Review: Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess – The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde by Merlin Holland Publisher: Fourth Estate


wilde bookThere are trials in the Four Courts that attract so many members of the legal profession that more often than not, there is little or no room forthe general public. This is particularly true of libel trials. It was always thus. Wilde’s libel action against the Marquess of Queensbury attracted the profession in such great numbers that the Daily Chronicle was moved to observe of the briefless barristers that flooded into the Old Bailey:-

“they came not as single spies, but in whole battalions…They sat in the barristers’ seats; they sat in the solicitors seats; they sat in the witnesses seats; they sat in the ushers seats, and excepting the Bench, they sat in all the seats they could capture.  And when all the seats were used up, they stood, a serried mass of voluble, grey wigged, black gowned humanity hogging the gangways and approaches of the court…”

What drew them was the heady mix of the aristocracy, literary fame, and sex. And of course, the law of libel, for barristers know that libel trials attract advocacy of the highest quality. Here in Merlin Holland’s most welcome book, we have the reason for the attendance of such serried ranks, for at last, we have the full transcript, the ipssima verba of the entire Wilde trial, containing a wealth of previously unpublished material including the simply brilliant opening speech of Edward Carson for the defence of Queensbury, a speech so outstanding that it alone justifies the price of the book.

The transcript is primarily the work of the court stenographers, Messrs Cherer, Bennett and Davis. Merlin Holland, besides contributing an excellent introduction to the trial, mainly acts as editor of their excellent shorthand notes.

The transcript covers the preliminary proceedings at the Magistrates Courts as well as the three days of the libel trial itself.   It opens with Wilde’s legal team presenting their case for the reputation of Wilde and the evidence of the libel itself. Wilde is cross examined by Carson and all the familiar repartee of that famous cross examination is presented in its full and extended form, including what is often seen as the critical turning point in the trial –the Carson/Wilde exchange of “Did you kiss him? – “Oh, no, never in my life. He was a peculiarly plain boy”.   Carson clearly caught Wilde off his guard in that exchange but it iswhen you turn to Carson’s opening speech for Queensbury that you realise where the case was truly won and the damage to Wilde’s case so overwhelmingly inflicted.

You will not hear nor read better advocacy than this. The speech must have been written as much with a hammer as with a pen, for it falls upon Wilde’s legal team with such devastating blows that you can feel it smashing through their confidence and your sympathy goes out to the barristers being crushed by Carson’s words. You get caught up in the power and pace of it’s delivery as surely as the jury were so caught. Even the judge, in his staccato interventions, seems more intent on encouraging the pace than making any sensible contribution.

You have to remind yourself that this is just the opening speech Carson outlines what evidence he intends to call to justify the “posing as a sodomite” alleged libel of his client. He names the rent boys to be called, the valet from the Savoy Hotel who saw the bed linen, the silver cigarette cases he will exhibit that Wilde so generously presented to hisyoung male friends, the evidence of the private dinners with the poor the young and the vulnerable boys. It is by modern standards a speech so politically incorrect that it could never be given again. It belongs to the moral agenda of a time long passed. But it is marvellous advocacy. Before the speech is finished – mark you – before it is even finished, Wilde’s legal team throw in the towel, hoist the white flag and abandon their libel action, consenting, under the duress of the speech, to a judgement that effectively declares to the world that Wilde was indeed posing as a sodomite.

The book confines itself to the transcript of the libel trial. It does not take us to the Cadogan Hotel, to Wilde’s subsequent criminal prosecution, to Reading Goal or to Parisian poverty. Yet all those places are in Carson’s speech. It is surely amongst the finest examples of the barrister’s art and anyone who seeks to earn their bread by advocacy must read this book. _

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