Oscar, Ned: what were you thinking?

The contrasts between Oscar Wilde and Ned Kelly are obvious. But reading Neil McKenna’s (relatively) new biography of Oscar the parallels hit me forcefully. What follows is a subjective reflection on those similarities. I won’t try too hard to justify what I’m saying, but rather just try to say it as well as I can. But here is a word of justification.

I feel sympathy for both Oscar and Ned, and without it there would be little point in writing this. But this does not mean that I approve of their actions. Like anyone, Oscar had unattractive flaws. When released from gaol one lament he expressed was the way in which he had used people much less privileged than himself.

Kelly was a professional criminal. It might have been quite difficult for the crown to have achieved a guilty verdict for murder in a fair trial, but his criminality led to the killing of three policemen. (The argument in court was that, as the troopers were seeking to kill rather than capture him Kelly’s actions were self defence). Nevertheless, after resisting it, Kelly acquiesced in Joe Byrne’s proposal to murder Aaron Sherritt. Joe (wrongly as it turns out) thought that Aaron had turned police informer. Be that as it may, Kelly was not -as America’s most famous outlaws turn out to be, a psychopath – as for instance Jesse James and Billy the Kid were.

Oscar and Net were both of Irish extraction. Oscar was born on October 16, 1854. Kelly was born just a couple of months later. Both died in November, Kelly 25 short years after he was born, Oscar twenty years later again.

Both Ned and Oscar were generous and unsuspecting, and this played a part in their downfall, Ned in his trust of the school teacher who (mercifully) flagged down the train, and Oscar in his extravagant gifts to rent boys which so incriminated him when tendered in court.

Both were innovators never successfully imitated. Wilde’s jokes were and are often regarded as stilted and posed sitting somewhat uneasily with the content of his plays. Properly acted I think they are like depth charges, unsettling and breaking up established meanings. Likewise his thin characterisation does not show his incompetence in this area so much as his lack of interest. Wilde was not didactic, but he made his points with plot and witty repartee rather than by character development.

The effect is rather like Brecht a break with ‘realism’ which creates quite new dramatic possibilities. Another analogy would be with modern ‘op ed’ illustrations which turn things upside down and play with alternative ways of seeing things.

So much for the literary analysis. Kelly too was a remarkable innovator with bank robberies would you believe? Where other desperados took the money and ran, the Kelly gang, remarkably enough, turned bank robberies into weekend social events occasions for improvised partying and propaganda. To my (admittedly limited) knowledge we saw nothing like it before or since.

As recent biographies illustrate, there was a much stronger political undercurrent to what both Ned and Oscar were doing and how they were perceived than is commonly supposed. McKenna’s biography of Oscar draws out the political radicalism of Wilde’s leadership of ‘the cause’ for the liberation of men who loved men. McKenna argues a line and probably overdoes it. Nevertheless he uncovers plenty of evidence both of Wilde’s brazen subversiveness and of real concern at the highest levels of society about the outbreak of ‘Greek love’ of which Wilde was the most prominent public leader.

So too, the ‘Kelly outbreak’ was no simple matter of four outlaws in the hills. Less than a generation after the Eureka Stockade, Kelly became an inchoate republican revolutionary. And the authorities had so mishandled the situation in Northern Victoria that he had enough sympathisers to have created a bloodbath. We can be thankful Glenrowan was the fiasco it was.

But what brings Ned and Oscar together in my mind is the way they negotiated the disaster that their own grand folly brought down upon them. They moved with a heedlessness and dreamlike courage towards the doom they had so assiduously courted. They are mythic for that courage, for the elemental nature of their story and because they left unexplained what we are all busting to know. What on earth did they think they were doing? Given so many chances to turn away, what kept them from taking them. We will never really know. Perhaps they didn’t know themselves.

Picture Ned emerging from the fog of dawn walking into a hail of bullets in his terrifying and ridiculous suit of armour, walking into a trap that he had assiduously, absurdly set for himself, and there you have Oscar. Oscar’s outrageous behaviour with Bosie provoked Bosie’s father after endless warnings to declare publicly that Oscar was “posing as a sodomite”. That was precisely what Oscar had been doing with his son. As Wilde knew, Queensberry a naturally violent and somewhat unhinged man was beside himself, having just lost another son, very likely from suicide, in the throws of a ‘Greek’ love affair with Lord Rosebery who was Prime Minister at the time.

Becoming the vehicle for Bosie’s hatred of his father, Wilde sued Queensberry for libel. Like a string of ridiculous lies in Ned’s various explanations of his conduct, Oscar swore to his attorney, quite falsely, that the defamation was baseless. Yet he had been the model of indiscretion all around London for years. With his wife Constance at home a few blocks away, Wilde and Bosie had lived and held constant debauches with rent boys in the Savoy Hotel for several months on end, with chambermaids cleaning away the disgusting mixture of Vaseline, semen and shit off their sheets day after day.

Oscar’s armour against Queensberry was about as secure as Ned’s. Cross examined by an old Irish friend he had made at Trinity College (and with whom he had possibly played with as a child), Oscar began by lying about his age. His old friend Edward Carson immediately produced a copy of Wilde’s birth certificate. The next day, asked whether he had kissed a 16 year old boy, Oscar replied that he had not, but couldn’t leave it at that, adding “he was a peculiarly plain boy”.

Kelly seems to have conceived what became his last stand as an act of mutinous rebellion and mass murder. He would slaughter policemen by the score and a republic would be declared in Northern Victoria. But not only did he trust the schoolmaster who flagged down the train. Like one of those baddies in a really bad movie, he didn’t even bother properly supervising the arrival of the train.

He was partying in the pub!

Like Christ and Socrates, Oscar’s friends begged him to flee. Though he didn’t seem like the heroic type, Oscar seemed caught in indecision until the last train had left.

Ned embraced the heroism of his last stand though what happened that night is murky and surreal. He was shot several times early on in the siege of the inn. Joe Byrne was overheard telling Ned, as he’d told him so many times before, that the armour was always going to bring them to grief.

Even with his best friend Joe Byrne shot to pieces and his brother and Steve Hart inside the inn, it seems Kelly could have won the siege of Glenrowan. There were a large number of Kelly sympathisers waiting in the wings for Chinese flares to be set off the prompt for a republican uprising. They could have slaughtered the police. Kelly told them to desist and go home that it had now become the gang’s fight and not a fight for a republic.

Kelly also passed up several opportunities to escape. Having bled badly for most of the night, with multiple bullet wounds through his arm and his foot, Kelly put his helmet back on, walked into a hail of bullets screaming defiant and murderous abuse apparently intending to rescue Steve and Dan in the inn.

Both Oscar and Ned’s trials were irregular in various respects reflecting likely political interference from the highest levels to secure a conviction. But both managed to rise above their anxiety and their pain to speak with courage and limpid clarity.

Oscar had been deteriorating physically and psychologically throughout his month long remand before his first trial. But when asked about the ‘love that dare not speak its name’, Wilde gave us a glimpse of his legendary eloquence and of his defiance though what he was saying was more in the service of fantasy than the tawdry reality with which the trial was concerned.

‘The Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the “Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.

A loud burst of applause erupted from the gallery of the courtroom to the predictable consternation of the judge who warned against any further outbreaks of “feeling”. Wilde survived his first trial with a hung jury, but, amid much murmuring amongst those in high places was convicted in his second trial.

Kelly in pain and disablement throughout his trial, affected a dignified stand by clutching his lapel with his wounded hand. In contrast to earlier attorneys he had had, his attorney in his murder trial was an incompetent novice.

On being told the jury’s decision of guilty with Irishman Judge Redmond Barry’s inevitable death sentence only a moment away, Kelly was asked if he had anything to say. He was undaunted.

Well, it is rather too late for me to speak now. I thought of speaking this morning, but I thought afterwards that I had better not. There was little use, and there is little use blaming anyone now. Nobody knows about my case except myself and I almost wish now that I had spoken and I wish I had insisted on being allowed to examine the witnesses myself. I am confident I would have thrown a different light on the case. On the evidence that has been given, no doubt, the jury or any other jury could not give any other verdict.

It is not that I fear death. I fear it as little as to drink a cup of tea. But it is on account of the witnesses and with their evidence no different verdict could be given. . . . I do not blame anybody neither Mr Bindon nor Mr Gaunson [his lawyers] but Mr Bindon knew nothing about my case. I lay blame on myself that I did not get up yesterday and examine the witnesses, but I thought that if I did so it would look like bravado and flashness, and people might have said that I thought myself cleverer than counsel. So I let it go as it was.

Barry then pronounced his sentence of death whereupon he allowed an extra-ordinary and lengthy exchange between himself and the prisoner Kelly. It runs for several remarkable pages. Barry giving Kelly a pompous lecture on social harmony and much else besides, Kelly responding simply, clearly and ultimately with his famous defiance.

Barry concluded the exchange ritualistically. “May the Lord have mercy upon your soul”. Kelly responded “I will go a little further than that and say I will see you there, where I go”. Ned turned and blew a kiss to his friend Kate Lloyd saying “Goodbye, you’ll see me there . . .” and turned and left the dock “appearing quite unconcerned”.

Both Ned and Oscar were engaged in writing the script to their deeds. They were mythmaking and understood themselves to be doing so. As Oscar said, he put his talent into his work, his genius into his life. So did Kelly.

Wilde was caught between indecision and funk, and courage and mythmaking. Wilde fantasised the narrative of his own downfall as a kind of shadow narrative to his comedies all of which dissect the downfall narrowly averted. He wrote this to Bosie as his downfall proceeded.

Every great love has its tragedy, and now ours has too, but to have known and loved you with such profound devotion, to have had you for part of my life, the only part I now consider beautiful, is enough for me.” My passion is at a loss for words, but you can understand me, you alone. Our souls were made for one another, and by knowing yours through love, mine has transcended many evils, understood perfection, and entered into the divine essence of things.

Here’s the Age’s report of Kelly’s justification of himself though it seems likely his words have been dressed up somewhat.

I do not pretend that I have led a blameless life, or that one fault justifies another, but the public in judging a case like mine should remember that the darkest life may have a bright side, and that after the worst has been said against a man, he may, if he is heard, tell a story in his own rough way that will perhaps lead them to intimate the harshness of their thoughts against him, and find as many excuses for him as he would plead for himself. For my own part I do not care one straw about my life now for the result of the trial. I know very well from the stories I have been told of how I am spoken of, that the public at large execrate my name; the newspapers cannot speak of me with that patient toleration generally extended to men awaiting trial, and who are assumed according to the boast of British justice, to be innocent until they are proved to be guilty; but I do not mind, for I have outlived that care that curried public favour or dreads the public frown.

Let the hand of the law strike me down if it will, but I ask that my story might be heard and considered; not that I wish to . . . win a word of pity from anyone. If my life teaches the public that men are made mad by bad treatment, and if the police are taught that they may not exasperate to madness men they persecute and illtreat, my life will not be entirely thrown away.

Kelly’s most eloquent statement about his life – about its waste and about how it had betrayed better hopes – was not made in words. As he prepared for the madness of Glenrowan, Kelly’s thoughts turned to a time in his life when his courage and his strength, both of body and of character, had been turned to better ends. When he was eleven he had saved another boy from drowning in a river. He was rewarded with a green sash. When the police removed Kelly’s armour they found the sash around his body, stained in his own blood.

The last word is Oscar’s paean to pity from De Profundus. As Oscar said about his life, the sweet was bitter, and the bitter was sweet.

All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. . . . Society as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.

Oscar has my pity. And my awe. So too does Ned.
PS I don’t seem to be able to mount this in comments, so, apropos of Andrew’s comment below and my response, here is a picture of the card on which the alleged defamation occured.

Wilde card.jpg

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Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Great article Nicholas. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

2022 years ago

One of the amusing features of the entertainments laid on by Ned and his gang was athletics contests, including the long jump where Ned excelled, even, or especially, carrying a massive pistol in each hand.

Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Queensberrry’s card actually read ‘posing somdomite’, making it one of history’s more famous misspellings.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Oscar and Bosie thought it said “ponce and sodomite” and it was a matter of some legal moment for the defence to claim that it said “posing as a sodomite”. Looking at a picture of the card I don’t think you can be sure what the card said.

2022 years ago

An image of said card:

which is (coincidentally) above an image relating to Ned.

Such is the importance of life?

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

Bloody Irish Catholics.

2022 years ago

“The only thing worse than being talked about is being shot then hung.”

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

Rafe, How did that image not make it into the movies on Ned Kelly? What a great image; arms out, head back in mid leap, and walloping 19thC pistols in each hand.

Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

Nick – Looking at a photo of the card I think it says ‘posing somdomite’, not ‘posing as a somdomite’ – which has a different meaning, not alleging that Wilde was posing as a sodomite, but that he was posing more generally (as he was) and that he was a sodomite.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Yes, I wasn’t really trying to disagree with you, but I can’t really figure out what the first half of Queensbury’s message was.

2022 years ago

“Bloody Irish Catholics”

Oscar Wilde was brought up a Protestant.

He became a Catholic on 28 November 1900, and died 2 days later.

2022 years ago

That’ll learn him!