The last of the episodes of this brief B.B.C. series ON TRIAL is the 1895 trial of Wilde v. Queensberry for libel, which led to the demolition of the career and life of the great Anglo - Irish writer. I did not see this episode (as I did not see the other episodes of the series), but the story is so well known it needs little retelling (as opposed to say the story of Spencer Cowper or that of Sir William Gordon-Cumming). I point out my discussion of the Robert Morley movie "Oscar Wilde" made in 1960. It gives a good run-down of the events and the turning point of this tragic trial.
So what can I discuss here. Well, I can say a little bit about the characters of the two rival barristers involved. I mentioned both in other reviews. Wilde was defended by Sir Edward Clarke. Known as "the Bayard of the Bar", Clarke has been called a Victorian original by the English legal historian Edgar Lustgarten. What Lustgarten meant was that while his rivals like Sir Charles Russell or Sir Edward Carson showed styles of legal expertise in handling witnesses, cross-examining, and building legal arguments that other later barristers followed (sort of like legal schools), Clarke was like a knight-errant of the middle ages. He was at his best when he defended a person that he fully believed in. The best example was his defense of Adelaide Bartlett in 1886 for the poison murder of her husband, where his actions demolished the testimony of Bartlett's father-in-law (who certainly had financial reasons for his belligerence) as well as her lover and the doctor who mis-diagnosed Edwin Bartlett. But he always put his heart and soul into his defenses. In the Tranby-Croft "Baccarat" Case he destroyed the reputations of several socialites in the entourage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, and put the Prince in the witness box, explaining why he was the banker in an illegal gambling game.
In Wilde's case, Sir Edward apparently fully believed Wilde's initial denial of his homosexual lifestyle with Lord Alfred Douglas. As a result he was severely surprised by Wilde's blunder in Carson's cross-examination. Yet, despite his disappointment, Carson remained Wilde's loyal barrister through the second trial, where Wilde was tried for being a homosexual. He lost the case, but his personal nobility in sticking with Wilde is to be admired.
Sir Edward Carson, the man who pinned Wilde in the witness box (due to that stupid quip about how the telegraph boy was too ugly to be kissed), was one of late Victorian/Edwardian England's greatest barristers. He also would serve in the British Cabinet as Attorney General (in 1903) and as First Lord of the Admiralty (in 1916) among other roles. If Clarke was "the Bayard" knight-errant, Carson was the active political animal defending the best aspects of British citizenship as he was it. This may have been taken too far - he was a supporter of Joe Chamberlain's Union Party, and was opposed to Irish Home Rule, to the point that before World War I he advocated a point of view regarding Protestant Northern Ireland that approached treason. Yet he ended up being a respected statesman, while his opponent on Home Rule, John Redmond, ended up being ignored and forgotten.
Carson's work as a barrister included the handling of the case of George Chapman, the Borough Poisoner, in 1903, who killed three "wives" with poison between 1897 and 1902. He got a conviction in that case. He also was the barrister for young Archer-Shee, the naval academy cadet accused of theft of postal money orders and thrown out of the academy as a result. His long campaign to win a rehearing and acquittal for the boy in 1910-1911 is the basis for the two film versions of Terrence Rattigan's play "The Winslow Boy". Carson, to force the Home Secretary to proper fair action (the Home Secretary was the young Winston Churchill, by the way), had to keep bringing up the matters in the House of Commons until action was taken (and "right was done!"). In short he was a complex figure, and not very easy to buttonhole.
When modern Northern and Southern Ireland were created in 1922, Carson was appalled. Unlike his associate Sir James Craig (who accepted the division) Carson wanted Ireland to remain united. In the late 1920s he tried to work with Southern Irish leaders to reunite the two sections, but nothing resulted as a result.
Regarding his demolition of Wilde, Carson regretted it. He and Wilde had been schoolmates at Trinity College in Dublin decades earlier (which led to Wilde making a mildly chiding comment about old schoolmates at the trial, that Carson fully understood). He had a job to do - and did it very well - but learned it was too well done. About three years after the trials ended, and after Wilde left Reading Gaol and went into exile, Carson was on a trip to France. In Paris he bumped into Wilde, now frequently drunk and in a poorer state of clothing. Carson was horrified to see what his successful cross-examination did. But he never spoke of the event again.
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