In the mid-1890s, playwright Oscar Wilde was at the height of his fame, lauded for his brilliant, witty theatrical works, poetry, and novels, and his lavish lifestyle and sharp, barbed comments.
But his star was about to crash and burn… Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred (“Douglas”) was to lead to his imprisonement and disgrace.
Wilde was forty years old at the time of the trials; Lord Alfred was sixteen years his junior but no child, at age twenty-four, and certainly not an innocent. They first met in the early summer of 1891. Douglas was a devoted fan of Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, claiming that he had read it either nine or fourteen times. Lord Alfred was a slight, handsome, impetuous young man who already had a very difficult relationship with his father. He had homosexual relations with several boys at Oxford and was blackmailed in the spring of 1892. He was especially irresponsible about money, often insisting that Wilde spend lavish amounts on him.
Lord Alfred’s father, the Eighth Marquess of Queensberry (1844–1900), was irate about the relationship between his son and Wilde and sought to discredit Wilde. In February 1895, he left a card for Wilde at the Albemarle Club, addressed “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite,” misspelling the last word. Homosexual activity was illegal in England.
Unwisely, Wilde resolved to sue Queensberry for libel – a fatal decision, since the accusation was true, and Queensberry’s legal team was able to prove it. Wilde’s case collapsed, and he was arrested and charged with sodomy.
The second trial began on April 26. Clarke again represented Wilde, this time without fee. The most dramatic part of the trial involved a poem written by Douglas and titled “Two Loves,” which ends with the words, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” When asked what that might mean, Wilde responded with such eloquence that many in the gallery burst into applause, although some hissed. Wilde alluded to Michelangelo and Shakespeare, among others, as older men who had “deep, spiritual affection” for younger men in “the noblest form of affection.” He argued that such relationships were much misunderstood in the nineteenth century and the reason for his being on trial. One dare not speak the name of this noble love, he concluded, because it was so misunderstood. The speech probably influenced the jury’s inability to agree on a verdict.
The third trial, a second attempt to prosecute Wilde (after the hung jury of the second trial), opened on May 22. Again, friends urged Wilde to flee the country, but he wrote to Lord Alfred that he “did not want to be called a coward or a deserter.” The prosecution benefited from the previous trial and won. Wilde was found guilty of indecent behavior with men, a lesser charge but one for which he received the maximum penalty under the Criminal Law Amendment Act: two years at hard labour.
Imprisoned in several prisons, Newgate, Pentonville, Wandsworth, and finally Reading Gaol, Wilde served two years, colapsing and becoming very sick under the pressure of hard labour. Many of Wilde’s friends abandoned him, and his adoring public shunned the former profit of a decadent age…
One who stood by Wilde however, was socialist clergyman Stewart Headlam. Headlam had found half of the £5000 bail money set for Wilde when he was remanded for criminal trial in 1895, though he did not know him personally. Later, on 18-19th May 1897 Wilde visited Headlam’s Upper Bedford Place house, after release from Pentonville Prison, on his way out of the country. Headlam’s support for such a contraversial figure as Wilde cost Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew many members – he was also threatened by a reactionary mob, and his housemaid fled his house in horror! Headlam was later one of first 24 to receive a presentation copy of Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol.
From Bloomsbury, Wilde fled to France, where estranged from his family, pretty much skint, he lived in exile, increasingly resorting to drink, and never to return to England. He died in 1900. His grave in Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery is worth a visit – last time I was there, it covered in thousands of colourful kisses and wondrous global graffiti tributes. It didn’t then merit a constant security guard prescence like nearby (and much more tedious icon) Jim Morrison’s immortal resting place, but Wilde’s has since apparently had a glass screen erected to prevent the alleged damage the kisses are doing to the headstone.
While Headlam did not approve of homosexuality, his willingness to help Wilde may have been due to the fact that “others close to him had been caught in similar sexual tangles”. Headlam’s own short-lived marriage in 1878 had been to a lesbian, Beatrice Pennington. Headlam’s close relations with other homosexuals included his Eton master William Johnson and his friend C. J. Vaughan.
Headlam may have been vilified for sheltering Wilde: but he was no stranger to controversy, and unafraid of being unpopular. Influenced by the ideas of the christian socialists Frederick Denison Maurice and Charles Kingsley, (who both taught him at Cambridge), Headlam believed that God’s Kingdom on earth would replace a “competitive, unjust society with a co-operative and egalitarian social order.”
Ordained and appointed curate of St. John’s Church, Drury Lane, he was shocked by the poverty there and was determined to do all he could to reduce the suffering of the poor. This led him to clash repeatedly with John Jackson, Bishop of London. He also met and befriended theatre people – actors, dancers etc – then widely shunned as highly disreputable socially (churchgoing theatrefolk often concealed their profession from fellow parishioners). In 1873, moving to St. Matthew’s Church, Bethnal Green Headlam found conditions even worse than in Drury Lane. The vicar at the church, Septimus Hansard, was another Christian Socialist.?In sermons, Headlam attacked the wide gap between rich and poor, warned the working class to distrust middle-class reformers(!) and presented Jesus Christ as a revolutionary and the new testament as a ‘Socialist Document’. His socialist political activities, friendship and political alliance with secularists like Bradlaugh and Foote, and vocal support for the theatre, especially ballet got him suspended from the curacy by the Bishop of London in 1878. (In fact the theatre problem was the most offensive to Bishop Temple of London, who seems to have had a special problem with male ballet dancers’ stage attire… don’t ask, I guess!) The Church authorities managed to keep him from preaching in church for many years (apart from when friends lent him their pulpit).
However Headlam toured the country preaching Christian Socialism, advocating a tax on land and the redistribution of wealth to end poverty – denouncing wealth as robbery and inconsistent with Christianity. No dabbler politically, he acted wholeheartedly on his beliefs, his clearly stated aim was to overthrow the establishment and society as then ordered and build the Kingdom of Heaven. Practically he fought for an 8-hour working day, complete education for all kids, nationalisation of the land, fair wages… grassroots democracy in church, bishops elected by parishioners not appointed by the state, and the rich.
In 1886 Headlam joined the reformist socialist Fabian Society, and remained a leading member till his death in 1924; in fact they often met at his house here. In contrast with many contemporary churchmen (and socialists, many of whom expressed puritanical disapproval of popular entertainment) he enthusiastically supported the theatre and opposed ‘puritanism’, His Church & Stage Guild, founded 1879, aimed to break down anti-theatre prejudice in the church and promote theatre as a form of worship. This Guild did link church people and theatre folk, meeting monthly, sometimes in Drury Lane theatre, and fought puritanical attitudes and prejudice for 20 years. Headlam’s support for Wilde grew out of this love of arts and theatre.
Headlam also worked to improve education for the working class,and was elected to the London School Board (the body which controlled public education) in 1888, with fellow socialist Annie Besant. School Boards were one of first places Fabian (and other reform-minded socialist groups’) practical influence was felt. Headlam & other progressives fought years of battles with conservatives over measures like abolition of fees, free school meals special classes for what were then seen as ‘retarded’ children, provision of swimming facilities, keeping class numbers smaller, raising teachers’ wages, building new buildings, requiring proper trade union rates for any contracts, acquisition of pianos for music classes… but especially the role of the church and compulsory religious teaching in schools! In 1897, dominating the Board for the first time, progressives enacted most of their reforms. But the question of Religion in schools so tied up the progressive and conservative factions on that the Board was abolished in 1903.
Elected to the London County Council in 1907, Stewart Headlam remained active in politics until his death in 1924. Personally he was said to be very honest and open, with a strong and magnetic personality; people either loved or hated him. He was also described as being as autocratic and stubborn in his organisations as his friend Bradlaugh was in the Secular movement.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online