‘Literature on Trial: Wilde, Lawrence and the Old Bailey’

Brian Fox

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review


This paper will discuss the Old Bailey trials of Oscar Wilde and D.H. Lawrence (through Penguin Books), focusing on the role played by London’s pre-eminent legal landmark and its representatives in the literary histories of these two authors and the crises of morality they provoked in the State. Recent scholarship has developed the idea that Wilde’s performances at the Old Bailey were just that: theatrical performances blurring the lines between legal and literary history. Wilde himself regarded the trials in similar terms; his biographer Richard Ellmann tells us: ‘If nothing else, he would put on a good show’. Moreover, the transcripts from the trial reveal the extent to which it was literature itself that was on trial, as Wilde defends and defines his writings through cross-examination. In his literary manifesto, ‘The Critic as Artist’, Wilde prefigures the terms he will later use to defend himself and his writing against the morality of the State: ‘To be good, according to the vulgar standard of goodness, is obviously quite easy. It merely requires a certain amount of sordid terror, a certain lack of imaginative thought, and a certain low passion for middle-class respectability. Aesthetics are higher than ethics’. During the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, Richard Hoggart, a senior lecturer in English literature at Leicester University is called on to defend Lawrence’s novel, adding to the sense of an ongoing clash between literature and the Old Bailey. As Geoffrey Robertson QC has noted, the Old Bailey has, for centuries, provided the ultimate arena for challenging the State, adding: ‘Judges in 1960 regarded themselves, rather more than they do today, as the custodians of moral virtue. In performing this egregious function, they came to blur the distinction between literature and life’. Taking these Old Bailey trials and the challenges they presented to State morality, this paper will argue that the Old Bailey itself becomes a focal point of this legal-literary history. However, rather than opposing the Old Bailey to the Academy, as represented by Richard Hoggart, say, it will argue that the Old Bailey becomes a substitute for the Academy, particularly in the case of Wilde when the institution was still relatively new (the first chair of English Literature at Oxford was only established in 1904, while English at Cambridge did not rank as a sole honours subject until 1926). In this light, the Old Bailey is transformed into an institutional forum for literary criticism, exegesis, praise and disapproval, as well as for literary marketing (nothing sells books like notoriety). Both trials represent a crisis of morality for the State, yet the very institution it employs to bring the crisis to order is thus found to be complicit in that challenge to the State. This blurred distinction at the heart of the Old Bailey’s role in the Wilde and Lawrence trials is the subject of this paper.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 2013
EventLiterary London 2013: Representations of London in Literature, An Interdisciplinary Conference - Institute of English Studies, University of London, London, United Kingdom
Duration: 17 Jul 201319 Jul 2013


ConferenceLiterary London 2013: Representations of London in Literature, An Interdisciplinary Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom

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