The Trials and Tribulations of the Oscar Wilde and Bosie Love Story

This week I spoke to historian and biographer Matthew Sturgis about the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas – a love story that exemplifies star-crossed lovers.

Holly: Hello, and welcome to Past Loves the new weekly history podcast that looks at affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and a touch of romance to daily life. Welcome back. As I mentioned in the last episode, which was about the Howard family of Castle Howard, we are officially halfway through the first season and it has been such a joy for me to hear all of your feedback and to create a community over on the Past Loves Instagram page @pastlovespodcast, which I have just adored growing, and I’m so grateful to everyone who has listened so far. It has been such a pleasure. I hope today that you’re going to enjoy this next love story. It is one that I am really excited to tell because I think it’s so important. This week I’m joined by historian and biographer Matthew Sturgis. So Matthew has contributed to the Daily Telegraph and Independent on Sunday. He’s a member of the Oscar Wilde society and contributes reviews to their journal. He has also written the first major biography of Oscar Wilde in 30 years – Oscar: A Life. It is an extraordinary work that was named a Sunday Times Book of the Year. So of course, if you haven’t guessed until now, we will today be delving into the relationship between playwright and poet Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie. Now I really wanted to look at their relationship, because it resulted in a man going to the law to defend his love. And I think that’s so heroic in standing up for the fact that love is love is love. Now, I think we all kind of have our own understanding of who these men are. They both have quite strong reputations. Really, their love was remarkable and has an everlasting legacy due to their refusal to conform to the social and sexual orthodoxies of the day, which really makes Oscar and Bosie an inspiration to all who seek to challenge convention. It was really interesting for me to think about Oscar and Bosie within the timeline of the persecution of desire, and I felt so tenderly for this couple they really won a place in my heart. And so I really hope, from this discussion with Matthew that you too will see the intense and overwhelming and deep love that this couple had for each other and the sheer injustice in the way in which they were treated. I think we should probably just begin, Matthew is an absolute darling to speak to and he speaks so enthusiastically and beautifully about Oscar’s life with Bosie as they fought for that love when society deemed it to be illegal. 

So welcome, Matthew, and thank you for joining me today. 

Matthew Sturgis: Not at all nice to be here. 

Holly: So shall we start talking about Oscar and he was born in 1854. And he had quite influential parents, didn’t he? 

Matthew: Yes, it’s always important to remember that he was born in Dublin, which was in part of the United Kingdom, but had it’s a very sort of distinctive culture and energy and he was the child of really sort of Dublin celebrities. His father was one of those amazing Victorian polymaths – a doctor, an eye and ear specialist who did groundbreaking work in the surgery of both fields and also created a hospital that was run as a charitable institution. On top of that he had a sort of huge interest in medical statistics and he worked on the various census returns. He was a passionate antiquarian, who wrote books about the historical monuments of Ireland and topography of Ireland and the legends of Ireland and cataloged all the materials in the Irish Institute as well, all of the ancient gold objects and other materials there. And his mother was really a sort of figure of extraordinary glamour in that she had been one of the great torchbearers of Irish nationalism in the 1840s, and had written these stirring poems, which were published in the nationalist newspaper called the nation and really become part of the popular culture of Ireland. People had read them around their little hearths, learnt them by heart and ballad singers had gone round repeating them. Although the planned insurrection really came to nothing at that time, she was regarded as a figure of nationalists struggling under her pen name of Speranza – the Italian word for hope. Her maiden name was Elgee, which she thought was such an interesting name that it couldn’t possibly just be an English name and it must have Italian origins and so she convinced herself that it was an anglisation of the Italian Allegati, which must be a slight corruption of the old Italian Alighieri. So in other words that must be a descendant of Dante. Of course, various pedantic historians peered in her family background and discovered the Elgees were in a long line of Durham brick makers who moved to Ireland in the 17th century. So she said he had a vivid imagination or sort of sense of self dramatization both of which were inherited by Oscar. 

oscar wilde parents
Left: William Robert Wills Wilde M.D. Right: Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde | Credit:

Holly: His childhood must have been quite Remarkable then? 

Matthew: It was, I mean, the house that they lived in, in Merrion square in the heart of Dublin was a great social focus for I suppose this thriving intellectual community in Dublin in Ireland at that time and, of course, being Irish, they were all fantastic talkers. And so the conversation he heard as a young boy growing up, he always said was his first and best education. And he had an elder brother as well, Willie, they were allowed to stay up and be part of this sort of adult life that was laying around the house and listen that table and meet these great figures and hear all these interesting ideas were being put up and rubbished and modified and sorted with and so it undoubtedly had a huge influence on him. 

Holly: Yeah, I mean, it’s not much of a surprise that he ended up at Trinity College in Dublin, and then at Oxford is it? 

Matthew: No, so he went in fact to very fine school beforehand. He was sent away to school to a boarding school at Portora, and it was a moment. I mean, schools changed the whole time. But it was a particularly enlightened headmaster at the time, who put great faith into teaching the classics. He thought that that was such an excellent intellectual training for the young and Oscar had an enormous aptitude for it. He developed and discovered and just trying to with his, I think, his mental outlook and his imagination, and also he was fortunate in that was some other very bright boys in his year, and they sort of all challenged and encouraged each other. And so he really became a very impressive, well trained classical scholar, which stood him in very good stead when he went to Trinity where he was again fortunate to arrive at a time when there were two brilliant young tutors there who lit up the world for him even more. And then he was I don’t know I suppose sort of so incandescent that the excitement of all this intellectual format that his tutor Mahaffy really encouraged him to go on to Oxford and essentially do his undergraduate degree again, because he’d almost finished his degree at Trinity when he went to Oxford, and he shone there as well. And again, I think he was lucky in his timing in that when he was at Oxford, Ruskin who was the Slade professor of art at Oxford, and was giving a series of lectures and Wilde attended them and really had his eyes opened to the joys and the importance of art in life. I mean Ruskin really placed art and beauty and truth sort of all on the same level as Wilde described them ‘three petals of the same flower.’ And I think Oscar was so sort of enraptured by that vision and the idea, Ruskin’s idea, that art actually had a moral force. The contemplation of beauty would make you a better person. And Wilde at that stage, was inclined to accept that notion of the importance of art. 

Holly: So interesting learning about how when he was Oxford, he really cultivated his aesthetic sensibility. And I’m sure before he moved there, he had an appreciation for art that really took him into kind of the Oscar we know today didn’t it? 

oscar wilde magdalen college
Magdalen College, University of Oxford | Credit: Magdalen College

Matthew: Yes, yes. I mean, it was such a setting for it. I mean, Oxford itself was was so beautiful he always said and the presence of Ruskin, the fact that Walter Pater was there who had written this wonderful post-Ruskinian vade mecum into the world of aestheticism, the studies in the history of the Renaissance and the fact that I suppose there were other like minded undergraduates who he could share his ideas with and sort of I suppose hone his ideas. I mean, it was when he was at Oxford that he said the first of the many things he said that were taken up and regarded as being brilliant and clever and funny, which was you know that ‘every day, I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china.’ It is a very, very good quote and a wonderful sort of witty distillation of that Ruskinian idea that beautiful things should make you better. 

Holly: And then was it after he left university that he started publishing was his first book just called Poems? 

Matthew: Yes. He knew that he wanted to be a writer. And he thought he would like to be a poet and the playwright. I suppose those were his two ambitions. I mean he thought poetry was the acme of the literary achievement he’d been brought up by his mother to imagine that and he published lots of poems in magazines while still an undergraduate. He was very hopeful and optimistic that he would arrive in London cradling in a way sort of modest clouds of glory because he won the Newdigate Prize in his last term at Oxford, the poetry prize at university. And he thought he would just be able to show up in London and publishers would be clamouring to publish his poems. But he found that that really wasn’t the case. And so he bided his time and, he continued to write for the magazines, began writing for London newspapers, magazines and sort of achieved a celebrity through that normally by writing about people much more famous than himself. So he wrote poems about all the leading actresses of the day, Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry and he wrote about Lillie Langtry, the great beauty, and so he gained a reputation as the bard of beauty on that count, but even as his sort of fame in the gossip columns as it were rose, he hoped that that would encourage a publisher to bring out his poems and he was dismayed really to find that even so they still held off. And eventually really he just lost patience and borrowed some money and brought out the book himself. He paid for its own publication. And I suppose his fame ensured that it got publicity and coverage. And unfortunately, I think his celebrity as well provoked a deal of resentment and the book wasn’t actually as fairly treated as it might have been. 

victorian celebrities
Left to Right: Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry and Lillie Langtry

Holly: It must have been quite a frustrating, perhaps that he wasn’t coming up to what he thought might happen 

Matthew: Yes it was frustrating because he, I suppose he managed to make himself famous. It was one of those sort of first examples of someone who became famous for being famous. And he thought that that should translate into artistic success. 

Holly: And was this the time when he was with Constance, married to Constance? 

Matthew: No, this was before. This was just in the years after he came down from university and he was trying to make his way in London, becoming famous and not becoming an artistic success. And then he had this extraordinary year really which he spent touring around America giving lectures, the American lectures. That turned out to be a way where he could monetize his fame in some way because of his celebrity. People were interested to come and have a look at him and hear what you have to say. But in a way that was just an extension of the experience he had in his years immediately coming down from university and as he became more and more famous, but still was thwarted in his artistic ambitions. The prospect of marrying this beautiful girl met Constance Lloyd, who was, she was sort of a friend of the family in a way that she was from an Irish family, from a Dublin family, and so the Wildes and the Lloyds would have known each other and she was lovely looking. She was intelligent. She was amusing in a sort of shy way and there’s no doubt that Oscar was very struck by, charmed by her, and she was amazed and intrigued by him. And so really sort of after he returned from America – he’d met her just before he went but he wooed her on his return – they got married the following year. And she had money in a way that Oscar didn’t. Oscar had inherited a certain amount when his father had died. But he spent it all and managed to get himself into debt. But Constance did have a regular income from the investments that she’s inherited from her grandfather. And so they were able to establish themselves in this elegant house in Tite Street, which they did up in sort of the height of aesthetic fashion. It was four years pretty much after his marriage that he produced his next book, which was his collection of fairy stories – The Happy Prince and other tales. I’d say quite a modest production. I mean, he almost perhaps produced it to make it critic proof having suffered from the critics with Poems and also when his play Vera was finally put on in New York, the critics were horrid about it and it had to close within a week as well. And so, I always imagined that his idea of bringing out a book of fairy stories was slightly driven by that idea that it wouldn’t attract the possibility of critical apropos. And that proved to be the case. I mean people said, ‘gosh these are charming, they’re clever, witty, they’re funny, there’s a sort of engaging cynicism mixed in with the sentiment and they’re very nicely written.’ So that began to raise his profile and I suppose, his artistic self esteem was encouraged by that. And that marked really the beginning of his consistent artistic achievement, he then began to write successful essays, dialogues, and his first novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Picture of Dorian Gray, I suppose that was very important in that that carried him into a contemporary world. And it also allowed him to import a lot of his own verbal wit and intellectual playfulness into a dramatic narrative. Then, two very important things came out of that success. One was that he was approached by the theatre producer George Alexander, who was so taken by the wit of the dialogue in the story that he thought the Wilde would be able to write a really entertaining modern, social comedy. And so Wilde took that idea and ruminated on it and eventually produced Lady Windermere’s Fan, which Alexander put on at the St. James’ Theatre and it was a huge success. And that was really the amazing moment when things opened up for Oscar. But the other great thing that came out of The Picture of Dorian Gray was that it led to him meeting Lord Alfred Douglas, because Douglas at that time, an undergraduate at Oxford at Wilde’s old college Magdalen College and he became fascinated with The Picture of Dorian Gray. He adored the book, he devoured it, I can’t remember, he read it 15 times sort of consecutively. 

The western side of Tite Street looking south in 1905,  Oscar Wilde’s house is the fourth house on the right,  ©Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries (RBKC, Libraries)

Holly: That really is obsessed. 

Matthew: Yes. He had a school friend, Lionel Johnson. Lionel Johnson knew Oscar Wilde and so Bosie must have sort of prevailed upon him to effect an introduction. And so Johnson and Alfred Douglas paid a call or Oscar Wilde at his house in Tite Street and had this very jolly meeting. They sat in his library and talked about Dorian Gray and this and that and whatever. It was a happy encounter and Wilde was certainly very intrigued and impressed by Douglas. Douglas was extraordinarily good looking and youthful with this mop of blond hair, flopping over his eyes. Wilde at that stage, he was married still to Constance had these two small children, but he had begun to develop or carry forward an interest in having sex with young men. He’d been seduced really it seems a few years before by a young friend of the family called Robbie Ross, who would remain a figure in his life to the end, and this had sort of opened up a whole new vista of experience and interest and excitement in Wilde’s life. I mean I think at almost a sort of practical level, the tears of domesticity and in the conventional family life, he’d felt closing in around him slightly, with these two small children and this nice wife running that household, all the sort of chores and expectations that that brought with it. And suddenly, here I was this way into a clandestien world of otherness and subverting norms, expectations, and indeed the law. 

It had only just been changed at that moment to criminalize all homosexual sexual activities. And yes, I mean Wilde found that that sort of exciting and stimulating rather than alarming or disgraceful or anything else. And I suppose, a thread of that excitement reached back to his time at Trinity and Oxford, when he’d been studying the classics so closely because his tutors, at both places were sort of in the vanguard of classical studies that was just opening up this whole area of Greek life which have been obscured in scholarship centuries previously, which was the question of Greek pederasty. And this idea that homosexual relationships were a sort of central and beneficial part of Greek intellectual life and I suppose as its clearest expression or most succint expression in Plato’s symposium when Socrates describes how it was explained to him that obviously, if a man wanted to produce beautiful children, he would find a beautiful woman, that if a man wanted to create a beautiful work of art, that he should find a beautiful youth, a male youth. His love for that youth would inspire a creative work of genius, and quite on what the level of that love for the youth should be was sort of left slightly obscure. But essentially it was understood that it was sexual passion. And, of course, this was an electrifying idea and Wilde was intrigued by it intellectually, initially and just thought, ‘well, it is interesting’ and then suddenly he found that his own experiences changed and developed, that it did have a connection with his own life. Certainly, if you chart the growth and fluorescence of Wilde’s literary and artistic output, it does coincide in a rather dramatic way with this sexual initiation. So the idea of falling in love with young men was something that Wilde had taken up a few years prior to meeting Bosie and he was falling in love with young men all the time when Douglas appeared. Although that initial encounter, or they did give them a copy of Dorian Gray, there’s no evidence that it was a sort of mad Love at first sight, sort of coup de foudre. Douglas was just one of many of the young men who came to see him. I was really the following year, after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde was suddenly elevated to this new eminence as a hugely successful playwright with a hit running in the West End – and so he would be known to have money as a result – and then he received a letter from Alfred Douglas, who was still at university and it was a sort of begging letter in a way. Douglas was being blackmailed by some terrible people, the sort of details are left unclear and he needed help. And so, Wilde was intrigued and excited, namely went to Oxford, and he galvanized his friend the solicitor, George Lewis to help and they paid off the blackmailers, and it was really that shared danger that ignited their love, their passion, their affair. And sort of after that things began to move much more quickly. They spent time together in that summer, bought gifts, they had sex together, Bosie managed to invite himself on summer holiday down in Norfolk and they went off and played golf together if you can believe it. And I suppose what Wilde discovered was that Bosie, although he was 20/21 at the time, was sexually much more experienced really than Wilde was. 

Holly: Yeah, had he been really quite established within that clandestine world? 

Matthew: Yes, yes, well, he’d been Winchester, like many public schools at the time, there was a lot of homosexual activity amongst boys. But then he continued that when he’d gone to Oxford, and he had then also begun to explore of homosexual underworld in London picking up these rent boys. And it was really that world that, which Wilde didn’t know, Douglas introduced him to. And so their own relationship which combined no sort of Wilde’s delighted and infatuation with Bosie’s youth and beauty and Bosie’s adoration for Wilde’s intellect, charm and wit and everything was also driven and fired by this shared exploration of the London underworld really. 

Holly: Yeah it seemed, whilst reading up about them, just an incredibly intense relationship. I know that Oscar wrote a letter in July 1894 that said, ‘But I have no words of how I love you.’ It just seemed like it was just indescribable. 

Matthew: Yes. I mean, it was sort of consuming. Bosie, I mean I think, his adoration for Oscar is often, sort of obscured in a way but partly because he, he was selfish and petulant, and had this terrifying temper like many in his family, and would fly into awful rages which Wilde who is a sort of sweet natured, non confrontational, found very, very distressing. But once the rage passed it, but he seemed to have almost no memory of all the terrible things he’d said or done, or whatever. And Wilde, of course, having a forgiving heart really forgave him. So that sort of dynamic in the relationship added to the intensity of it as well in that it sort of swung backwards and forwards, as it meant that because everything was kept at rather high temperature.

oscar wilde and bosie
A studio portrait of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1894 © THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Holly: And this was the height of Oscar’s fame as well with An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest being onstage. 

Matthew: Yes, Wilde having spent so long not being a success suddenly, once he’d written Lady Windermere’s Fan, and he realized, ‘gosh, this, this is how it started’ he could see a way that he could write other successful plays, and amazingly he did, A Woman of Importance and then An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. It was an almost unprecedented feat to produce this for first plays all being at successes all within a span of really three, three years or four years. So Wilde’s fame was rising the whole time. He was earning more and more money. Although of course, as he had more money, he spent more money. Douglas encouraged that – I mean not that Wilde needed any encouragement to be extravagant and so they installed themselves for weeks on end at The Savoy and ran up huge bills at the bar and in the restaurant. And the trouble was that that sort of faded that sort of consumption drew a lot of attention to them. And it provoked the ire of Lord Alfred Douglass’ father, who was a famously intemperate Scottish aristocratic, the Marquess of Queensberry, who I mean is sort of known to history as the man who codified the rules of boxing, but he was a great sporting enthusiast, and he had a visceral horror of the idea of homosexuality. To see his son and Wilde sort of wandering along Piccadilly, arm in arm and Wilde with a flamboyant manner, this sort of element of what we would think of as camp that he sort of introduced him to his persona, which was recognized and admired by people, but was generally thought that his slight effeminacy of manner actually made him more attractive to women than to men that was produced most resentment from other men. But Queensberry didn’t see it like that. He thought that it was suggestive of homosexual interest in his son. And so he was determined to break up the friendship between the two. I mean, initially, he approached Bosie. But Bosie, who hated his father because his father mistreated his mother and they got divorced and had never really taken an interest in his children except on this score. I mean, Bosie basically delighted it in telling his father, ‘but out of it.’ But Queensberry then thought, well, he would launch his attack on Wilde and try and create a public scandal to provoke either separation or some sort of crisis. I mean, he wanted Wilde to sue him really. And Wilde fell into the trap. But the extraordinary thing is and Queensberry had planned to try and disrupt the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. But luckily, we’ve been thwarted on that score. But then he left his card at Oscar’s club, saying, ‘For Oscar Wilde posing sodomite.’ Well, that’s what he thought he had written. 

Holly: Yes one of the good spelling mistakes of history. 

Matthew: Yes. ‘posing Somdomite.’ But Wilde instead of just making, you know, a comment on the literary abilities of the aristocracy and fatally took the card to a solicitor who said, ‘Well, yes, I think this does constitute a libel and you could sue.’ And of course, Wilde and Bosie – Bosie was very keen that Oscar should sue – they at that stage they thought, well, they would really just having to defend their own relationship. That was all that was the grounds for Queensberry’s charge and suggestion. And that they could obviously make whatever denials they chose and that they would win the case, because they knew that the other thing that Queensberry sort of had in his locker was the text of The Picture of Dorian Grey, which he thought had homosexual undertones. Well Wilde had had to defend the book in the press from sort of similar charges already and felt very confident on that ground that he could do it. And so they fully expected to win and indeed Queensberry’s legal team when he first spoke to them, they thought Wilde would win as well. There was the suggestion that he should just attempt to apologize and get out of it that way. But Queensberry’s solicitors had hired a private detective or a couple of private detectives just to sort of follow up on a couple of rumours that Queensberry had heard regarding while didn’t his interest in the London underworld. And really an odd concatenation of chances they were able to get onto the trail of some of these rent boys that Wilde had had sex with and then put pressure on them to give statements about their relationships with Wilde. And all this was unexpected, it was one of these things that opened up a whole raft of horrors really that were a bit unsuspected. And when they disclosed this information, because sort of almost the whole thing was being sort of rushed to trial or so it seems by the modern standards of slow grinding justice. The weekend before the trial was due to open Queenberry’s team delivered their plea of justification as it was called. And it just listed all these instance of Wilde having sex with young men, giving names and times, dates, whatever. And it was just from nowhere, as Wilde’s friend Reggie Turner said: ‘it was a knockdown blow.’ I mean, just an appalling thing. But it was sort of too late at that stage to get back out and so Wilde found himself in court, suing the Marquess of Queensberry, knowing that he was going to be questioned on all these things. And his counsel said ‘if he just denied everything (which was his policy) the witnesses that they were going to produce, I mean, we’re disreputable people.’ They were rent boys, many of them were also blackmailers and had perjured themselves in other instances. It seemed clear that some sort of pressure been put on onto them to give this evidence anyway. But anyway, I mean as things moved forward, it just became clear that really his position was untenable. So he withdrew from his prosecution, he hoped maybe that would be enough, and he would just sort of admit the libel. But unfortunately, Queensberry’s solicitors then handed over all the evidence that they’d received to the crown prosecution, and they issued a warrant for Wilde’s arrest, and he found himself in the dock being charged with all these offenses. 

oscar wilde and marquess of queensberry
Card left by the Marquess of Queensberry for Oscar Wilde | Credit: The National Archives

Holly: So that’s how we got to the criminal trial of gross indecency and it must have been an extraordinarily explicit court case 

Matthew: It was amazing for that time because there had been court cases of a not dissimilar nature before and huge efforts have gone in the whole of the establishment moved into overdrive to prevent all these things coming out or being mentioned in the press but for whatever reasons that failed in this instance and so all the evidence was the same it came out really again and again and again because in Wilde’s action against Queensberry, then in the hearings leading up to Wilde’s own indictment then in the first court case and then amazingly the jury were unable to reach a verdict in the first case so it all had to be tried again. So it was a lot of evening newspapers that were sold in London at that time. Although there was one newspaper the St. James’ Gazette that sort of made it speak thing that they weren’t reporting the Wilde trial, because there were all these businessman who bought evening paper, so believing that they couldn’t take it back into their own home in case their wives or daughters should read the court reports. 

Holly: Wow. It must have been incredible. What was it like for Oscar and Bosie? 

Matthew: Well, the extraordinary thing. Well for Wilde it was just appalling ruin and destruction and he was on remand in Holloway for much of the time. Eventually he got bail. And then he went home initially. Not home to his wife, but he went to his mother’s house where his brother with whom he was on poor terms sort of made a great show of putting up with him. But, I mean, that was upsetting and he just just felt abject really. But Douglas was actually extraordinary. He stayed in London. He saw Oscar every day when he was in Holloway. He tried to rally political help behind Oscar – maybe to have the case dropped if possible, or raise money for his legal defense or whatever. And throughout the unfolding of the trial, their love was the one beacon for Oscar in that moment. And he thought, ‘Well, if this awful thing happens to me, it will just be a mark of the greatness of my love has brought me to this point.’ On the eve of Wilde’s trial Bosie’s friends, relatives and Oscar’s legal team finally prevailed upon him to leave the country because they thought he might be arrested at any time or his presence wasn’t going to be helpful. And so he did reluctantly. So although in many things Douglas behaved capriciously and behaved badly, certainly at the time of Wilde’s trials, his devotion and his courage really were very striking indeed. 

oscar and bosie relationship
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Holly: And then the worst did happen. Oscar was sentenced to two years of hard labour. 

Matthew: Well yes, I mean, he was sentenced two years of hard labour which was the maximum the law would allow. Of course, when he arrived at prison it turned out that a rather overweight 40 year old man who had been living a life of luxury for the past five years wasn’t really up to hard labour. And so he wasn’t put on the treadmill or anything. And he was actually only given light labour to do which was still appalling work, picking oakum, breaking up old tar-y ropes, sewing mail sacks, and things like that, and really just the horror of prison life appauls the mind. I mean how awful it was because the prison system then was really based, particularly for first time offenders on them being kept entirely separate and silent. And so it wasn’t quite a solitary confinement in that they attend chapel each day and they could exercise in the yard. I mean, under supervision. But they went out to speak to anyone, they spent most of their time 20 plus hours a day alone in their cell, performing these mindless and exhausting chores. And for someone whose life had been entirely given over to talk and sociability, and luxury, it was just the most crushing reversal. 

Holly: And am I right in thinking that Bosie petitioned Queen Victoria for clemency? 

Matthew: Yes, Bosie sort of threw himself into action and he wrote to Queen Victoria. He wrote to various literary people he wrote to the newspapers. He wasn’t an entirely useful advocate. His essential defence was, I suppose, a stirring defence of homosexuality. That people should be allowed to be free in their loves and in their lives and that it was essentially a good thing in the world. But that wasn’t a message that was likely to find much traction at the time. And then the other extraordinary thing was that Wilde sort of in the shock of imprisonment endured this sudden realisation really that this awful ruin that had come across his existence was entirely due to his involvement with the Douglases, with Bosie and Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. That really he had been caught up in a family feud, and he was the one that was suffering from it. And so he underwent this complete reversal of feeling and having really up to the last moment believed that, you know, his great love for Bosie was going to sustain him during his time in prison. He decided that it was entirely Bosie’s fault that he was in prison, and that he never wanted to see him again, and that he had ruined his life and he must have been mad for the previous however many years. And that really the great love of his life was, should be, Constance his wife. But of course, he couldn’t really communicate that message very easily. Because you’re only allowed to write one letter every three months, I think it was, and you could only have very occasional visitors. And so he never really had time to write to Bosie to tell him all this because he was abroad because he couldn’t visit him. And so he did tell some of this to Robbie Ross and to other friends that did visit and they felt sort of understandably a bit awkward about passing on the news to Bosie, who is wandering around the continent sort of feeling disconsolate . And as he rather unfortunately put in one of his letters, he felt he was suffering really much worse than Oscar during all this period. So it was a rather dramatic shift in such a passionate relationship. Later on in his sentence, he was moved from Wandsworth to Reading jail, out of London and an enlightened governor took over the jail, a man called Major Nelson, who was able to sort of bend the rules enough to give Wilde access to pen and paper. And Wilde began what was this letter to Bosie and then really, I think just delighting in the possibilities of language, thought expressed in writing, it sort of extended it into this wonderful philosophical theses of nature, sacrifice and the relationship between the artist and Christ and many other things besides. But it is also sad litany of his disappointments and Bosie and of their relationship. And because the letter was more than just the letter – a social literary work – he then fell but he couldn’t just send off to Bosie and lose sight of it. He needed to keep a copy of it for posterity. And so eventually it was entrusted to Robbie Ross, although not until after Wilde had come out of prison because it was too difficult to get a copy while he was still in prison. And, in fact, a copy was sent to Bosie. And it’s a slight sort of mystery as to exactly what’s happened. But it seems the most plausible chain of events as far as I could make out was that Bosie was sent it and said this copy of it as he began to read it, and then realised it was going to be a long list of disagreeable comments on his actions. Never being one to brook any bum criticism, he had destroyed it which would be only too like him. There’s sort of descriptions of him destroying other documents in similar circumstances. And so it was this odd situation where Wilde thought that he read the letter and had digested it and that they were moving on from beyond that. But Basie having destroyed had thought no more about it thought ‘that’s enough of that. Let’s look to the next chapter.’ And so that really affected the sort of dynamic of when Wilde came out of prison. 

oscar wilde de profundis manuscript
‘De Profundis’, the letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, Reading Gaol, January to March 1897, available from the British Library

Holly: Yes when they did reconcile.

Matthew: Yes, I mean initially Wilde thought the last person he wanted to see was Bosie and he was hoping for a reconciliation with his wife. But for various reasons, partly to do with her health which was compromised at the time, that meeting was delayed. Oscar eventually became more lonely and desirous of an engrossing attachment and the fascination with Douglas remained through all his vicissitudes of his feelings. And he allowed himself to be persuaded, or persuaded himself, that they should meet again. And then once they met they realised how must they had missed each other because Bosie had endured this two years in exile wandering alone around Europe. And they thought there might be a chance that they could create a life together in the sunshine in Naples. And so they travelled there together clandestinely – not telling their friends because they knew that their friends would disapprove. But, of course, they could keep their being together secret for very long and of course all their friends did disapprove. And given that they both relied on allowances from their families – Boise from his mother and Wilde at that stage from his wife Constance – they suddenly both found themselves cut off. And this bright hope of working together in Naples, getting on with literary projects, just provided unsustainable. But partly because of the practical fact of their not having any money but I think they discovered that that great love that they’d had before Wilde’s imprisonment just couldn’t be recaptured for whatever reason. The dynamic had just shifted in some way. So it was a sort of relief, you detect, for both of them when these external pressures necessitated them breaking up. Boise sort of in the end bowed to his mother’s pressure and said ‘okay he would leave.’ And so I mean they did continue to see each other, Wilde lingered on in Paris for a while and then did go to Paris where Douglas spent a lot of time, indeed they had a flat. And they would meet each other, you know, as friends and shared interests. And Douglas, when he came into money was generous in many ways and gave money to Wilde – but never quite enough as Wilde thought. But the friendship was a ghostly echo of that great love that they had had which had been crushed.

Holly: And so Oscar died nearly alone, not with many people around him, in Paris on 30th November 1900.

Matthew: Yes that’s right.

Holly: And it was quite the end for such a remarkable man.

oscar wilde paris

Matthew: It was a sad end of course and a great falling away from the extraordinary fame and success that he’d been enjoying just 5 years before and was also that awful thing of a release in a way. He’d sort of become a problem to himself and his friends. It was unclear really how his life would, could move forward after his release from prison. Although I think it’s wrong to see it entirely in negative terms. I mean those years of exile when he came out from prison, it should always be remembered that he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol after he came out of prison which was his most successful book. It lives on in the language. But he also enjoyed doing nothing but talk – he was a brilliant talker. And he did continue to delight people and take delight in them as well. There are many accounts of visits from friends in Paris and beyond and the many times that they had together. But it was really that social world that he’d loved so much in London – the world of society – that closed off from him and what had been such an inspiration to his work.

Holly: Yeah. So what do you think their legacy as a couple should be?

Matthew: I mean there is that element of doomed love that has its attraction. And you know, I don’t know if its an archetypal gay passion but there is something very dramatically exciting about the alliance of great intellect an great beauty and you find that there in the drama of their relationship. And although Wilde complained bitterly that Bosie distracted him endlessly and that he found it very difficult to work when he was around because as soon as Wilde sat down Bosie would appear and suggest that they go off to have lunch at the Cafe Royal or whatever. I mean it is inescapable that his three great comedies were written when he was infatuated with Bosie. The Importance of Being Earnest – perhaps his greatest triumph – was written when Bosie was sitting in the room with him distracting him so he must have proved a happy distraction in some ways.

Holly: Well I think that’s a really lovely place to end. Thank you so much.

Matthew: Ah well not at all. It’s very nice talking to you.

Holly: And thank you for listening. I hope that you have enjoyed this foray into Oscar an Bosie’s relationship. I know that I will certainly be thinking about them a lot; they’ve really stayed with me as a couple. The idea that they really had this intense, overwhelming love story – the kind of intensity of love that you know you kind of dream of – and that it was persecuted and constrained and hemmed in by society is to me incredibly sad. But there is something really inspirational in the way that particularly Oscar but both of them fought for their love and that is something that I think we can all celebrate. And I was just delighted to speak to Matthew, we could have spoken for so so long because he was such an expert in Oscar’s life. His book Oscar: A Life is now available on Amazon and at your favourite book shop. It is really the book to read if you are more interested about Oscar’s life and his relationship with Bosie. I would also suggest of course delving into Oscar’s ouvre to pay tribute to their love. I think that I will watch The Importance of Being Earnest because that’s one of my favourites. If you’ve enjoyed this episode please rate, review and subscribe to Past Loves wherever you are listening to it now which helps to spread the word about the podcast. And I would love it if you came to follow me over on instagram @pastlovespodcast because if Past Loves has become your current love there is no better place to continue the conversation. I really look forward to the next episode. It is another episode in which the couple fights against society’s expectations because they are in love and that is really the most powerful thing. Until soon.

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2 thoughts on “The Trials and Tribulations of the Oscar Wilde and Bosie Love Story

  1. You asked if you could speak to me about Loving vs. Virginia, but the email you gave me would not connect to you.


    1. Ah yes, sorry I must have entered my email address in incorrectly – I do apologise! Thank you for getting in touch but unfortunately that episode will now take place with a different historian. Sorry once again for any inconvenience I have caused you. Have a lovely day!


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