Oscar Wilde was born on 16 October 1854. On the 160th anniversary of his birth, mainstream and social media began to circulate a photograph of the man who is thought to be the ‘little dark-eyed chap’ whom Wilde befriended in Reading goal.
It is not known whether or not the man in the picture, Harry Bushnell, really was Wilde’s close friend in prison, let alone if he was Wilde’s lover. But the spotlight on their relationship suggests that Wilde’s tragic fate continues to have an affective hold in the twenty-first century.
Wilde died in November 1900 aged 46, not long after he was released from Reading gaol where he had served a sentence of two years hard labor following his conviction for homosexual conduct in 1895. The writings of Magnus Hirschfeld reveal that Wilde’s imprisonment and premature death had considerable impact on homosexual men at the time.
Hirschfeld himself wrote about Wilde’s tragic fate to illustrate what he called the ‘hell’ experienced by those homosexual women and men who were socially ostracised and persecuted. He also described an encounter with a group of young male Cambridge students who shortly after Wilde’s death had gathered together to read aloud ‘ The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, further marking their allegiance to Wilde by attaching his prisoner’s number, J.3.3., to their shirts.
Hirschfeld’s moving account of the event indicates the emotional impact of Wilde’s fate on those who identified in some way with him. But it also provides hope amidst the sadness of the occasion: Hirschfeld lingers on the image of a queer community that continues to flourish despite – and to some extent because of – death and persecution.
The current attention to Harry Bushnell carries some of the same emotional weight. Sensational revelatory impulse notwithstanding, it suggests an investment in making bearable Wilde’s suffering by imaging possibilities of intimacy in the harsh conditions of Reading gaol. Of course it would be tempting to dismiss outright such claims as hopelessly naive and sentimental. Yet imagining Wilde being loved, desired and cared for at that point in time when his life was being so cruelly denied is also a form of resistance to the attempted negotiation of his influence: it serves as a poignant reminder of Wilde’s role in the formation of affirmative modern queer subcultures.
24 October 2014.