The Green Carnation (part 1)

One of the books I’ve read most recently is titled The Green Carnation (published in 1894), and it’s an interesting book—which is both good and bad.  The title comes from, as you can probably guess, a carnation that’s been dyed green.  (Creative, right?)  The carnation’s origin traces back to use in France by men who engaged in sodomy; the dyed flower served as a sort of “sign” of their sexual preference.  Wilde, of course, coopted the dyed carnation idea for his own (similar) uses in London.  While the significance of the carnation was lost on many, quite a few started picking up that there was something deeper and more meaningful behind the choice of color and flower.  One such man, named Robert Hichens, caught on.  So it fits that he was also the author of The Green Carnation.

Wilde was soon to refer to Hichens as a “doubting disciple who has written the false gospel,” but Hichens originally published The Green Carnation anonymously.  Hichens had followed Wilde and Bosie around with a notebook, talked to their friends, and gathered enough information on their goings and comings to write a satire about Wilde, Bosie, the “Aesthetic Movement,” and the effeminacy that was associated with all three.

The Green Carnation takes place over several days in the lives of a group of heavily satirized characters—the characters of Wilde and Bosie are so accurately (and humorously) described, though, that it was instantly obvious to the readers of that time that book was about the two.  The plot is centered on three characters, however.  The moral compass (and arguably the protagonist) of the book is Lady Locke, but I’m going to spend more time in this blog entry writing about Wilde’s character.  He’s named “Esmé Amarinth” although I’ll refer to him Wilde for the sake of clarity.  (I’ll be referring to the character of “Reggie Hastings” as Bosie, as well.)

The most striking characteristic of Wilde in The Green Carnation is that he’s almost criminally insane through the way he speaks (both randomly and nonsensically) throughout the book.  He often ignores other characters, and is more than willing to talk about whatever he wants to talk about—regardless of the topic at hand.  I realize that simply stating it won’t do the character justice, so I feel as though it’s worthwhile to pull in some actual, and hopefully enjoyable, quotes.

The first example is Wilde speaking of how operas should perform matinees—the purpose of which would be to “unfit one for the duties of the day”:

“It makes me perpetually sorrowful in London to meet with people doing their duty.  I find them everywhere.  It is impossible to escape from them.  A sense of duty is like some horrible disease.  It destroys the tissues of the mind, as certain complaints destroy the tissues of the body.  The catechism has a great deal to answer for” (pg. 7).

In the second example, Wilde spontaneously decides to sing a song whilst accompanying himself on the piano:

“Go out into the garden all of you, and I will sing to you a song of the moon.  It is very beautiful. […] My voice will sound better from a distance.  Good voices always do” (pg. 74).

The third and final example is from the conclusion of the book.  As Wilde and Bosie ride a train into the metaphorical sunset, the two observe a pair of gentlemen trying to catch the train they’re on:

“Look out of this window, dear boy, and you will see two elderly gentlemen missing the train.  They are doing it rather nicely.  I think they must have been practicing in private.  There is an art even in missing a train, [Bosie].  But one of them is not quite perfect in it yet.  He has begun to swear a little too soon” (pg. 211).

The absurdity of Wilde, to an outsider, probably seems laughable.  But Hichens uses enough (likely) quotes and aphorisms from Wilde and others that it was convincing enough to fool many as to whom the actual writer was.  (As would be discovered down the road, Hichens had pulled at least one quote directly from a private telegram between Bosie and Queensberry.)  While I’ll go further into detail in the next post, it’s worth knowing that many originally thought Wilde had written the satire about himself.

Well, That’s Grossly Indecent

There’s something my research is kind of centered on, yet it’s something I haven’t quite mentioned yet in my blog-a-logings.  (Although if you saw my presentation just last week, you’ll remember it as being slide #4.)  This “something” is called “Gross Indecency,” and it’s the reason Oscar Wilde was sent to jail for two years of hard labor and solitary confinement.  So, you know, it’s no light sentence.  In fact, for a man of Wilde’s social status and/or physical constitution, it was considered by many to be a death sentence.

I imagine it to be a dark and stormy night in 1885 when Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (The Labouchere Amendment) was passed, because it was through that law that “Gross Indecency” became illegal in the United Kingdom.  But what’s “Gross Indecency,” and why does it even matter?  Glad you asked.

“Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.”
(Courtesy of Wikipedia.)

That translates into a whole lot of nothing, though.  The law actually references itself as a definition for itself—which tends to be frowned upon when writing laws.  The lawmakers did this to allow the amendment to serve as an umbrella term of sorts, so by making it unclear as to what it was actually talking about, men could be found guilty of Gross Indecency for any number of crimes alluded to in the above amendment.

Under any other law, the courts of that time wouldn’t have been able to convict Wilde of any counts of sodomy.  (Although, believe me, there were plenty of counts he was guilty of.)  Before the law on Gross Indecency, a court case needed physical proof (wink wink, nudge nudge) but, under the new law of Gross Indecency, all that was needed was testimony and/or written accounts—which the prosecution had an abundance of.

If you’re interested in another famous man who was found guilty of Gross Indecency, look no further than Alan Turing—one of the fathers of the modern computer.  My challenge for any of you to think of what it means to be found guilty of a crime for which there is no definition.  Yeah.  Not incredibly pleasant.

The Freedom of FURSCA

If there’s one thing I love about FURSCA (besides the research, of course) it’s the freedom it’s given me.  More so than any other summer of my life, I’ve had the freedom to do whatever, and go wherever, and see whomever these past several weeks.

For some of you, that type of freedom might not sound like much.  But for me, it’s been everything.  I made my first (ever) trip to Detroit on the spur of a moment a couple of weeks ago with a friend, I spent a weekend clubbing in East Lansing with friends I made by simply tapping people on their shoulders and requesting friendships, and I drove to Chicago for two days with some friends.  (We slept in my minivan.  In a parking garage.  Under the “L Train.”  Yikes.)

I’ve made 1:00am waffle-runs to Toledo if only just to do it (arriving back home by about 6:00am), I’ve hugged Furries (No, not the ones from Greek mythology), I’ve had gatherings in my apartment turn into hall-wide parties—parties where we played children’s games, watched Lost, and talked about how awesome I am at winning everything—and I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on gas going to and from a dozen other exciting adventures and non-adventures.

But you know what?  It’s been worth it.  Every second of every road trip and seedy back-alleyway, every wrong turn down a one-way street (twice), and even that one time I nearly killed myself from a caffeine overdose at Starbucks.  (Venti Mocha Caramel Cookie Crumble Frappuccino with 3 extra shots of Espresso.)

I don’t know if it’s a waste at this point in the post to try to relate the whole thing to Oscar Wilde, but I’ll try anyway.  Wilde had a fair amount of freedom and money in his day, too.  If there’s one thing he loved to spend money on it was Bosie.  And if there was one thing Bosie liked to spend money on it was expensive things.

It’s estimated that, over the course of the three-ish years Wilde was together with Bosie before the trial, Wilde allowed Bosie to spend the modern-day equilivant of $189,381.34.  That’s a very rough estimate, of course, but it tries to account for inflation and the exchange rate between the pound and the dollar.

So, while I don’t think FURSCA will be giving me $200,000 to spend on prostitutes, shrimp, and booze, it’s comforting to know that the person I’m researching enjoyed spending money, too.  And I’d wager a bet that Wilde would have enjoyed many of the same things I enjoyed, too.  (Particularly the clubbing.)

Was Oscar Wilde Gay?

“Was Oscar Wilde gay?”

That’s a question I hear a lot.  In fact, after explaining any part of Wilde’s background to my friends, it’s the first question most of them ask.  Was Wilde homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or what?

Wilde was married to a beautiful woman, he had two fantastic sons, and he was outrageously successful.  To an outside observer, he had just about everything a heterosexual man could possibly want.  On the other hand, Wilde had a slew of male lovers, a long-time partner found in Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and throngs of adoring men who (practically) worshipped the ground he walked on.  In other words, he had just about everything a homosexual man could possibly want.

That’s where the issues enter in.

Some of Wilde’s writings seem to convey his love for women–especially writings from early on in his marriage.  While other writings of his seem to say the opposite–the majority of his writings to all of his lovers.  Wilde was obviously willing to marry a woman, but was that for social or political reasons, or did he actually love Constance?

During the infamous court trials (the third and final one to be exact), Oscar was asked to explain “The Love that dare not speak its name,” (a line written by a 20-something year old Bosie in the year prior), and Wilde’s response was as such:

“The Love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan. […] It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. […] It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now.  It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.  There is nothing unnatural about it.  It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the young man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.  That it should be so the world does not understand.  The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

Most authors and researchers seem to have already made up their mind on the topic, though.  The vast majority says that Wilde was homosexual, and that he was merely repressing his feelings toward men for the sake of marrying Constance and making an attempt at a “normal” family for that era in time.  A few researchers claim he was bisexual, but with strong homosexual leanings (about a 5.5 on the Kinsey Scale–give or take), but my views are this:  Wilde loved whom he loved, and that’s that.  By placing external labels of sexuality on Wilde’s love and affections, we’re only devaluing the feelings he felt for those incredibly special people in his life; “The Love that dare not speak its name” that Wilde felt is pure and perfect.  And that’s without an outside observer placing their own definition on it.

An Introduction + Constance

I’ve never really done a blog before—so you’ll have to forgive me if I break any taboos or violate any unspoken rules—but I thought I’d spend my first post not talking about Oscar Wilde.  I’ll cover the actual details of Wilde’s life in a later post, but I thought it’d be enjoyable to start by talking about Oscar Wilde’s wife.  She manages to crop up over (and over) again in various books I’ve been reading, so I figure she’s as good a place to start as any.  Great idea, don’tca think?  Glad you agree.

Constance Wilde (later Constance Holland) was, to put it simply, an amazing woman.  She was incredibly intelligent, more than capable of managing their house and finances (as long as we ignore the fact Oscar was constantly blowing their money), and she had aspirations in life.  (Such as writing and/or publishing.)  There’s a biography on Constance (Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde) that I’d recommend reading, but I haven’t had the chance to acquire a copy as of yet.

Constance had an incredible love for Oscar, too.  (Definitely more than she should have, if I do say so myself.)  When Oscar was serving time in prison, his mother passed away.  And rather than letting someone else deliver the news to him, Constance decided to go herself.

Oscar wrote:
“My wife, always kind and gentle to me, rather than that I should hear the news from indifferent lips, travelled, ill as she was, all the way from Genoa to England to break to me herself the tiding of so irreparable, so irremediable, a loss.”

The thing that caught me in all of that was “Genoa to England.”  In case your geographical knowledge is lacking, you can Google it like I did.  That’s 939 miles.  So, you know, a little bit of a trip.  The craziest part, though, is that Constance still loved (or respected, perhaps) Oscar enough to deliver the news.

This was after, well, everything.  After Oscar had spent the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars on young men, after he had slept with dozens (and dozens) of men behind her back, after he had forced her to leave England with their two children to avoid the embarrassment and shame of his conviction… Yeah, after a lot.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve gotta say for now.  I could post a lot of guesses/assumptions about why Constance did what she did throughout their entire marriage, but I’d rather not.  Sometimes I think it’s just better to not know.