The importance of being honest

The wild claim that Oscar Wilde sexually abused children is just another bout of hero-bashing.

Barbara Hewson

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It’s remarkable how newspapers these days still can’t resist a story about Oscar Wilde. There’s something about those languid eyes, that curled hair, and the defiant cigarette, that suggests ‘Transgression’. Modern marketers continue to exploit the Wilde ‘brand’, too, in order to sell everything from Perrier Jouet to mouse mats.

Early this January, however, some earnest souls tried to take Wilde down a peg or two, by labelling him a child abuser (1). It was a startling claim, not least as Wilde was the father of two boys, whom he adored. So when Wilde wrote from prison that in the popular mind he occupied the same level of depravity as Gilles de Retz and the Marquis de Sade, was this really a cryptic admission of hidden crimes against youth, as these new reports claim? (2)

Well, er, no. The story quickly fizzled out, as the absence of hard evidence became apparent. The springboard for this latest flight of fancy was a recently published history of Worthing , which, as we know from Act 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest, is ‘a place in Sussex’ (3).

The author of this local history, Chris Hare, has noted Wilde’s holiday liaison with a boy named Alphonso Conway in Worthing, during the summer of 1894. Hare’s book makes no mention of Conway’s age. The journalists who write that Conway was 14 do not, disappointingly, give their source for this snippet (which is not supported by any book on Wilde that I know of).

It’s interesting that barrister Edward Carson, who cross-examined Wilde mercilessly when the playwright prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel, made no mention of Conway’s age, though he did dwell on the cigarette case and elaborate walking stick, which Wilde had given Conway (4). These are not things one gives to children, incidentally.

More importantly, the reporters did not appear to appreciate that Alphonso was one of a group of boys – Percy and Stephen being the others – with whom both Lord Alfred Douglas and Wilde became friendly that summer. Wherever Douglas went, boys were apt to gather.

Hare reiterates, in passing, the thrust of Queensberry’s accusation against Wilde in the libel action that ensued a few months later: though a man of ‘superior education’, he seduced ‘teenage boys of little education’. One hundred and fourteen years after Wilde’s predilections became public, complaints that he violated class distinctions are old hat.

When Wilde was prosecuted for gross indecency, following his abortive attempt to imprison Queensberry for criminal libel, the authorities focused on his relationships with a network of rent boys and blackmailers in London. These had made Wilde’s acquaintance through his lover, Douglas, or through a procurer named Alfred Taylor. Conway was not named in any charge against Wilde, which might suggest that he refused to cooperate (5).

Mais ou sont les enfants? A more intriguing fact is that, if anyone could be accused of child abuse by today’s hysterical standards, it was Douglas and not Wilde. Douglas’ nephew, who wrote his biography, stated that Douglas ‘had more than once got into trouble through his passion for little boys’ (6).

When Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers in 1895, shortly before Earnest opened, they chanced upon André Gide. Gide wrote to his mother that Douglas went travelling with ‘a little Arab boy twelve or thirteen years old, whom he picked up in Blidah – a real kidnapping’ (7).

Douglas wrote to Robert Ross that the boy was 14, and also mentioned that he had noticed an ‘astounding’ male courtesan in the town: ‘about nineteen, just Oscar’s style.’ (8) This shows that Wilde preferred older teens (who perhaps made better conversationalists), whilst Douglas preferred younger boys. If anyone knew Wilde’s tastes, it was Douglas.

After prison, Wilde, who never saw his children again, wrote from Paris to a mutual friend in 1898 that Douglas ‘is devoted to a dreadful little ruffian aged fourteen, whom he loves… every time he goes home with Bosie he tries to rent [blackmail] him… We call him the “Florifer’… He also keeps another boy, aged twelve! whom Bosie wishes to know, but the wise “Florifer” declines.’ (9) A fortnight later, Wilde reported that Douglas had grown tired of the teenage violet-seller.

Perhaps the most damning account appears in Timothy D’Arch Smith’s study of the Uranian poets (10). He quotes Le Journal’s story by Eugene Rouzier of 26 October 1900 – gleefully entitled L’Or du Lord – about the travails of an English Lord X, ‘bien connu à Paris sur le boulevard… qui pratique a sa façon le “Laissez venir à moi les petits enfants”… Seulement, quant les petits enfants ne veulent pas venir, lord X… se le fait amener.’

This well-known English aristocrat had gone to the police, after his attempted rendezvous with ‘un garçonnet’ resulted in his being set upon and robbed by the ‘deux jeunes gens’ who had lured him to a hotel, ‘sachant ses petits defauts’. And as for the little boy, who was to have been the subject of Lord X’s attentions, he was described as ‘au facies émacié and creusé déjà par le vice précoce’.

The next day, another paper, La Liberté, gave Douglas’ full name. Douglas had just turned 30. No, if you are looking for evidence of an unedifying interest in young boys, Douglas is your man, not Wilde. Douglas, however, never attained Wilde’s stature, and so receives scant attention from modern moralists and hero-bashers.

Barbara Hewson is a writer is a barrister at Hardwicke Building, Lincoln’s Inn, London.

Previously on spiked

Barbara Hewson saw signs that our leaders are less at ease with child nudity than the prudish Victorians were. She thought Max Mosley’s racy sex life was none of our business. Rob Killick read Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost as a polemic against those who judge a work of art through the artist’s personal life. Jennie Bristow examined how cynicism poisoned the romantic dream. Or read more at spiked issue Arts and entertainment.

(1) Unworthy of Worthing?, Observer, 4 January 2009; Oscar Wilde’s blue plaque turns Worthing’s gentlefolk red, Sunday Telegraph, 4 January 2009

(2) p691, Wilde Complete Letters, Eds. Holland & Hart-Davis, 4th Estate, 2000

(3) pp127-30, Worthing: A History, Chris Hare, Phillimore, 2008

(4) pp143-151, Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess, Holland (Ed.), 4th Estate, 2003

(5) pp179-88, Trials of Oscar Wilde, H Montgomery Hyde, William Hodge, 1960

(6) pp30-31, Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas, Queensberry & Colson, Hutchinson, 1949

(7) p47, Love in Earnest, T D’Arch Smith, Routledge, 1970

(8) pp443-4, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Neil McKenna, Arrow, 2004

(9) p1066, Wilde Complete Letters, Eds. Holland & Hart-Davis, 4th Estate, 2000

(10) pp48-50, Love in Earnest, T D’Arch Smith, Routledge, 1970

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