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May I Say Nothing?

August 2015

Oscar Wilde, A Parnellite Home Ruler and Gladstonian Liberal: Wilde’s career at the Eighty Club (1887–1895)

By Thomas Wright and Paul Kinsella


This article offers a full account of our findings concerning Oscar Wilde’s membership of the Eighty Club, a Liberal political organization founded for the promotion of Liberalism within the House of Commons and among the British electorate.1 Wilde joined the club in 1887 and was a member until 1895. By joining Wilde publically declared his approval of the position on Irish constitutional independence arrived at by the Liberal leader William Gladstone in the winter of 1885/6, when he converted to the Home Rule cause and subsequently formed an alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell’s Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). When the record of Wilde’s eight-year Eighty Club career is set in the wider context of his political statements and writings concerning the Irish Question, and his multifarious nationalist social and political activities, a clear picture emerges of Wilde as an emphatic Parnellite Home Ruler.

Wilde joined the Eighty Club in 1887 and participated actively in the club’s political and social events until the spring of 1891. At that point his interest appears to have waned, as we have no subsequent evidence of his involvement in club activities until his membership was rescinded in 1895, ostensibly for non-payment of subs. These three dates – 1887, 1891 and 1895 – mark turning points in Wilde’s relationship with the club. The first two dates represent, in addition, watersheds in Wilde’s political thinking regarding English parliamentary solutions to the Irish Question.

1887 was a time of political ferment, in which it was logical for a Parnellite Home Ruler to nail his colours to the Gladstonian Liberal mast. After Gladstone’s conversion to Home Rule, Parnellites could express their long-standing hopes for Irish independence (and also for Irish land reform) in the language of English party politics, with the confidence that those hopes might soon be realised. 1891 was likewise a crucial year for Parnellites, though for very different reasons, as it was the year of Parnell’s disgrace and downfall, in the wake of the O’Shea divorce scandal and the split of the IPP. It is no coincidence, we believe, that Wilde’s apparent disengagement from Liberal political activities occurred at this time, when Gladstone cut Parnell adrift and the prospects of achieving Home Rule through English party politics significantly receded. 1895 was the year of Wilde’s own downfall and we will explore the surprising and influential role prominent Eighty club members played in orchestrating his arrest and conviction, and describe the termination of Wilde’s membership that year.

The structure of our article is as follows. It begins with two short sections, which aim to set the scene: ‘Wilde joins the Eighty Club (1887)’ offers a brief description of the Eighty Club, and of the immediate political context in which Wilde’s decided to join it, while the second section explores the question: ‘Why did Wilde join the club?’ We believe, however, that Wilde’s decision to join can only be understood fully from a longer temporal perspective. Consequently, in the next two sections, we move back in time, and turn our attention to Wilde’s views on the Irish Question, and also to his attitude to English party politics, from the late 1870s up to 1886. The titles of these sections are: ‘Wilde’s views on Irish politics in the late 1870s and early 1880s’ and ‘Wilde’s views on English political parties (prior to 1886)’. In the former we elucidate and contextualize Wilde’s opinions on Ireland in considerable detail in an attempt to do justice to their complexity and importance. We also quote generously from a Wilde interview from 1882 that is unfamiliar to most Wilde scholars. A third background section, ‘Wilde’s reaction to Tory Coercion 1887 – ’, describes the nationalist views Wilde expressed from 1887 onwards in his journalism and literary works and also in an 1887 speech.

Having established fully the context of Wilde’s decision to join the Eighty Club, we are in a position to offer the first ever account of his eight-year club career. In our chronicle of the active years of Wilde’s membership (1887–1891) his club activities are placed alongside his other Home Rule activities and statements, to form one overarching narrative of commitment to the Home Rule cause. Here the narrative is divided into three chronological sections: 1887–March 1889; April 1889–January 1890; January 1890–April 1891. As Wilde’s engagement with the club decreased in 1891, from that point onwards it is no longer possible to offer a single narrative of his club and nationalist activities. Consequently the focus of the next chronological section, covering the years 1891–1895, is exclusively on Wilde’s nationalist statements. In the final section, ‘Wilde’s downfall and the Eighty Club (1895)’, we examine the end of Wilde’s club membership in 1895, and the club hierarchy’s surprising complicity in his imprisonment.

A timeline of Wilde’s Eighty Club and nationalist activities is provided in an appendix (and readers may wish to refer to this as they go through the article). This shows the clear relationship between the Gladstonian and Parnellite lines of Wilde’s nationalist political engagement – lines that were intertwined for at least a four-year period (1887–1891).

Our aim here is simply to present, contextualize and analyse our findings relating to Wilde’s Eighty Club membership and his nationalist activities and opinions. No discussion will be offered concerning the possible implications of those findings for scholarly debates surrounding Wilde’s ‘Irishness’ or the ‘Irishness’ of his writings; nor do we make any suggestions for future research. We hope to address these topics in a future article.

Wilde joins the ‘Eighty Club’ (1887)

In 1887 Oscar Wilde joined the ‘Eighty Club’, an all-male Liberal Party organization which had been formed shortly before the general election of 1880 (hence its name). 2 The club’s objectives were ‘to bring together successive generations of Liberals, with a view to the promotion of the Liberal cause in the House of Commons and at Parliamentary Elections’ and ‘promoting Liberal Education, and … stimulating Liberal organization in the country ...’. The necessity ‘for some such body was felt in consequence of the numerous applications received by the Central Association of the Liberal Party for the assistance of Speakers and Lecturers at meetings’.3 Prominent young Liberal politicians such as Herbert Henry Asquith and the Earl of Rosebery were on the committee; the club President was William Gladstone who, at the time Wilde joined, had been Prime Minister three times.

In its first two years the club had around fifty members, but by 1886 its ranks had swollen to five times that number. At that time Liberal MPs made up roughly fifteen percent of the membership (around the same number of club members had tried, but failed, to gain seats at the 1886 general election). Most members were Liberal journalists, solicitors and socialites young enough to join, candidates having to be less than forty years of age.

As well as supplying speakers at Liberal meetings throughout England, the Eighty Club hosted its own political and social events. It organized talks in public venues and held formal dinners at which MPs gave speeches on the important political and party-political issues of the day. A few months after these speeches were delivered, the club published them in pamphlet form, often inside the club’s annual report, but sometimes separately. Less formal club ‘conversaziones’ were held in London hotels, at which members smoked and circulated before MPs spoke; there were, in addition, informal social events known as club ‘at homes’, where aristocratic members would open the doors of their London residences to fellow Eighty Clubbers. Members could bring along both male and female guests to many of these events.

Wilde joined the club at a turning point in its history. Gladstone’s conversion to the cause of Home Rule in the winter of 1885/6, and his subsequent alliance with Charles Stewart Parnell’s IPP and decision to introduce a Home Rule Bill, had sent tremors through the Liberal Party. A substantial group of Liberals opposed their leader’s new policy on Ireland. These dissidents, comprised of members of the ‘Whig’ faction of the party (many of whom were influential grandees with land in Ireland) and numerous Liberal ‘Radicals’, such as Joseph Chamberlain, were dubbed ‘dissentient’ Liberals at the time, but they would eventually become known as the Liberal Unionists. The ‘Liberal Unionists’ voted against Gladstone’s 1886 Home Rule Bill, which proposed that a newly created Irish Parliament control taxation and other spheres of government (with the exception of such things as foreign policy, defence, and religion, in order to ensure the ‘integrity of the Empire’), and which also gave tenants the opportunity to purchase land, at a price generous to landlords, with credit provided by the British Government. When the bill was defeated at its second Commons reading in June 1886, Gladstone’s government resigned and a general election was called. The election was effectively a referendum on the Irish Question, now the defining issue of English party politics. During the campaign Tories such as Lord Randolph Churchill stirred up anti-Home Rule sentiment in England and among the Protestant minority in Ulster, coining the slogan ‘Ulster will fight, and Ulster will be right!’ and arguing that Home Rule would effectively mean ‘Rome Rule’. The UK electorate rejected Home Rule, with the Tories and the Liberal Unionists (who made the tactical decision not to contest the same seats) winning a majority of 118 over the combined forces of the Gladstonian Liberals and the IPP. The Tories then formed a government, under the leadership of Lord Salisbury, which was propped up by their new Liberal Unionist friends.

The schism within the Liberal Party was replicated within the Eighty Club. At first the organization had endeavoured to preserve unity by deciding, at a ‘Special General Meeting’ on the 21st of June, ‘to take no part in the General Election … in order to avoid division [between ‘Gladstonians’ and ‘Unionists’]’. The central ground could not hold, however, and things fell apart in the summer of 1887 when the organization officially aligned itself with the Gladstonian Liberals by declaring it ‘the duty of the Liberal Party to maintain and enforce the policy of Home Rule’. In protest, eighty Liberal Unionist club members resigned. Soon afterwards, at a general club meeting held on the 29th of June, eighty candidates awaiting election to the club were recruited to fill their places. It is likely that Wilde was one of these candidates, because around 80% of the new members recruited in 1887 via an ordinary club election were elected on this occasion. Wilde was one of 112 new recruits for the year, who swelled the club’s membership by around a third to 310 members, the largest number in its history. Because of the split within the club (and party) over Irish policy, all of these new recruits were, by definition, committed Home Rulers and staunch Gladstonians. In taking this hard-line on Home Rule, the Eighty Club proved itself to be the most dogmatic and ardent of the London Liberal clubs, the organisation allowing its members less ‘individual freedom of political opinion’ on the issue than sister institutions such as the National Liberal Club. In 1887, when the Eighty Club was officially endorsing Home Rule, the National Liberal Club passed ‘a resolution directed against the Club taking an active part in politics, and emphasizing the claim that it was a Club of the whole Party’. Although the Liberal Unionists did eventually resign en masse from the National Liberal Club they did not do so until the winter of 1888/ 1889 – a whole year and a half after they had been forced to leave the Eighty.4

Thus, in the very year Wilde joined, the Eighty Club was transformed into the intellectual and social heart of Gladstonian Liberalism, a political movement now defined, to a considerable extent, by its support for the Home Rule cause. Promising young politicians loyal to Gladstone dominated club and committee; the club became a think tank for Irish policy and an organ for the diffusion of Home Rule propaganda. From 1887 onwards it organized numerous meetings with a Home Rule theme. In addition, it published The Eighty Club Circular, a newspaper sent out to club members and sold to the public, which aimed ‘to instruct the English electorate in Irish history’ as a ‘means of promoting Home Rule policy’, and to inform them of ‘the actual state of things existing in Ireland, and the real character of the Coercion Act’.5

The Coercion Act was introduced in August 1887 by the Tories, with the support of many Liberal Unionists, with the aim of giving the Tory Chief Secretary of Ireland, Arthur Balfour, the weapons to fulfill his brief of ‘restoring order’ to Ireland (rural agitation had returned to the country, after the failure of the 1886 Home Rule Bill, in the form of the ‘Plan of Campaign’).6 Under the provisions of the act Balfour could condemn as illegal any group of protesters, and try, without jury, anyone arrested on the charges of intimidation and non-payment of rent. With the help of the Irish Unionist barrister Edward ‘Coercion’ Carson, ‘Bloody Balfour’ secured the convictions of numerous Irish political leaders and Home Rule campaigners – William O’Brien, and the English poet and Home Ruler, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, among them.

1887 was thus a time of heightened passions and divisions, not only between English rulers and Irish subjects, but also within the British body politic, over how to deal with the now unavoidable presence of the Irish Question. To those with a keen interest in that question, and who advocated a particular answer, it seemed like a decisive period, when a great deal was hanging in the balance.7 It was a time to lend weight and support to the cause one espoused, a time when a statement or action defined one’s position distinctly (e.g. Arnold, Swinburne and Tennyson publicly opposed the 1886 Home Rule bill, and two new London Unionist clubs – The Junior Constitutional and the National Union – were founded in 1887). Wilde chose this moment to join a club that was in the process of redefining itself along pro-Home Rule, anti-Coercion Gladstonian lines.

Why did Wilde join the club?

There are several non-political reasons why Wilde might have joined the Eighty Club. He may have viewed membership as part of his ambitious social networking campaign, and as an opportunity to assert his status as a gentleman. He may, in addition, have seen it as an excellent chance for meeting the educated, well-to-do young men in whom he was interested, socially and romantically. 8 London clubs attracted many homosexual men. They provided a congenial homosocial environment and offered, in Nicholas Frankel’s words, ‘a way for unmarried gentlemen to enter the legitimate social sphere’.9 It is hardly surprising then that some members of the Eighty Club were known, or rumoured, to be homosexual.10 There is therefore some scope for seeing the club as a place where Wilde could explore his sexuality, and also his radical sexual politics, as well as his nationalist and Westminster politics.

As a budding journalist too, desperate to make a splash and some cash, Wilde may have seen the club as a promising hunting ground for contacts and commissions. The editors of the OUP edition of Wilde’s Journalism emphasize the ‘clubbableness’ of the newspaper community at this time, and suggest that journalists needed access to London’s clubs to get ahead as well as to remain ‘au courant’.11 We know that in 1887 – 8 Wilde joined (or tried to join) other London clubs which offered similar professional and social opportunities, such as the Savile and the Society of Authors. That said, however, the Eighty Club ranked lower, in social terms, than elite Liberal clubs such as the Reform and Brooks's, while the limited size of its membership, and the fact that it had no permanent home, meant that it offered fewer opportunities (social or professional), and made it far less attractive as a meeting place than say, the National Liberal Club, which boasted 6000 members in 1887, and which had a luxurious headquarters in Whitehall.12

In any case, social, personal and professional considerations are not necessarily incompatible with political sincerity (Wilde himself would never have regarded the issue in terms of a simple ‘either/or’). It is surely more commonsensical to suggest that Wilde’s principal motive for becoming a member of a political club was political. The Club’s uncompromising attitude to its Liberal Unionist members in 1887 reveals its dogmatic ethos, while its official aims and rules emphasize its overtly political character as well as the high level of engagement and activism expected from members. A candidate for the Eighty (whose character had to be vouched for by at least two existing members) declared himself willing to carry out ‘political work for the party’ and, ‘at the end of each year’, to agree to ‘send to the club Secretary information as to the political work done by him’ (among other things, the club expected members to be ‘willing to give voluntary assistance by speaking at public meetings and by delivering lectures on political subjects’ at Liberal meetings throughout the country).13 This rule had to be strictly adhered to, as ‘any member who has failed to do sufficient work to justify membership, shall cease to be a member’. From the outset then, the thirty-three year old aesthete, who sometimes enjoyed posing in public as flippant, would have been aware of the vital importance of being an active and earnest espouser of the Liberal cause.14

As we have suggested, Wilde’s decision to join the Eighty Club in 1887 is eloquent of a commitment to the Home Rule cause, and also evidence of a willingness to publically identify as a Gladstonian Liberal. It is significant in this context that, as we shall see, Wilde attended numerous Eighty Club events with a specifically Home Rule theme, and was the designated speaker at one of these. It is equally telling that, concurrently, he was engaged in nationalist activities outside the club – attending other Home Rule political meetings, signing Home Rule petitions, and making his views on Irish matters clear in his journalistic writings and during newspaper interviews. Full details of these activities are provided in the narrative account of Wilde’s Eighty Club career and nationalist activities which appears below. However, before offering that narrative, it is necessary to provide further context regarding Wilde’s decision to join the Eighty club, in order to understand fully the motivation and significance of that decision. To that end we have included the following three ‘Background’ sections, which concern Wilde’s views on Ireland, and his attitude to English party politics, in the years prior to 1886, and his reaction to Tory policies in Ireland in the period 1886–1887.

Background I: Wilde’s views on Irish politics during the late 1870s and early 1880s

As an Oxford undergraduate Oscar Wilde voiced opinions on Irish politics that were, according to an English acquaintance, animated by a ‘strong feeling against England’, which he had inherited ‘from his mother, a violent nationalist.’ The variety of nationalism Wilde inherited from Lady Wilde (Speranza) was indeed strong, yet it was in some respects complex and ambiguous.15

In the late 1840s Speranza had become, through her poetry, the spokeswoman for the nationalist ‘Young Ireland’ group, whose writings inspired what Wilde referred to as ‘our unfortunately unsuccessful rebellion of ’48’. During that failed revolution nationalists had taken to the streets in an attempt to wrest control of their country back from the English. Speranza trained the young Wilde to ‘love and reverence’ the writers of the ‘Young Ireland’ movement, ‘as a Catholic child [reverences] the Saints of the Calendar’16 An 1863 edition of Speranza’s verses is dedicated to ‘my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde’ with the following words: ‘I made them indeed/ Speak plain the word COUNTRY. I taught them, no doubt, / That a country’s a thing one should die for at need.’17

Speranza wrote journalism as well, and books on the politics, history and folk legends of Ireland. In these writings she often advocated the restoration of some kind of political autonomy to Ireland, through the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union, which had abolished the Irish parliament and forced Irish MPs to sit at Westminster. She also espoused the cause of Land Reform, which aimed to help Ireland’s Catholic tenantry and peasantry. Throughout her prose works, Speranza was unrelenting in her criticism of the Anglo-Saxon race, which she characterized as stupid, docile and materialistic, and fulsome in her praise of the intellectual, altruistic, passionate and ethereal ‘Celt’ (her son would espouse similar racial opinions).

Her firebrand views notwithstanding, Speranza (and her husband, Sir William Wilde) were members of Ireland’s Anglo-Irish Protestant governing class, which had strong political, genealogical, cultural and religious ties to England. Wilde described his mother as growing up ‘in an atmosphere of alien English thought, among people high in Bench and Senate far removed from any love or knowledge of those wrongs of the people [i.e. the Catholic tenantry and peasantry] to which she afterwards gave such passionate expression.’ (Wilde’s own education at Portora, one of the Royal Schools of Ulster, and at Trinity College was, likewise, of a British and Protestant cast).18 The Wildes were part of the professional Protestant middle-class élite (Sir William was a prominent Dublin doctor and Speranza a journalist) rather than an old Anglo-Irish landowning family of aristocratic status. Nevertheless the family did own land in the West of Ireland and multiple properties which they rented out. Sir William indeed hoped that by purchasing land and property he might elevate the Wildes from the ranks of ‘professional people’ into those of the ‘country gentry’.19

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