Doubtful as Men

How the effeminate Oscar Wilde was likened to women in 1882.

effeteDuring his lecture tour of America in 1882, Oscar Wilde was often described as effeminate.

It has often been thought that Oscar was acting the part of the effeminate; certainly, he was playing up to it: his dress and manner coinciding with the “namby-pamby” image of Bunthorne from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience that preceded him.

But, given our knowledge that Wilde continued to display the same effeminate sensitivities throughout his life, how much of his 1882 pose was an act?

Perhaps it is the case that rather than his being landed with an effeminate role, Wilde gravitated towards it.

Indeed, he portrayed his role so convincingly that, as we shall discover, the ever-anticipatory Wilde was conceptualized as female.


Oscar Wilde had been in the the United Sates a mere two weeks when the Lowell Daily Courier questioned his masculinity, and that of his cohorts.

doubtful-as-men

whitmanmiller

20N

In much the same way that Wilde observed how a pair of trousers could excite a nation, there was also a widespread suspicion of long hair. But unlike many of his contemporaries, what made Wilde particularly susceptible to suggestion, as we can see from these pictures, was that he was also clean-shaven in an era of bewhiskered men.

If Wilde was pursuing the notoriety of effeminacy, then being clean-shaven was an obvious advantage. So it is more notable that in the doubtful masculinity stakes he was even ahead of his equally beardless friend, Theodore Tilton:

warren sheaf (warren minnesota 2-16-82-3 copyMES19284_med

Given Wilde’s tall stature, the press focus on gender-bending was on his countenance. Among a myriad examples typical is the Cincinnati Gazette a month later:

The large, long face, framed in thick locks of brown hair, parted in the center and falling either side of the cheeks almost to the shoulders, which gives to a certain womanly air…

One member of the Century Club in New York remarked that “she looks like as much like a man as she can.” “Yes”, replied another, “but you can’t expect much from a Charlotte Ann.” [cf. charlatan]

This next example from January, 1882, places Wilde firmly in the other camp:

The_Daily_Review_Sat__Sep_23__1882_

As the year progressed, the theme of the unmanly Wilde developed into an awareness, perhaps subconscious, of a gender continuum: the rationale being that where effeminacy ends, femininity begins. So the next stage for the ultimate aesthete was androgyny:

The Courier-Journal Louisville Kentucky 1-22-82-9 copy

By a Victorian process of transgendering, Wilde was not just being seen as womanly, but as a woman, and it was not long before he passed through the kingdom of famously doubtful men into the queendom of the well-known female personality.

GEORGE ELIOT

MTE5NDg0MDU0OTU3NDI2MTkxeliot-wilde23N copy

Suspiciously, George Eliot died just as Oscar Wilde began to emerge as a longhaired lookalike. Indeed, The Topeka Daily Capital (above) noted their common ugliness.

Some equally unkind observers might have thought it hardly necessary for the former Mary Ann Evans to change her name in order to convince readers that she was a man. But the point of the article was not the masculinity of Eliot’s ‘equine visage’ (as the Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye later put it)—the point was the femininity of Oscar Wilde’s.

Nor was this observation unique. Separately, a thousand miles away and months later, The Providence Morning Star thought their homogeneity warranted inclusion in a listing of vital news of the day that included local fires, the marriage of a senator, and the death of an archbishop:

eliot

It should be accepted, however, that the Wilde/Eliot conjunction owed as much to their similar appearance as it did to their common androgyny. To detect any trend we should invoke a Wildean dictum:

To compare Oscar to one woman may be regarded as a misfortune; to compare him to two seems like significance.

So to Oscar and George, we must add that other non-man, Gordon.

LAURA DE FORCE GORDON

lauradeforcegordonstockton19N1

The subheading to a report of Oscar’s visit to Stockton, CA, notes that, in looks, Oscar resembled Laura Gordon.

Laura de Force Gordon ( 1838—1907) was an American lawyer, editor, and a prominent campaigner for women’s rights in the American West. She was the first woman to run a daily newspaper in the United States (the Stockton Daily Leader, 1873). She was also a key proponent of the Women’s Lawyers Bill allowing women to practice law in California, and the related language in the California Constitution allowing women to practice any profession in California. Given her activism towards equality, Wilde would have appreciated being associated with Gordon.

In 1882, Wilde’s flowing locks and knee-breeches so threatened accepted gender norms that some feared the nature that Wilde and Gordon clearly struggled to express in their time. These notions of threat and fear in the acceptance of a nature still linger as we consider the case of Caitlyn Jenner. Let us hope that we can emerge from the foreshadow of the transatlantic Oscar to finally assimilate the era of the transgender celebrity.

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

3 thoughts on “Doubtful as Men”

  1. Another good one. May I have some dates please. “Among a myriad examples typical is the Cincinnati Gazette a month later:” Later than what?
    1871 6 10 Richard Le Gallienne’s (1866.1.20-1947) sister Charlotte Anne b. Liverpool. (Fifth child).
    1882 3 2 Another of a series of anonymous cables deriding OW’s lectures (probably from Archibald Forbes (1838-1900.3.30)) reaches the London Daily News from the US. “Many members of the [Century Association, NY] refused to be presented to him at all … one veteran member saying ‘I understand she’s a Charlotte-Ann’ “.
    Thanks again.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s