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At Large - Corporal Wilde
by Michael Coren

A book entitled Queer Science was published recently by a prestigious American university house. Its subject was the use and abuse of science by the homosexual movement. On its cover was a picture of the Irish writer Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. In the same week the media announced the making of yet another movie about Wilde, starring the novelist Stephen Fry. In an interview Fry described the author of Lady Windermere's Fan, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as "a symbol of tolerance and decency for our time". None of this should come as any surprise, because Wilde is riding a powerful wave of popularity, inspired more by his lifestyle than his writings.

The popularly held story is simple enough: A man of enormous wit and style in late Victorian England is also a closet homosexual; he is persecuted by a crazed bigot and after a nasty court trial is imprisoned by a hateful justice system; he dies prematurely, his genius ostracized by a small-minded society.

Yes, well, Wilde was indeed a man of talent, but his renowned wit was very much a ripple of his age and has not stood the test of time. I challenge anybody to read A Woman of No Importance or The Duchess of Padua and seriously defend their relevance. It is surely because of, not in spite of, his convictions and incarceration that Wilde is still so well-known.

Stephen Fry's reference to decency is an interesting one. Wilde abandoned his wife and children for long stretches of time so that he could frequent a series of homosexual brothels, the most infamous being close to the British House of Commons. There he would be stroked into climax by working-class Englishmen who, not homosexual themselves, were willing to become prostitutes to wealthy "gentlemen", because of their poverty.

Whether Wilde was truly homosexual is actually open to question. Even the young men who obliged him and then later betrayed him swore in court that he detested the idea of anal intercourse and did not regard himself as homosexual. He himself implied to friends that he only turned to brothels because he had contracted syphilis and was advised by his doctor to refrain from sexual relations with his wife.

There was another reason for these encounters. Wilde wrote that each time he ventured out into the dark night of the homosexual underworld it was as though he were dining with tigers. He was aroused by the risk. The spectacle of modern homosexual activists using Wilde as some gay icon is ludicrous.

There have been dozens of biographies and studies, including a volume on Wilde's time in Canada. Hesketh Pearson wrote a 1946 work in which he refused to discuss his subject's sexuality. An anecdote tells of the writer Hugh Kingsmill asking Pearson what he was going to say about Wilde's odd behaviour and subsequent trial. The biographer apparently re-lit his pipe, gazed out of the window, and said nothing. H. Montgomery Hyde wrote a thorough life, and the great Richard Ellmann gave us the best if not the last word in a 1987 book.

There have been in the past two feature films about Wilde, one starring Robert Morley, and the other, Peter Finch. There was also a three-part British television series which aired on TV Ontario, starring the Irish actor Michael Gambon. In all of these Wilde was glorified as well as romanticized. Yet after the age of thirty he was no graceful aesthete but an obese, red-faced figure with thick lips and an absurd tendency to dress and act like a man ten or more years younger.

More than this, the trial that brought the author down was initiated by Wilde himself. He was having a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, much to the understandable horror of Douglas's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. The nobleman made various statements about Wilde's actions and eventually left him a card in which he accused Wilde of posing like "a somdomite". Spelling errors aside, male buggery was illegal at the time and Wilde sued Queensberry for libel. Wilde lost the case and the return match, with Queensberry and the state now prosecuting, earned him a jail sentence.

We tend to paint the Marquess of Queensberry as an unstable bully, and to certain degree he was. But imagine this father's experience as his son was paraded around town by a fat poet many years his senior who slobbered over him and wrote him absurd love sonnets.

Wilde was a playwright, short story writer, and a raconteur who deserves a place in the footnotes of literary greatness. Unfortunately his decadence has made him a general rather than a corporal. What a shame.


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