Did Edward Carson deserve his reputation as destroyer of Oscar Wilde?

Ahead of a new documentary looking at the epic courtroom clash between Edward Carson and Oscar Wilde, the playwright's only grandson, Merlin Holland, tells Gail Bell of the 'moving moment' he first saw the record of his grandfather's death-bed conversion to Catholicism

Edward Carson and Oscar Wilde who are the subjects of a new documentary film, Edward Carson And The Fall Of Oscar Wilde
Gail Bell

IN THE chilly interior of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, Merlin Holland is thoughtfully surveying the tomb of Edward Carson, observing its plainness – “just a piece of stone with a surname” – and noting how it looks extraordinarily similar to another one in Paris bearing the remains of his flamboyant grandfather, Oscar Wilde.

“Here we have two remarkable figures who were destined to meet in a cataclysmic battle in the Old Bailey and yet their lives mirrored each other’s is so many ways,” reflects Holland, who presents a new documentary looking at the pair’s epic courtroom clash in London in 1895.

“We have two plain tombs with just a surname on each – not even a date of birth or death, so even at the end, these two Dubliners who were born in the same year, who both attended Trinity College and who both excelled in their chosen careers – Carson the Irish unionist politician and leading lawyer and Wilde the celebrated playwright – share something in death.”

In contrast, Holland – a biographer and editor now based in France – was impressed by the statue of Carson "declaiming to the people" in the grounds of Stormont, observing that “poor Oscar” had to wait 97 years to have a rather “less grand” memorial erected to him in London.

Now throwing more light on this complex relationship is intriguing new BBC Northern Ireland film Edward Carson and The Fall of Oscar Wilde, produced by Damon Quinn from the Hole in the Wall Gang and featuring contributions from Rupert Everett, Simon Callow and Gyles Brandreth among others.

Merlin Holland with Fr Aidan Troy at St Joseph’s Church, Paris, during filming for Edward Carson And The Fall Of Oscar Wilde

At its core lies the burning question: did Carson really deserve his reputation as the man who destroyed Oscar Wilde? In attempting to come to some sort of answer, Holland, for all his unavoidable personal involvement, expertly navigates the story with the balance and steely focus of a tightrope walker, wobbling at times in one direction, but always righting himself in time to take in the view from both sides of the high wire.

The toast of Victorian London following the debut of his latest play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde – who had attended Portora Royal school in Enniskillen as a boy – pretty much sealed his own fate after deciding to sue the Marquess of Queensberry, father of his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), for criminal libel.

Queensberry, affronted at Wilde's relationship with his son – a criminal offence at the time – had left a note at Wilde’s club, accusing him of "posing as a ‘somdomite’ (sic)".

Unfortunately for Wilde, Carson was the man defending Queensberry when the case went to court and through a mix of the legal "terrier’s” formidable cross-questioning and Wilde’s misplaced wit in the witness box, the playwright ended up incriminating himself and was charged with sodomy and gross indecency.

After two trials, the celebrated bon vivant was convicted and sentenced to two years hard labour in jail; three years following his release, he would die, impoverished in France, his downfall complete.

“When the story was told, Carson was portrayed as the man who prosecuted Oscar Wilde, when he wasn’t involved in the prosecution case at all,” explains Quinn, who has spent the past eight years putting the one-hour documentary together.

“It has been fascinating, because in this part of the world we all know Carson as the ‘father of unionism’, the ‘father of Northern Ireland’, so, as a former lawyer myself, I was fascinated by the Oscar Wilde connection and how Carson came to be his nemesis.”

The film also reveals for the first time the actual church record of Wilde’s death-bed conversion to Catholicism by Passionist priest Fr Cuthbert Dunne – a document which had never before been seen by Holland, Wilde's only grandchild, until he, along with Quinn and the filming team, arrived in France to inspect it.

Former Ardoyne priest Fr Aiden Troy, who now serves in St Joseph’s Church in Paris, is filmed showing the little-known conversion record to Holland who describes the moment as a “very moving experience” in his life-long quest to learn more about his famous grandfather.

The discovery was all thanks to film director Jim Creagh, who had been chatting to his brother, Fr Kieran Creagh, about the project when the former Belfast Passionist priest happened to mention that the conversion record was held in his order’s church in Paris.

A timely example of theatrical serendipity at play, perhaps, but the real story of Oscar Wilde and his downfall is, of course, a family tragedy for Holland, who despite being at times “exasperated” by his grandfather’s “extraordinary arrogance” and his “biggest mistake” of treating the courtroom like a piece of entertaining drama, can’t help but feel an emotional tug at times.

“I tell myself I am far enough away for it not to affect me, that I can look at it all dispassionately, but inevitably there are these two hats – the family hat and the observer’s, the researcher’s hat, the hat of someone who is interested from an entirely objective point of view,” he says. “It’s difficult to describe – it's a bit like an enormous boulder rushing down the hill towards you and there’s no escape; it’s going to hit you; you are in the way and you’re going to get crushed.

“It often happens when I go, for the umpteenth time, to see The Importance of Being Earnest, and I’m sitting in the audience and nobody knows who the hell I am; the people around me are laughing and I’m thinking to myself, 'these are the lines which a man only two generations ago in my family, wrote'.”

But, if he feels any anger in relation to Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace, it is directed more at the political machinations and social culture of the times, rather than at Carson himself.

“One cannot help but have admiration for Carson, despite his politics, despite his cross-questioning of Oscar in court and I don't think he comes out of the film looking like a legal monster,” Holland says. “He was a man doing a job as a politician or as a legal man and I believe, afterwards, he did feel a certain responsibility for putting Oscar in prison.

“The story goes that he went to the Solicitor General at one point, before the retrial, to ask him, 'Can you not let up on the fellow now? He has suffered a great deal.' It makes absolute sense and it shows a very humane side to Edward Carson which I find quite endearing. I hope people will come away with sympathy for both men who, in spite of themselves, had to meet by fate in the Old Bailey in 1895.”

Does he feel cheated out of a relationship with his grandfather, the great master of repartee, I wonder? “Yes, inevitably, yes. Gosh, who wouldn’t have wanted to have had Oscar as a grandfather? Perhaps no longer be in the limelight, but devoted to his grandchildren and doing all sorts of things that the parents would have disapproved of.

“In his long letter from prison, Oscar conveys terrible remorse about the misery and ignominy he brought to his family – my grandmother left England with their two sons and changed the family name to Holland. I'm writing a new book more to do with Oscar's reputation after death and all I'll say is, he caused more trouble after his death than he ever did in his lifetime!"

Edward Carson And The Fall Of Oscar Wilde is on BBC1 Northern Ireland on Monday February 1 at 10.45pm.

Merlin Holland with actor Rupert Everett, who wrote, directed and starred in 2018 biographical drama The Happy Prince, about Oscar Wilde

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