Bureaucracy: The Shame of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports

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In 1895, the well-known playwright, author, and poet, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was sentenced to two years of imprisonment at hard labor for gross indecency. Six years after his death in 1900, this compilation of “short hand reports” surfaced, titled The Shame of Oscar Wilde. Using excerpts from questioning and testimony, this book recounts selected details from the convoluted trials Wilde was involved in. It details the court proceedings and testimonies in both the libel trial against the Marquis of Queensberry and the ensuing criminal cases of sodomy and gross indecency against Wilde, which resulted in his conviction.

These transcripts are contextualized by a lengthy preface by literary scholar Charles Grolleau, which wrestles with the questions of how to interpret Wilde’s works in light of the scandal, how to reconcile Wilde’s genius with his moral depravation, and whether Wilde ought to be regarded with disdain or sympathy. Amongst these concerns, the preface attempts to divorce the writer from the man, as Grolleau writes, “My object in this preface is not to write the life of Wilde. I have only to do with the Writer, for the Man is yet too much alive and his wounds have scarcely ceased bleeding!” (xviii). Grolleau’s Preface oscillates between lauding Wilde’s craft and judging Wilde’s personal life.  Although Wilde is elevated to one of “the chosen race whom the ‘spirit of the hour’ had laid his magic wand,” he is simultaneously criticized for his inability to subscribe to societal norms of Victorian England (much of the text details, in the fashion of a tabloid, his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas). The fluctuation between these two modes creates an unsteady reading.  One cannot be certain which mode of the text, praise or criticism, is meant ironically.

While the account of the trial is replete with moral indignation and condemnation of Wilde’s character, the narration clearly revels in the scandalous details produced by the testimony and exploits them for as much shock-value as possible. Many of these excerpts highlight Wilde’s tendency to subvert prosecutor’s questions. The text ends with an account of Wilde’s last book and his last years in Paris by “A,” presumably written by Lord Alfred Douglas. Taken as a whole, The Shame replicates the bureaucratic form of the trial transcript in order to convey how the law functions to discipline both sexuality and literary expression, and to demonstrate Wilde’s failed resistance to bureaucracy.

The 1906 edition of The Shame courted an audience driven by two prominent motives: persons interested in learning more about what was on one of the most sensational sexual scandals of the time, and bibliophiles interested in collecting luxury editions of book printed in limited numbers and, ostensibly, outside the conventional channels of book production and marketing. The scarcity and singularity of the artifact reflects aspects of its contents. The book from UNTs collection on display here is a facsimile edition from the 1950s that originally sold for $10.00. It reproduces the content but not material condition of scarcity or luxury of the 1906 edition, which was advertised as having been printed privately in Paris in run of 550 books made from handmade paper.

Find The Shame of Oscar Wilde: From the Shorthand Reports in the UNT Libraries Catalog.