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The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland (4th Estate, 340 pages, $27.95) England’s foremost playwright and wit, Oscar Fingal O’fflahertie Wills Wilde, was handed the fateful envelope when he entered London’s Albemarle Club on Feb. 28, 1895. The envelope contained an engraved calling card of the Marquess of Queensberry’s, left for Wilde by Queensberry 10 days earlier. On the card’s face, five words were handwritten. Despite a misspelling, the message was nonetheless clear: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” Had Wilde heeded the advice of most of his friends, he would have swallowed the insult and destroyed the card. Instead, he listened too intently to Queensberry’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, who was Wilde’s lover and spoiling for a fight with his father. The card thus became Exhibit A in Wilde’s ill-conceived private prosecution of Queensberry for criminal libel. As was usually the case in the British judicial system, such a prosecution was taken over by the crown. Thus the case of Regina v. John Douglas was called to order at the Old Bailey on April 3, 1895. The proceeding, which lasted only three days, would prove to be the vessel of Wilde’s undoing. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde, which is billed as “the first uncensored transcript of the trial,” is a fascinating document, with appeal for those interested in either the law or literature. It’s also perhaps something of an act of familial devotion. Merlin Holland, whose knowledgeable introduction and enlightening annotations provide the perfect gloss to the transcript, is Wilde’s grandson. (Yes, grandson. Wilde was married to Constance Holland and the father of two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, who was in turn the father of Merlin Holland.) The transcript came to Holland’s attention as he was helping the British Library mount a centenary celebration of his literary ancestor. As Holland writes in his introduction: “[A] longhand manuscript of the complete Queensberry trial was brought into the Library to be exhibited. . . . There are at least eight hands represented in the MS, understandable since a shorthand writer would have been hard put to take down the proceedings for more than about twenty minutes at a time. His shorthand would then have had to be rendered back into longhand and each writer would have transcribed his own notes.” Today’s reader should be grateful for the efforts of these anonymous scribes. The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde is as compelling as a Shakespeare tragedy. You don’t need to bring much knowledge about Wilde to this book to enjoy it. Holland’s commentary provides the necessary background information and introduces the uninitiated to the major players. As Holland relates, Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, or Bosie, in 1891. Queensberry’s third son, Bosie was 21 years old, an undergraduate at Wilde’s alma mater � Oxford’s Magdalen College � and a promising poet. Wilde and Bosie hit it off immediately. At a second meeting, at the Albemarle Club, a few days after their introduction, Wilde presented Bosie with a copy of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, inscribed, “Alfred Douglas from his friend who wrote this book. Oscar. July, 1891.” As Holland writes, “Oscar’s affection for Bosie turned rapidly into an infatuation with little concern for public discretion. Bosie in turn became captivated by Wilde’s charm and the magical quality of his conversation, and within a short time they were inseparable.” This development did not sit well with the Marquess of Queensberry, whose claim to fame was his codification of the boxing rules that to this day bear his name. Queensberry’s eldest son, Francis Douglas, the Viscount Drumlanrig, had died in an alleged shooting accident, which was, in all likelihood, a suicide. It was believed that Drumlanrig was being blackmailed for his past homosexual affair with the then-foreign secretary, Lord Rosebery, who later became prime minister. Most observers believe that Queensberry’s hostility to Wilde stemmed from his desire not to see another son ruined, as he saw it, by homosexuality. On the opening night of Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Queensberry was stopped at the theater door by police. He was caught carrying vegetables with which to pelt the author and cause an embarrassing disturbance. Thus thwarted, days later he turned up at the Albemarle Club looking for Wilde. He left his card when Wilde was not there. Wilde of course entered the lawsuit the aggrieved party, but soon the tables were turned on him. Queensberry’s investigators had uncovered a good deal of evidence of Wilde’s homosexual dalliances, and Queensberry’s counsel, Edward Carson, subjected Wilde to a grueling cross-examination that destroyed his credibility and led to Wilde dropping the suit. The evidence collected by Queensberry’s minions was eventually turned over to prosecutors and led to two subsequent criminal trials of Wilde and his eventual sentence to two years’ hard labor. Yet even as Wilde watched his case fall apart and his reputation ruined, his wit never entirely left him. Consider this exchange: Carson: Was it a favourite drink � iced champagne? Wilde: Is it a favourite drink of mine? Carson: Yes. Wilde: Yes, strongly against my doctor’s orders. Carson: Never mind the doctor’s orders. Wilde: I don’t. It has all the more flavour if you discard the doctor’s orders. Joel Chineson is chief copy editor at Legal Times.

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