Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2004

The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, by Neil McKenna

reviewed by Jim Herrick

This new biography could well be subtitled “the wild, wild sex of Oscar”. It transforms our knowledge of Wilde by its detailed account of his engagement with the Victorian homosexual underworld. Richard Ellmann, whose biography (1987) is reckoned a classic, provides an authoritative and sympathetic portrait of the great writer; but for the full picture McKenna (a former editor of the Pink Paper) is the biographer to read.

Although the Ellmann biography deserves respect it can be wrong – that Wilde contracted syphilis seems unlikely, that he eschewed anal intercourse seems wrong. McKenna attempts to correct the view (to which Ellmann subscribes) that Wilde’s final years in Paris were unutterably miserable; but alcoholism, poverty and quarrels with Bosie do not sound like bliss, even if some casual sex went some way to redeeming it.

Unlike Bosie, who was busy buggering boys at Winchester public school, Wilde came late to homosexuality. The emotions preceded the actions – although his later hymns to neoplatonic love were undercut by his love of rough trade whether in Piccadilly or Algiers. His marriage came at a time when he was reaching for homosexual contacts, the classic attempt to deny the real feelings for the conventional alliance, a mistake that gay men still make today. Constance, his wife, was constant and gave him two sons, but the relationship was strained and they virtually separated as he lived a life of lust in hotels.

He became a great talker and a great writer. His first big success was as a lecturer in America, representing the aesthete views and pose. He met Whitman and they recognised in each other the appeal of the love of comrades. His religion was art, although he could be superstitious and a Catholic priest fetched by Bosie brought him the last rites; but there is nothing in his life or writing to suggest devotion to God or the church. He was more attracted to street boys than altar boys.

The first writing that endorsed the love of boys was “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”, an account of Shakespeare’s love of a youth in the sonnets. This was the first of the many occasions on which he hymned the love of the older for the younger man, as found in ancient Greece, or Michelangelo, as the love that dare not speak its name.

The book that really blazoned homoerotic love was his first novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. That male beauty should last for ever – what a homosexual fantasy! A character argues that it is society and religion which have suppressed men’s true nature. The book was talked about at times with an ominous disapproval. Wilde was gaining his courage as a writer. The plays which later became his great success have not the same homosexual undertones, but nevertheless the themes of loyalty, adultery and betrayal – the steel within the wit – have relevance to gay culture.

Then came Bosie – the love of his life, although it did not seem so at first. Their relationship was tempestuous: they often quarrelled, neither had any instinct for a monogamous relationship, they both loved luxury which they could not really afford. Yet, it brought them ecstasy and disaster. Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, provided the catastrophe – an arch-homophobe, a pugilist and, embarrassingly, the president of the British Secular Union (a breakaway group from the National Secular Society). Was the man who was behind the Queensberry Rowing and Athletic Club at the secularist Hall of Science likely to send soft encouraging notes to his two gay sons? The biographers have missed this aspect of the sulphurous Queensberry.

The detestation of homosexuality, especially homosexual acts, lay side by side with a gay demimonde, a punishing legal system and a nascent sexual reform movement. McKenna reveals this in considerable detail and it is the great strength of the book. It gives great insight into nineteenth-century gay history.

In 1885 the maximum punishment for sodomy was life imprisonment, although the insertion of semen had to be proved – quite a difficult test. Other sexual acts between men were not criminal, until Labouchère produced his famous amendment – this was apparently a reaction to what was thought the increasing “scourge” of homosexuality. Perhaps they should have closed down the public schools.

As is often the case, there may have been an increase of visibility rather than a growth of the tendency. Oscar Wilde was on the edge of visibility – and Bosie was positively a campaigner. They called themselves Uranians, a word which came from the German lawyer Ulrichs, who coined the term “uranismus” from “uranios” or “heavenly love” of Aphrodite, daughter of Uranus. They started a magazine, the Chameleon, and began to talk of the Cause.

McKenna’s account of this area brings out new detail. He also offers information about Lord Roseberry’s affair with Bosie’s brother Drumlanrig, which is not fully given elsewhere. There was even a suggestion of a conspiracy against Wilde from the top of society to divert attention from Roseberry’s sexual activities.

The story of Wilde’s trials are well known: the libel case which he brought against Queensberry and withdrew when it was clear that he was going to lose, then the two trials (one with an indecisive jury) for indecency, and the cruel sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Why did not Wilde escape to France, as he was urged to do by his friends? Arrogance, inertia or, as McKenna suggests, defiance on behalf of the Cause?

There are moments when McKenna almost seems to be suggesting that there was full gay rights campaigning in the 1890s, which is overstating it. Nevertheless, he gives a fine portrait of a man who wrote to Bosie in extremis, while waiting for the trial to start, “Every great love has its tragedy, and now ours has too, but to have known and loved you with such profound devotion, to have had you for part of my life, the only part I now consider beautiful, is enough for me.”

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2004-05-23 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :