Oscar Wilde came to Worthing in July 1894 to escape not just the unpleasantness of London during a heatwave, but also to escape the unpleasant accusations being made against him by the Marquis of Queensbury.
Lord Alfred Douglas, Queensbury’s son was Wilde’s lover and although at this stage, the Marquis did not to know the exact nature of that relationship, he was determined that the liaison should end.
It was, one suspects, Wilde and Douglas’ overt behaviour which incensed Queensbury so much.
Wilde was in the habit of promenading in prominent places, sporting a green carnation. The Marquis was further enraged when his son replied to him with a curt little telegram, declaring: ‘what a funny little man you are.’
This set Queensbury off on a course of vengeance that would lead to the notorious libel charge and trail at the Old Bailey.
As well as escaping his personal difficulties, Wilde also hoped to write a new play while staying at Worthing.
His wife, who was not divorcing him at this time, contrary to Queensbury’s claims, had taken rooms at the Esplanade, and the whole family took up residence for the duration of the summer months.
Wilde wrote to Douglas, whom he affectionately called ‘Bosie,’ urging him to postpone visiting Worthing, as he was sure that he would soon be bored.
Wilde seems to have forgotten all his cares at Worthing and concentrated on completing his play, The Importance of Being Earnest, with its characters, ‘Mr. Worthing,’ and ‘Bunbury,'(a name he appears to have taken from one of the local newspapers).
Furthermore, he seems to have revelled in his celebrity status in the town.
His suave appearance and witty comments apparently endeared him to the people of Worthing, who took to cheering him on his public appearances.
He was asked by the mayor to present the prizes at the Worthing Regatta, and the offer was accepted with cordiality by the great playwright – who appeared to many in Worthing as the town’s saviour, following on from the typhoid epidemic of the previous year.
Wilde’s appearance at the Regatta and his amusing address was devoured by the local press, desperate for some good news after so much gloom.
Wilde responded in kind to the adulation and in a letter to Douglas, wrote that his arrival at the prize-giving: ‘excited great enthusiasm, and certainly the hall was crammed. I was greeted with loud applause..’ The local newspapers eagerly reported all that ‘Mr. Wilde’ had to say about the town in his speech.
He praised the high quality of entertainment in the town, particularly the festivals which were held in the town during the summer, the Lifeboat Day and, of course, the Regatta, which he declared had only been marred by the instrusion of commercialism into the proceedings: ‘there was a sailing boat, not belonging to Worthing, but coming from some wicked, tasteless spot, which bore a huge advertisement for a patent pill. I do hope that boat will never be allowed to enter Worthing again.’
Wilde went on to praise Worthing for its surroundings and facilities – including the excellence of the drinking water – and in particular he exhorted the splendour of the scenery, while in a typical piece of Wildean wit, declaring: ‘it has beautiful surroundings and lovely long walks, which I recommend to other people, but never take myself.’
He concluded by praising the people of the town for their capacity to enjoy themselves: ‘To my mind few things are so important as the capacity to be amused, feeling pleasure, and giving it to others. For whenever a person is happy, he is good, although perhaps when he is good he is not always happy.’ Loud applause and laughter followed those remarks.
Wilde is remembered today as a man persecuted by a harsh and unforgiving society, typified by the pugilistic Marquis of Queensbury.
Wilde was in many ways emotionally a child himself, not thinking or considering the implications of his actions.
With the benefit of hindsight and with a modern slant on language, the headlines and comments in the local newspapers, reporting on Wilde in Worthing, are as painful as they are humorous, in a manner Wilde himself would no doubt have approved of – ‘Mr Oscar Wilde Dilates On Worthing’s Charms,’ ran one headline; while an editorial enthused, ‘our distinguished visitor has perceived beauty in all that the community has been privileged to put before his eyes.’ Oh dear.
Needless to say, none of the Worthing newspapers reported any of the details concerning Wilde’s arrest, trail or imprisonment; although the rest of the country was only too aware of Wilde and his goings-on at Worthing.
Riots against the Salvation Army, typhoid fever and now gross indecency: Worthing was certainly getting a great deal of national publicity, but not the sort of publicity that the new council was hoping for!