Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet born in Dublin. At the height of his fame and success, while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, was still on stage in London, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for libel.
Married to Constance Lloyd and father of two children Cyril and Vyvyan, Wilde was also conducting an ongoing affair with Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, the third son of the Marquess of Queensbury. When the outraged Marquess called Wilde a homosexual, the playwright took the foolish decision to sue for libel.
Even though Wilde’s friends urged him to avoid a trial, Wilde accused Queensberry of libel, and the trial began on 3 April 1895. Sir Edward Clarke represented Wilde; Edward Carson represented Queensberry. To the surprise of many, Clarke never even called Lord Alfred Douglas to defend himself; Wilde claimed that he prevented Douglas from doing so. Near the end, Clarke tried and failed to get Carson to agree to a modified charge, and Wilde lost the case. Wilde faced the worst even as his friends abandoned him and he went bankrupt to pay Queensberry’s legal costs of ₤600. Soon after the libel trial, he was arrested and taken to the magistrates’ court in Bow Street, and from there to Holloway Prison. He was indicted not for sodomy but for the lesser and somewhat vaguer charge, ‘gross indecency,’ a misdemeanor rather than a felony, which carried a maximum sentence of two years. the jury convicted him of gross indecency. The vehemence with which the judge, Justice Wills, denounced Wilde may have reacted against the weakness of the prosecution: ‘That you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is… impossible to doubt’. Wilde received the maximum sentence of two years; Wills had the option of including hard labour or not, and he made sure that it was included.
Following his release, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol which was dedicated to Charles Thomas Woodridge ‘Sometime Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards’ who was executed for murdering his wife prompting Wilde to famously write:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Jail broke his spirit ‘and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long,’ and a lonely, desolate, poverty-stricken Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at age 46.