old­er son as a delib­er­ate insult. He devel­oped a white-hot anger at Rose­bery and the Lib­er­al Par­ty elite. This anger became uncon­trol­lable rage when Drum­lan­rig com­mit­ted sui­cide the year before Wilde’s tri­als to save his lover Lord Rose­bery from exposure.

It’s well known that Wilde – under pres­sure from his beloved Bosie – decid­ed to sue Bosie’s father for libel for hav­ing called him a sodomite.” But what has nev­er been so telling­ly and com­plete­ly detailed until this book is how Queens­ber­ry pres­sured Rosebery’s lib­er­al gov­ern­ment into sub­se­quent­ly pros­e­cut­ing Wilde crim­i­nal­ly – through black­mail. McKenna’s chap­ters deal­ing with Queensberry’s black­mail of the gov­ern­ment read like a detec­tive sto­ry. He details how the government’s relent­less pros­e­cu­tion of Wilde, which includ­ed the brib­ing of wit­ness­es – all designed to bring to an abrupt halt what many saw as the creep­ing con­ta­gion of his gospel of unnat­ur­al love” – was dri­ven entire­ly” by the fear that Queens­ber­ry would make pub­lic the secret homo­sex­u­al­i­ty of Prime Min­is­ter Rose­bery, and of oth­er mem­bers of the Lib­er­al Par­ty lead­er­ship and the Roy­al Family.

McKen­na does a fine job of por­tray­ing the class ele­ments of Wilde’s per­se­cu­tion. Since the Vic­to­ri­ans believed there was no such thing as work­ing-class homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, but that the low­er class­es were cor­rupt­ed” by deca­dent mem­bers of the elite, Wilde’s flings with a raft of boys not of his own class were con­sid­ered dou­bly scan­dalous. But if there is one crit­i­cism to be made of this book, it is that it makes short shrift of Wilde’s pol­i­tics. I think I am rather more than a Social­ist. I am some­thing of an Anar­chist, I believe,” Wilde said, and his por­tray­al of the pover­ty pro­duced by indus­tri­al soci­ety in his book, The Soul of Man Under Social­ism, is still touch­ing today. But his non-gay polit­i­cal activism – for exam­ple, Wilde signed a peti­tion for the release of the Hay­mar­ket mar­tyrs, the anar­chist Amer­i­can trade union­ists exe­cut­ed for their role in the 8‑hour day move­ment – goes unmen­tioned in this book.

Despite that caveat, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde must now rank as a cru­cial, hith­er­to miss­ing, but ter­ri­bly vital piece of both gay and lit­er­ary his­to­ry – and it is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten to boot. It is both a major achieve­ment and a won­der­ful read.

Doug Ire­land can be reached through his blog, DIRE­LAND, at http://​dire​land​.type​pad​.com/​d​i​r​e​land/

Doug Ire­land has been writ­ing about pow­er, pol­i­tics and the media since 1977. A for­mer colum­nist for the Vil­lage Voice, the New York Observ­er and the Paris dai­ly Libéra­tion, among oth­ers, his arti­cles have appeared every­where from The Nation to Van­i­ty Fair to POZ. Hes a con­tribut­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRE­LAND.
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