Just recently several of our broadsheet newspapers carried obituaries of John Woolford, recently deceased at 96 years of age, who, in his teenage years had been the muse of Benjamin Britten, the composer. The composer’s association with the child raises certain questions. In the 1930s Britten must have run significant risks of arrest and prosecution. Today, any adult behaving in a similar way would be regarded as a paedophile.
Some forty years before Britten’s association with Woolford, Oscar Wilde was arrested, tried and sentenced for the crime of homosexual behaviour. I have just been reading an excellent book entitled Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: the 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath by Antony Edmonds. This book adds a great deal, to my mind, to our understanding of Wilde, as well as opening up to us what Victorians got up to on their summer holidays in places like Worthing, a town that has lost many of its once attractive Victorian buildings, including the house where Wilde stayed with his wife and sons. The title is a little misleading: most of Wilde’s summer was perfectly unexceptionable. The only scandalous incidents concerned a boy called Alphonse Conway: what happened to Alphonse later, after the trial of Wilde, is not known for sure, but this book has some fascinating detective work in it, that provides a few clues.
The author has this to say about Wilde’s condemnation, which is worth quoting in full:
“A common canard among those who know little about Wilde is that he was a martyr to Victorian injustice and hypocrisy. However, as we have indicated, the trials were conducted fairly; and Wilde was fortunate that the maximum sentence available to the judge was two years, which Mr Justice Wills described as ‘wholly inadequate for such a case’. Today, men who have sexual relations with boys under sixteen can be sentenced to up to fourteen years in prison, and paying for sex with a boy of sixteen or seventeen carries a sentence of up to seven years. Wilde probably committed the first of these offences, and he was certainly guilty of the second.”
But as Mr Edmonds points out elsewhere in his book, the law at the time was not overly concerned with the age of Wilde’s sexual partners. One may have been only thirteen, and one is described as looking about fourteen. Alphonse Conway was a few days past his sixteenth birthday. But, as Edmonds remarks, nowadays Wilde is described as being attracted to “young men”, rather than boys, which is misleading.
So, what we are faced with is the rather surprising realisation that in the time of Wilde the law was considerably less strict than it is now in these matters. But at the same time, public opinion has shifted dramatically with regard to homosexuality. Wilde was pilloried for being homosexual; nowadays he would perhaps have been pilloried for being a child abuser.
What does this tells us, then? I am not at all sure. But there are two certain conclusions. First, do read Mr Edmonds’ fascinating book, which contains much of interest, far more than can be expressed in a short article like this one. And secondly, let us remember that both the law, and public opinion, can frequently get it wrong, sometimes spectacularly so.