There has been little comparative historical analysis about the connections and insights that could be derived from the responses to the two cases even though the arrest of Wilde occurred three weeks after Dreyfus reached Devil’s Island to begin his incarceration for four and one-half years. Part of the reason for this relative neglect has been that the Dreyfus Affair only became that when in 1897 the Dreyfus family named Commandant Ferdinand Esterhazy as the spy and when Zola in early 1898 wrote J’ Accuse. By that time, Wilde was out of prison, penniless and broken in health and spirit and, coincidentally, living in Paris when Zola wrote his missive. One of Wilde’s friends attempted without success to facilitate a renewal of his acquaintance with Zola, but Wilde balked because Zola, like several other French writers, had earlier refused to sign a petition that sought a mitigation of his sentence.
Wilde further antagonized Zola by consorting with Esterhazy, a man who perjured himself to keep Dreyfus incarcerated. Wilde behaved badly during this period when he betrayed the confidence of a longtime friend, Carlos Blacker, who had stood by him during his trials, his time in prison and his exile in Paris. Blacker knew that Dreyfus was innocent because his friend, the Italian military attaché to Paris was the lover of the German military attaché, and Esterhazy had revealed to this man his secrets. When Wilde in turn revealed this information to Esterhazy and anti-Dreyfusard journalists, Blacker's reputation was sullied because of Wilde's duplicity. The only positive result was that Zola also acquired this information, wrote an article about it that contributed to the release of Dreyfus. But Wilde and Zola refused to meet.
Beyond personal relationships, philosophically no two writers could have possessed such radically antithetical credos: Wilde’s belief that art should be an honest expression of the artist and have no utilitarian motives was anathema to Zola who passionately contended that art should be an instrument for the pursuit of social justice. Wilde claimed that art should be aesthetically pleasing and divorced from nature; Zola, the naturalist, argued that art be faithful to the texture and grit of ordinary life by capturing the details and vocabulary of the particular milieu he was describing. Yet philosophical differences can only partially explain the fundamental cleavage between the two writers.
Although this account can be dismissed as merely anecdotal, it does offer a window to large, important issues. It is noteworthy that one writer who was justifiably outraged by primordial anti-Semitism could feel no empathy for, indeed revulsion at, a fellow writer convicted of “indecent behaviour.” It was as if Zola and his supporters, who were terrified by the prospect of pogroms with their human and material destruction, and the attendant breakdown of law, looked at themselves in a distorted mirror and became what they feared: a mob when they were apprised of Wilde’s same-sex relations. Confronting anti-Semitism was in a sense a safer public issue to address; whereas, same-sex relations is more intimate because it threatens a man’s sense of his own manhood. Yet if Zola displayed no support for Wilde, the pursuit of justice or any sense of empathy for the dour, upright Dreyfus did not engage Wilde even when he was confronted with evidence of the man’s innocence.
Yet the impulses underpinning anti-Semitism and homophobia were similar at the fin-de-siècle. They were by-products of nationalism and imperial ambitions, the former arising from the designation of who constitutes a loyal citizen, the latter from the need to uphold the qualities of a robust manhood necessary to secure and consolidate the Empire. In a rapidly changing world that provoked anxieties, it was necessary to apportion blame to someone. Dreyfus and Wilde were convenient symbolic scapegoats for the forces of secular modernity that threatened to undermine traditional values. At the most fundamental level, however, what linked them was the meaning assigned to masculinity even though the relationship between ethnicity and gender, so germane to the Dreyfus case, was more subtle in the Wilde tragedy.
|Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas
The Dreyfus affair was much longer, more violent and much more divisive as it mobilized the whole country. It was not only an urban issue driven by Parisian politics. It was also clearly a rural affair. Peasants read about it in newspapers like La Croix that was written in accessible language and incorporated political cartoons that were explicitly anti-Semitic. Parish priests gave these away. Similarly posters, playing cards and children’s toys with unambiguous anti-Semitic messages were among the cultural artifacts that infused rural life in France. The rancour was targeted not only against the man but also against Jews and the Dreyfusards, who included many Protestants. The
definition of a French citizen was at stake and whether the
rule of law trumped the professional autonomy of the Army. A ferociously
anti-Semitic press whipped ordinary citizens into an irrational frenzy by
insisting that Jews were not French and could not be trusted to support the
patria. The invective against Wilde continued for the duration of his trials,
roughly two months, but the press scrupulously avoided mentioning his name when
he was in prison as though it had surrounded him with an iron cage of silence,
which contrasted with the unceasing din arising from the Dreyfus affair. The
hostility toward homosexuality in both countries persisted well into the
twentieth century as did the intensity of feeling by the far right about the
|Zola caricatured by the nationalists
Much of the anti-Semitic venom surfaced again during the late 1930s with a Jewish Socialist Prime Minister Léon Blum (himself a young militant Dreyfusard in the 1890s) who was the target of shameless vitriol. A French journalist wrote, “Léon Blum was the conscious and satanic preparer of defeat, the man who inoculated the virus of laziness into the blood of a people.” Again during the Vichy regime established after the defeat of France, the government needed no encouragement from the Nazis to implement virulent anti–Semitic laws and posthumously rehabilitate the senior officers who had lied to persecute Dreyfus. Moreover, art critics supportive of the fascist regime found in the vampire films, such as Nosferatu, a powerful trope in which they could demonize Jews, though it or none of the other films specifically referred to the vampire as Jewish. During the liberation of France and the subsequent trials of collaborators such as the former anti-Dreyfusard leader Charles Maurras, who on being sentenced to a life sentence explicitly made the connection with events half a century earlier by stating: “This is Dreyfus’s revenge.”
|Arthur Conan Doyle
On another level, there were frequent insinuations that Jews were effeminate and inclined toward homosexuality—Dreyfus was resolutely heterosexual but anti-Semitics commented on his lack of facial hair and physical vitality—but according to a contemporary sociological study, same sex unions were not uncommon in the French army and neither was the practice of pederasty. Moreover, among the secret documents alleging his betrayal that were withheld from Dreyfus’ defence were intercepted love letters between German and Italian military attachés. In this way, the suggestion was planted to implicate Dreyfus with foreign homosexuals and render the allegation of treason doubly odious. It also served to displace onto Dreyfus in particular, and Jews in general, the anxiety about the disturbing reputation for homosexuality in the French army, esteemed to be among the manliest and the most French. If Jews as a group did not publicly speak out on behalf of Dreyfus, they were quick to defend their honour by challenging anti-Semites to duels. Drumont had to respond to two duels from angry Jews within a week of the publication of his notorious polemic, La France Juive, and Jews were known for the passionate energy with which they pursued their quarry. Ironically, the anti-Semites who denied the civic equality of Jews in their rhetoric granted it to them in practice because the willingness to duel a man was an acknowledgment of his worthiness as a man of honour. That irony was lost on Drumont and his acolytes. Over the twelve year period (1894-1906) Dreyfusards fought at least thirty-one duels, many of them involving Jews, in an effort to redress both slights to their manhood and to subsume their personal grievance into a “higher cause” of rectifying a miscarriage of justice. Their resistance did little to deter the xenophobic, homophobic and atavistic beliefs associated with blood purity which dovetailed with the revulsion that anti-Dreyfusards expressed toward the New Woman who in turn served as a double for the Jew.
Unsurprisingly, conservative nationalists excoriated the New Woman in language that linked her with the Jew. Just as the latter was frequently portrayed as a predatory vampire, the former “makes a ghostly, disconcerting impression, like some obscure, ill-defined creature in the process of death or transformation.” Just as the Jewish male was often reviled as effeminate, the woman who refused to be categorized as a wife, an old maid or a prostitute was, according to one female journalist and popular novelist, “a wandering Jew, whose position cannot be defined, and to whom one refuses respect.” His foreignness mirrored that of the New Woman, an Anglo-American import not an indigenous continental European. More importantly, both were stigmatized as decadent. He became a symbol of the modernism that the nationalist anti-Semites loathed—immigration, urbanization, the new consumer culture and the new mass media—whereas she dared to embrace masculine behaviours by working outside the home and pursing her own sexual life. In doing so, this creature robbed men of their masculinity at a time when they needed their virility to defend the patria against its external and internal enemies. The doubling of the Jew with the New Woman illustrates not only a template for entering into the irrational world of the anti-Semitic nationalists but even Dreyfusard stalwarts were wary of the New Woman. They might have liked her politics when female journalists writing in a woman’s journal sympathetically covered the second Dreyfus trial at Rennes, but they believed as Zola had warned in 1897, “a woman can never be anything but what nature wants her to be. Everything else was nothing but abnormal, dangerous and perfectly vain.” By pursing excessive mental work, she was in danger of “unsexing” herself, and at a time when Germany was experiencing a demographic boom, the New Woman became a convenient target to displace anxieties about the falling birth rate. Like anti-Semitism and homophobia, the New Woman became a target for individuals and institutions that feared the consequences of transgressing acceptable boundaries.
An exploration of the political and cultural climate enveloping the Dreyfus and Wilde cases reveals significant congruities. In France, society was nearly riven by the sulphurous acrimony. Justice for one man, even for most of the Dreyfusards, was secondary to the rule of law and due process that allowed the accused to face his accusers in a fair trial. If Emancipation had liberated the Jews from the ghetto to be assimilated into French society and opened up careers to talent, the Affair threatened to encase them in a new mental ghetto whereas the anti-Semitic preconceptions—that Jews owed no allegiance to anyone except their own clan, therefore, were untrustworthy and could be bought— could harden into conventional wisdom. For anti-Dreyfusards, the honour of the Army and its unwillingness to allow civilians to interfere in its internal affairs and the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, whose influence had diminished in the more secular Third Republic, were at stake. They believed that the maintenance of tradition presupposed a higher priority than admitting error and righting a judicial wrong. In the interests of national security along with the power and prestige of its most important national institutions, expediency easily trumped justice. On another level, anti-Dreyfusard nationalists were prepared to guard an inflated, absolute image of the nation that both mirrored the tenacity with which monarchists had defended the crown a century earlier and presaged a dress rehearsal of fascism in the twentieth century. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dreyfus Affair formed the backdrop for replaying the ideological battles that conservatives had lost during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution, but were determined not to lose this time around: the primacy of the army and the Roman Catholic Church as national institutions, the need for an hierarchical society and an exclusive definition of what it meant to be French based on blood rooted in the nation’s soul. Given these assumptions and the evidence uncovered by Picquart, the strength of the case for a military and government cover–up and the substitution of political expediency for justice is overwhelming.
In England the decision to prosecute Wilde was taken
after the collapse of Wilde’s libel trial against Queensberry when the
embittered father of Alfred Douglas was acquitted. Given the immense press
coverage that vilified Wilde, the government appeared to have no other choice.
But whether it was motivated by pressures to avoid a cover up and ensure that
justice be carried out or the need for a scapegoat in order to protect the
powerful has developed into a hotly-contested historical debate. One of Wilde’s
biographers has advanced the argument that the single most compelling reason
for the determination of the government to prosecute and secure a conviction
against Wilde was the need to silence in the words of the Solicitor General Sir
Frank Lockwood “the abominable rumours against (Prime Minister) Rosebery.” The scuttlebutt in turn could have originated
from the pressure exerted by Queensberry that the government better convict
“this hideous monster” or else face the public exposure and disgrace of senior
Liberals. That a private citizen could exercise this kind of influence
suggested that he possessed egregiously damaging evidence against Rosebery.
Rosebery’s biographer, however, argues that the Marquess’ animus toward the
Prime Minister was motivated by political resentment that he had harboured
since 1881 when he had been expelled from the House of Lords for his outspoken
atheism. Queensberry’s frustration was compounded by the perception that
Rosebery had not been sufficiently helpful in enabling him to reclaim his
position. Queensberry made no secret of his bile toward Rosebery particularly
after he became Prime Minister in March 1894, but the “rumours” that circulated
around Rosebery were just that—malicious rumours.
But could politics and his hostility against Wilde for corrupting his son fully explain his rage against Rosebery, the Liberal elite, and Wilde? Rosebery’s relationship with Bosie’s older brother, Francis Archibald, was the likely tipping point for the increasingly unbalanced father. As the-then Foreign Minister, Rosebery arranged for his young private secretary to be given a peerage in 1893. As a result, Francis Archibald became Lord Drumlanrig, a development that was regarded as an insult by the elder Marquis whose own political career had been thwarted. Whatever those feelings they were quickly overwhelmed by rumours about an improper intimate relationship between his eldest son and Rosebery. According to an unpublished memoir cited by Wilde’s most recent biographer, Queensberry employed the services of private detectives to confirm his elder son’s liaison with Rosebery, and they subsequently found “concrete proof” of sodomy in the sheets of a hotel room from the testimony of two chambermaids. At that point, Queensberry went berserk. In a threatening letter to Rosebery, he crudely called him a “bloody bugger” and “Jew pimp” even though Rosebery was not Jewish. After following the Foreign Secretary to a spa town in Germany in August 1893, he threatened to horsewhip the “fat boy” and was only restrained by the timely intervention of Edward, the Prince of Wales and the German police who railroaded him out of town.
It took the death of Francis in the fall of 1894 to coalesce Queensberry’s implacable hatred for Rosebery and Wilde. Although initially presented as the result of a shooting accident, the evidence that Francis committed suicide is much more persuasive. Since his death occurred as a direct shot in the mouth, most informed observers at the time and some historical accounts conclude that his suicide was an attempt to protect his famous patron. The elder Queensberry conveyed that impression in a letter written to his first wife’s father, and from that point on, was determined that as “he got Wind of a more startling one” (italics in original) another son would not die that way. But given that the evidence about the sexual orientation of his son and that of Rosebery is not conclusive, it is understandable that Rosebery’s biographer, Leo Mckinstry, would take issue with Queensberry’s interpretation and Wilde’s biographers. Although he concedes the possibility of a suicide, Mckinstry contends that Francis was attracted to his fiancé and that Rosebery’s manner was more of a detached observer than a heart-broken lover.
Nonetheless, Queensberry’s grief and rage explain his obsessive hounding of Wilde. With a penchant for uncontrollable violence, he stalked his son, Alfred, and Oscar, with a horsewhip hoping to thrash both of them in public. He was also prepared to blackmail Rosebery and the Liberals if Wilde were not tried and convicted. A letter that Alfred Douglas wrote after Wilde’s conviction asserted that the government had been motivated by pressure lest a list of Liberal homosexuals be publicly revealed. The implication of his letter was that behind the decision to prosecute Wilde was the protection of more powerful quarry in the Liberal government, including Rosebery himself. The behaviour and health of the Prime Minister during this time lends some credence to this allegation. Rosebery’s government seemed dysfunctional during the time of the trials; the Prime Minister threatened to resign, and once during a speech to the Liberal Club, he became preoccupied and forgot what he was to say. Moreover, Rosebery was experiencing personal physical and mental health difficulties. Diary entries of a close friend report that he was experiencing acute anxiety, insomnia, and depression and accompanying stomach disorders. Rosebery later wrote that in his insomnia he was caught up in a waking nightmare: he was “night after night…like a disembodied spirit” watching his own corpse. He suffered an acute bout of insomnia in 1895, a condition experienced throughout his life. There is little doubt that he was appalled that his name was dragged into the Wilde trials and that the rumours swirling about him did contribute to his inability to cope with the pressures of office and his physical problems. Rosebery’s biographer’s assertion that his nervous collapse preceded the Wilde trials and the timing of his recovery did not coincide with Wilde’s conviction does not exclude the probability that the trials and Rosebery’s bizarre behaviour and health were related.
Regardless, if the government appeared to be wavering, or worse inept, some public action was necessary to shore up the sagging fortunes of the Liberal Party. Once the names of Gladstone and Rosebery surfaced and appeared in the national and continental press, to avoid any appearance of a cover up, it was inevitable that Wilde would be tried. The public linkage between Rosebery and Wilde, the two men he most despised, was a gift to Queensberry, one that could be exploited, and one that needed to be counteracted by a vulnerable government. What was potentially explosive was any testimony that connected Wilde to senior Liberals in particular Rosebery himself. There was no way that the content of the abusive letters would ever be entered into court that Queensberry had written earlier to then-Prime Minister Gladstone, his Foreign Secretary Rosebery and even the Queen about his suspicions regarding the relationship between Rosebery and his son. Recall how a previous Conservative government under Salisbury in 1890 shielded the Royal Family from the stigma of scandal. However, in this case, it was the Prime Minister. In the earlier case, although the issue had been quietly expedited, it aroused public suspicions of political shenanigans; in the current one, a scapegoat had to be found to ensure that justice was not only being done, but appeared to be done.
The first criminal trial against Wilde ended with a hung jury and the Solicitor-General, Lockwood, decided not only to prosecute Wilde but to lead the prosecution himself. As Wilde’s most recent biographer aptly notes: that the Solicitor General himself led the prosecution team in a misdemeanour offence reveals the lengths to which the government was prepared to secure a conviction that would remove the heat from highly placed Liberals and offset any perception of political destabilization. In doing so, he ignored the pleas of several individuals including Edward Carson, the Member of Parliament and the lawyer for Queensberry who had demolished Wilde in his devastating cross-examination during the libel trial. Carson urged Lockwood to “let up on the fellow now” because Wilde had suffered enough. After all, as Carson recognized almost everyone involved in the trials was a product of the public schools and aware of their pervasive homoerotic conduct. That hypocrisy extended to Queensberry himself who possessed the political leverage to ensure that his son would never appear in court as a witness or an accused in any of the trials even though he was fully informed about his son’s trysts and that he had been the target of blackmail by the “rough trade” working class youths. The evidence that Rosebery conducted a liaison with Queensberry’s son and that his government was being subjected to blackmail would not prevail in a court of law, but it is nevertheless powerfully suggestive. Nonetheless, a prima facie case can be made that a political agenda motivated these trials whether the government needed a scapegoat or it needed to avoid any appearance of a cover up.
The differences in due process in the Wilde and Dreyfus trials notwithstanding, the presence of a political agenda and the tensions within the cultural Zeitgeist reveal similar underlying impulses. In both cases, legal machinations were set against a backdrop of larger questions: In France nationalism spawned a biologically-based racism that overlapped with an atavistic religious Judeophobia that threatened the stability of the state or the capacity of a political party to govern. In England, the perception of an elite aestheticism and a retreat from muscular manhood raised fears about whether the country possessed the wherewithal to remain a vigorous nation and maintain an Empire. The predominance of the purity movements occurring at the same time as the new liberalism that stressed the need of the state to be the guardian of public morality added to the political pressure to lay criminal charges against Wilde. He recognized how they contributed to his own troubles when he wrote in prison that the bellicose Queensberry was sanctimoniously trying “to pose as a champion of (social) purity” in order to gain popularity. “In the present condition of the British public…the surest mode of becoming…a heroic figure” was to safeguard morality and purity. In his hypocritical way, this well-known libertine (Queensberry) had become a “proper representative of Puritanism in its aggressive and most characteristic form.” Wilde was perceptive enough to recognize that such a posture permitted Queensberry to camouflage his own vindictive motives for pursing this vendetta against him.