Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wilde Defamed Yet Again

Oscar Wilde's sex life is up for public debate again, this time over the question of whether it is appropriate to call him a child molester. The relevant question is the age of Alfonso Conway, which sounds as if it should be eminently verifiable, and, indeed, it seems that British journalists have put it at fourteen. But Barbara Hewson disputes:
It’s interesting that barrister Edward Carson, who cross-examined Wilde mercilessly when the playwright prosecuted the Marquess of Queensberry for criminal libel, made no mention of Conway’s age, though he did dwell on the cigarette case and elaborate walking stick, which Wilde had given Conway. These are not things one gives to children, incidentally.
Wilde also gave Conway a copy of Treasure Island, which is not a thing one gives to an adult, "incidentally." It is also interesting to note that, during Carson's examination, Wilde twice mentioned that Conway had been a good friend not only to Wilde himself but also to his two sons, neither of whom was older than ten at the time Conway would have met them. Hewson continues:
Douglas . . . mentioned that he had noticed an ‘astounding’ male courtesan in the town: ‘about nineteen, just Oscar’s style.’ This shows that Wilde preferred older teens (who perhaps made better conversationalists), whilst Douglas preferred younger boys.
It seems from the historical record that, Edward Shelley aside, Wilde's taste in boys ran contrary to his other affinities. He preferred living Greek sculptures, Beauty being higher than Genius; conversation did not enter into it.

Still, Hewson is quite right that the present kerfuffle about "child molestation" is overblown, as can be seen from the statements of the town historian who set the matter off:
Chris Hare, a respected historian and former university lecturer, has just published Worthing, a History: Riots and Respectability in a Seaside Town. In it he points out that Wilde, a homosexual man married with children, had a documented taste for seducing teenage boys. At least one of his victims, a 14-year-old newspaper delivery boy named Alphonso, had to flee Worthing when the scandal of his relationship with Wilde became public knowledge.

"This role model, a man preying on teenage boys with little or no education—I don't think that would be regarded as heroic today. I think it would be regarded as smutty and reprehensible," said Hare.
To say that Wilde preyed on them is wide of the mark. He preferred lower-class lovers on the innocent side of twenty-five, but so did many gay Victorians. Those inclined to blame Plato may do so. Perhaps we should all go read (or watch) Maurice again, and let sleeping dogs lie with whomever they please.

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