To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes. Today’s writer is Neil McKenna, author of The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, and Fanny & Stella.
Oscar Wilde – Author
by Neil McKenna
The 1970s: I am fourteen. A pale, introspective, unhappy boy who has yet to find out who he is and what he is and why he is. I don’t have many friends, as my mother and I have fled from Manchester to Norwich to escape my bullying and very violent father. We live in a small terraced house.
A Sunday afternoon. Grey and cold and dark with a biting East wind. Not much to do. I turn the television on. There is a film about someone called Oscar Wilde, played by Peter Finch. I am riveted. A light has been turned on. Everything has fallen into place. I see and I understand now. I recognise who and what and why I am.
It helped, of course, that it was Peter Finch who was playing Oscar Wilde. I’m still not sure who I fell in love with. Perhaps it was both of them. (Curiously, four years later, I met Peter Finch who was completely and utterly charming to a tongue-tied blushing gay boy who clearly had a huge crush on him. )
I was always interested in history and Oscar Wilde was my introduction to my own cultural history. There was precious little else in those days. It was as if our lives and our histories had been expunged from the records, which in a very real sense they had.
Only Oscar Wilde and his trials could not be expunged. A literary giant who refused to go quietly into the night, who stood his ground and declared who he was and what he was and why he was.
The story of Oscar Wilde is the story of man who struggled, like so many men, past and even present, to come to terms with his sexuality. And not just to come to terms with it, but to celebrate it , to glory in it, to risk everything – including life itself – for his right to love another man.
Oscar was a successful author and playwright, married with two children, who fell in love with the beautiful, wilful and wayward Lord Alfred Douglas, or ‘Bosie’ as everyone called him. Their affair became public and after a complicated series of manoeuvres on the part of Bosie’s homophobic father, Oscar Wilde found himself in the dock charged with several counts of gross indecency.
Oscar Wilde could have fled. He was on bail. A steam yacht was waiting at Gravesend to take him to France and freedom. Everyone begged him to flee. Bosie, his wife Constance, his friends and even his enemies all wanted him to escape. But Oscar stayed. Why? In a letter to Bosie written the night before he was due to be sentenced, Oscar wrote these memorable words:
“It is perhaps in prison that I am going to test the power of love. I am going to see if I cannot make the bitter waters sweet by the intensity of the love I bear you … I am determined to accept every outrage through devotion to love, to let my body be dishonoured so long as my soul may always keep the image of you.”
In other words, Oscar believed that it was more important to stand up for his sexuality, to accept imprisonment, torture and even death for the sake of love. Oscar Wilde was our first great martyr and our first great hero. Oscar Wilde’s martyrdom was the start of the long and stony road towards equality.
Without the inspiration of Oscar Wilde, without his courage and his dignity in the face of persecution, we would all, I believe, be diminished.
Neil McKenna is the author of The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. His sensational new book Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England is published by Faber this week.