Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Today in History: 1895: Oscar Wilde Arrested.

Writer Oscar Wilde is arrested after losing a libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry.

Wilde had been engaged in an affair with the marquess's son since 1891, but when the outraged marquess denounced him as a homosexual, Wilde sued the man for libel. However, he lost his case when evidence strongly supported the marquess's observations. Homosexuality (often called buggery) was classified as a crime in England at the time, and Wilde was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to two years of hard labor.

Wilde was a well-known author by this time, having produced several brilliant and popular plays, including The Importance of Being Ernest (1895). Born and educated in Ireland, he came to England to attend Oxford, where he graduated with honors in 1878. A popular society figure known for his wit and flamboyant style, he published his own book of poems in 1881. He spent a year lecturing on poetry in the U.S., where his dapper wardrobe and excessive devotion to art drew ridicule from some quarters.

His reception in Charleston, SC was decidedly cool. His penchant for ridiculing pomposity and upper class society met with negative reaction among the Charleston aristocracy. He described his interaction with an old Southern woman as ... "While strolling the Battery I remarked on how lovely the moon looked over the water, my elderly companion turned to me and said, "Sir, you should have seen it before the war."

After returning to Britain, Wilde married and had two children, for whom he wrote delightful fairy tales, which were published in 1888. Meanwhile, he wrote reviews and edited Women's World. In 1890, his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published serially, appearing in book form the following year. He wrote his first play, The Duchess of Padua, in 1891 and wrote five more before his arrest. Wilde was released from prison in 1897 and fled to Paris, where his many loyal friends visited him. He started writing again, producing The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on his experiences in prison. He died of acute meningitis in 1900.

In 1903, a group of Charleston madams published the 8-page pamphlet titled THE BLUE BOOK, which contained advertisements for local brothels. One local Charleston wit could not resist poking fun of Wilde's former legal predicament - notably his arrest on buggery charges - by writing this ditty:

The boy stood on the burning deck with his back up against the mast.

"I will not stir one step," he said, "Until Oscar Wilde has passed."

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