I have nothing to declare except my genius.
- Oscar Wilde,
Wilde's response to a customs officer in New York, who asked
whether he had anything to declare, quoted in Frank Harris,
Oscar Wilde (1918), p. 75
Edward Carson QC was aged 40 when briefed to represent the
Marquess of Queensberry at the libel trial. After 15 years'
practice as a barrister in Dublin, he was called to the English
Bar in 1893 and took silk the following year. He subsequently
became Solicitor-General, then Attorney-General, and in 1921
a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. The Oxford Companion to
Law says "He was a great advocate, orator and fighter for Ulster
but ordinary as a judge". He was a contemporary of Wilde's
at Trinity College, Dublin, and was beaten by Wilde for a scholarship
in classics. At a conference with his own counsel shortly before
the libel trial commenced, Wilde quipped of Carson that "no
doubt he will perform his task with all the added bitterness
of an old friend".
In fact, Carson initially refused the brief, and only reconsidered
after consulting the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Halsbury.
Even then, his initial inclination was to advise Queensberry
to plead guilty, but changed his mind as an increasingly damning
dossier of evidence against Wilde was accumulated. Plainly
there was no animosity or malice on Carson's part towards Wilde.
After the jury disagreed at Wilde's first indecency trial,
Carson used his position as a Member of Parliament to urge the
government, "Can you not let up on this fellow now?"
Edward Carson QC
It would be a mistake for any inexperienced advocate to adopt
Carson's cross-examination of Wilde as a model. In this
sense, it was not a good cross-examination. Carson broke
every rule in the cross-examiner's training manual: he completely
lost control of the witness, he asked questions to which he
could not anticipate the answer, and he repeatedly asked open-ended
questions which effectively invited the witness to make a speech
to the jury. It was not a good cross-examination, but
it was a great cross-examination.
Cross-examination is an art, not a science. A great
cross-examination cannot be restricted by any rules or formulae,
any more than a great painting can be produced using the "painting
by numbers" technique, or a great musical composition can be
achieved merely by applying textbook rules for the composition
of four-part harmony. Rules of that kind are useful to
prevent novices betraying their incompetence; they do not exist
to guide masters in creating the perfect expression of their
talent. Like any great artist, Carson instinctively knew
when he could achieve the greatest effect by throwing the rule-book
In one of their many memorable exchanges, Carson put to Wilde
a passage from one of Wilde's letters to Bosie Douglas - "Your
slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry" - and asked
whether it was a beautiful phrase. Wilde responded,
"Not as you read it, Mr. Carson. You read it very badly."
Carson responded, "I do not profess to be an artist; and
when I hear you give evidence, I am glad I am not." That
was not an entirely proper remark for an advocate in Carson's
position, and it was perhaps unconsciously disingenuous. The
entire cross-examination was a contest between two consummate
artists, the only difference being that Carson was practising
the art of advocacy, whilst Wilde was practising his art, or
attempting to do so, as an epigrammatist and wit.
The structure of Carson's cross-examination is significant.
It began with a point, in itself entirely trivial, which
immediately set Wilde on the defensive. In evidence-in-chief,
Wilde had given his age as 39; Carson suggested (as was the
case) that Wilde, having been born on 16 October 1854, was over
40. In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde had penned the
lines: "One should never trust a woman who tells one her real
age. A woman who would tell one that, would tell one anything."
Perhaps Carson was counting on the jury to suspect that,
if Wilde was prepared to lie about something so trivial as his
age, he could lie about anything.
Wilde's response was no doubt intended to be witty. Having
been accused by Queensberry of posing as a sodomite, he told
Carson that he had "no wish to pose as being young". But
this merely opened up the next topic of Carson's cross-examination,
namely the disparity between Wilde's age and that of Bosie Douglas,
to whom Wilde had written such affectionate correspondence.
The greater part of Carson's cross-examination on the first
day focussed on literary matters, and many commentators have
contended that Wilde won the first round. Certainly, had
it been a contest between Carson and Wilde as to which of them
was the more witty, eloquent and urbane, Wilde was the undisputed
victor. But there was a plan to Carson's cross-examination,
and it went exactly to plan.
In the first place, Carson wanted to justify Queensberry's
description of Wilde as a poseur, and offered Wilde every
opportunity to strike poses; and Wilde certainly did not disappoint
Carson's cross-examination concerning The Picture of Dorian
Gray is an outstanding example. The fact that the book
contained passages suggestive of unnatural vices on the part
of the principal character was not, in itself, suggestive that
the author approved of those practices, let alone participated
in them. Indeed, read as a whole, the book could fairly
be regarded as morally righteous, in that the principal character
is ultimately punished for his sin. At the first indecency
trial, Mr. Justice Charles urged the jury to attach no weight
to Wilde's literary works, telling them:
own, and I think it is my duty at once to say so, that I do
not think that in a criminal case you ought to base any unfavourable
opinion on the fact that Wilde is the author of The Picture
of Dorian Gray. ... If an imaginative writer puts into his novels
some consummate villain and puts into the mouth of that man
sentiments revolting to humanity, it must not be supposed that
he shares them. You may criticise, if you please, the
work, but it would never do, if the author of the work is charged
with crime, to say, 'Oh, you created that monster in your last
novel and you put into his mouth sentiments revolting to humanity'.
That would not be fair. While some of our most distinguished
and noble-minded writers have passed long lives in producing
the most wholesome literature - such as, for instance, Sir Walter
Scott and Charles Dickens, who never wrote, so far as I know,
a single offensive line - it is unfortunately true to say that
other great writers, who were perfectly noble-minded men themselves,
have somehow or other given to the world, especially in the
eighteenth century, works which it is painful for persons of
ordinary modesty and decency to read. It would be unfair
therefore, when you are trying a man, to allow yourselves to
be unfavourably influenced against him by the circumstance that
he has written a work of which you, in as far as you have heard
any extracts from it, may disapprove.
The genius of Carson's cross-examination on this subject
did not lie in attempting to identify Wilde with his fictitional
creations, but in encouraging Wilde to pose as an artist whose
understanding and sensibilities are on a different plane from
those of ordinary mortals:
This is in
your introduction to Dorian Gray: There is no such thing as
a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or
badly written. That expresses your view?- My view on
Then, I take
it, that no matter how immoral a book may be, if it is well
written, it is, in your opinion, a good book?- Yes, if it were
well written so as to produce a sense of beauty, which is the
highest sense of which a human being can be capable. If
it were badly written, it would produce a sense of disgust.
Then a well-written
book putting forward perverted moral views may be a good book?-
No work of art ever puts forward views. Views belong to
people who are not artists.
novel might be a good book?- I don't know what you mean by a
Then I will
suggest Dorian Gray as open to the interpretation of being such
a novel?- That could only be to brutes and illiterates. The
views of Philistines on art are incalculably stupid.
person reading Dorian Gray might consider it such a novel?-
The views of illiterates on art are unaccountable. I am
concerned only with my view of art. I don't care twopence
what other people think of it.
of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and
illiterates?- I have found wonderful exceptions.
Do you think
that the majority of people live up to the position you are
giving us?- I am afraid they are not cultivated enough.
enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad
book?- Certainly not.
and love of the artist of Dorian Gray might lead an ordinary
individual to believe that it might have a certain tendency?-
I have no knowledge of the views of ordinary individuals.
You do not
prevent the ordinary individual from buying your book?- I have
never discouraged him.
The literary part of Carson's cross-examination could not
have been more successful. Even if Wilde did not manage
to offend the entire jury, by putting them in the class of "brutes",
"illiterates" and "Philistines", he surely left them in no doubt
that he was a poseur.
But there was more to come, and Carson's cross-examination
skilfully laid the ground-work to question Wilde about his relations
with young, working-class men. Though aware of the catalogue
of allegations contained in the Plea of Justification, Wilde
plainly did not see what was coming. According to Carson's
plan, the literary part of the cross-examination had to come
first, in order to create the contrast which Carson laid open
to the Jury in his opening speech for the defence:
Let us contrast
the position which Mr. Wilde took up in cross-examination as
to his books, which are for the select and not for the ordinary
individual, with the position he assumed as to the young men
to whom he was introduced and those he picked up for himself.
His books were written by an artist for artists; his words
were not for Philistines or illiterates. Contrast that
with the way in which Mr. Wilde chose his companions! He
took up with Charles Parker, a gentleman's servant, whose brother
was a gentleman's servant; with young Alphonse Conway, who sold
papers on the pier at Worthing; and with Scarfe, also a gentleman's
servant. Then his excuse was no longer that he was dwelling
in regions of art but that he had such a noble, such a democratic
soul, that he drew no social distinctions, and that it was quite
as much pleasure to have the sweeping boy from the streets to
lunch or dine with him as the greatest litérateur or artist.
To those acquainted with modern techniques of cross-examination,
it may be a surprise that Carson allowed Wilde so much latitude
to display his wit. A cross-examiner who was merely competent
would have kept the witness under rigorous control, requiring
him merely to answer the questions. But Carson's instincts
told him that, if he gave Wilde enough rope, he would surely
Carson asked Wilde about Alphonse Conway, and suggested that
he sold newspapers at the kiosk on the pier. Wilde's
witty reply - "It is the first I have heard of his connection
with literature" - simply fulfilled Carson's object of showing
how unlikely it was that the stimulation which Wilde received
from Conway's company was literary or intellectual. The
Was his conversation
literary?- On the contrary, quite simple and easily understood.
He had been to school where naturally he had not learned
fond of this boy?- Naturally. He had been my companion
for six weeks.
Did you take
the lad to Brighton?- Yes.
him with a suit of blue serge?- Yes.
And a straw
hat with a band of red and blue?- That, I think, was his unfortunate
But you paid
for it?- Yes.
this newsboy up to take him to Brighton?- No. I did not
want him to be ashamed of his shabby clothes. He told
me that his father had been an electrical engineer, and he had
that he might look more like an equal?- Oh, no! He could
not look like that.
Once again, in the cross-examination with respect to Edward
Shelley, Carson allowed Wilde just sufficient latitude to incorporate
his own flippant comments, thereby underscoring the peculiarity
of the liaison:
staying at the Albermarle Hotel about 26th February, 1892?-
At that time
were Messrs. Elkin Mathews & John Lane, of Vigo Street,
your publishers?- Yes.
Did you become
fond of their office boy?- I really do not think that that is
the proper form for the question to be addressed to me in. I
deny that that was the position held by Mr. Edward Shelley,
to whom you are referring. I object to your description.
was Mr. Shelly?- I should think about twenty I first met
him in October when arranging for the publication of my books.
I asked him to dine with me at the Albermarle Hotel.
for the purpose of having an intellectual treat?- Well, for
Carson achieved the same effect in his cross-examination
regarding Charles Parker and his brother William, with respect
to a dinner at a very fashionable London restaurant:
You did the
honours to the valet and the groom?- I entertained Taylor and
his two guests.
In a private
room, of course?- Yes, certainly.
Did you give
them an intellectual treat?- They seemed deeply impressed.
dinner did you become more intimate with Charles than the other?-
I liked him better.
Parker call you Oscar?- Yes. I like to be called Oscar
or Mr. Wilde.
You had wine?-
plenty of champagne?- Well, I did not press wine upon them.
You did not
stint them?- What gentleman would stint his guests?
would stint the valet and the groom?...
Do you drink
champagne yourself?- Yes, iced champagne is a favourite drink
of mine - strongly against my doctor's orders.
your doctor's orders, sir?- I never do.
Carson's cross-examination reached its climax with reference
to Walter Grainger:
How old is
he?- He was about sixteen when I knew him. He was a servant
at a certain house in High Street, Oxford, where Lord Alfred
Douglas had rooms. I have stayed there several times.
Grainger waited at table. I never dined with him.
If it is one's duty to serve, it is one's duty to serve;
and if it is one's pleasure to dine, it is one's pleasure to
Did you ever
kiss him?- Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy.
He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied
him for it.
the reason why you did not kiss him?- Oh, Mr. Carson, you are
Did you say
that in support of your statement that you never kissed him?-
No. It is a childish question.
Did you ever
put that forward as a reason why you never kissed the boy?-
Not at all.
did you mention that this boy was extremely ugly?- For this
reason. If I were asked why I did not kiss a door-mat,
I should say because I do not like to kiss door-mats. I
do not know why I mentioned that he was ugly, except that I
was stung by the insolent question you put to me and the way
you have insulted me throughout this hearing. Am I to
be cross-examined because I do not like it?
Why did you
mention his ugliness?- It is ridiculous to imagine that any
such thing could have occurred under any circumstances.
did you mention his ugliness, I ask you?- Perhaps you insulted
me by an insulting question.
the reason why you should say the boy was ugly?-
At this point, the record of proceedings (which does not
purport to be a verbatim transcript, in the modern form) continues:
witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none
of them he finished. His efforts to collect his ideas
were not aided by Mr. Carson's sharp staccato repetition: 'Why?
Why? Why did you add that?' At last the witness answered:
'You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve; and at times
one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.
I admit it.'
Carson was no doubt very conscious of the fact that the witnesses,
whose evidence he had put to Wilde, would not necessarily impress
the jury. With three exceptions - Edward Shelley, the
publisher's clerk; Alphonse Conway, the newspaper seller; and
Walter Grainger, a domestic servant - they were all male prostitutes,
and several were blackmailers. Most had become acquainted
with Wilde, directly or indirectly, through Taylor's brothel.
There were other complications: one potential witness,
Maurice Schwabe, was a nephew by marriage to Sir Frank Lockwood,
the Solicitor-General; and there was the real risk that evidence
from Wood, and perhaps other witnesses, would implicate the
defendant's own son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Most importantly,
each of the witnesses was a consenting participant, and therefore
an accomplice in the offences allegedly committed by Wilde.
At the subsequent trials, each of them was granted an
indemnity against prosecution, but Queensberry's lawyers were
in no position to offer that. Private detectives engaged
by Queensberry had gone to considerable lengths in finding these
witnesses, and probably applied no small degree of pressure
in obtaining their limited co-operation. Carson could
not be sure that each of them would willingly enter the witness-box,
and admit under oath to their participation in the commission
of criminal offences.
Carson's cross-examination of Wilde was therefore the lynch-pin
of the defence case: if Carson's cross-examination did not succeed
in satisfying the jury that Queensberry was justified in his
description of Wilde as "posing as a sodomite", Carson could
not be sure that the defence witnesses would carry the day.
Whether or not Carson's cross-examination succeeded in
convincing the jury in Queensberry's favour will never be known.
But it was successful in another, and even more significant
direction: it succeeded in convincing Wilde's own lawyers, and
indeed Wilde himself, that it would be futile to proceed.
This might have been achieved by a more orthodox style of
cross-examination. But it seems doubtful. Had Carson
reigned in the witness, and merely allowed him to admit or
deny the case which was put to him, the effect would not have
been nearly so devastating. It is just possible that,
if Wilde had not been humiliated into the withdrawal of his
prosecution, the defence witnesses - without the benefit of
the indemnities subsequently granted to them - would not have
provided the evidence which later sufficed to convict Wilde.
But it is pointless speculating as to what might have happened.
It was a rare accident of history which produced this
encounter between (on one hand) the greatest literary wit of
his own time, and perhaps of any time, and (on the other hand)
the greatest forensic advocate of his own time, and perhaps
of any time. Carson undoubtedly emerged the victor. One
does not have to approve of his client, or his client's cause,
to acknowledge the brilliance with which Carson discharged the
painful duty that he so reluctantly accepted.
The public is wonderfully tolerant.
It forgives everything except genius.
- Oscar Wilde,
as Artist (1888)