Trail 1: On the Wilde Side

Image: Bust of Oscar Wilde by Melanie le Brocquy Stewart in the Hall at Magdalen.


[This page is currently under construction]


Oscar Wilde Oxford 1876


This page can be read on its own or used as the basis for a Victorian trail of Oxford’s city centre.


1. The Shipley Case

All Souls is the setting of a dramatic scandal which reveals much about the sensitivities of the Georgian era, especially tensions between the sexual possibilities of the intimate homosocial world of Oxford dons and the critical importance of sexual propriety to character and reputation. The scandal was lost to history until relatively recently when bundles of documents relating to the episode were discovered in the archives. The package had been assiduously tied up with string, the knots sealed with red wax bearing the College’s stamp, and labelled simply ‘The Shipley Case’. With the permission of the Warden and Librarian, it was carefully opened. The extraordinary story it revealed was subsequently related by the eminent clergyman and historian John McManners in his book All Souls and the Shipley Case (1808-1810), published by All Souls in 2002.

The drama centred on Charles Shipley, a Fellow of All Souls from 1805 until his dismissal in July 1809. His exit from Oxford was occasioned by an accusation levied against him by Charles Slatter, a 19-year-old errand boy from a nearby bookshop. As was customary, Slatter delivered books to Shipley in his rooms on several occasions during October 1808. Following such a visit on Wednesday 26 October, Slatter told his employer that Shipley had attempted to commit gross indecencies on him on two occasions, alleging that Shipley had tried to kiss him, fumbling in the youth’s breeches saying ‘I would like to frig you’. Slatter said that when he resisted, Shipley had implored him not to tell and gave him half a guinea, which Slatter was able to produce to support the story. Informed about the accusation, the authorities at All Souls moved surprisingly swiftly against Shipley. He denied the charges, although he admitted scuffing the lad under the chin and making a remark about girls. The Warden (Edmund Isham) and other senior Fellows quickly resolved that Shipley should resign his Fellowship, largely, it appears, based on the apparent good reputation of his young accuser.

Despite moving against Shipley on such little evidence, a meticulous investigation ensued, the force of which intensified when Shipley’s family pushed for proceedings to be conducted in open court rather than in secrecy behind closed College doors. Steadily, Slatter’s character was questioned. He was found to be boastful and deceitful. It was further discovered that, with their father’s connivance, Slatter and his brothers were associated with men of notoriety and, as a result, the youths were rarely short of money. If convicted, Slatter would stand to gain a significant amount in damages from Shipley. A convincing defence was therefore mounted and the Oxford court took just ten minutes to acquit Shipley. Isham, however, was not convinced that Shipley’s conduct had been worthy of that of a gentleman and insisted the College hold its own enquiry. At these proceedings Shipley was convicted and expelled from All Souls for ‘using indecent language to, and of acting in an indecent manner towards Charles Slatter’. Possibly this harsh treatment from the College’s senior officers, who set themselves against Shipley from a very early stage of their investigations, was motivated by a desire to be seen to be acting resolutely against immorality. Shipley, a relatively new Fellow, was cut loose.


2. Percy Bysshe Shelley & the Shelley Memorial (Univ)

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was expelled from Univ in 1811, along with his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862), for circulating a paper on atheism. Shelley’s homoeroticism has only recently been acknowledged as an important dynamic in his life and work. As is so often the case, historians are thwarted by deliberate attempts to hide the facts of sexual nonconformity in the lives of famous figures. After the poet’s early death, Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium—which included an essay on same-sex desire among the ancient Greeks—was mutilated by his widow Mary who wanted to bring it in line with Victorian standards of morality. She changed ‘men’ to ‘human beings’ and ‘love’ to ‘friendship’ and truncated the Alcibiades episode. Many other letters and manuscripts that may have given us greater insight into Percy Shelley’s eroticism are also known to have been purposefully destroyed. Thankfully, some have survived, including a letter that expresses the depth of love that he had for Thomas Hogg whom Shelley referred to as ‘the brother of my soul’. Shelley wrote:

You have chosen me, and we are inseparable. …Are you not he whom I love…? …If I thought we were to be long parted, I should be wretchedly miserable-half-mad! …Will you come; will you share my fortunes, enter into my schemes, love me as I love you, be inseparable, as once I fondly hoped we were? …Oh! How I have loved you! I was even ashamed to tell you how!

The College authorities at Univ recognised the great poet’s importance with the Shelley Memorial, created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) and housed in a specially built enclosure designed by Basil Champneys. It was inaugurated on 14 June 1893. The monument was commissioned by Shelley’s daughter-in-law, Lady (Jane) Shelley, and was originally intended for the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where the poet’s ashes were interred after he was tragically drowned at sea during a storm on 8 July 1822, less than a month before his thirtieth birthday (his body was cremated in accordance with quarantine laws). The statue, however, was too large for the site and so Lady Shelley offered it to Univ where it was duly accepted, although from the outset there was a marked lack of enthusiasm for the provocative artistic tropes of the object.


The Shelley Memorial at Univ (photograph Jenner Collins, 2006)

Gloriously ambiguous in a number of ways, the languid figure of the drowned poet lies on a marble slab supported by two winged lions. The muses of poetry stand close by.
Onslow Ford, a leading light of the ‘New Sculpture Movement’, created the statue precisely at the time when modernist writers and artists—including several of Oxford’s leading queer avant-gardes such as John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde—were refashioning Shelley’s life and writings to reflect their profound interest in Greek classicism. Shelley’s memory, his Hellenism, and, in depictions such as Onslow Ford’s monument, his body were used as conduits for modernists to evoke the classical world. Onslow Ford purposefully evokes the visual idiom of the classical male nude with all its homoerotic potentialities, depicting the dead poet naked even though it was documented that Shelley’s body had washed up on the shore clothed. The figure is also decidedly androgynous, echoing a common trope in depictions of Shelley (it has been suggested that Onslow Ford used a young woman as a model, although his son claimed that it had been him). As such, the statue is iconic of the aesthetics and sexual politics of late-Victorian Hellenism, a situation which has only been fully appreciated in recent years.

The housing of the monument in an all-male environment undoubtedly exacerbated the queer tensions of the piece (Univ only accepted female undergraduates from 1979). It has long been the butt of student jokes and pranks, variously being adorned with lipstick and a wig, having its toenails varnished blue, and its enclosure filled with water and goldfish (to name just a few of the japes that the marble Shelley has endured through the years).

The power of the piece to raise eyebrows is nicely captured in an amusing, but disparaging, poem titled ‘At Shelley’s Memorial’, published in The Isis on 31 January 1914 (attributed only to ‘J. A. M.’):

Is this our old friend, Percy Bysshe,
Described with such technique and vigour?
Can you not hear the very swish
Of waves against his Attic figure?

How marvellous! What could be Greeker?
I wonder what would Percy Bysshe do
If he could see his fair replica
Stuck on a pedestal with fish-glue!

The College that had sent him down
Raised in his memory this excrescence,
Behold he lies, sans cap, sans gown,
A useless lump of opalescence.

And guileless youths, who come to gloat
On Shelley’s death, begin to shiver,
Get meningitis in the throat
And fatal chills upon the liver.

And there he lies, unique, obscene,
Open to what interpretation?
His face so perfect, so serene,
Fills me with endless irritation.

Stain on the University,
O blot upon its fair escutcheon!
I’d like to smack you where you lie!
And, you know, you’ve not got much on.

Another poem, published in The Isis in the edition dated 4 May 1915, is more serious, but still conveys the passionate feelings evoked by the statue:

White listless cold recumbent marble form;
White piteous proud ethereal drowned face;
Shelly, thou liest in such sovereign grace
That we can nigh forgive the Spezzian storm
Which reft theeof that witful vivid warm
Enkindling soul, whereunto time and space
Were bonds intolerable and in place
Of breath abnormal gave thee death for norm.
Here in this azure-vaulted calm retreat
Death seems so restful. Shelley,—seems so sweet;
Fearfully therefore, lest it come amiss
That one as I unworthy should do this,
I stoop and leave upon thy marble feet
(Behold) the reverent tribute of a kiss.

Thankfully, more recent authorities have salvaged the work from critical obscurity and today the Shelley Memorial is recognised as a masterpiece of late-Victorian sculpture.


3. Benjamin Jowett (Balliol)

During the nineteenth century Balliol College was the epicentre of an intellectual revolution. The force behind this significant development was the great scholar and theologian Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893) who sought to establish the study of ancient Greece as a viable alternative to Christian theology at Oxford. From a queer perspective, Jowett is particularly noted for his translations of Plato’s erotic dialogues, his investigations of Greek love, and his influence on a generation of writers including Matthew Arnold, John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and E. M. Forster. However, given that his translations bowdlerised Plato and obscured the homoerotic relationships in Greek literature, Jowett’s contribution to the queer literary tradition is mixed. He might best be remembered as a poignant example of the hypocrisy and embattled relationships that resulted from the institutional sexual prejudice of the Victorian age.


4. Walter Pater (Queen’s & Brasenose)

Another of Oxford’s most notable academics, Walter Pater (1839-1894), studied Classics at Queen’s between 1858 and 1862. He subsequently became a Fellow of Brasenose. Pater’s passionate advocacy of the supremacy and sensuality of art influenced Oscar Wilde, among others, who absorbed the attitudes towards homoeroticism and promiscuity that were contained, albeit in coded form, in Pater’s writing. Pater himself was cautious in his own erotic relationships and not much is really known about them. He was, however, involved in a scandal in 1874 when it was discovered that he had written letters—signed ‘Yours Lovingly’—to William Money Hardinge, an undergraduate also known as ‘the Balliol Bugger’.

Walter Pater

Walter Pater (National Portrait Gallery, London / Elliot & Fry 1890s)

Pater grave Holywell Cemetery

Pater’s grave at Holywell Cemetery, Oxford (photograph Ross Brooks, 2009)


5. John Addington Symonds

John Addington Symonds (1807-1871)—nicknamed ‘Mr Soddington Symonds’ by Swinburne—was one of Benjamin Jowett’s protégés at Balliol. Later, Symonds also studied, somewhat unhappily, at Magdalen. Symonds was integral in establishing classical ideas about same-sex love in an overtly emancipatory context. He is now regarded as the first modern historian of queer eroticism and the first British advocate of gay liberation. A reader of classics, Symonds discovered in his study of Plato’s Symposium an illustrious history of the homoerotic activity that he had witnessed during his schooldays at Harrow, activity that he had struggled to understand. He became convinced that erotic love between men had the potential to regain its idealism and beauty and dedicated several works to the task. His history of Greek love, A Problem in Greek Ethics, written in 1873 and published with limited circulation in 1883, was followed by an important defence of male love in modern society. A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891) now stands as a landmark work in the development of a new erotic sensibility based on same-sex love.


6. Algernon Charles Swinburne (Balliol)

Another Balliol graduate, Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) was one of the great characters in English literature. His Poems and Ballads (1865) scandalised Victorian critical and moral opinion and was withdrawn from circulation by its publisher. The volume included ‘Doloresy’ (which glorified masochism), ‘Hermaphroditus’ (which exhibited Swinburne’s lasting interest in bisexuality), and ‘Anactoria’ (which glorified lesbianism in an address of Sappho to her lover). Swinburne was a masochist and a flagellant who enjoyed visits to the flagellation brothels of London, particularly the Verbena Lodge. He was fascinated by lesbianism and bisexuality, not only for their eroticism, but also because he interpreted them as gestures of social and cultural rebellion.


Algernon Swinburne (front row, second from left) with nine of his peers at Oxford in 1860 (photograph National Portrait Gallery, London / photographer unknown).


7. Gerard Manley Hopkins (Balliol)

Poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) also studied under Benjamin Jowett at Balliol. In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian era, Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine. The closest that Hopkins seems to have come to indulging his undoubted homoerotic passions at Oxford was his crush on Digby Mackworth Dolben, a religious flamboyant. Hopkins’ biographer Robert Bernard Martin asserts that Hopkins’ meeting with Dolben—on the occasion of the latter’s 17th birthday—at Oxford in February 1865, ‘was, quite simply, the most momentous emotional event of [Hopkins’] undergraduate years, probably of his entire life.’ Before Dolben’s tragic death at the age of nineteen, he had encouraged Hopkins to embrace Catholicism—one of the few acceptable routes that erotically nonconforming men could take to avoid marriage in the 19th century. Hopkins’ choice of the religious rule of the Jesuits seems to have been a deliberate attempt to discipline what he feared were his dangerously sensuous passions.


8. Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (Magdalen)

Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and his soulmate Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) were both at Magdalen, although not at the same time.

Wilde arrived at Magdalen in October 1874. He occupied three different rooms: Number 1, 2 Pair Right, in Chaplain’s for his first year; Number 8, Ground Floor Right, in Cloisters for his second and third years; and—the most splendid, overlooking the Cherwell—Kitchen Stairs, 1 Pair Left, for his final year.

It is at Magdalen that Wilde is purported to have commented ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china’. The comment was represented in this cartoon by George Du Maurier in Punch, published on 30 October 1880. Titled ‘The Six-Mark Tea-Pot’, the cartoon signals the beginning of Wilde’s long relationship with the 19th-century’s best known satirical magazine.

The diary of one of Wilde’s friends, Bodley, tells of a raucous visit to the theatre on 29 Jan 1875 to see some Tyrolese yodellers. Ejected by stagehands for their ‘grand ballyrag’, Wilde, Bodley, and their party took the yodellers to the Mitre (on the High) for more singing.

It was as an undergraduate at Oxford that Wilde’s erotic feelings for other men came to fruition for the first time. There was, of course, no concept of ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ at this time. The medically-derived term ‘homosexual’ was also not yet in English usage. Wilde’s generation, however, was familiar with the homoerotic traditions of the ancient Greeks and it was this ‘Greek love’ that resonated with Wilde’s own developing eroticism.

At Magdalen Wilde began writing poetry, many of his poems celebrating great male lovers of men from Greek history and mythology. Gossip was never far away from Wilde and within a year of his arrival at Magdalen a fellow undergraduate, John Bodley, recorded in his diary: ‘old Wilde is a damned compromising acquaintance’ who was in the habit of leaving ‘foolish letters from people who are “hungry” for him…for his friends to read’.

Wilde courted several women during his time at Oxford—there is an unproven story that he caught syphilis from one of the prostitutes that worked Oxford’s High St—but simultaneously engaged in several passionate erotic dalliances with other men. These affairs were interrupted by periods of tortured self-doubt and remorse. This was a dark and dangerous time for homoerotic relationships, as Wilde would eventually discover to the cost of us all.

Having attained a double first in Greats (no easy feat, despite his nonchalance regarding his academic efforts), Wilde left Oxford in 1878 vowing to become famous, or if not famous, notorious. He succeeded at both. A succession of brilliantly insightful comic plays, most notably Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), made Wilde the toast of London society, a role he relished. Prose works and poems such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) have similarly entered the canon of English literature as classics.

Whilst an undergraduate, Wilde was photographed on several occasions with his friends by Hills & Saunders (who had a studio at 16 Cornmarket). Courtesy of the Clark Library, UCLA.

Oscar Wilde 4

Magdalen houses some wonderful Wildean memorabilia including this window pane from Wilde’s room on Kitchen Stairs on which he etched a cartoon of his friend William ‘Bouncer’ Ward with a dog (courtesy of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford)

Oscar Wilde 3

Leaf from one of several autograph letters held at Magdalen (courtesy of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford). Transcripts of all Wilde’s fascinating correspondence whilst at Oxford can be found in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis.


Torn about his sexuality and anxious for social acceptance, Wilde eventually married and fathered two children while continuing to pursue affairs with men. He continued to visit Oxford frequently after graduating, referring to the city as ‘the capital of romance’.
Known fondly as ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) attended Magdalen between 1889 and 1893, although he left without taking his degree. He is best remembered for his romance with Oscar Wilde but was a recognised poet in his own right. His first serious poem, ‘Autumn Days’, was published in The Oxford Magazine in 1890.

From December 1892 to June 1893 Douglas edited The Spirit Lamp, an undergraduate journal that included many poems, stories, and essays with homoerotic themes. In 1894 Douglas was asked by John Francis Bloxam—also a man-loving Oxonian—to contribute to another undergraduate journal, The Chameleon. Douglas contributed two poems, ‘In Praise of Shame’ and ‘Two Loves’. In the latter, Douglas famously referred to homoeroticism as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.

On 18 February 1895, only four days after the triumphant opening of Earnest, Douglas’ father—the bitter, half-crazed ninth Marquess of Queensberry—left a card at Wilde’s London club marked ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite’. Yes, he spelt it wrong. Encouraged by Douglas—who hated his father—Wilde sued Queensberry, igniting the most notorious scandal of the Victorian era. Its reverberations were felt throughout Europe. There were three trials in all, faced by Wilde with unprecedented dignity and courage but culminating in his conviction for ‘gross indecency between males’, his public humiliation, two years imprisonment in Reading gaol, and his subsequent exile.
During Wilde’s trials Douglas escaped to France to avoid being called upon as a witness. His first collection, Poems, was published in France in 1896 while Wilde was in prison. It was published anonymously in English and was a huge success. After Wilde was released he and Douglas resumed their relationship in France but Wilde was clearly a broken man—demonstrated by his early death in 1900.

From the ashes of his fall, however, Wilde has subsequently emerged as a beacon of queerness across the world, a symbol of defiance in the face of ignorance, contempt, and prejudice. Wilde even dubbed himself ‘the infamous St Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr’. He remains a shining star that we can all look up to.

The best account of Wilde’s time at Oxford can be found in the early chapters of Making Oscar Wilde (2018) by Michèle Mendelssohn.

The 1997 biopic, Wilde, with Stephen Fry as Wilde and Jude Law as Bosie, largely portrays Wilde’s life after he left Oxford although some scenes were filmed at Magdalen.


Other notable people who attended Oxford during the nineteenth century include:

Balliol can boast of innumerable other LGBTQ alumni with pride. They include:
Poet and author of macabre fiction, Count Eric Stenbock (1860-1895), attended Balliol but never completed his studies. Whilst at Oxford Stenbock was deeply influenced by the man-loving Pre-Raphaelite artist and illustrator Simeon Solomon. Among others, Stenbock is also thought to have had an affair with the composer Norman O’Neill. Stenbock’s key works include Love, Sleep, and Dreams (1881) and The Shadow of Death (1894). Marc Almond’s 2008 CD Gabriel & The Lunatic Lover contains two songs based on Stenbock’s poems.


© Ross Brooks, 2020