Review: A monumental new study of the trials of Oscar Wilde

Review: A monumental new study of the trials of Oscar Wilde

Professor Joseph Bristow’s impressive new study, which deserves close attention, shows that the civil libel suit and the criminal trials involving Oscar Wilde were understood to be within the legal procedures of the time.

The significantly wider importance of his book may be that the detailed studies of the trials are now a major contribution to studies of Wilde and it should remain an authoritative reference source. The prominence of Irish lawyers, on occasions, has not passed by the professor.

The professor presents a full and revealing picture of the social and political environment of the times and places the litigation in its context to help to make greater sense of what happened in court.

The first foray was on Wilde’s instruction and, contrary to independent legal advice, a perilous civil libel suit. That failure led to Wilde’s arrest and then on to criminal trials. The first criminal trial resulted in a hung jury with a retrial resulting in a conviction.

This monumental study of the court processes leading to the fall of Wilde presents an admirably clear analysis that should cause any reader to reflect on the demise of Wilde, not as a foregone conclusion, nor even hagiography, but rather as an application of the law then to facts as found by a jury.

Two points might be made for further thought. First, the failed criminal prosecution, when the charges were not proved to the satisfaction of the jury, led to a retrial. Such procedural persistence in itself seems unfair then and now. Perhaps a critical assessment of the criminal law, evidence and procedure in the 1890s is also needed, as others convicted of different crimes and offences may have been treated unfairly also.

Secondly, it is not at all clear that the litigation studied by the professor are really representative of the type of case they are often presented to be because of the outrageous behaviour of Wilde.

Moderation, if it is a virtue, was seriously compromised by Wilde’s promiscuous indulgences, and the trail of unpaid and grossly extravagant hotel and other bills, all over a considerable time with an apparent neglect of his family.

That constantly hedonistic approach to life would not have endeared him to anyone in authority seeking some sort of standard to measure the application of the law by.

However, it may indeed have been, as suggested by one commentator at the time, that Wilde’s behaviour had been “enormously exaggerated to shield others”. Whether that is an opening to peer into, or a knowing and throwaway hint of the fun at the end of the century is uncertain.

Professor Bristow supports a royal pardon for Wilde, as others have done for those similarly convicted of what is now no longer a crime or an offence, and his now authoritative book provides powerful evidence on one view for that argument.

It has to be recognised, however, that Alan Turing on the available evidence was well able to walk past a large number of luxurious hotels in central London and Brighton, and probably Paris, without taking an upper floor for a fortnight, and later leaving the bill for others to settle.

Oscar Wilde on Trial: The Criminal Proceedings from Arrest to Imprisonment by Joseph Bristow. Published by Yale University Press, 629 pp.

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