Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 1

Oscar’s Father and Mother on Trial

On the 12th of December, 1864, Dublin society was abuzz with excitement. A tidbit of scandal which had long been rolled on the tongue in semi-privacy was to be discussed in open court, and all women and a good many men were agog with curiosity and expectation.

The story itself was highly spiced and all the actors in it well known.

A famous doctor and oculist, recently knighted for his achievements, was the real defendant. He was married to a woman with a great literary reputation as a poet and writer who was idolized by the populace for her passionate advocacy of Ireland’s claim to self-government; “Speranza” was regarded by the Irish people as a sort of Irish Muse.

The young lady bringing the action was the daughter of the professor of medical jurisprudence at Trinity College, who was also the chief at Marsh’s library.

It was said that this Miss Travers, a pretty girl just out of her teens, had been seduced by Dr. Sir William Wilde while under his care as a patient. Some went so far as to say that chloroform had been used, and that the girl had been violated.

The doctor was represented as a sort of Minotaur: lustful stories were invented and repeated with breathless delight; on all faces, the joy of malicious curiosity and envious denigration.

The interest taken in the case was extraordinary: the excitement beyond comparison; the first talents of the Bar were engaged on both sides; Serjeant Armstrong led for the plaintiff, helped by the famous Mr. Butt, Q.C., and Mr. Heron, Q.C., who were in turn backed by Mr. Hamill and Mr. Quinn; while Serjeant Sullivan was for the defendant, supported by Mr. Sidney, Q.C., and Mr. Morris, Q.C., and aided by Mr. John Curran and Mr. Purcell.

The Court of Common Pleas was the stage; Chief Justice Monahan presiding with a special jury. The trial was expected to last a week, and not only the Court but the approaches to it were crowded.

To judge by the scandalous reports, the case should have been a criminal case, should have been conducted by the Attorney–General against Sir William Wilde; but that was not the way it presented itself. The action was not even brought directly by Miss Travers or by her father, Dr. Travers, against Sir William Wilde for rape or criminal assault, or seduction. It was a civil action brought by Miss Travers, who claimed £2,000 damages for a libel written by Lady Wilde to her father, Dr. Travers. The letter complained of ran as follows:—

Sir, you may not be aware of the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray where she consorts with all the low newspaper boys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which my name is given, and also tracts in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde. If she chooses to disgrace herself, it is not my affair, but as her object in insulting me is in the hope of extorting money for which she has several times applied to Sir William Wilde with threats of more annoyance if not given, I think it right to inform you, as no threat of additional insult shall ever extort money from our hands. The wages of disgrace she has so basely treated for and demanded shall never be given her.

JANE F. WILDE.

To Dr. Travers.

The summons and plaint charged that this letter written to the father of the plaintiff by Lady Wilde was a libel reflecting on the character and chastity of Miss Travers, and as Lady Wilde was a married woman, her husband Sir William Wilde was joined in the action as a co-defendant for conformity.

The defences set up were:—

First, a plea of “No libel”: secondly, that the letter did not bear the defamatory sense imputed by the plaint: thirdly, a denial of the publication, and, fourthly, a plea of privilege. This last was evidently the real defence and was grounded upon facts which afforded some justification of Lady Wilde’s bitter letter.

It was admitted that for a year or more Miss Travers had done her uttermost to annoy both Sir William Wilde and his wife in every possible way. The trouble began, the defence stated, by Miss Travers fancying that she was slighted by Lady Wilde. She thereupon published a scandalous pamphlet under the title of “Florence Boyle Price, a Warning; by Speranza,” with the evident intention of causing the public to believe that the booklet was the composition of Lady Wilde under the assumed name of Florence Boyle Price. In this pamphlet Miss Travers asserted that a person she called Dr. Quilp had made an attempt on her virtue. She put the charge mildly. “It is sad,” she wrote, “to think that in the nineteenth century a lady must not venture into a physician’s study without being accompanied by a bodyguard to protect her.”

Miss Travers admitted that Dr. Quilp was intended for Sir William Wilde; indeed she identified Dr. Quilp with the newly made knight in a dozen different ways. She went so far as to describe his appearance. She declared that he had “an animal, sinister expression about his mouth which was coarse and vulgar in the extreme: the large protruding under lip was most unpleasant. Nor did the upper part of his face redeem the lower part. His eyes were small and round, mean and prying in expression. There was no candour in the doctor’s countenance, where one looked for candour.” Dr. Quilp’s quarrel with his victim, it appeared, was that she was “unnaturally passionless.”

The publication of such a pamphlet was calculated to injure both Sir William and Lady Wilde in public esteem, and Miss Travers was not content to let the matter rest there. She drew attention to the pamphlet by letters to the papers, and on one occasion, when Sir William Wilde was giving a lecture to the Young Men’s Christian Association at the Metropolitan Hall, she caused large placards to be exhibited in the neighbourhood having upon them in large letters the words “Sir William Wilde and Speranza.” She employed one of the persons bearing a placard to go about ringing a large hand bell which she, herself, had given to him for the purpose. She even published doggerel verses in the Dublin Weekly Advertiser, and signed them “Speranza,” which annoyed Lady Wilde intensely. One read thus:—

Your progeny is quite a pest

To those who hate such “critters”;

Some sport I’ll have, or I’m blest

I’ll fry the Wilde breed in the West

Then you can call them Fritters.

She wrote letters to Saunders Newsletter, and even reviewed a book of Lady Wilde’s entitled “The First Temptation,” and called it a “blasphemous production.” Moreover, when Lady Wilde was staying at Bray, Miss Travers sent boys to offer the pamphlet for sale to the servants in her house. In fine Miss Travers showed a keen feminine ingenuity and pertinacity in persecution worthy of a nobler motive.

But the defence did not rely on such annoyance as sufficient provocation for Lady Wilde’s libellous letter. The plea went on to state that Miss Travers had applied to Sir William Wilde for money again and again, and accompanied these applications with threats of worse pen-pricks if the requests were not acceded to. It was under these circumstances, according to Lady Wilde, that she wrote the letter complained of to Dr. Travers and enclosed it in a sealed envelope. She wished to get Dr. Travers to use his parental influence to stop Miss Travers from further disgracing herself and insulting and annoying Sir William and Lady Wilde.

The defence carried the war into the enemy’s camp by thus suggesting that Miss Travers was blackmailing Sir William and Lady Wilde.

The attack in the hands of Serjeant Armstrong was still more deadly and convincing. He rose early on the Monday afternoon and declared at the beginning that the case was so painful that he would have preferred not to have been engaged in it — a hypocritical statement which deceived no one, and was just as conventional-false as his wig. But with this exception the story he told was extraordinarily clear and gripping.

Some ten years before, Miss Travers, then a young girl of nineteen, was suffering from partial deafness, and was recommended by her own doctor to go to Dr. Wilde, who was the chief oculist and aurist in Dublin. Miss Travers went to Dr. Wilde, who treated her successfully. Dr. Wilde would accept no fees from her, stating at the outset that as she was the daughter of a brother-physician, he thought it an honour to be of use to her. Serjeant Armstrong assured his hearers that in spite of Miss Travers’ beauty he believed that at first Dr. Wilde took nothing but a benevolent interest in the girl. Even when his professional services ceased to be necessary, Dr. Wilde continued his friendship. He wrote Miss Travers innumerable letters: he advised her as to her reading and sent her books and tickets for places of amusement: he even insisted that she should be better dressed, and pressed money upon her to buy bonnets and clothes and frequently invited her to his house for dinners and parties. The friendship went on in this sentimental kindly way for some five or six years till 1860.

The wily Serjeant knew enough about human nature to feel that it was necessary to discover some dramatic incident to change benevolent sympathy into passion, and he certainly found what he wanted.

Miss Travers, it appeared, had been burnt low down on her neck when a child: the cicatrice could still be seen, though it was gradually disappearing. When her ears were being examined by Dr. Wilde, it was customary for her to kneel on a hassock before him, and he thus discovered this burn on her neck. After her hearing improved he still continued to examine the cicatrice from time to time, pretending to note the speed with which it was disappearing. Some time in ‘60 or ‘61 Miss Travers had a corn on the sole of her foot which gave her some pain. Dr. Wilde did her the honour of paring the corn with his own hands and painting it with iodine. The cunning Serjeant could not help saying with some confusion, natural or assumed, “that it would have been just as well — at least there are men of such temperament that it would be dangerous to have such a manipulation going on.” The spectators in the court smiled, feeling that in “manipulation” the Serjeant had found the most neatly suggestive word.

Naturally at this point Serjeant Sullivan interfered in order to stem the rising tide of interest and to blunt the point of the accusation. Sir William Wilde, he said, was not the man to shrink from any investigation: but he was only in the case formally and he could not meet the allegations, which therefore were “one-sided and unfair” and so forth and so on.

After the necessary pause, Serjeant Armstrong plucked his wig straight and proceeded to read letters of Dr. Wilde to Miss Travers at this time, in which he tells her not to put too much iodine on her foot, but to rest it for a few days in a slipper and keep it in a horizontal position while reading a pleasant book. If she would send in, he would try and send her one.

“I have now,” concluded the Serjeant, like an actor carefully preparing his effect, “traced this friendly intimacy down to a point where it begins to be dangerous: I do not wish to aggravate the gravity of the charge in the slightest by any rhetoric or by an unconscious over-statement; you shall therefore, gentlemen of the jury, hear from Miss Travers herself what took place between her and Dr. Wilde and what she complains of.”

Miss Travers then went into the witness-box. Though thin and past her first youth, she was still pretty in a conventional way, with regular features and dark eyes. She was examined by Mr. Butt, Q.C. After confirming point by point what Serjeant Armstrong had said, she went on to tell the jury that in the summer of ‘62 she had thought of going to Australia, where her two brothers lived, who wanted her to come out to them. Dr. Wilde lent her £40 to go, but told her she must say it was £20 or her father might think the sum too large. She missed the ship in London and came back. She was anxious to impress on the jury the fact that she had repaid Dr. Wilde, that she had always repaid whatever he had lent her.

She went on to relate how one day Dr. Wilde had got her in a kneeling position at his feet, when he took her in his arms, declaring that he would not let her go until she called him William. Miss Travers refused to do this, and took umbrage at the embracing and ceased to visit at his house: but Dr. Wilde protested extravagantly that he had meant nothing wrong, and begged her to forgive him and gradually brought about a reconciliation which was consummated by pressing invitations to parties and by a loan of two or three pounds for a dress, which loan, like the others, had been carefully repaid.

The excitement in the court was becoming breathless. It was felt that the details were cumulative; the doctor was besieging the fortress in proper form. The story of embracings, reconciliations and loans all prepared the public for the great scene.

The girl went on, now answering questions, now telling bits of the story in her own way, Mr. Butt, the great advocate, taking care that it should all be consecutive and clear with a due crescendo of interest. In October, 1862, it appeared Lady Wilde was not in the house at Merrion Square, but was away at Bray, as one of the children had not been well, and she thought the sea air would benefit him. Dr. Wilde was alone in the house. Miss Travers called and was admitted into Dr. Wilde’s study. He put her on her knees before him and bared her neck, pretending to examine the burn; he fondled her too much and pressed her to him: she took offence and tried to draw away. Somehow or other his hand got entangled in a chain at her neck. She called out to him, “You are suffocating me,” and tried to rise: but he cried out like a madman: “I will, I want to,” and pressed what seemed to be a handkerchief over her face. She declared that she lost consciousness.

When she came to herself she found Dr. Wilde frantically imploring her to come to her senses, while dabbing water on her face, and offering her wine to drink.

“If you don’t drink,” he cried, “I’ll pour it over you.”

For some time, she said, she scarcely realized where she was or what had occurred, though she heard him talking. But gradually consciousness came back to her, and though she would not open her eyes she understood what he was saying. He talked frantically:

“Do be reasonable, and all will be right. . . . I am in your power . . . spare me, oh, spare me . . . strike me if you like. I wish to God I could hate you, but I can’t. I swore I would never touch your hand again. Attend to me and do what I tell you. Have faith and confidence in me and you may remedy the past and go to Australia. Think of the talk this may give rise to. Keep up appearances for your own sake. . . . ”

He then took her up-stairs to a bedroom and made her drink some wine and lie down for some time. She afterwards left the house; she hardly knew how; he accompanied her to the door, she thought; but could not be certain; she was half dazed.

The judge here interposed with the crucial question:

“Did you know that you had been violated?”

The audience waited breathlessly; after a short pause Miss Travers replied:

“Yes.”

Then it was true, the worst was true. The audience, excited to the highest pitch, caught breath with malevolent delight. But the thrills were not exhausted. Miss Travers next told how in Dr. Wilde’s study one evening she had been vexed at some slight, and at once took four pennyworth of laudanum which she had bought. Dr. Wilde hurried her round to the house of Dr. Walsh, a physician in the neighbourhood, who gave her an antidote. Dr. Wilde was dreadfully frightened lest something should get out. . . .

She admitted at once that she had sometimes asked Dr. Wilde for money: she thought nothing of it as she had again and again repaid him the monies which he had lent her.

Miss Travers’ examination in chief had been intensely interesting. The fashionable ladies had heard all they had hoped to hear, and it was noticed that they were not so eager to get seats in the court from this time on, though the room was still crowded.

The cross-examination of Miss Travers was at least as interesting to the student of human nature as the examination in chief had been, for in her story of what took place on that 14th of October, weaknesses and discrepancies of memory were discovered and at length improbabilities and contradictions in the narrative itself.

First of all it was elicited that she could not be certain of the day; it might have been the 15th or the 16th: it was Friday the 14th, she thought. . . . It was a great event to her; the most awful event in her whole life; yet she could not remember the day for certain.

“Did you tell anyone of what had taken place?”

“No.”

“Not even your father?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I did not wish to give him pain.”

“But you went back to Dr. Wilde’s study after the awful assault?”

“Yes.”

“You went again and again, did you not?”

“Yes.”

“Did he ever attempt to repeat the offence?”

“Yes.”

The audience was thunderstruck; the plot was deepening. Miss Travers went on to say that the Doctor was rude to her again; she did not know his intention; he took hold of her and tried to fondle her; but she would not have it.

“After the second offence you went back?”

“Yes.”

“Did he ever repeat it again?”

“Yes.”

Miss Travers said that once again Dr. Wilde had been rude to her.

“Yet you returned again?”

“Yes.”

“And you took money from this man who had violated you against your will?”

“Yes.”

“You asked him for money?”

“Yes.”

“This is the first time you have told about this second and third assault, is it not?”

“Yes,” the witness admitted.

So far all that Miss Travers had said hung together and seemed eminently credible; but when she was questioned about the chloroform and the handkerchief she became confused. At the outset she admitted that the handkerchief might have been a rag. She was not certain it was a rag. It was something she saw the doctor throw into the fire when she came to her senses.

“Had he kept it in his hands, then, all the time you were unconscious?”

“I don’t know.”

“Just to show it to you?”

The witness was silent.

When she was examined as to her knowledge of chloroform, she broke down hopelessly. She did not know the smell of it; could not describe it; did not know whether it burnt or not; could not in fact swear that it was chloroform Dr. Wilde had used; would not swear that it was anything; believed that it was chloroform or something like it because she lost consciousness. That was her only reason for saying that chloroform had been given to her.

Again the judge interposed with the probing question:

“Did you say anything about chloroform in your pamphlet?”

“No,” the witness murmured.

It was manifest that the strong current of feeling in favour of Miss Travers had begun to ebb. The story was a toothsome morsel still: but it was regretfully admitted that the charge of rape had not been pushed home. It was felt to be disappointing, too, that the chief prosecuting witness should have damaged her own case.

It was now the turn of the defence, and some thought the pendulum might swing back again.

Lady Wilde was called and received an enthusiastic reception. The ordinary Irishman was willing to show at any time that he believed in his Muse, and was prepared to do more than cheer for one who had fought with her pen for “Oireland” in the Nation side by side with Tom Davis.

Lady Wilde gave her evidence emphatically, but was too bitter to be a persuasive witness. It was tried to prove from her letter that she believed that Miss Travers had had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde, but she would not have it. She did not for a moment believe in her husband’s guilt. Miss Travers wished to make it appear, she said, that she had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde, but in her opinion it was utterly untrue. Sir William Wilde was above suspicion. There was not a particle of truth in the accusation; her husband would never so demean himself.

Lady Wilde’s disdainful speeches seemed to persuade the populace, but had small effect on the jury, and still less on the judge.

When she was asked if she hated Miss Travers, she replied that she did not hate anyone, but she had to admit that she disliked Miss Travers’ methods of action.

“Why did you not answer Miss Travers when she wrote telling you of your husband’s attempt on her virtue?”

“I took no interest in the matter,” was the astounding reply.

The defence made an even worse mistake than this. When the time came, Sir William Wilde was not called.

In his speech for Miss Travers, Mr. Butt made the most of this omission. He declared that the refusal of Sir William Wilde to go into the witness box was an admission of guilt; an admission that Miss Travers’ story of her betrayal was true and could not be contradicted. But the refusal of Sir William Wilde to go into the box was not, he insisted, the worst point in the defence. He reminded the jury that he had asked Lady Wilde why she had not answered Miss Travers when she wrote to her. He recalled Lady Wilde’s reply:

“I took no interest in the matter.”

Every woman would be interested in such a thing, he declared, even a stranger; but Lady Wilde hated her husband’s victim and took no interest in her seduction beyond writing a bitter, vindictive and libellous letter to the girl’s father. . . .

The speech was regarded as a masterpiece and enhanced the already great reputation of the man who was afterwards to become the Home Rule Leader.

It only remained for the judge to sum up, for everyone was getting impatient to hear the verdict. Chief Justice Monahan made a short, impartial speech, throwing the dry, white light of truth upon the conflicting and passionate statements. First of all, he said, it was difficult to believe in the story of rape whether with or without chloroform. If the girl had been violated she would be expected to cry out at the time, or at least to complain to her father as soon as she reached home. Had it been a criminal trial, he pointed out, no one would have believed this part of Miss Travers’ story. When you find a girl does not cry out at the time and does not complain afterwards, and returns to the house to meet further rudeness, it must be presumed that she consented to the seduction.

But was there a seduction? The girl asserted that there was guilty intimacy, and Sir William Wilde had not contradicted her. It was said that he was only formally a defendant; but he was the real defendant and he could have gone into the box if he had liked and given his version of what took place and contradicted Miss Travers in whole or in part.

“It is for you, gentlemen of the jury, to draw your own conclusions from his omission to do what one would have thought would be an honourable man’s first impulse and duty.”

Finally it was for the jury to consider whether the letter was a libel and if so what the amount of damages should be.

His Lordship recalled the jury at Mr. Butt’s request to say that in assessing damages they might also take into consideration the fact that the defence was practically a justification of the libel. The fair-mindedness of the judge was conspicuous from first to last, and was worthy of the high traditions of the Irish Bench.

After deliberating for a couple of hours the jury brought in a verdict which had a certain humour in it. They awarded to Miss Travers a farthing damages and intimated that the farthing should carry costs. In other words they rated Miss Travers’ virtue at the very lowest coin of the realm, while insisting that Sir William Wilde should pay a couple of thousands of pounds in costs for having seduced her.

It was generally felt that the verdict did substantial justice; though the jury, led away by patriotic sympathy with Lady Wilde, the true “Speranza,” had been a little hard on Miss Travers. No one doubted that Sir William Wilde had seduced his patient. He had, it appeared, an unholy reputation, and the girl’s admission that he had accused her of being “unnaturally passionless” was accepted as the true key of the enigma. This was why he had drawn away from the girl, after seducing her. And it was not unnatural under the circumstances that she should become vindictive and revengeful.

Such inferences as these, I drew from the comments of the Irish papers at the time; but naturally I wished if possible to hear some trustworthy contemporary on the matter. Fortunately such testimony was forthcoming.

A Fellow of Trinity, who was then a young man, embodied the best opinion of the time in an excellent pithy letter. He wrote to me that the trial simply established, what every one believed, that “Sir William Wilde was a pithecoid person of extraordinary sensuality and cowardice (funking the witness-box left him without a defender!) and that his wife was a highfalutin’ pretentious creature whose pride was as extravagant as her reputation founded on second-rate verse-making. . . . Even when a young woman she used to keep her rooms in Merrion Square in semi-darkness; she laid the paint on too thick for any ordinary light, and she gave herself besides all manner of airs.”

This incisive judgment of an able and fairly impartial contemporary observer1 corroborates, I think, the inferences which one would naturally draw from the newspaper accounts of the trial. It seems to me that both combine to give a realistic photograph, so to speak, of Sir William and Lady Wilde. An artist, however, would lean to a more kindly picture. Trying to see the personages as they saw themselves he would balance the doctor’s excessive sensuality and lack of self-control by dwelling on the fact that his energy and perseverance and intimate adaptation to his surroundings had brought him in middle age to the chief place in his profession, and if Lady Wilde was abnormally vain, a verse-maker and not a poet, she was still a talented woman of considerable reading and manifold artistic sympathies.

Such were the father and mother of Oscar Wilde.

1 As he has died since this was written, there is no longer any reason for concealing his name: R.Y. Tyrrell, for many years before his death Regius Professor of Greek in Trinity College, Dublin.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30