Oscar Wilde, Victorian moral geographies and Empire
Oscar Wilde challenged the moralism of Victorian England and is frequently cited as the leading victim of Victorian puritanism (Adut 2005).
His evident and much publicized transgression of dominant views on gender and sexuality culminated in his stigmatization and imprisonment. However, it could be argued that while Wilde’s case exposed processes that controlled bodies and morality at home, it also laid bare the mechanisms that were central to sustaining empire beyond the Atlantic.
Indeed, empire involved the spread of the same legal and criminal technologies of surveillance and punishment that Wilde fell victim to – structures that are still very much in place in much of Britain’s (African) former colonies.
In 1895, Wilde was under trial for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. A dashing, younger, Lord Douglas became the object of Wilde’s affections and was showered with letters and telegrams – among them a sonnet. Subsequently, Wilde’s romantic communications were discovered by Douglas’s fellow student at Oxford who leverages his knowledge by extracting a bribe from Wilde. Other blackmailers emerged to siphon off even more from Wilde. Yet, the downfall of Wilde was catalyzed not so much by blackmail but by Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, John Sholto Douglas. Wilde then felt compelled to respond with libel charges against the Marquess who continuously insinuated (and placed his insinuation into writing) that Wilde was a “sodomite”. Wilde was placed under trial to determine whether there was substance to Douglas’s claims. During the trial, Wilde’s literary work was deployed against him, with Pictures of Dorian Gray’s homosexual subtext cited as evidence of his immorality – to which he famously responded that literary work cannot be immoral but rather either good or bad. More crucially, Wilde was confronted with ‘evidence’, in the form of gifts to young men from lower social classes, of his sexual liaisons with other men. Such liaisons contravened the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1895), the piece of legislation that would be the basis of his two year prison sentence. The same legal-moral framework would undergird empire and form a key means of justifying and governing the colonies.
Similarly strict regulation and criminalisation of non-heteronormative desire would ennoble colonial structures and civilizing missions. Just as the chastisement and imprisonment of Wilde provided a morally satisfactory State response to a body that transgressed Victorian England’s moral imagination, similar discipline and surveillance of bodies would be central to the colonial project.
Wilde’s fate, viewed in retrospect, offers a potentially fruitful ‘site’ upon which to reflect upon Victorian England’s ‘moral geographies’ even as the most extensive colonial empire expanded and established itself.
Author: George Katito
Adut, Ari. “A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde1.” American Journal of Sociology 111, no. 1 (2005): 213-248.
Matless, David. “Moral geographies of English landscape.” Landscape research 22, no. 2 (1997): 141-155.
Old Bailey Archives