Wilde’s three trials in 1895 served, in effect, as an obscenity prosecution of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/91). Though the novel was not formally charged with obscenity, Dorian Gray’s first reviewers suggested that it was obscene, and the book remained unavailable in England for nearly two decades after Wilde’s trials. The novel's relation to Wilde's trials thus raises a number of questions about the use of fiction as legal evidence and about the ways in which a criminal prosecution might be taken to reveal the meaning of the defendant's writings. This essay discusses the late Victorian campaign against obscene literature and the victims of that campaign; the reviews of the original version of Dorian Gray (in Lippincott's Magazine, 1890); the oblique manner in which the innuendo about its obscenity functioned during Wilde's three trials (1895); Wilde's own ironic engagement, at several key points in the novel, with the conception of influence at work in the legal test governing the evaluation of obscenity (R. v. Hicklin, 1868); the relation of the painting itself, and of the notorious French novel that Dorian borrows from Lord Henry, to that conception of influence; and Wilde's reenactment of his ironic perspective at the narrative level.Stern comments
The Picture of Dorian Gray was published at a time when obscenity prosecutions in England were growing in frequency and were increasingly targeting “borderline cases” involving works that had not traditionally been considered obscene. Wilde’s novel abounds in descriptions and scenarios that evoke the concerns fueling the campaign against publications with a “tendency to corrupt,” and although Wilde is more concerned with the workings of this tendency than with its substance, he circles around the subject so intently that it seems surprising— particularly given the recommendations of some commentators—that no charges were laid against the novel. Perhaps it avoided prosecution because Wilde’s trials also served in effect as an obscenity trial. Just as the early reviewers’ objections led one of the major British newsdealers to stop selling the issue of Lippincott’s Magazine that featured the original version of the story, Wilde’s conviction led his publishers to stop selling the book, and nearly twenty years would pass before another British edition appeared. The case against the novel — first in the reviews and then in the courts — took its homoeroticism to be the most damning evidence of its corrupting tendencies, but Wilde’s detractors were also responding to a proclivity that suffuses the novel more generally. As a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette explained, “We are conscious of a penetrating poison in the air, yet cannot see clearly whence it proceeds.” Were it not for the implicit censure, Wilde would have appreciated this observation, which succinctly captures the novel’s pervasive concern with the dynamics of the corrupting influence, and which might even have been inspired by Lord Henry’s figuration of influence as a “subtle fluid or a strange perfume,” an almost imperceptible force that can be discerned mainly from its ramifying effects.
The final decades of the nineteenth century, as Katherine Mullin has noted, marked a rise in obscenity prosecutions in England, and “the ‘artistic merit’ defence against the law, never explicitly established, was increasingly under siege.” In the late 1880s, Henry Vizetelly was tried twice for publishing English translations of Zola’s novels, and there were also prosecutions in the London courts against a peddler who sold photographs of “pictures publicly exhibited in the Paris Salon,” the publishers of the Evening News for featuring “salacious details” of a society divorce case, and a publisher who had excerpted “salacious highlights” from Boccaccio’s Decameron. In 1898, a few years after Wilde’s conviction for “gross indecency” under section 11 (the Labouchere Amendment) of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the Bedborough trial would result in the suppression of the second volume of Ellis and Symonds’s Studies in the Psychology of Sex—the volume titled Sexual Inversion. When W.T. Stead was tried in 1885, in the wake of his reporting on “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” a columnist in the Saturday Review observed that the defense of having “done good service by his publications” could hardly excuse the provocative “rhetorical flourishes” that had garnished Stead’s articles.
The author concluded that the proceeding, though “in form a trial for abduction,” was correctly “regarded by many as in substance a trial for obscene libel.”
Wilde’s trials had much the same result for Dorian Gray. The only explicit characterization of the novel as an obscene work, during the three rounds of litigation, appeared at the very outset, in the pretrial pleadings filed in Wilde’s libel suit. Charles Gill, one of the defense counsel, sought to justify Queensberry’s language by calling Dorian Gray an “immoral and indecent work” that described the “passions of certain persons guilty of unnatural practices.” Gill’s allegation, though not repeated in court during the libel trial, would figure as an underlying theme in the defense arguments of Queensberry’s lawyer Edward Carson, which in turn would reappear in Wilde’s first criminal trial when Gill (now acting as prosecution counsel for the Crown) had Carson’s arguments from the libel trial inserted in the court record, only to see the judge strike out the literary evidence when the case was sent to the jury. Gill’s accusation thus migrated from one liminal site to another in the course of Wilde’s trials while nevertheless continuing to play a vital role.