The Downfall of Oscar Wilde – Free Ebook

On Valentine’s Day in 1895, the most famous 
playwright in the English speaking world,  

Oscar Wilde, presented his new play, The 
Importance of Being Earnest, in London at  

St. James Theatre. The audience was packed with 
celebrities, aristocrats and famous politicians,  

eagerly awaiting another triumph from 
a man universally heralded as a genius.  

At the end of the performance, there was a 
standing ovation. Critics adored the play  

and so did audiences, making it Wilde’s 
fourth major success in only three years. 

Yet, only a few short months later, Wilde 
was bankrupt and about to be imprisoned.  

His reputation was in tatters and his life 
ruined beyond repair. It was, as everyone  

then and now agreed, a tragedy, the swift fall 
of a great man due to a small but fateful slip. 

The story of how Oscar Wilde went 
from celebrity playwright to prisoner,  

in such a short space of time, has much to 
teach us about disgrace and infamy. We don’t  

have to be acclaimed to understand that Wilde’s 
poignant tragedy urges us to abandon our normal  

moralism and have sympathy for those who 
stray, it calls for us to extend our love  

not just to those who obviously deserve 
it but precisely to those who seem not  

to. We talk a lot of what a civilised world 
should be like. We might put it like this: a  

civilised world would be one in which Oscar Wilde 
could have been forgiven – and in which those who  

make errors of judgement could be treated with 
high degrees of sympathy and, even, of kindness.  

It would be a world in which we could remember 
that good people can at times do bad things –  

and should not pay an eternal price for them.
Wilde’s tragedy began several years earlier,  

when he was introduced to a beguiling young 
man named Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas,  

known to family and friends as ‘Bosie’, 
was extremely handsome, charming and  

arrogant.

By 1892, a year after they had met, the two men  

had fallen profoundly in love. Although Wilde 
was married with two children, he spent much of  

his time with Bosie: there was a sixteen year age 
gap, Douglas was twenty-four, Wilde forty. They  

travelled together, stayed in hotels and 
hosted large dinners for their friends.

By 1894, the pair were constantly seen together 
in public and rumours of their love affair had  

spread as far as Bosie’s father, the Marquess 
of Queensbury. The Marquess was a cruel,  

aggressive character, known for inventing 
the ‘Queensbury Rules’ of amateur boxing.  

Having decided that Wilde was corrupting his son, 
he demanded that the pair stop seeing each other. 

When Wilde refused, Queensbury began to hound 
him across London, threatening violence against  

restaurant and hotel managers if they 
allowed Wilde and Bosie onto the premises. 

Queensbury booked a seat for the opening 
night of The Importance of Being Earnest.  

He planned to throw a bouquet of rotting 
vegetables at Wilde when he took to the stage. 

When Wilde heard about the stunt, he had 
him barred from the theatre and Queensbury  

flew into a rage. He tried to accost Wilde 
after the performance at the Albemarle Club  

in Mayfair. When the porters refused to let 
him in, he left a calling card which publicly  

accused Wilde of having sex with other men.
Since homosexuality was illegal and deeply  

frowned upon in Victorian society this was a dangerous accusation. 

Seeing no end to Queensbury’s bullying behaviour,  

Wilde decided to take legal action. By suing 
Queensbury for libel, Wilde hoped to clear  

his name and put an end to the harassment.

When the trial began, Wilde was confident.  

He took the stand and gave witty, distracting 
answers during his cross-examination. 

Within a few days, however,  

the tide had turned against him.

It became clear that Queensbury’s lawyers  

had hired private detectives to uncover an 
uncomfortable truth: that both Wilde and Bosie had  

hired male prostitutes. Some had even blackmailed 
Wilde in the past, successfully extorting  

money from him in return for their silence.
The trial was hopeless and Wilde withdrew his  

case, but events had spiralled beyond his control.
Queensbury’s lawyers forwarded their evidence to  

the Director of Public Prosecutions and Wilde 
was soon arrested on charges of gross indecency. 

The legal costs left him bankrupt and 
theatres were forced to abandon his plays. 

Wilde’s criminal trial began at the Old Bailey 
on April 26. He faced twenty-five charges,  

all of which surrounded his sexual 
relationships with younger men. 

Wilde continued to deny the allegations 
and the jury could not reach a verdict,  

but when the prosecution were allowed to try Wilde  

a second time he was eventually found guilty.

The judge said at his sentencing, “It is the worst  

case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest 
sentence that the law allows.  

Wilde was sentenced to two years’ of hard labour.  

Inmates in London’s Pentonville Prison, where 
he was sent, spent six hours a day walking on  

a heavy treadmill or untangling old 
rope using their hands and knees. 

For someone of Wilde’s luxurious background, it 
was an impossible hardship. His bed was a hard  

plank which made it difficult to fall asleep. 
Prisoners were kept alone in their cells and  

barred from talking to one another. He suffered 
from dysentery and became physically very frail. 

After six months, he was transferred 
to Reading Gaol. As he stood on the  

central platform of Clapham Junction, with 
handcuffs around his wrists, passers-by began  

to recognise the celebrity playwright. They 
laughed and mocked. Some even spat at him. 

‘For half an hour I stood 
there,’ he wrote afterwards,  

‘in the grey November rain surrounded by a 
jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me,  

I wept every day at the same hour 
and for the same space of time.’

During his last year in prison,  

Wilde wrote an anguished essay, De Profundis: 
‘I once a lord of language, have no words in  

which to express my anguish and my shame… 
Terrible as was what the world did to me,  

what I did to myself was far more terrible still…. 
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let  

myself be lured into long spells of senseless and 
sensual ease…I allowed pleasure to dominate me.  

I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only 
one thing for me now, absolute humility… I  

have lain in prison for nearly two years… I have 
passed through every possible mood of suffering…  

The only people I would care to be with now 
are artists and people who have suffered:  

those who know what beauty is, and those who 
know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.’ 

In May 1897, Wilde was finally released. He set 
sail for Dieppe in France the very same day. 

His wife, Constance, had changed her name 
and moved abroad with their two sons,  

Vyvyan (now 11) and Cyril (12). Wilde would never 
see his children again; he missed them every day.

Constance agreed to send him money on the  

condition that he end his relationship 
with Bosie, but only a few months later,  

the pair reunited and the money stopped.
They moved to Naples and Wilde began using  

the name Sebastian Melmoth, inspired by 
the great Christian martyr Saint Sebastian  

and a character from a Gothic novel 
who had sold his soul to the devil. 

They hoped to find privacy abroad, but the scandal 
seemed to follow them wherever they went. English  

patrons recognised them in hotels and demanded 
they be turned away. After Constance stopped  

sending money, Bosie’s mother offered to pay their 
debts if he returned home and the pair once again  

parted ways; it proved equally impossible.
Scorned by many of his former friends,  

Wilde moved to Paris where he lived in relative 
poverty. He spent most of his time and money in  

bars and cafes, borrowing money whenever 
he could and drinking heavily. His weight  

ballooned and his conversation dragged. He 
was slowly inebriating himself to death. 

When a friend suggested he try to write another 
comic play, he replied: “I have lost the  

mainspring of life and art […] I have pleasures, 
and passions, but the joy of life is gone.” 

His final piece of writing, a poem, The Ballad of 
Reading Gaol, was published in 1898. The author’s  

name was listed as ‘C.3.3.’ – Wilde’s cell block 
and cell number from his time in the prison. 

Towards the end of 1900, Wilde developed 
meningitis and became gravely ill.  

A Catholic priest visited his hotel 
and baptised him into the church.  

He died the following day at the age of 46. 

More than a century later, in 2017, a law was 
passed to exonerate those who had been convicted  

due to their sexuality and Oscar 
Wilde received an official pardon  

from the UK government. ‘It is hugely important,’ 
declared a government minister, ‘that we pardon  

people convicted of historical sexual offences 
who would be innocent of any crime today.’ 

Our society has become generous towards 
Wilde’s specific behaviour – but it  

remains moralistic towards a huge number of other peoples   

and ways of life 

Many of us would – across the ages – want to comfort and befriend Oscar Wilde. It’s a touching hope,  

but one that would be best employed in extending 
understanding to all those less talented and less

witty figures who are right now facing grave difficulties  

and still, deserve compassion. That

would be true civilisation and a world in which 
Wilde’s horrifying downfall had not been in vain.

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