Editor's Published Articles

The Importance of Being Wilde

Part I: Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas

published in Queensland Bar News, May 2003

Links to other parts of this Article

Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part III: The “booby trap”
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part V: Carson’s cross-examination
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

     Oscar Wilde

... the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style.

- Oscar Wilde,
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. 8

In the months of April and May, 1895, England's foremost playwright - Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde - featured in three successive trials in consecutive sessions of the Central Criminal Courts. Just weeks earlier, his greatest dramatic creation, The Importance of Being Earnest, had experienced a tumultuously successful opening in the West End. But the dramas which were to unfold, just a few blocks away at the Old Bailey, amounted to a theatrical tragedy which even the greatest playwright would not have dared to invent.

Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas

Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example,
what on earth is the use of them ?

- Oscar Wilde,
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Act I

Wilde's problems arose out of his association with Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas, a younger son of the Marquess of Queensberry. In his Autobiography, published in 1929, Bosie confessed that there occurred between him and Wilde "familiarities" of the kind "which not infrequently take place among boys at English public schools"; but that, "of the sin which takes its name from one of the cities of the Plain there never was the slightest question". They both shared an interest in young men of a lower social order - in the argot of today's gay community, "rough trade" - and co-operated with one another in seeking out opportunities to gratify that particular interest.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas

The first sign of trouble came in 1893, when certain letters written by Wilde to Douglas fell into the hands of Alfred Wood, an unemployed clerk whose income appears to have derived from prostituting himself through a male brothel conducted by Alfred Taylor, and by some small-time blackmail. Wood claimed that he had found the letters in the pockets of an old suit of clothes given to him by Bosie Douglas. This implausible story only begs the question as to the nature of the relationship between Wood and Douglas, by which the former obtained access to the latter's rooms and clothing. In a letter which Wilde wrote to Douglas from prison, subsequently published as De Profundis, Wilde referred to an earlier attempt by Wood to blackmail Douglas on account of some improprieties which occurred between Douglas and Wood at Oxford. Both Wilde's and Wood's evidence confirmed that it was Douglas who introduced them to one another.

Wood, with confederates named Allen and Clibborn - apparently more experienced blackmailers - attempted to extort payment from Wilde for the return of the letters, but (if Wilde's version is to be believed) were only modestly successful. In evidence, Wilde included this account of his interview with the blackmailer Allen:

    I said, 'I suppose you have come about my beautiful letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. If you had not been so foolish as to send a copy of it to Mr. Beerbohm Tree, I would gladly have paid you a very large sum of money for the letter, as I consider it to be a work of art.' He said, 'A very curious construction can be put on that letter'. I said in reply, 'Art is rarely intelligible to the criminal classes.' He said, 'A man offered me £60 for it'. I said to him, 'If you take my advice you will go to that man and sell my letter to him for £60. I myself have never received so large a sum for any prose work of that length; but I am glad to find that there is some one in England who considers a letter of mine worth £60.' He was somewhat taken aback by my manner, perhaps, and said, 'The man is out of town'. I replied, 'He is sure to come back'. And I advised him to get the £60. He then changed his manner a little, saying that he had not a single penny, and that he had been on many occasions trying to find me. I said that I could not guarantee his cab expenses, but that I would gladly give him half-a-sovereign. He took the money and went away.

After Allen's unsuccessful attempt to extort a substantial payment, Clibborn made a further foray at Wilde's house. As Wilde described the encounter in his evidence:

    I went out to him and said, 'I cannot bother any more about this matter'. He produced the letter out of his pocket, saying, 'Allen has asked me to give it back to you'. I did not take it immediately, but asked: 'Why does Allen give me back this letter?' He said, 'Well, he says that you were kind to him, and that there is no use trying to "rent" you as you only laugh at us'. [The word "rent", in this context, was a contemporary slang term for blackmail.] I took the letter and said, 'I will accept it back, and you can thank Allen from me for all the anxiety he has shown about it'. I looked at the letter, and saw that it was extremely soiled. I said to him, 'I think it is quite unpardonable that better care was not taken of this original manuscript of mine'. He said he was very sorry, but it had been in so many hands. I gave him half-a-sovereign, and then said, 'I am afraid you are leading a wonderfully wicked life'. He said, 'There is good and bad in every one of us'. I told him he was a born philosopher, and then he left.

In fact, the blackmail cost Wilde rather more than two half-sovereigns: he made a further payment to Wood - £20, by his own account, or £35, according to Wood's version - in either event, a sizeable sum of money at a time when 10 shillings (one-half of a pound) represented a working man's weekly wage. In evidence, both Wilde and Wood maintained that this payment was not a result of blackmail, but merely an act of kindness to assist Wood to start a new life in America - no doubt a convenient fiction, as it was in neither party's interests to admit the true character of the payment.

Although the blackmail attempt did not cost Wilde very dearly in financial terms, it had the result that scandal started to spread. Wood's confederates produced copies of the apparently compromising letters, and circulated them amongst Wilde's theatrical and literary colleagues - including one copy which went to the actor-manager, Beerbohm Tree, who was then producing A Women of No Importance at the Haymarket Theatre. Another copy apparently came to the attention of Bosie's father, the Marquess.

Little boys should be obscene and not heard.

- Oscar Wilde,

I never play cricket. It requires one to assume such indecent postures.

- Oscar Wilde,


Click on the following icon to view or download this article in PDF format

601 kB
(with illustrations)

102 kB
(without illustrations)

Links to other parts of this article

Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part III: The “booby trap”
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part V: Carson’s cross-examination
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

copyright © 1998-2005
all rights reserved
Anthony John Hunter Morris QC
Level 13, 239 George Street

Brisbane, Queensland
elephone: +61 7 3229 0267
acsimile: +61 7 3221 6715

this page last updated 27 January 2004