Today (February 20) in London History – Oscar Wilde & The Police

Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan opened at the St James’s Theatre on February 20, 1892. It was his first play to appear on the London stage. That opening night is the jumping-off point for today’s Today in London History podcast.


Lady Windermere’s Fan – February 20, 1892

Ok, it was on this day in London history – February 20th, 1892 – that Oscar Wilde’s first play opened in London. The play was Lady Windermere’s Fan. The venue was St James’ Theatre in King Street, just round the corner from St James’ Square.

It was exactly what you’d expect. Oscar stole the show. He was there with his trademark green carnation and mauve gloves. Smoking an elegant cigarette. Gave a curtain call speech to the adoring audience. The audience itself was star-studded. 

Lily Langtree was there. And Frank Harris. And the poet, Richard Le Gallienne, with whom Oscar Wilde had a brief affair. And the distinguished American man of letters Henry James, whom Oscar 

Wilde most certainly did not bed. Henry James, incidentally, was one of the few dissenting voices in the audience that night. He didn’t think much of the play. 

It was a glittering prizes moment, a superstar moment. Oscar’s speech was, to put it mildly, self-satisfied. He liked himself. Thought well of himself. And didn’t mind at all if his audience picked up on that. That demeanour met with the approval of all but a few in the audience. The dissenters, what didn’t they like? Well, let’s just put it this way, Oscar was a bit too rich a concoction for their liking. They couldn’t digest his mannerisms.

Anyway, that’s all confirmatory. The green carnation, the mauve gloves, the affected manner, the smoking an elegant cigarette – it’s what we know, what we expect.

What I’d like to do in the rest of this podcast is go off-piste – see what’s unnoticed, unknown – see what’s round the corner. Which, of course, is very London Walks.

I went round the corner by looking at what the newspapers of the day were making of Oscar Wilde. I went there expecting a vast press clippings file. My expectation wasn’t met. Said vast press clippings file didn’t exist. The play itself didn’t merit a review in The Times. Indeed, it wasn’t so much as mentioned in The Times. It did get favourable reviews in The Telegraph and the Sunday Times. But working back through the press from the opening of the play – to my surprise Oscar Wilde wasn’t a big blip on the press’s radar. Pretty threadbare, the Oscar Wilde press clippings file. Fewer than a hundred mentions in total. 

Needless to say, there wouldn’t have been anything in the press about his plays – because they hadn’t been written or put on. So what you get is pretty much in- passing mentions of him as an essayist or a poet or a novelist or an editor or a lecturer – that famous lecture tour of America had been clocked and got write-ups in the press. But bearing in mind his commanding position today in the pantheon of that fin de siecle era, well, the fact that he was at best a bit-part player in the 1880s is a well-I-never-moment. 

And then there are the two mentions in The Times in January 1892. When Lady Windermere’s Fan was rehearsing. The two articles are the 28th and 29th times the newspaper of record has taken notice of Oscar Wilde. Both instances are mentions in passing. And – here it comes – both stories are headlined POLICE. They’re a summary of the previous day’s police and magistrates’ courts’ doings.

Oscar Wilde puts in an appearance at Westminster Magistrate’s Court. Being tried there is a 31-year-old Oxford graduate named  John Borlas.

Here are the relevant portions of the article. 

“John Borlas, 31, B.A. of Oxford University, engaged as a tutor, was brought up from the House of Detention, where he had been for a week on remand, to further answer the charge of wantonly discharging a five-chambered revolver to the common danger near the Speaker’s residence, House of Commons, between 8 and 9 on the morning of December 31. At the time of his arrest defendant had in his possession a considerable sum in Bank of England notes and gold, besides numerous letters and memoranda, and nine ball cartridges. The evidence was that he took aim in the direction of the Speaker’s Green and fired five shots in rapid succession. He was without his hat at the time. When handing the revolver to a constable he said, “I am an anarchist and I intended shooting you; but then I thought it a pity to shoot an honest man. What I have done is to show my contempt for the House of Commons.”

And then further down the piece we get this single mention of one Oscar Wilde. “During the week a great number of Mr Borlas’s friends have made inquiries concerning him, and among those present was Mr Oscar Wilde, who sat with counsel.” Fascinating that detail that Mr Borlas was “without his hat at the time.” I’ve got a theory about that. Wearing a hat was a mark of respectability. You wouldn’t be caught dead without a hat. So the read would have been: he was hatless, must be something wrong with him.

And then a week later, the Borlas case is in the Police News again. The money quote is: “Defendant was bound over in the sum of  £200 and to find two sureties in £100 each and to be of good behaviour and keep the peace for two months. Mr Oscar Wilde and Mr H. H. Champion immediately became bail for the accused, who left the court with his friends.”

So what are we to make of this? Were John Borlas and Oscar Wilde friends at Oxford? Possibly. But they didn’t go to the same college – Oscar went to Magdalen and Borlas went to New College. Nor were they exact contemporaries. Oscar’s about seven years older than Borlas. So they may have overlapped by probably one year. One wonders if Borlas, was a beautiful young undergraduate – hardly more than a boy – who caught Oscar’s eye in his last year at Magdalen. Just as Oscar’s famous – and tragic – love, Lord Alfred was a beautiful and significantly younger man. Well, that’s food for thought. What we do know is that Borlas was a poet. He was a Scot. And he was in trouble. And Oscar, to his credit, rallied round his young friend. Went deep into his pocket for him. £100 in 1892 would be worth over £13,000 today. Oscar was Irish; Borlas was Scottish. They both were, in a sense, outsiders here. They were not English. And clearly they were both at variance – felt out of step – with the prevailing mores and ethos of late Victorian England. There’s every reason to suppose Oscar Wilde had a measure of sympathy for someone so disaffected that he emptied a revolver at the House of Commons. Anyway, it was a brave thing Oscar did, standing up for and standing by his young friend. Being there for him – even at his counsel’s side in the courtroom. And taking the time to do it when his first West End show was in its final weeks of rehearsal. When I read it, I kept thinking, “good for you, Oscar – you’re a good man.”

Finally, there’s no question but there’s a frisson, a sudden chill that comes over you when you find Oscar Wilde’s name in Police columns in London newspapers in the early 1890s. He didn’t know what was coming – the disastrous Queensberry case, his arrest, conviction, getting a prison sentence with hard labour – but from the vantage point of being out at this end of that bit of history – we do know what was in store for him. When the march through those tragic events begins you keep thinking – you keep wanting to say – “no, don’t do it, Oscar – just back away from it – don’t sue him, don’t let it get into a court of law.” It’s the proverbial watching a catastrophic accident happen in slow motion. And of course knowing about that chapter in Oscar’s life – how do you not know it, it was the single most important event in his life story, it brought about his ruination – well, it inevitably casts a shadow back, gives a different valence to these two days in 1892, Oscar’s first appearance in a London courtroom. 

And on that note, good night from London. See ya tomorrow.

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