‘I am glad you went to Margate, which I believe, is the nom-de-plume of Ramsgate. It is a quite nice spot, not vulgarised by crowds of literary people. I hope it has done you and your companions good,’ wrote Oscar Wilde on March 7, 1898. Writing in exile from Paris, Wilde’s letter was to Leonard Smithers, a Sheffield solicitor turned bookseller and publisher.
Smithers, who had just purchased The Ballad of Reading Gaol, had a reputation of publishing work mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch. A relative newcomer to the book trade, existing on the fringes of London’s literary scene, he offered writers and artists whose work exhibited “Oscar Wilde tendency” an outlet. Though not published by him, Jack Saul’s (aka “Dublin Jack) raunchy semi-autobiographical The Sins of the Cities of the Plain, an account of his life as a bisexual prostitute in London, privately published in 1881, was exactly the type of work Smithers wasn’t afraid to print.
In 1888, Leonard wrote a “charming letter” to Oscar, full of appreciation for The Happy Prince, and had received a gracious reply. Now, a decade on, the ever generous but frequently cash-strapped publisher wanted to resurrect Oscar’s literary career. No small feat given that Wilde was now persona-non-grata with the rest of so-called civilised society. But The Ballad of Reading Gaol would be Wilde’s last contribution to English literature.
Born on 16 October 1854, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was the second child of Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane. A poet in her own right, Lady Wilde, a lifelong Irish nationalist, would instil a deep interest in literature and art into her sons. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, only recently published, was one body of work Oscar remembered her reading, an event he would later recall to Whitman himself during his American tour.
Until he was nine, Oscar was home educated, where his French nursemaid and German governess taught him their respective languages. At the end of January 1864, he and his older brother Willie were sent to Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. From there, on 10 October 1871, six days before his seventeenth birthday, Oscar began a royal scholarship studying the classics at Trinity College, Dublin. Here, as he had done at Portora, Oscar buried himself in books, dedicating himself to “the best English writers”. He continued reading old childhood favourites such a Poe and Whitman, and discovered the poetry of Algernon Swinburne. He was also taught to be a good orator but when it came to the virtues of sports, as a means of extolling a healthy mind and body, Oscar preferred to participate more as a spectator. The only exception was lawn tennis, which he played with great enthusiasm.
From 1874-8, Oscar attended Magdalen College, Oxford, where he continued his studies of ancient history and classical literature.
An application to join the Oxford Union was unsuccessful. However, during the spring of 1875, he was accepted as a member of the Apollo University Lodge, where he lost no time in becoming one of its most enthusiastic new initiates. Freemasonry was a particular focus of undergraduate sociability at the time, and, for Oscar, part of its attraction was its dress, ritual and secrecy. But his time as an active member of the Masons was solely during his Oxford years.
For Oscar Catholicism held a deeper fascination with its rich liturgy, and on several occasion he considered converting to the clergy. It is rumoured that he became smitten with one of the choristers, and even started composing a sentimental homoerotic poem called “Choir Boy”, but never finished it. A second untitled poem, written in 1876, opens with a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Ah God, it is a dreary thing to sit at home with unkissed lips. The poem goes on to describe how one evening Oscar waited under the “lamp’s light” for his boy-lover to appear:
And there came on with eyes of fire,
And a throat as a singing dove,
And he looked on me with desire,
And I know that his name was Love.
But Oscar’s time at Magdalen is best remembered for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements, during which he grew his hair long and openly scorned “manly” sports, though he himself liked to box. He decorated his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers and other objets d’art. He once remarked to friends, whom he lavishly entertained, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china”. For Oscar, and other aesthetes, style and appearance were far more important than practicality or functionality. It didn’t matter if your flamboyant outfit failed to keep you warm and dry in the depths of winter, so long as you looked good. Such opinions at times aroused hostility.
Oscar was seen by some of his fellow students as a freak. But he gave as good as he, and when one incident turned violent (having been dragged to the top of a nearby hill), Oscar reputedly got to his feet, dusted himself down and commented: “the view from this hill is really very charming”. Some of his friends doubted the incident had ever occurred, to which Wilde remarked: “what is true in a man’s life is not what he does but the legend which grows up around him”.
In March 1876, Oscar first published poem “San Miniato” appeared in the Dublin University Magazine. It was one of four the magazine published that year. Oscar had four others accepted with other periodicals, including the Boston Pilot (his first work printed in American). His poem “Ravenna” won him the Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1878. That same year, he left Magdalen with a double first and returned to Dublin, before then travelling onto London where he began establishing himself as a champion of Aestheticism.
During the summer 1881, aged 27, Wilde published Poems, to not great reviews. “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame,” scoffed the satirical magazine Punch. The Oxford Union condemned the book, claiming the poems were both derivative and immoral, and even went as far as accusing Oscar of plagiarism. A signed copy Wilde had presented to the university library was now deemed so undesirable that it was returned. In an effort to stem the hostilities, Oscar asked some of his literary friends to write more favourable reviews but for the most part he was mauled by critics and fellow writers alike. Despite the negative reviews Poems sold out and was reprinted. As Oscar would later put it: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about”.
Around the same time, Oscar met Constance Lloyd, 23-year-old younger sister of a friend, and who would later become Mrs Wilde. She at first was a little apprehensive at meeting the celebrated “Professor of Aesthetics” and poet, but they were soon bedazzled with each other. For Oscar, she was beautiful, intelligent and receptive, her nervous blushes, shyness and modest opinions of herself only added to the charm. After their first meeting at a tea party hosted by her mother, Wilde is reputed to have said to his mother: “By the by mamma, I think of marrying that girl”. But with his flamboyant dress and long hair, some members of the Lloyd clan weren’t too impressed by this prospect. “I like him awfully,” Constance informed her brother, “but I suppose it is very bad taste.” Very little is known about their early courtship, but it seems though busy promoting Poems, he managed to find time to call upon her at home and gradually improved the family’s opinions of him.
In January 1882, Oscar embarked on tour of America. Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, a comic satire on the aesthetic movement, was soon to tour the United Sates, and as a means of priming its American audience, Oscar was asked to give a series of lectures. The trip was meant to have lasted just four months, but it was such as commercial success it lasted a year.
For Oscar, the highlight of the entire tour was during his visit to Philadelphia. Despite considerable public interest upon his arrival, the actual lecture was something of an anti-climax. The audience, unlike in New York, didn’t seem that impressed. “My hearers were so cold,” he told a reporter from the Philadelphia Press, “I several times thought of stopping and saying, ‘You don’t like this, and there is no use my going on.’” Before his lecture, Wilde had invited Walt Whitman but the aging poet had declined. “I am an invalid – just suffering an extra bad spell & forbidden to go out nights [in] this weather,” Whitman telegrammed back from his home. However: “[I] will be in from two till three-thirty … and will be most happy to see Mr Wilde.”
The meeting at Whitman’s untidy home, just across the Delaware River, in Camden, New Jersey, was everything Oscar had hoped. “I have come to you,” he told America’s greatest living poet, “as to one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.” For him, Whitman was “the grandest man I have ever seen. The simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life.” Despite being initially stand-offish, Whitman soon warmed to his adoring fan from the Old World. They enjoyed a bottle of wine and discussed poetry and art. Oscar left with a feeling he had won Whitman’s seal of approval of both his poetry and himself. “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips,” he commented years later to friend. And Whitman also seemed pleased, bragging: “Wilde had the good sense to take a fancy to me.”
Back in London, Oscar wrote his first play, Vera; or, The Nihilists, which was scheduled to have its opening in New York in August 1883. The play, turned down by London theatres, would turn out to be a flop. But before encountering this setback, Oscar spent the summer of 1883 continuing his tour of lectures around the country, starting in London. “Mr Oscar Wilde has the honour to announce that he will deliver a lecture, entitled ‘Personal Impressions of America’ at the Granville Hall, Ramsgate, at eight o’clock on the evening of Thursday July 26,’ read the advertisement in the Thanet Advertiser for 21 July. Ticket prices ranged from one to three shillings and could be purchased at select locations in the town, including the Granville itself, where a plan of the hall was on display.
Before a ‘fair and very select audience’, ‘Impressions of America’ was an ensemble of observations on the country’s scenery, people, art and theatre, delivered with trademark Wildean wit. If those attending were expecting to see Oscar dressed in a flamboyant outfit complete with green carnation then they were disappointed. Writing two days later, the Thanet Advertiser saw ‘nothing particular’ in the attire of Mr Wilde that ‘distinguished him from other young men of the day’. The lecture itself, however, was delivered with ‘a good deal of quaint humour and originality’.
How long Oscar stayed in Ramsgate is unclear but with the town’s proximity to London, thanks to the railways, it’s unlikely he stayed any longer than one night. By the time he returned to Thanet, five years later, he was married with two young sons, a regular contributor to The Pall Mall Gazette, editor for Woman’s World magazine and had published the short stories: The Canterville Ghost and Lord Arthur Savil’s Crime.
Constance and he were married at St James’s Church, Paddington, on 29 May 1884. Cyril, their first son, was born the following year, and his brother, Vyvyan, the year after. Now an editor, journalist, poet and author of short stories, by 1887 Oscar had finally achieved literary success that had so long evaded him. He was now also the darling of polite society. The following year he published The Happy Prince and Other Stories, which was on the whole well received, and, in 1889, two major essays: Pen, Pencil and Poison and The Decay of Lying.
It was during 1886 that Wilde first met Robert Ross. The precocious seventeen-year-old was already very familiar with Oscar’s work. The son of a Canadian lawyer and politician, Ross was untroubled by his homosexuality and already pretty experienced. “It [is] always the young who seduce the old,” Oscar later commented. And Ross, now living with his widowed mother and two sisters in Kensington, was determined to seduce Wilde. For Oscar their sexual encounter was a revelation, full of pleasure, excitement and liberation. As a result of their continued intermittency, his sexual interest in Constance waned.
Though a felony since Tudor times, homosexuality between men only became a criminal offence in 1885, with The Criminal Law Amendment Bill. It was Clause 11 that specifically made homosexuality, whether in public or private, illegal. In 1889, the Bill bared it teeth when Victorian Britain found itself outraged by the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal; a “den of infamy” where post office boys, some as young as fourteen, had been prostituting themselves to members of the upper-classes (including, if the rumours are to be believed, a member of the royal household). There’s no evidence that Oscar himself ever visited, but 19 Cleveland Street was just the sort of establishment that Lord Alfred Douglas would introduce him to during the early 1890s. Many of these ‘renters’ were young men (stable boys, gentleman’s valets, clerks, servants, shop apprentices, etc.) supplementing their meagre wage. Spending time with these lads was risky though, as renters weren’t above blackmailing their lovers, as Oscar would later discover.
The authorities came down hard on the boys from Cleveland Street, who was forced to serve anything from a few months to two years hard labour. Their abusers, however, were tipped off when Scotland Yard was about to come knocking, and they scarpered onto the continent never to return. But despite the risks, Oscar seduced and was seduced by pretty boys from well-to-do families.
On September 3, 1888, while London was reeling from the shocking murders in Whitechapel, Oscar spent one night at Broadstairs’ Albion Hotel. Alongside his signature are those of P. Hardy and L.H. Carr, and they are the only signatures for the entire day. Once having acquired his bit of ‘trade’, Oscar would wine and dine them at a hotel, before retiring upstairs. So was this why Oscar was at the Albion Hotel? Had he travelled down from London for a bit of nookie by the sea? There’s nothing to suggest that either Carr or Hardy had any connection with Wilde, beyond being guests at the same hotel. But neither is there any evidence that proves one or both weren’t there at Oscar’s behest. Whatever the truth, this was Oscar’s last visit to Thanet.
In July 1890, Oscar shocked the moral sensibilities of the time with his Gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The story of a young man, who inadvertently makes a Faustian bargain that his portrait grows old while he remains young, it first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The editor, fearing it was indecent, cut out some five hundred words without Oscar’s knowledge. Despite this censorship, some book reviewers believed it was so obscene that its author should be prosecuted for violating public morality. Wilde entered into a fierce debate with his hostile critics, who feared the book would “taint every young mind that comes in contact with it”.
Oscar would course further outrage the following year with his play Salome. A sinister tale of a woman scorned and her lust for revenge, it was a twist on the execution of John the Baptist. Outrage by the play’s sexual perversity, the Lord Chamberlain banned it on the grounds that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on stage. Originally written in French, it was later translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas. The play was finally performed on 11 February 1896 at the Theatre de la Comedie-Parisienne, Paris. Salome wouldn’t see the inside of an English theatre until 1931.
With his comedies of society (Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband), Oscar had found a way to poke fun at Victorian society on its own terms. Most revolved around the spectre of illegitimate births, mistaken identities and late revelations. Lady Windermere’s Fan opened on 20 February 1892 at St James’s Theatre to a packed house. Despite its huge popularity with the masses it was rubbished by some critics. Nevertheless, the play was such a commercial success it was followed A Woman of No Importance in 1893. Again, some critics weren’t too impressed, believing the drama didn’t start until halfway through the second act. But again, the play was successful enough for Wilde to be commissioned to write a further two.
An Ideal Husband, first performed at the Haymarket Theatre on 3 January 1895, ran for 124 performances. Even the critics liked it, applauding Oscar’s balance of a multitude of theatrical elements within the play. George Bernard Shaw praised the production, saying: “Mr Wilde is to me our only thorough Playwright. He plays with everything; with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.”
Hot on the heels of An Ideal Husband was Oscar’s final play, The Importance of Being Ernest, probably his best known, which premier on 14 February at St James’s Theatre. Oscar, at this time, was at the height of his career, but it was all about to come crushing down. Three months later he would be persona-non-grata. His life, reputation, everything would be ruins, and all for the love of one young man.
Oscar had first met Lord Alfred Douglas or “Bosie” to his friends, in the mid-1890s. Young, gorgeous and very spoilt, the pair soon struck up an intimate friendship, which, by 1893, had developed into a tempestuous affair. But whereas Wilde was quite possibly discreet about his sexual relations with younger men, Douglas was the exact opposite. He wanted to rub his sexuality in Victorian faces. But despite Bosie’s reckless behaviour, Wilde, who was earning £100 per week (£12, 934 today) from his plays, indulged every material, artistic or sexual whim Douglas could think.
It was through Bosie that Oscar began frequenting London’s gay underworld. The working-class rent boys, unlike Ross and Douglas, knew nothing about art and literature. Soon his public and private lives became polar opposites. “It was like feasting with panthers,” he later wrote in De Profundis, “I did not know that when they were to strike at me it was to be another’s piping and at another’s pay.” Ultimately, his clandestine association with these young men would lead to the abandonment of his libel trial against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry.
Known for his brutish manner and establishing modern rules of boxing, Queensbury was also an outspoken and staunch atheist. His relationship with Bosie was very tempestuous to say the least. On several occasions they argued over the nature of Bosie’s relationship with Wilde. Oscar at first was able to mollify Queensbury, but in June 1894 the Marquess forced his way into Wilde’s home and clarified his stance: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant, I will thrash you.” Oscar gave as good as he got, replying: “I don’t know what Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”. According to Queensberry, Oscar then handed him a white feather. Later in De Profundis he wrote: “It was when, in my library at Tite Street, waving his small hands in the air in epileptic fury, your father … stood uttering every foul word his foul mind could think of, and screaming the loathsome threats he afterwards with such cunning carried out.”
On 18 February 1895, just four days after the opening night for The Importance of Being Ernest, the Marquess left a calling card at the Albemarle, Oscar’s club. “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite,” read the inscription. Clearly spelling wasn’t Queensberry’s forte. Encourage by Douglas, and against the advice of his friends, Oscar sued for libel, but when it was evident that Queensberry’s legal team were to summon the renters Wilde had slept with, the case was dropped, but it was already too late.
The trial had become a cause celebre, and the public were gripped by the salacious accounts of Wilde’s private life. A criminal trial was now all but inevitable. Oscar’s friends now pleaded with him to escape to France, but, again encouraged by Bosie, Wilde was determined to stand his ground.
“Is Oscar Wilde staying here?” Detective-Inspector Richards asked the hall porter of the Cadogan Hotel. Indeed he was. Accompanied by Detective-Sergeant Allen, Richards continued: “Will you show us to his room?” Oscar was duly arrested and taken by hansom cab to Scotland Yard, then to Bow Street Magistrates Court and finally to Newgate Gaol. Wilde’s arrest would, forty-two years later, inspire John Betjeman to write one of his best early poems, The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogon Hotel, much to the annoyance of Bosie Douglas, who Betjeman knew quite well.
For Oscar Wilde, there would be two criminal trials. The first at the Old Bailey opened on 22 April 1895. Charged with gross indecency, Oscar’s lawyer began by asking the playwright about two suggestive letters he had sent to Bosie. Oscar claimed they were personal sonnets and, though the language might appear rather strange to the court, they were perfectly innocent. They had, he went on to explain, been obtained by blackmailers. Unconvinced, the prosecution cross-examined Oscar about the moral content of his works, and he answered them with his trademark Wildean wit, with an added touch of flippancy. Art, Oscar said, was either well or poorly created. It was incapable of being moral or immoral and only “brutes and illiterates” would view art in such a manner. Though Oscar succeeded in getting a few laughs, he had not entirely succeeded allaying the fears of every member of the jury. Unable to form even a majority verdict the judge declared a mistrial, and the whole process would begin again.
Events moved rapidly and his retrial opened on 20 May. Oscar had pleaded for Bosie to leave for the Continent, but Douglas complained bitterly and even begged to be allowed into the witness box. Eventually he did leave for Paris. Fearing prosecution, Ross and many others also fled abroad. Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour.
Oscar was imprisoned at Pentonville, before being transferred to Wandsworth a few months later. The harsh conditions of prison life weighed heavily on his health. In November he collapsed during chapel and spent two months in the infirmary, where he was visited by Liberal MP Richard B. Haldane. Oscar was then transferred again, this time to Reading Gaol. During the transfer he was jeered and spat as he waited on the platform at Clapham Junction.
Five months after arriving at Reading, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, was hanged for murdering his wife. Oscar would later use this as the opening for The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
Haldane arranged for Oscar to be given writing materials and access to books. Between January and March 1897 he wrote De Profundis, a 50,000 word letter to Bosie Douglas. Now seen as one of the greatest love letters ever written, it is bitter, as well as seductive and passionate. In it Oscar indicts Bosie’s destructive vanity and his own weakness towards this young man’s desires. Then, in the second half, Oscar recounts his spiritual awakening in prison and his identification with Christ. The letter begins “Dear Bosie” and ends “Your Affectionate Friend”. An edited edition of De Profundis was published in 1905, but it wasn’t until 1962 that it was printed in its complete and unabridged form.
Wilde was released on 19 May 1897, and sailed that evening for Dieppe. Like Lord Byron before him, who had also fled England amidst homosexual rumours, Oscar would never return to the UK.
In Dieppe he met Leonard Smithers, who had once written to Wilde congratulating him on the success of The Happy Prince. They talked about literature and art, amongst other things. There were hopes Oscar would now be able to revive his career, but Irishman only had one trick left — The Ballad of Reading Gaol. With his usual wit, he suggested it be published in Reynolds’ Magazine, “because it circulates widely among the criminal classes, to which I now belong”. The poem was published, by Smithers, on 13 February 1898, under the name of C.3.3 (cell block C, landing 3, cell 3). With Oscar’s name not on the front cover, it was a huge success. The first 800 copies sold out within a week, and another 1,000 copies were printed off. A third signed edition followed and by the seventh Wilde’s name finally appeared in the front cover, in square brackets, below C.3.3. But despite the poem’s popularity, Oscar insisted on keeping his anonymity.
When he was first released from prison he hoped to reconcile with Constance, who was suffering considerably from ill health. But the return of Bosie Douglas in his life put an end to such hopes. She died on 7 April 1898 in Genoa, Italy.
The relationship with Bosie in Naples was yet again a mixture of passion and turbulence. Wilde’s friends had urged him not to get involved, it would all end in tears, and they were right. The pair split and Oscar Wilde died impoverished and suffering from meningitis in Paris on 25 November 1900, though some still believe his death was syphilitic. He was initially buried in the Cimetiere de Bagneux, just outside the metropolis. But in 1909, his remains were transferred to a specially built tomb, commissioned by Robbie Ross, at Pere Lachaise Cemetary, within the city, with the following epitaph from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be
And outcast always
Ross would dedicate the rest of his life as Wilde’s literary executor, and become friends with literary figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He was also vindictively pursued by Bosie Douglas, who repeatedly tried orchestrating Ross’ arrest for homosexual conduct. He died in London in October 1918. On the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s death his ashes were transferred to a small compartment within Oscar’s tomb.
In 2017, Oscar Wilde was among an estimated 50,000 gay men, including WW2 code breaker Alan Turning, pardoned for homosexual acts with the introduction of the new Police and Crime Act. He is the most quoted writer, after Shakespeare, in the English language. His legacy pervades his many essays, short stories, poems and plays. Larger-than-life during his time, he is regarded as a gay icon and one of the greatest figures in Irish literature, who broadened the horizons of late Victorian Britain and opened the door for the development of modernism.
© 2020 Martin Charlton
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Published queer author, blogger and historical crime enthusiast.