The Trial of the Sensational Oscar Wilde
Ed Cohen’s Talk on the Wilde Side discusses the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Cohen explores the lack of legal transcripts of the case which relies on newspaper press reports and accounts to document this lawsuit. His investigations into the clarity of the newspaper accounts found that they “were themselves highly mediated stories whose narrative structures organized and gave meaningful shapes to the events they purported to accurately represent” (4). In the second part of his book, Cohen discusses Oscar Wilde’s trial and its importance, the results of the fictionalized newspaper accounts of the proceedings, as well as the role of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in the legal proceedings.
Oscar Wilde’s trial and conviction were major publicized events during the 19th century. His trial changed the way the public viewed sexual behavior as well as homosexuality and the crime of sodomy. Havelock Ellis, the author of Sexual Inversion, suggests, “The celebrity of Oscar Wilde and the universal publicity given to the facts of the case by the newspapers may have brought conviction of their perversion to many inverts who were before only vaguely conscious of their abnormality, and, paradoxical though it may seem, have imparted greater courage to others; but it can scarcely have sufficed to increase the number of inverts” (97). The trial created lasting impressions on homosexuals in that it made being so a crime. Cohen looks at the history of the trial and defines, with great detail, the evolving crime of sodomy. Sodomy is defined as “acts of gross indecency with another male person” (103); however, it has also been known to include a plethora of sexual acts from birth c…
…l deviant for the late nineteenth century, but he had become the paradigmatic example for an emerging public definition of a new ‘type’ of male sexual actor: ‘the homosexual'” (2).
Cohen’s account shows that Oscar Wilde was a “sensational” man. His flamboyant personal style was in a sense begging for trouble. However, Cohen asserts that Wilde’s trial against the Marquis of Queensberry was unfair and biased, no matter how popular it was with the 19th century. Cohen notes that W.H. Smith, a now famous newsstand and bookseller, deemed his novel immoral and unfit and many agreed with them. Regardless, the trial shows that The Picture of Dorian Gray spurted the most sensational of court cases in history proving it to be, in fact, sensational as well as incriminating.
Cohen, Ed. Talk on the Wilde Side. New York: Routledge, 1993.