Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Victorian Homosexuality and Oscar Wilde

We live in a society today where the topic of homosexuality has always been a much talked about issue in many countries in the world. As an anthropology major, and also a student of an American university and being raised in an Asian society (Singapore), homosexuality has been very much of a controversial topic in the various societies that I have been exposed to personally in my experiences. Hence, exploring this topic during the Victorian period seemed to give me a different perspective and possibly my own take of what sexual identity was to the Victorians in terms of homosexuality.

Homosexuality among men has been occurring far beyond the Victorian era. However, the nineteenth century was when begin a wave of prosecutions against homosexual men. It was during then where homosexuality was considered a descriptive term. This meant that the Victorians started looking at homosexuality as less of what they considered as a mental defect or illness but they started seeing it as an act of crime. Homosexuality remained as something to be despised throughout the Victorian era. There were a lot more anxieties against male homosexual activities as compared to lesbian activities. Homosexual acts were a capital offence until 1861. That was when the death penalty act for buggery was abolished.

The timeline of the LGBT history in Britain during the Victorian era are as follows:

·         1861 - The death penalty for buggery was abolished. A total of 8921 men had been prosecuted since 1806 for sodomy with 404 sentenced to death and 56 executed.
·         1866 - Marriage was defined as being between a man and a woman (preventing future same-sex marriages). In the case of Hyde v. Hyde and Woodmansee (a case of polygamy), Lord Penzance's judgment began "Marriage as understood in Christendom is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others."
·         1871 - Ernest 'Stella' Boulton and Frederick 'Fanny' Park, two Victorian transvestites and suspected homosexuals appeared as defendants in the celebrated Boulton and Park trial in London, charged "with conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence". The indictment was against Lord Arthur Clinton, Ernest Boulton, Frederic Park, Louis Hurt, John Fiske, Martin Gumming, William Sommerville and C.H. Thompson. The prosecution was unable to prove that they had either committed any homosexual offence nor that men wearing women's clothing was an offence in English law. Lord Arthur Clinton killed himself before his trial.
·         1885 - The British Parliament enacted section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, known as the Labouchere Amendment which prohibited gross indecency between males. It thus became possible to prosecute homosexuals for engaging in sexual acts where buggery or attempted buggery could not be proven.
·         1889 - The Cleveland Street scandal occurred, when a homosexual male brothel in Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, London, was raided by police after they discovered telegraph boys had been working there as rent boys. A number of aristocratic clients were discovered including Lord Arthur Somerset, equerry to the Prince of Wales. The Prince of Wales’s son Prince Albert Victor and Lord Euston were also implicated in the scandal.
·         1895 - Oscar Wilde tried for gross indecency over a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labour.
·         1897 - George Cecil Ives organizes the first homosexual rights group in England, the Order of Chaeronea. Dr Helen Boyle and her partner, Mabel Jones, set up the first women-run General Practice in Brighton, including offering free therapy for poor women. Helen Boyle also founded the National Council for Mental Hygiene (which subsequently becomes MIND) in 1922. British sexologist Havelock Ellis publishes Sexual Inversion, the first volume in an intended series called Studies in the Psychology of Sex. He argues that homosexuality is not a disease but a natural anomaly occurring throughout human and animal history, and should be accepted,not treated. The book is banned in England for being obscene; the subsequent volumes in the series are published in the US and not sold in England until 1936."

This timeline of the LGBT history definitely gave me a good view of the progression of homosexuality in England. If you had noticed from the timeline of events, it was mostly focused around activities involving male homosexuality more than female homosexuality. There was some evidence that suggested that during the Victorian era, female homosexuality was present and acceptable amongst the upper class. This could be true because of the belief that women could not have sexual intercourse on their own. Hence, a romantic relationship between two women did not matter as much as compared to males as they were more likely to be involved in activities involving sexual intercourse and hence explaining the penalties for the act of buggery. Throughout the timeline though, the stigma of being homosexual was starting to become more relaxed as the first homosexual rights groups were being set up in England. The Victorian era did show a great turning point in the idea of homosexuality from first an illness (before the Victorian period) to a crime and then to a form of human rights worth fighting for.  

Upon going much information regarding Victorian homosexuality, the incident that stood out to me the most was definitely the Oscar Wilde trials. Oscar Wilde seemed to be one the most openly gay Victorian writers/poet that I read about at a time period when being homosexual was despised upon highly. The Oscar Wilde trials was one the famous trials that made an impact in how I viewed Victorian homosexuality or just homosexuality in my personal opinion. The purity and greatness of the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas alone did make me reconsider the importance of looking at homosexual relationships in a more in-depth way. This is because their relationship I viewed and understood through his writings were a lot more emotional and in depth as compared to looking at homosexuality through the act of having sexual intercourse between two makes as what the LGBT timeline suggested.

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas in the June of 1891. Lord Alfred Douglas was then an Oxford undergraduate and also a talented poet. Oscar Wilde on the other hand became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. It was said that “it was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Saloméand the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy”. There were many literary evidences to show the nature of the relationship between Wilde and Douglas. To me the most outstanding ones were the handwritten letters by Oscar Wilde to Alfred Douglas. They were a lot more beautifully written than I had imagined.

Oscar Wilde's letter to Bosie, November 1892 (The Morgan Library)

In the January of 1893, Oscar writes:

“My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.
Always, with undying love, yours,

As from this letter, Oscar was obviously feeling the loneliness without Douglas even though he lives in a place he could call lovely as though even being surrounded with beautiful things, nothing in nature could be better than Douglas. But more than that Oscar describes to feel the loneliness of Douglas a lot more than his own loneliness. At the same times, he does want to be supportive of whatever Douglas wants to do which is to go to Salisbury even though all he wants is to spend time with him.

Their relationship got a lot more intense and also the tension escalated quickly as the downfall of Oscar Wilde started due to the father of Alfred Douglas, John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry. He took many measures to end their relationship. Also on the opening night of Wilde’s new play The Importance of Being Earnest that was set to open at the St. James Theatre, Queensberry planned to disrupt it but Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel instead. This play soon became his masterpiece and he reached the height of his success. However, very soon after that his downfall began and the trials had led Wilde to charges against “gross indecency” and eventually had him end up in two years of imprisonment.

On the eve of the final trial, Wilde wrote:

“My dearest boy,

This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonor be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in reture will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that”

Even though, there was much distress in their relationship and only Wilde had to be imprisoned which did not completely make sense because Douglas was also in the relationship with him, he only had thoughts of their love being more than physically together and also something as more deeper and stronger than the existence of life itself. His love for Douglas kept me strong.

In the Victorian period, it was a losing battle for Wilde to be single-handedly fighting to be with the one he loves eternally just because he was male, his writings has showed a lot of depth in what a homosexual individual sees and feels emotionally which is quite far off as what the society sees and feels about being homosexual. 

Finally, something to ponder about...

"He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do" - Oscar Wilde

Works Cited:

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Oscar Wilde: A Life In Letters. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2007

A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde. Ari Adut. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 111, No. 1 (July 2005), pp. 213-248

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