“Dandyism, decadence and degeneracy were easily run together in the public mind,” John Sutherland writes in his wonderful new book, A Little History of Literature. Here Sutherland is describing the end of the Victorian period which saw the emergence of the author-as-dandy in Britain and France.
The cult of literary dandyism, Sutherland writes, “was epitomised by one writer above all others,” and that is Oscar Wilde, whose birthday is today. Wilde famously took his Oxford professor Walter Pater’s doctrine of art-for-art’s sake and made it into a personal religion, or rather, a fine art form. Religion, after all, like everything to Wilde, was secondary to art (as Wilde declared: “I would number Jesus Christ among the poets”).
While Wilde’s ‘provocative quips’ made him a sensation, his proclivity to make his life into a work of fine art got him into trouble. After all, in the public mind, as Sutherland notes, there was a rather straight line from dandyism to degeneracy.
Wilde was prosecuted for ‘offences against public decency’ for his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and imprisoned for two years hard labor.
Like the case of Alan Turing, another British icon who was convicted of indecency, there has been an effort to petition the British government for a posthumous pardon. This past summer the British government indicated it would be moving forward to finally grant a pardon for Turing, but not for the 49,000 other gay men, including Wilde, who were convicted under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act.
An epetition was created for Wilde’s pardon in 2012, but it fizzled out.
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