Editor's Published Articles

The Importance of Being Wilde

Part V: Carson's Cross-Examination

published in Queensland Bar News, December 2003

Links to other parts of this Article

Part I: Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas
Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part III: The “booby trap”
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

     Oscar Wilde

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 away.

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 him.

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:

    I myself 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 art, yes.

    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.

    A perverted novel might be a good book?- I don't know what you mean by a perverted novel.

    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.

    An illiterate 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.

    The majority 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.

    Not cultivated enough to draw the distinction between a good book and a bad book?- Certainly not.

    The affection 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 hang himself.

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 cross-examination continued:

    Was his conversation literary?- On the contrary, quite simple and easily understood. He had been to school where naturally he had not learned much. ...

    Were you fond of this boy?- Naturally. He had been my companion for six weeks.

    Did you take the lad to Brighton?- Yes.

    And provided 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 selection.

    But you paid for it?- Yes.

    You dressed 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 died young.

    In order 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:

    Were you staying at the Albermarle Hotel about 26th February, 1892?- Yes.

    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.

    What age 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.

    Was that for the purpose of having an intellectual treat?- Well, for him, yes.

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.

    During the dinner did you become more intimate with Charles than the other?- I liked him better.

    Did Charles Parker call you Oscar?- Yes. I like to be called Oscar or Mr. Wilde.

    You had wine?- Of course.

    Was there plenty of champagne?- Well, I did not press wine upon them.

    You did not stint them?- What gentleman would stint his guests?

    What gentleman 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.

    Never mind 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 dine.

    Did you ever kiss him?- Oh, dear no. He was a peculiarly plain boy. He was, unfortunately, extremely ugly. I pitied him for it.

    Was that the reason why you did not kiss him?- Oh, Mr. Carson, you are pertinently insolent.

    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.

    Why, sir, 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.

    Then why did you mention his ugliness, I ask you?- Perhaps you insulted me by an insulting question.

    What was 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:

    Here the 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,
The Critic as Artist (1888)

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 I: Wilde and "Bosie" Douglas
Part II: Wilde and Queensberry
Part III: The “booby trap”
Part IV: The perils of litigating a defamation
Part VI: Why was Wilde persecuted?
Part VII: Wilde as a Gay Icon

Lord Alfred ("Bosie") Douglas

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