Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Wilde and I

At one stage I contemplated doing my undergraduate honours thesis on the history of homosexuality in Australia. I didn't follow through, which was something of a pity, largely on the grounds that it would have involved asking people about things rather than spending my time entirely in the archives, and this article in the Canberra Times - Saturday, January 23, 1971, forthy years ago - is the only relic.


From C.J. Borthwick, in London

Now that official opinion in Australia seems to be moving with glacial speed away from punitive sanctions against homosexuality it is perhaps a good time to look back at how the matter looked to our great grandparents.

There are, of course, pitfalls in the path of the historian in this field; trying to find out anything about Victorian sexuality through the many layers of euphemism is at the best of times not unlike having to read braille through a layer of porridge, and where homosexuality is concerned not even a euphemism was considered antiseptic enough; only hints point vaguely in its direction, like crossword-puzzle clues. It was decidedly a non-issue, and only occasional eruptions like the Oscar Wilde trial allow one to get an idea of what people thought.

Hair comes into it too, of course. In the years before Wilde took up writing plays he was known as the leader of the aesthetic movement, a poseur in velvet clothes who carried around sunflowers and lilies, the longhair. He was God"s gift to the newspapers, of course, even if the Bulletin could do little more than such quips as “Oscar the Wilde”, and the publicity he got connected Wilde with long hair strongly enough for the image not to be affected in the slightest when he later had his hair cut to a decorous length and became the editor of a respectable woman's magazine. There were sunflower balls in country towns, "too utterly utter" became something of a catch-phrase, and Gilbert and Sullivan's opera 'Patience', a satire on Wilde, was enormously popular in the front stalls and the cheap seats.

AS Wilde became more respectable, the Bulletin became more and more bohemian -- in a strictly heterosexual manner, of course. On the day the first news of the Queensbury affair was printed in February, 1895, it carried eight advertisements for failing potency caused by youthful excess, two advertisements for contraceptives, five for abortifacients, and two for books of sex instruction. This first report was casual, saying, "The more or less cranky Marquis of Queensbury has been arrested, charged with libelling Oscar Wilde on an indecent postcard". It added a week later that the nobleman had probably accused Oscar of some conventionality. It was not, perish the thought, flippant cynicism, but simple innocence; none of the rumours of literary London had reached Australia, and probably would not have been understood if they had been.

Gradually, however, fuller reports began to filter over, presumably by word of mouth, as it would have been next to impossible to figure out what was happening from the newspaper's permitted reports. One gentleman indeed wrote in to say that as far as be could see from the papers Wilde had been charged with no more than that admiration of beauty characteristic of the Greek philosophers, and surely nobody could accuse them of anything but platonic affection? The Bulletin by this time knew better, and replied tersely that under similar circumstances Plato would deserve two years hard too. 'The Green Carnation' was read with more attention, Wilde's letter to Lord Alfred Douglas was quoted, and passages from 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' were remembered. Guilt began to be assumed, and the Bulletin held Wilde as an example of "cul-chaw" gone mad.

If there is anything more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality. it is the Australian public in the same condition. Performances of ‘An Ideal Husband’ in Melbourne had the name of the author struck off the posters, which were advertised as by the author of 'Lady Windermere's Fan'. A performance of 'Patience' by an amateur dramatic group in the country was cancelled because of its connection with the great polluter. The Age said not only was Wilde unfit to be at liberty, but that his very teachings were a moral pestilence, and the Argus suggested his books be put on a special index expurgatorius. "The apostle of aestheticism goes to gaol, and the crash of broken china is heard in the land".

LONG hair had received a blow from which it is now beginning to recover. The Bulletin recorded that "the absence of clean-shaved, long~ haired, low-collared and daintily effeminate young men from Melbourne Block during the past few weeks is almost as remarkable as the rush the barbers have had for moustache-producers and close crops. More than one Melbourne hosiery house has been cleaned out of stand-up collars -- a change of fashion, the Bulletin wildly imagines". A cartoon had a barber saying to a customer, “If I cut it much shorter, you see, it will look more suspicious than ever!" Since that time, of course, stand-up collars have ceased to be a prerequisite of respectability, and beards have become positively suspect; but the general picture is recognizable.

The Bulletin, never one to pass up an opportunity to add a moral, blamed it all on the Tories, pointing out that the case opened on the anniversary of Disraeli's death. The aristocracy came in for some knocks too, from the sturdy Australian egalitarianism. "The most disgusting revelation of this hideous case is the revelation that it deals with matters of upper-class knowledge which the authorities have been carefully guarding from the light. Wilde's fellow-prisoner was notorious among the - haw! - aristocracy. The middle and lower orders knew him not". It may be added here that the thin evidence that can be gleaned from the court reports does not support this conclusion as far as Australia is concerned.

It is, all in all, a dispiriting exhibition of provincial nastiness. Only one piece suggested, in however muted a tone, that the mad scramble to attack Wilde was unnecessary; a contributor to the Bulletin said, "From the judge's remarks in sentencing Oscar Wilde, it may be surmised that the accused was charged under what is known as Labouchere's act, passed a few years ago to meet decisions which quashed' convictions in this class of offences where both were consenting parties. It is a curious reflection on English jurisprudence that while Italy and Austria were studiously omitting all reference to these offences "by consent" and so practically squelching the most odious of all classes of blackmailers, the British were enacting such a law, thus practically inviting the "unemployed" over there.

It is a view that Mr Hughes might perhaps mention in his next cabinet submission. If the machinery is set moving now, it should be possible to get the law modified by the time of the centenary of the trial in 1895.

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