He was the brilliant lawyer whose brutal 1895 cross-examination of Oscar Wilde in one of the most famous trials in British history led to the Irish dramatist’s imprisonment for homosexuality, and to his ultimate ruin. Now a previously unpublished letter reveals that Sir Edward Carson’s attack on Wilde in the Old Bailey was partly personal – a loathing that went beyond his job in defending the Marquess of Queensberry in the ill-fated libel case.
Long after Carson’s death in 1935, the son of one of his friends confided in a 1950 letter: “I was never able to get Carson to admit that Wilde possessed any ability at all. ‘Ah,’ he used to say angrily, ‘he was a charlatan.’”
Carson’s disdain left no room for even a grudging acknowledgement of the genius whose comic masterpieces include The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan.
The letter, written by the earl of Birkenhead, has been unearthed by Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, in researching a BBC Northern Ireland documentary, Edward Carson and the Fall of Oscar Wilde. The programme includes contributions from actors Rupert Everett, who made the 2018 film The Happy Prince about Wilde’s tragic final years in exile, and Simon Callow, who has given dramatic readings from the libel trial.
Holland was taken aback by the letter. He had always struggled to understand why Carson was so vicious towards Wilde in court, considering they had played together as children in Ireland, meeting again as students at Trinity College, Dublin, and in London. As the respective sons of a surgeon and an architect, Wilde and Carson were both born in 1854 to affluent Irish Protestant families in Dublin, and lived just a few streets apart.
Their epic Old Bailey clash followed Wilde’s decision to sue Lord Queensberry, who accused him of being a “sodomite” after discovering that his son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, was Wilde’s young lover.
At the Old Bailey, Carson repeatedly questioned him over his “improprieties” with young men, including a “boy you might pick up in the street”. Exasperated, Wilde replied: “I recognise no social distinctions at all of any kind; and to me youth, the mere fact of youth, is so wonderful that I’d sooner talk to a young man for half-an-hour than be… well, cross-examined in court.”
Holland told the Observer that Birkenhead’s letter reveals the extent of Carson’s loathing: “His distaste for Oscar betraying his own social class – consorting with people from the lower classes, as he’d have seen it – was almost as strong as his feelings of disgust about what Oscar had done.”
The case led to Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency and two years in prison from 1895. Once the toast of London society, he died in abject poverty in Paris in 1900, aged 46.
Carson went on to enjoy a glittering political career as the leader of unionism, and architect of Irish partition, and was dubbed “father of Northern Ireland”.
Holland’s books on Wilde include the Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess, the definitive account of the libel trial. In making the documentary, he stumbled across the letter in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland in Belfast. It was written by the second earl of Birkenhead to Montgomery Hyde, one of Wilde’s biographers and a noted collector, who had contacted him requesting information for a book on Carson, who was a friend of the first earl.
When Wilde heard who would be cross-examining him, he clearly feared the worst, telling his lawyer that Carson would “no doubt perform his task with all the added bitterness of an old friend”.
But Birkenhead’s letter suggests that, with his friends, Wilde made light of his fears: “When Wilde was told he was going to be opposed by Carson, his old and by no means successful rival [as students], he thought this a great joke and went round telling all his friends, ‘I am going to be cross-examined by old Ned Carson.’ Wilde’s optimism … was fully justified by his dialectical superiority and it was not until Carson had abandoned … argument and produced one after another [of] his damning witnesses, that Wilde collapsed.”
Holland was all the more astonished by the letter as Birkenhead was his own godfather, and he had no idea that he had known Carson: “It would have been totally fascinating to be able to talk to him about that disastrous trial.”
Following Wilde’s imprisonment, his wife, Constance, left England with their two sons and changed the family name to Holland. In the documentary, his grandson discusses the family’s shame: “I can remember my mother saying to me in the 1950s, ‘If anybody asks you if you are the grandson of Oscar Wilde, you just say yes and conveniently change the subject.’”
He noted that the trial might have had a different outcome if Carson had taken up Wilde’s invitation to dine with him at his Chelsea home, but a date was never set: “What if he had dined with him, as Carson was known to have refused either to defend or prosecute people from whom he had taken hospitality? Had he come to dinner, he would never have appeared for Queensberry.
“This is one of the great what-ifs of history and not generally known. One has to admire Carson for doing a very good job, and I don’t personally feel any resentment towards him.”
The documentary, a BBC Northern Ireland (NI) film for its new arts season, is available on BBC iPlayer ahead of its screening on BBC One Northern Ireland on 1 February, 10.45pm.