Anthony Julius, review of The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland,
in Times Literary Supplement (16 May 2003)

Details: Anthony Julius, ‘Made for exceptions’, review of Merlin Holland, Irish Peacock and Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, in Times Literary Supplement ( 16 May 2003 ), pp.10-11 [in summary]

In a lengthy review, Julius discusses the ‘antinomian’ dimension of Wilde’s character and behaviour a term which Wilde himself introduces in De Profundis. Julius takes his sentences from widely divergent parts of Wilde’s text, to produce the following synoptic sentiment: ‘Morality does not help me. I am a born antinomian. I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.... Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike: as if anybody or anything, for that matter, was like aught else in the world. For him there were no laws: there were exceptions merely.’

He then proceeds to consider the facts and the best and worse course that Wilde could have taken in defending himself against Queensbury’s aggression, demonstrating in principle that Wilde followed the worst possible course not only in charging the other with libel when, in fact, he was actually guilty of the very thing that he was accused of (viz., ‘posing as a sodomite’) but also in giving the brief to solicitors other than his own, Sir George Lewis quoting Lewis’s saying to Wilde after the disaster of the first trial: ‘What’s the use of coming to me now? I am powerless to do anything. If you had had the sense to bring Lord Queensbury’s card to me in the first place, I would have torn it up and thrown it in the fire and told you not to make a fool of yourself.’

Wilde’s actual motivation in taking the libel action are summed up in these terms: ‘Wilde also might have found the insult of the philistine to the artist to be unignorable, and the promise of the court as a new forum in which to perform, irresistible. There must also have been, at some level, the attraction of the danger posed by litigation, of a kind that would feed his desire to take risks. There is a thrill, perhaps, in pulling off a deception. And the prosecution was also an act of love, a gift to his lover. All these considerations are likely to have weighed with Wilde.’

Julius goes on to quote Wilde’s letter to Robert Ross: ‘Since I saw you something has happened. Bosie’s father has left a card at my club with hideous words on it. I don’t see anything now but a criminal prosecution. My whole life seems ruined by this man’. Here Julius remarks of the sentiment expressed by Wilde at the close: ‘He was right.’ (p.10.) He offers this appraisal of the course of action not taken: ‘There were strong, even compelling, arguments against action, however, and there is no reason to suppose that Wilde was unaware of them. Above all else, he was a sodomite. Fighting a case based on a lie is never a good idea. It means deceiving your lawyers. The effect of this is that you are not able to get legal advice on your actual situation. Pretending to be other than what he was in order to defeat his enemy was bound to end in failure. Wilde chose the path of attack and was floored. He probably knew that this would happen, from the outset.

Julius endorses the ‘sensible point’ made by John Mortimer (in his introduction to Holland’s book) when he says that those who start libel actions often emerge with their reputations in tatters and speaks of the process in these terms: ‘The obligation on the defendant to justify, so often criticised as a restraint on freedom of speech (which it is not), in fact allows him to turn the action into a trial of the claimant. Wilde’s persecutor, Lord Queensbury, leaped at the chance of doing just this, with calamitous consequences for his victim.’ (p.10.)

Of Wilde’s showing at the first trial, Julius writes: ‘His performance as a witness was mendacious throughout, and though sparkling at first, soon became merely querulous and pathetic. It is difficult to read the transcript of this cross-examination without flinching at Wilde’s misjudgement of tone, and his complete lack of sensitivity to the nature of his audience. But it is impossible to read the transcript without pity for Wilde. He was bullied and humiliated by Carson, who addressed him with a cutting contempt that left him floundering.’ And further, ‘After some ill-advised witticism about a particular young man being too ugly to kiss, and [Edward] Carson’s inevitable, unrelenting cross-examination on the remark, Wilde lost control. “Pardon me, you sting me, insult me and try to unnerve me in every way. At times one says things flippantly when one should speak more seriously, I admit that, I admit it - I cannot help it. That is what you are doing to me.”

Julius ends his article by returning implicitly to his earlier theme of artistic antinomianism (‘one could argue that English literature itself is constitutively antinomian’), suggesting that the writer is always of this kind and that the law is naturally of the opposite disposition, making it imperative to avoid making a contest between the two: ‘When reviewing Wilde’s calamitous experience with the English legal system, the semantic association of, “persecution” with “prosecution” seems unaccidental, given the judicial nature of his oppression. It is the condemned Wilde, rather than the playwright and wit, who is most vivid in our imagination; it is the judge’s sentence, rather than any epigram of the prisoner’s, which resonates with us. This is at least in part because Wilde’s prosecution and conviction inaugurated two kinds of persecution of writers in this century. The first is the persecution of a writer’s work; the second is the persecution of the writer himself.’

Further: ‘Writers should never have to defend their work in the context of legal proceedings. Forensic cross-examination is not the appropriate forum for literary criticism. When authors are forced to defend themselves in this way, the State makes itself ridiculous, but the writer suffers. Wilde’s trials also point to a certain connection between literary censorship and sexual oppression. Sexuality is a form of self-expression and is thus analogous to literary creativity. One might even say that our sexuality makes artists of us all. As defendant, Wilde was thus doubly, and most inclusively, a representative figure - of writers, for sure, but also of everyone whose private life the State attempts to regulate.’ [End]

Bibl. cites Michael Foldy, The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1999).



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