Wilde in London, in the great days pre-gaol
Wilde's arrival in Paris coincided with the infamous Dreyfus trial of 1894 and its fall out, including the nasty role of Count Ferdinand Esterhazy (1847–1923). Wilde first met Esterhazy in a Paris cafe, and immediately the two men were drawn to each other. Wilde was fascinated by this unkempt, tubercular crook while Esterhazy pounded his new friend with relentless outbursts against Jews in general and supporters of Dreyfus in particular.
Count Ferdinand Esterhazy, the true spy in the Dreyfus Case
But it was Esterhazy's confession to Wilde at a dinner one night that brought the whole Dreyfus affair to a head. Along with Wilde and Esterhazy were an anti-Semite English journalist, Rowland Strong, and a pro-Semite young Irish bohemian poet, Chris Healy. At the behest of the pro-Dreyfusards, an indifferent Wilde prompted Esterhazy during his usual delirium about Jews into blurting out that it was he, Esterhazy, who'd been selling secret military intelligence to the Germans. Esterhazy proudly shouted that he put Dreyfus in prison, and all of France couldn’t get him out! Oscar Wilde’s reluctant role, according to Naughton, was in “outing” the real traitor, Esterhazy. As it happened, Wilde cared little for the pro-Dreyfusards.
Not so Chris Healy, who immediately made contact with French writer Emile Zola. Zola was serving a prison sentence for libel after publishing his famous J'accuse, a devastating indictment of the French government, army and courts and their role in the framing of Captain Dreyfus. Zola tried to contact Wilde, but Wilde refused to co-operate with him. Why? Apparently because Zola had refused to sign a petition on behalf of Wilde at the time of his own conviction in Britain. Zola contacted other sympathetic journalists, and eventually they exposed and destroyed the corrupt cover-up that had been built around the Dreyfus case.
13 Rue des Beaux Arts, Wilde's last residence
Dreyfusian France is a subject I know very well, so I had ask myself if Naughton had the entire story? I soon found “A Tale of Two Scandals” by Nigel Jones. After parting from Alfred Douglas in Italy in late 1897, an unemployed, impoverished Wilde returned to Paris in early 1898, during Emile Zola’s trial over the J’accuse article. The political firestorm following Captain Dreyfus’ imprisonment and Emile Zola’s guilty verdict threatened the very survival of the Third Republic. Frenzied mobs, howling anti-Semitic hatred, were supported by the army, government, Catholic church and most of the press.
Jones certainly knew that the apparent villain of the affair, Count Esterhazy, was a crappy soldier, boastful, malicious, a gambler, drinker and womaniser. However Jones tended to believe the Esterhazy was really a double agent, deliberately planted on the Germans, rather than a true traitor. Even if Jones was correct, would that have made any difference to Wilde’s attitudes?
Oscar Wilde’s intimate friendship with Esterhazy seems bizarre to us. Wilde had himself been a persecuted martyr and victim of a viciously punitive homophobic morality in Britain. Surely liberal, socialist Wilde would have been on the side of the innocent man, not aligning himself with the forces of reaction, Church power and punitive right wing politics. Yet if Esterhazy had been innocent, Wilde suggested, the British author would have had nothing to do with the Frenchman. Thus Wilde was being paradoxical, provocative and ironic in his denunciation of Capt Dreyfus, not specifically anti-Semitic.
Esterhazy didn’t care. He saw himself and Wilde as the two greatest martyrs of humanity; Captain Dreyfus was a pushy, German-speaking Jew who, if he did not spy for Germany, probably wanted to.
In the end, Wilde contracted cerebral meningitis, was baptised into the Catholic Church in 1900 and died in poverty. Zola was asphyxiated in Paris in 1900. Commander George Picquart, the hero of the entire sordid affair, was freed from gaol and made a minister in the Clemenceau government. He died in 1914. Esterhazy escaped to Britain where he received a pension cheque every month from France and lived out his life in splendid comfort in Hertfordshire. He died in 1923.
What was the difference between Naughton’s and Jones’ attitudes to Oscar Wilde? Naughton saw Wilde as disinterested in the Dreyfus affair, so his role in exposing Esterhazy was accidental and reluctant. Jones saw Wilde as vitally interested in the Dreyfus affair and in Zola, so his role was intentional, paradoxical and in the end very risky.
Jones gave a reference to J Robert Maguire, “Oscar Wilde and the Dreyfus Affair” in Victorian Studies, vol 41, #1. I haven’t located the journal yet, but note that Maguire wrote the article way back in 1997. This story has been around for 15 years!
Wilde's tomb, Lachaise Cemetery, Paris