How the effeminate Oscar Wilde was likened to women in 1882
During his lecture tour of America in 1882, Oscar Wilde was often described in interviews and articles 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 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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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
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.
The subheading to a report of Oscar’s visit to Stockton, CA, notes that, in looks, Oscar resembled Laura 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 question of identity. Let us hope that we can emerge from the foreshadow of the transatlantic Oscar to finally assimilate the era of the transgender celebrity.