Stephen Fry has spoken about the impact reading about Oscar Wilde as a teenager had on his thoughts on being gay in the UK.
Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright, best known for his 1890 novel The picture of Dorian Gray and play in 1895 The urgency to be serious. Before his death at the age of 46 in 1900, Wilde was a high profile social figure in Victorian London and was married to one woman while keeping his homosexuality a secret.
However, he was shunned and shamed after being accused of sodomy, and in 1895 he was sentenced to hard labor in prison for “gross indecency”.
After his two-year imprisonment, which had a profound effect on his health, Wilde left the UK for France and spent the rest of his life wandering Europe in exile with a dwindling fortune.
Wilde’s life has been documented in several biographies, with his legal battle being detailed in particular in H. Montgomery Hydes The trials of Oscar Wilde (1948).
In a new interview with radio timesFry, 65, spoke about how reading this account at a young age highlighted his own homosexuality.
“I started panting and panting and feeling triumphant and terribly worried at the same time,” Fry told the publication.
“Suddenly I understood this extraordinary man and that his ‘nature’ – the word he used in his famous letter to his lover ‘Bosie’ – was the same as mine. When I read that, I knew I was gay.”
Not only was the book crucial to Fry’s understanding of his own sexuality, but it also sparked concerns at the network about what his life as a gay man in a homophobic society would be like.
Fry explained his fear “that if I wanted to stay in Britain my life would be absolutely cursed because I would have to live a life of secrecy, shame, exile and disgrace,” he said. “All horrors.”
Private homosexual acts between men over the age of 21 were not decriminalized in the UK until 1967 with the passage of the Sexual Offenses Act. Previously, Fry knew that gay men’s lives were seen as “disgusting, thrown in jail, with the loss of their name and their livelihood”.
Fry played Wilde in the 1997 biographical film. savagesand received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor for his performance.