The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, and “The Canterville Ghost”: Laws of Desire, Counter-Fictions, and Counter-Fantasies
This essay argues that Oscar Wilde’s story “The Canterville Ghost”, written in 1886 and published in February and March of 1887, was a response to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 (to which was appended the now-famous Labouchère Amendment outlawing ‘gross indecency’ between men) and more particularly to W.T. Stead’s scandalous newspaper story, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, written in support of the bill and published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July of 1885. Wilde takes the central plot of Stead’s sensational story of older men pursuing young virgins into secret chambers in order to victimise them and radically inverts it. In doing so he inverts not only a patriarchal ideology and an associated psychology, but also one of their major corollaries, the prohibition of same-sex desire. In its place, he proposes a counter-fiction that authorises a counter-fantasy.
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