The English are very proud of their sense of justice, proud too of their Roman law and the practice of the Courts in which they have incorporated it. They boast of their fair play in all things as the French boast of their lightness, and if you question it, you lose caste with them, as one prejudiced or ignorant or both. English justice cannot be bought, they say, and if it is dear, excessively dear even, they rather like to feel they have paid a long price for a good article. Yet it may be that here, as in other things, they take outward propriety and decorum for the inward and ineffable grace. That a judge should be incorruptible is not so important as that he should be wise and humane.
English journalists and barristers were very much amused at the conduct of the Dreyfus case; yet, when Dreyfus was being tried for the second time in France, two or three instances of similar injustice in England were set forth with circumstance in one of the London newspapers, but no one paid any effective attention to them. If Dreyfus had been convicted in England, it is probable that no voice would ever have been raised in his favour; it is absolutely certain that there would never have been a second trial. A keen sense of abstract justice is only to be found in conjunction with a rich fount of imaginative sympathy. The English are too self-absorbed to take much interest in their neighbours’ affairs, too busy to care for abstract questions of right or wrong.
Before the trial of Oscar Wilde I still believed that in a criminal case rough justice would be done in England. The bias of an English judge, I said to myself, is always in favour of the accused. It is an honourable tradition of English procedure that even the Treasury barristers should state rather less than they can prove against the unfortunate person who is being attacked by all the power and authority of the State. I was soon forced to see that these honourable and praiseworthy conventions were as withes of straw in the fire of English prejudice. The first thing to set me doubting was that the judge did not try to check the cheering in Court after the verdict in favour of Lord Queensberry. English judges always resent and resist such popular outbursts: why not in this case? After all, no judge could think Queensberry a hero: he was too well known for that, and yet the cheering swelled again and again, and the judge gathered up his papers without a word and went his way as if he were deaf. A dreadful apprehension crept over me: in spite of myself I began to realise that my belief in English justice might be altogether mistaken. It was to me as if the solid earth had become a quaking bog, or indeed as if a child had suddenly discovered its parent to be shameless. The subsequent trials are among the most painful experiences of my life. I shall try to set down all the incidents fairly.
One peculiarity had first struck me in the conduct of the case between Oscar Wilde and Lord Queensberry that did not seem to occur to any of the numberless journalists and writers who commented on the trial. It was apparent from his letter to his son (which I published in a previous chapter), and from the fact that he called at Oscar Wilde’s house that Lord Queensberry at the beginning did not believe in the truth of his accusations; he set them forth as a violent man sets forth hearsay and suspicion, knowing that as a father he could do this with impunity, and accordingly at first he pleaded privilege. Some time between the beginning of the prosecution and the trial, he obtained an immense amount of unexpected evidence. He then justified his libel and gave the names of the persons whom he intended to call to prove his case. Where did he get this new knowledge?
I have spoken again and again in the course of this narrative of Oscar’s enemies, asserting that the English middle-class as puritans detested his attitude and way of life, and if some fanatic or representative of the nonconformist conscience had hunted up evidence against Wilde and brought him to ruin there would have been nothing extraordinary in a vengeance which might have been regarded as a duty. Strange to say the effective hatred of Oscar Wilde was shown by a man of the upper class who was anything but a puritan. It was Mr. Charles Brookfield, I believe, who constituted himself private prosecutor in this case and raked Piccadilly to find witnesses against Oscar Wilde. Mr. Brookfield was afterwards appointed Censor of Plays on the strength apparently of having himself written one of the “riskiest” plays of the period. As I do not know Mr. Brookfield, I will not judge him. But his appointment always seemed to me, even before I knew that he had acted against Wilde, curiously characteristic of English life and of the casual, contemptuous way Englishmen of the governing class regard letters. In the same spirit Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister made a journalist Poet Laureate simply because he had puffed him for years in the columns of The Standard. Lord Salisbury probably neither knew nor cared that Alfred Austin had never written a line that could live. One thing Mr. Brookfield’s witnesses established: every offence alleged against Oscar Wilde dated from 1892 or later — after his first meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas.
But at the time all such matters were lost for me in the questions: would the authorities arrest Oscar? or would they allow him to escape? Had the police asked for a warrant? Knowing English custom and the desire of Englishmen to pass in silence over all unpleasant sexual matters, I thought he would be given the hint to go abroad and allowed to escape. That is the ordinary, the usual English procedure. Everyone knows the case of a certain lord, notorious for similar practices, who was warned by the police that a warrant had been issued against him: taking the hint he has lived for many years past in leisured ease as an honoured guest in Florence. Nor is it only aristocrats who are so favoured by English justice: everyone can remember the case of a Canon of Westminster who was similarly warned and also escaped. We can come down the social scale to the very bottom and find the same practice. A certain journalist unwittingly offended a great personage. Immediately he was warned by the police that a warrant issued against him in India seventeen years before would at once be acted upon if he did not make himself scarce. For some time he lived in peaceful retirement in Belgium. Moreover, in all these cases the warrants had been issued on the sworn complaints of the parties damnified or of their parents and guardians: no one had complained of Oscar Wilde. Naturally I thought the dislike of publicity which dictated such lenience to the lord and the canon and the journalist would be even more operative in the case of a man of genius like Oscar Wilde. In certain ways he had a greater position than even the son of a duke: the shocking details of his trial would have an appalling, a world-wide publicity.
Besides, I said to myself, the governing class in England is steeped in aristocratic prejudice, and particularly when threatened by democratic innovations, all superiorities, whether of birth or wealth, or talent, are conscious of the same raison d’être and have the same self-interest. The lord, the millionaire and the genius have all the same reason for standing up for each other, and this reason is usually effective. Everyone knows that in England the law is emphatically a respecter of persons. It is not there to promote equality, much less is it the defender of the helpless, the weak and the poor; it is a rampart for the aristocracy and the rich, a whip in the hands of the strong. It is always used to increase the effect of natural and inherited inequality, and it is not directed by a high feeling of justice; but perverted by aristocratic prejudice and snobbishness; it is not higher than democratic equality, but lower and more sordid.
The case was just a case where an aristocratic society could and should have shown its superiority over a democratic society with its rough rule of equality. For equality is only half-way on the road to justice. More than once the House of Commons has recognised this fundamental truth; it condemned Clive but added that he had rendered “great and distinguished services to his country”; and no one thought of punishing him for his crimes.
Our time is even more tolerant and more corrupt. For a worse crime than extortion Cecil Rhodes was not even brought to trial, but honoured and fêted, while his creatures, who were condemned by the House of Commons Committee, were rewarded by the Government.
Had not Wilde also rendered distinguished services to his country? The wars waged against the Mashonas and Matabeles were a doubtful good; but the plays of Oscar Wilde had already given many hours of innocent pleasure to thousands of persons, and were evidently destined to benefit tens of thousands in the future. Such a man is a benefactor of humanity in the best and truest sense, and deserves peculiar consideration.
To the society favourite the discredit of the trial with Lord Queensberry was in itself a punishment more than sufficient. Everyone knew when Oscar Wilde left the court that he left it a ruined and disgraced man. Was it worth while to stir up all the foul mud again, in order to beat the beaten? Alas! the English are pedants, as Goethe saw; they think little of literary men, or of merely spiritual achievements. They love to abide by rules and pay no heed to exceptions, unless indeed the exceptions are men of title or great wealth, or “persons of importance” to the Government. The majority of the people are too ignorant to know the value of a book and they regard poetry as the thistle-down of speech. It does not occur to Englishmen that a phrase may be more valuable and more enduring in its effects than a long campaign and a dozen victories. Yet, the sentence, “Let him that is without sin among you first cast the stone,” or Shakespeare’s version of the same truth: “if we had our deserts which of us would escape whipping?” is likely to outlast the British Empire, and prove of more value to humanity.
The man of genius in Great Britain is feared and hated in exact proportion to his originality, and if he happens to be a writer or a musician he is despised to boot. The prejudice against Oscar Wilde showed itself virulently on all hands. Mr. Justice Collins did not attempt to restrain the cheering of the court that greeted the success of Lord Queensberry. Not one of the policemen who stood round the door tried to stop the “booing” of the crowd who pursued Oscar Wilde with hootings and vile cries when he left the court. He was judged already and condemned before being tried.
The police, too, acted against him with extraordinary vigour. It has been stated by Mr. Sherard in his “Life” that the police did not attempt to execute the warrant against Wilde, “till after the last train had left for Dover,” and that it was only Oscar’s obstinacy in remaining in London that necessitated his arrest. This idea is wholly imaginary.
It is worth while to know exactly what took place at this juncture. From Oscar’s conduct in this crisis the reader will be able to judge whether he has been depicted faithfully or not in this book. He has been described as amiable, weak, of a charming disposition — easily led in action, though not in thought: now we shall see how far we were justified, for he is at one of those moments which try the soul. Fortunately every incident of that day is known: Oscar himself told me generally what happened and the minutest details of the picture were filled in for me a little later by his best friend, Robert Ross.
In the morning Mr. Mathews, one of Oscar’s counsel, came to him and said: “If you wish it, Clarke and I will keep the case going and give you time to get to Calais.”
Oscar refused to stir. “I’ll stay,” was all he would say. Robert Ross urged him to accept Mathew’s offer; but he would not: why? I am sure he had no reason, for I put the question to him more than once, and even after reflecting, he had no explanation to give. He stayed because to stay was easier than to make an immediate decision and act on it energetically. He had very little will power to begin with and his mode of life had weakened his original endowment.
After the judgment had been given in favour of Queensberry, Oscar drove off in a brougham, accompanied by Alfred Douglas, to consult with his solicitor, Humphreys. At the same time he gave Ross a cheque on his bank in St. James’s Street. At that moment he intended to fly.
Ross noticed that he was followed by a detective. He drew about £200 from the bank and raced off to meet Oscar at the Cadogan Hotel, in Sloane Street, where Lord Alfred Douglas had been staying for the past four or five weeks. Ross reached the Cadogan Hotel about 1.45 and found Oscar there with Reggie Turner. Both of them advised Oscar to go at once to Dover and try to get to France; but he would only say, “the train has gone; it is too late.” He had again lapsed into inaction.
He asked Ross to go to see his wife and tell her what had occurred. Ross did this and had a very painful scene: Mrs. Wilde wept and said, “I hope Oscar is going away abroad.”
Ross returned to the Cadogan Hotel and told Oscar what his wife had said, but even this didn’t move him to action.
He sat as if glued to his chair, and drank hock and seltzer steadily in almost unbroken silence. About four o’clock George Wyndham came to see his cousin, Alfred Douglas; not finding him, he wanted to see Oscar, but Oscar, fearing reproaches, sent Ross instead. Wyndham said it was a pity that Bosie Douglas should be with Oscar, and Ross immediately told him that Wilde’s friends for years past had been trying to separate them and that if he, Wyndham, would keep his cousin away, he would be doing Oscar the very greatest kindness. At this Wyndham grew more civil, though still “frightfully agitated,” and begged Ross to get Oscar to leave the country at once to avoid scandal. Ross replied that he and Turner had been trying to bring that about for hours. In the middle of the conversation Bosie, having returned, burst into the room with: “I want to see my cousin,” and Ross rejoined Oscar. In a quarter of an hour Bosie followed him to say that he was going out with Wyndham to see someone of importance.
About five o’clock a reporter of the Star newspaper came to see Oscar, a Mr. Marlowe, who is now editor of The Daily Mail, but again Oscar refused to see him and sent Ross. Mr. Marlowe was sympathetic and quite understood the position; he informed Ross that a tape message had come through to the paper saying that a warrant for Oscar Wilde had already been issued. Ross immediately went into the other room and told Oscar, who said nothing, but “went very grey in the face.”
A moment later Oscar asked Ross to give him the money he had got at the bank, though he had refused it several times in the course of the day. Ross gave it to him, naturally taking it for a sign that he had at length made up his mind to start, but immediately afterwards Oscar settled down in his chair and said, “I shall stay and do my sentence whatever it is”— a man evidently incapable of action.
For the next hour the trio sat waiting for the blow to fall. Once or twice Oscar asked querulously where Bosie was, but no one could tell him.
At ten past six the waiter knocked at the door and Ross answered it. There were two detectives. The elder entered and said, “We have a warrant here, Mr. Wilde, for your arrest on a charge of committing indecent acts.” Wilde wanted to know whether he would be given bail; the detective replied:
“That is a question for the magistrate.”
Oscar then rose and asked, “Where shall I be taken?”
“To Bow Street,” was the reply.
As he picked up a copy of the Yellow Book and groped for his overcoat, they all noticed that he was “very drunk” though still perfectly conscious of what he was doing.
He asked Ross to go to Tite Street and get him a change of clothes and bring them to Bow Street. The two detectives took him away in a four-wheeler, leaving Ross and Turner on the curb.
Ross hurried to Tite Street. He found that Mrs. Oscar Wilde had gone to the house of a relative and there was only Wilde’s man servant, Arthur, in the house, who afterwards went out of his mind, and is still, it is said, in an asylum. He had an intense affection for Oscar. Ross found that Mrs. Oscar Wilde had locked up Oscar’s bedroom and study. He burst open the bedroom door and, with the help of Arthur, packed up a change of things. He then hurried to Bow Street, where he found a howling mob shouting indecencies. He was informed by an inspector that it was impossible to see Wilde or to leave any clothes for him.
Ross returned at once to Tite Street, forced open the library door and removed a certain number of letters and manuscripts of Wilde’s; but unluckily he couldn’t find the two MSS. which he knew had been returned to Tite Street two days before, namely, “A Florentine Tragedy” and the enlarged version of “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.”
Ross then drove to his mother’s and collapsed. Mrs. Ross insisted that he should go abroad, and in order to induce him to do it gave £500 for Oscar’s defence. Ross went to the Terminus Hotel at Calais, where Bosie Douglas joined him a little later. They both stayed there while Oscar was being tried before Mr. Justice Charles and one day George Wyndham crossed the Channel to see Bosie Douglas.
There is of course some excuse to be made for the chief actor. Oscar was physically tired and morally broken. He had pulled the fair building of reputation and success down upon his own head, and, with the “booing” of the mob still in his ears, he could think of nothing but the lost hours when he ought to have used his money to take him beyond the reach of his pursuers.
His enemies, on the other hand, had acted with the utmost promptitude. Lord Queensberry’s solicitor, Mr. Charles Russell, had stated that it was not his client’s intention to take the initiative in any criminal prosecution of Mr. Oscar Wilde, but, on the very same morning when Wilde withdrew from the prosecution, Mr. Russell sent a letter to the Hon. Hamilton Cuffe, the Director of Public Prosecutions, with a copy of “all our witnesses’ statements, together with a copy of the shorthand notes of the trial.”
The Treasury authorities were at least as eager. As soon as possible after leaving the court Mr. C.F. Gill, Mr. Angus Lewis, and Mr. Charles Russell waited on Sir John Bridge at Bow Street in his private room and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Oscar Wilde, which was executed, as we have seen, the same evening.
The police showed him less than no favour. About eight o’clock Lord Alfred Douglas drove to Bow Street and wanted to know if Wilde could be bailed out, but was informed that his application could not be entertained. He offered to procure comforts for the prisoner: this offer also was peremptorily refused by the police inspector just as Ross’s offer of night clothes had been refused. It is a common belief that in England a man is treated as innocent until he has been proved guilty, but those who believe this pleasant fiction, have never been in the hands of the English police. As soon as a man is arrested on any charge he is at once treated as if he were a dangerous criminal; he is searched, for instance, with every circumstance of indignity. Before his conviction a man is allowed to wear his own clothes; but a change of linen or clothes is denied him, or accorded in part and grudgingly, for no earthly reason except to gratify the ill-will of the gaolers.
The warrant on which Oscar Wilde was arrested charged him with an offence alleged to have been committed under Section xi. of the Criminal Amendment Act of 1885; in other words, he was arrested and tried for an offence which was not punishable by law ten years before. This Act was brought in as a result of the shameful and sentimental stories (evidently for the most part manufactured) which Mr. Stead had published in The Pall Mall Gazette under the title of “Modern Babylon.” In order to cover and justify their prophet some of the “unco guid” pressed forward this so-called legislative reform, by which it was made a criminal offence to take liberties with a girl under thirteen years of age — even with her own consent. Intimacy with minors under sixteen was punishable if they consented or even tempted. Mr. Labouchere, the Radical member, inflamed, it is said, with a desire to make the law ridiculous, gravely proposed that the section be extended, so as to apply to people of the same sex who indulged in familiarities or indecencies. The Puritan faction had no logical objection to the extension, and it became the law of the land. It was by virtue of this piece of legislative wisdom, which is without a model and without a copy in the law of any other civilised country, that Oscar Wilde was arrested and thrown into prison.
His arrest was the signal for an orgy of Philistine rancour such as even London had never known before. The puritan middle class, which had always regarded Wilde with dislike as an artist and intellectual scoffer, a mere parasite of the aristocracy, now gave free scope to their disgust and contempt, and everyone tried to outdo his neighbour in expressions of loathing and abhorrence. This middle class condemnation swept the lower class away in its train. To do them justice, the common people, too, felt a natural loathing for the peculiar vice attributed to Wilde; most men condemn the sins they have no mind to; but their dislike was rather contemptuous than profound, and with customary humour they soon turned the whole case into a bestial, obscene joke. “Oscar” took the place of their favourite word as a term of contempt, and they shouted it at each other on all sides; bus-drivers, cabbies and paper sellers using it in and out of season with the keenest relish. For the moment the upper classes lay mum-chance and let the storm blow over. Some of them of course agreed with the condemnation of the Puritans, and many of them felt that Oscar and his associates had been too bold, and ought to be pulled up.
The English journals, which are nothing but middle-class shops, took the side of their patrons. Without a single exception they outdid themselves in condemnation of the man and all his works. You might have thought to read their bitter diatribes that they themselves lived saintly lives, and were shocked at sensual sin. One rubbed one’s eyes in amazement. The Strand and Fleet Street, which practically belong to this class and have been fashioned by them, are the haunt of as vile a prostitution as can be found in Europe; the public houses which these men frequent are low drinking dens; yet they all lashed Oscar Wilde with every variety of insult as if they themselves had been above reproach. The whole of London seemed to have broken loose in a rage of contempt and loathing which was whipped up and justified each morning by the hypocritical articles of the “unco guid” in the daily this and the weekly that. In the streets one heard everywhere the loud jests of the vulgar, decked out with filthy anecdotes and punctuated by obscene laughter, as from the mouth of the Pit.
In spite of the hatred of the journalists pandering to the prejudice of their paymasters, one could hope still that the magistrate would show some regard for fair play. The expectation, reasonable or unreasonable, was doomed to disappointment. On Saturday morning, the 6th, Oscar Wilde, “described as a gentleman,” the papers said in derision, was brought before Sir John Bridge. Mr. C.F. Gill, who had been employed in the Queensberry trial, was instructed by Mr. Angus Lewis of the Treasury, and conducted the prosecution; Alfred Taylor was placed in the dock charged with conspiracy with Oscar Wilde. The witnesses have already been described in connection with the Queensberry case. Charles Parker, William Parker, Alfred Wood, Sidney Mavor and Shelley all gave evidence.
After lasting all day the case was adjourned till the following Thursday.
Mr. Travers Humphreys applied for bail for Mr. Wilde, on the ground that he knew the warrant against him was being applied for on Friday afternoon, but he made no attempt to leave London. Sir John Bridge refused bail.
On Thursday, the 11th, the case was continued before Sir John Bridge, and in the end both the accused were committed for trial. Again Mr. Humphreys applied for bail, and again the magistrate refused to accept bail.
Now to refuse bail in cases of serious crime may be defended, but in the case of indecent conduct it is usually granted. To run away is regarded as a confession of guilt, and what could one wish for more than the perpetual banishment of the corrupt liver, consequently there is no reason to refuse bail. But in this case, though bail was offered to any amount, it was refused peremptorily in spite of the fact that every consideration should have been shown to an accused person who had already had a good opportunity to leave the country and had refused to budge. Moreover, Oscar Wilde had already been criticised and condemned in a hundred papers. There was widespread prejudice against him, no risk to the public in accepting bail, and considerable injury done to the accused in refusing it. His affairs were certain to be thrown into confusion; he was known not to be rich and yet he was deprived of the power to get money together and to collect evidence just when the power which freedom confers was most needed by him.
The magistrate was as prejudiced as the public; he had no more idea of standing for justice and fair play than Pilate; probably, indeed, he never gave himself the trouble to think of fairness in the matter. A large salary is paid to magistrates in London, £1,500 a year, but it is rare indeed that any of them rises above the vulgarest prejudice. Sir John Bridge not only refused bail but he was careful to give his reasons for refusing it: he had not the slightest scruple about prejudicing the case even before he had heard a word of the defence. After hearing the evidence for the prosecution he said:
“The responsibility of accepting or refusing bail rests upon me. The considerations that weigh with me are the gravity of the offences and the strength of the evidence. I must absolutely refuse bail and send the prisoners for trial.”
Now these reasons, which he proffered voluntarily, and especially the use of the word “absolutely,” showed not only prejudice on the part of Sir John Bridge, but the desire to injure the unfortunate prisoner in the public mind and so continue the evil work of the journalists.
The effect of this prejudice and rancour on the part of the whole community had various consequences.
The mere news that Oscar Wilde had been arrested and taken to Holloway startled London and gave the signal for a strange exodus. Every train to Dover was crowded; every steamer to Calais thronged with members of the aristocratic and leisured classes, who seemed to prefer Paris, or even Nice out of the season, to a city like London, where the police might act with such unexpected vigour. The truth was that the cultured æsthetes whom I have already described had been thunderstruck by the facts which the Queensberry trial had laid bare. For the first time they learned that such houses as Taylor’s were under police supervision, and that creatures like Wood and Parker were classified and watched. They had imagined that in “the home of liberty” such practices passed unnoticed. It came as a shock to their preconceived ideas that the police in London knew a great many things which they were not supposed to concern themselves with, and this unwelcome glare of light drove the vicious forth in wild haste.
Never was Paris so crowded with members of the English governing classes; here was to be seen a famous ex-Minister; there the fine face of the president of a Royal society; at one table in the Café de la Paix, a millionaire recently ennobled, and celebrated for his exquisite taste in art; opposite to him a famous general. It was even said that a celebrated English actor took a return ticket for three or four days to Paris, just to be in the fashion. The mummer returned quickly; but the majority of the migrants stayed abroad for some time. The wind of terror which had swept them across the Channel opposed their return, and they scattered over the Continent from Naples to Monte Carlo and from Palermo to Seville under all sorts of pretexts.
The gravest result of the magistrate’s refusal to accept bail was purely personal. Oscar’s income dried up at the source. His books were withdrawn from sale; no one went to see his plays; every shop keeper to whom he owed a penny took immediate action against him. Judgments were obtained and an execution put into his house in Tite Street. Within a month, at the very moment when he most needed money to fee counsel and procure evidence, he was beggared and sold up, and because of his confinement in prison the sale was conducted under such conditions that, whereas in ordinary times his effects would have covered the claims against him three times over, all his belongings went for nothing, and the man who was making £4,000 or £5,000 a year by his plays was adjudicated a bankrupt for a little over £1,000. £600 of this sum were for Lord Queensberry’s costs which the Queensberry family — Lord Douglas of Hawick, Lord Alfred Douglas and their mother — had promised in writing to pay, but when the time came, absolutely refused to pay. Most unfortunately many of Oscar’s MSS. were stolen or lost in the disorder of the sheriff’s legal proceedings. Wilde could have cried, with Shylock, “You take my life when you do take away the means whereby I live.” But at the time nine Englishmen out of ten applauded what was practically persecution.
A worse thing remains to be told. The right of free speech which Englishmen pride themselves on had utterly disappeared, as it always does disappear in England when there is most need of it. It was impossible to say one word in Wilde’s defence or even in extenuation of his sin in any London print. At this time I owned the greater part of the Saturday Review and edited it. Here at any rate one might have thought I could have set forth in a Christian country a sane and liberal view. I had no wish to minimise the offence. No one condemned unnatural vice more than I, but Oscar Wilde was a distinguished man of letters; he had written beautiful things, and his good works should have been allowed to speak in his favour. I wrote an article setting forth this view. My printers immediately informed me that they thought the article ill-advised, and when I insisted they said they would prefer not to print it. Yet there was nothing in it beyond a plea to suspend judgment and defer insult till after the trial. Messrs. Smith and Sons, the great booksellers, who somehow got wind of the matter (through my publisher, I believe), sent to say that they would not sell any paper that attempted to defend Oscar Wilde; it would be better even, they added, not to mention his name. The English tradesman-censors were determined that this man should have Jedburg justice. I should have ruined the Saturday Review by the mere attempt to treat the matter fairly.
In this extremity I went to the great leader of public opinion in England. Mr. Arthur Walter, the manager of The Times, had always been kind to me; he was a man of balanced mind, who had taken high honours at Oxford in his youth, and for twenty years had rubbed shoulders with the leading men in every rank of life. I went down to stay with him in Berkshire, and I urged upon him what I regarded as the aristocratic view. In England it was manifest that under the circumstances there was no chance of a fair trial, and it seemed to me the duty of The Times to say plainly that this man should not be condemned beforehand, and that if he were condemned his merits should be taken into consideration in his punishment, as well as his demerits.
While willing to listen to me, Mr. Walter did not share my views. A man who had written a great poem or a great play did not rank in his esteem with a man who had won a skirmish against a handful of unarmed savages, or one who had stolen a piece of land from some barbarians and annexed it to the Empire. In his heart he held the view of the English landed aristocracy, that the ordinary successful general or admiral or statesman was infinitely more important than a Shakespeare or a Browning. He could not be persuaded to believe that the names of Gladstone, Disraeli, Wolseley, Roberts, and Wood, would diminish and fade from day to day till in a hundred years they would scarcely be known, even to the educated; whereas the fame of Browning, Swinburne, Meredith, or even Oscar Wilde, would increase and grow brighter with time, till, in one hundred or five hundred years, no one would dream of comparing pushful politicians like Gladstone or Beaconsfield with men of genius like Swinburne or Wilde. He simply would not see it and when he perceived that the weight of argument was against him he declared that if it were true, it was so much the worse for humanity. In his opinion anyone living a clean life was worth more than a writer of love songs or the maker of clever comedies — Mr. John Smith worth more than Shakespeare!
He was as deaf as only Englishmen can be deaf to the plea for abstract justice.
“You don’t even say Wilde’s innocent,” he threw at me more than once.
“I believe him to be innocent,” I declared truthfully, “but it is better that a hundred guilty men go free than that one man should not have a fair trial. And how can this man have a fair trial now when the papers for weeks past have been filled with violent diatribes against him and his works?”
One point, peculiarly English, he used again and again.
“So long as substantial justice is done,” he said, “it is all we care about.”
“Substantial justice will never be done,” I cried, “so long as that is your ideal. Your arrow can never go quite so high as it is aimed.” But I got no further.
If Oscar Wilde had been a general or a so-called empire builder, The Times might have affronted public opinion and called attention to his virtues, and argued that they should be taken in extenuation of his offences; but as he was only a writer no one seemed to owe him anything or to care what became of him.
Mr. Walter was fair-minded in comparison with most men of his class. There was staying with him at this very time an Irish gentleman, who listened to my pleading for Wilde with ill-concealed indignation. Excited by Arthur Walter’s obstinacy to find fresh arguments, I pointed out that Wilde’s offence was pathological and not criminal and would not be punished in a properly constituted state.
“You admit,” I said, “that we punish crime to prevent it spreading; wipe this sin off the statute book and you would not increase the sinners by one: then why punish them?”
“Oi’d whip such sinners to death, so I would,” cried the Irishman; “hangin’s too good for them.”
“You only punished lepers,” I went on, “in the middle ages, because you believed that leprosy was catching: this malady is not even catching.”
“Faith, Oi’d punish it with extermination,” cried the Irishman.
Exasperated by the fact that his idiot prejudice was hurting my friend, I said at length with a smile:
“You are very bitter: I’m not; you see, I have no sexual jealousy to inflame me.”
On this Mr. Walter had to interfere between us to keep the peace, but the mischief was done: my advocacy remained without effect.
It is very curious how deep-rooted and enduring is the prejudice against writers in England. Not only is no attempt made to rate them at their true value, at the value which posterity puts upon their work; but they are continually treated as outcasts and denied the most ordinary justice. The various trials of Oscar Wilde are to the thinker an object lesson in the force of this prejudice, but some may explain the prejudice against Wilde on the score of the peculiar abhorrence with which the offence ascribed to him is regarded in England.
Let me take an example from the papers of today — I am writing in January, 1910. I find in my Daily Mail that at Bow Street police court a London magistrate, Sir Albert de Rutzen, ordered the destruction of 272 volumes of the English translation of Balzac’s “Les Contes Drolatiques” on the ground that the book was obscene. “Les Contes Drolatiques” is an acknowledged masterpiece, and is not nearly so free spoken as “Lear” or “Hamlet” or “Tom Jones” or “Anthony and Cleopatra.” What would be thought of a French magistrate or a German magistrate who ordered a fair translation of “Hamlet” or of “Lear” to be burnt, because of its obscenity? He would be regarded as demented. One can only understand such a judgment as an isolated fact. But in England this monstrous stupidity is the rule. Sir A. de Rutzen was not satisfied with ordering the books to be burnt and fining the bookseller; he went on to justify his condemnation and praise the police:
“It is perfectly clear to my mind that a more foul and filthy black spot has not been found in London for a long time, and the police have done uncommonly well in bringing the matter to light. I consider that the books are likely to do a great deal of harm.”
Fancy the state of mind of the man who can talk such poisonous nonsense; who, with the knowledge of what Piccadilly is at night in his mind, can speak of the translation of a masterpiece as one of the “most filthy black spots” to be found in London. To say that such a man is insane is, I suppose, going too far; but to say that he does not know the value or the meaning of the words he uses, to say that he is driven by an extraordinary and brainless prejudice, is certainly the modesty of truth.
It is this sort of perversity on the part of Sir A. de Rutzen and of nine out of ten Englishmen that makes Frenchmen, Germans and Italians speak of them as ingrained hypocrites. But they are not nearly so hypocritical as they are uneducated and unintelligent, rebellious to the humanising influence of art and literature. The ordinary Englishman would much prefer to be called an athlete than a poet. The Puritan Commonwealth Parliament ordered the pictures of Charles I. to be sold, but such of them as were indecent to be burnt; accordingly half a dozen Titians were solemnly burnt and the nucleus of a great national gallery destroyed. One can see Sir A. de Rutzen solemnly assisting at this holocaust and devoutly deciding that all the masterpieces which showed temptingly a woman’s beautiful breasts were “foul and filthy black spots” and must be burnt as harmful. Or rather one can see that Sir A. de Rutzen has in two and a half centuries managed to get a little beyond this primitive Puritan standpoint: he might allow a pictorial masterpiece today to pass unburnt, but a written masterpiece is still to him anathema.
A part of this prejudice comes from the fact that the English have a special dislike for every form of sexual indulgence. It is not consistent with their ideal of manhood, and, like the poor foolish magistrate, they have not yet grasped the truth, which one might have thought the example of the Japanese would have made plain by now to the dullest, that a nation may be extraordinarily brave, vigorous and self-sacrificing and at the same time intensely sensuous, and sensitive to every refinement of passion. If the great English middle class were as well educated as the German middle class, such a judgment as this of Sir A. de Rutzen would be scouted as ridiculous and absurd, or rather would be utterly unthinkable.
In Anglo–Saxon countries both the artist and the sexual passion are under a ban. The race is more easily moved martially than amorously and it regards its overpowering combative instincts as virtuous just as it is apt to despise what it likes to call “languishing love.” The poet Middleton couldn’t put his dream city in England — a city of fair skies and fairer streets:
And joy was there; in all the city’s length
I saw no fingers trembling for the sword;
Nathless they doted on their bodies’ strength,
That they might gentler be. Love was their lord.
Both America and England today offer terrifying examples of the despotism of an unenlightened and vulgar public opinion in all the highest concerns of man — in art, in literature and in religion. There is no despotism on earth so soul-destroying to the artist: it is baser and more degrading than anything known in Russia. The consequences of this tyranny of an uneducated middle class and a barbarian aristocracy are shown in detail in the trial of Oscar Wilde and in the savagery with which he was treated by the English officers of justice.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15