Oscar Wilde’s Sentence. 121 Years On.
One hundred and twenty one years ago today, Justice Wills (a keen mountaineer apropos of nothing), sentenced Oscar Wilde to two years hard labour while expressing his disappointment that two years was all he had on offer. “Totally inadequate” were the words he used.
We’re 121 years away from that moment and one year away from a same sex marriage referendum result in Oscar Wilde’s homeland. A striking thought. Wilde would never have married Bosie, but he might have married Robbie Ross – an Irish-Canadian alliance rich with political and literary possibilities.
(There have of course, been campaigns to pardon Wilde, to make some kind of formal symbolic atonement for the wrongs done him. Pardoning people like Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing has more to do with easing a sense of societal guilt, but of course singling out people like Wilde and Turing threatens to obscure all the other victims of legal and societal persecution over the years. Were Wilde and Turing less guilty because they were geniuses? Do you have to be a literary or mathematical genius to qualify for a posthumous pardon? Is this perverse selective sentimentalism the way Justice should work? Long-standing gay rights campaigners like Peter Tatchell have always argued that these high-profile cases should never be stand alone examples but should open the door to enact more general principles.)
Wilde’s first trial, in which he attempted to prosecute Queensbury for libel, saw him cross-examined by Edward Carson, lighting a slow fuse which lead to Wilde’s eventual destruction. Having, thanks to Carson’s unrelenting interrogations, lost the libel trials, a criminal trial became inevitable. Wilde’s friends urged him to flee to France, but his mother – an indefatigable survivor of the 1840s generation of Young Ireland nationalists, urged him to stand and fight. Edward Carson was, like Wilde, a Dublin protestant. Carson and Wilde were both born in 1854, a stroll apart from one another. But Carson would go on to be the leader of Ulster Unionism, the man who would be frozen into a statue of resistance to Home Rule for any united Ireland. (Carson’s Unionism was, paradoxically, created by a seditious campaign of armed resistance to the sovereign authority of the parliament of the nation to which they were supposedly loyal.) Notoriously, Stormont in World War Two, spent more time discussing how best to protect the statue of the man who destroyed Oscar Wilde from German bombing than it did discussing how to protect the civilian population. Carson was, arguably, the individual more responsible for Northern Ireland’s strange constitutional status than anyone else.
As it happens, Northern Ireland is now the only corner or (or anomalous blob within) the islands of North West Europe where marriage equality has been successfully resisted. The historical linkages between Wilde, Carson and Marriage Equality are intriguing and timely and deserve to be erased as soon as humanly possible.