Oscar Wilde in Jail

Hard labor in late Victorian prisons was still the treadmill and the crank, but as Wilde was pronounced unfit for these he was set to pick oakum, shredding coarse rope, another painful and largely useless task (“…until one’s fingertips grew dull with pain”), and this, too, he had to perform, as they all did, alone, in silence in the cell. During the first three months a prisoner was allowed no books (except the Bible), no visitors, and no letters; later on he was allowed one book a week from the prison library, whose stock “consisted chiefly of third-rate theological works,” and one brief letter and one visitor four times a year. “The system,” Wilde wrote later, “seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result.” No personal possessions whatsoever were permitted, not even a photograph of a man’s family; there were, however, the prisoner’s “tins,” his regulation toilet and feeding utensils and these had to be kept laid out in a certain way.

A daily inspection was carried out, at which each prisoner had to exhibit the contents of his cell…in the prescribed order. These official visitations became a nightmare for Wilde and in consequence he developed a nervous habit, which his friends noticed when he came out of prison, of always arranging objects in front of him symmetrically. “I had to keep everything in my cell in its exact place,” he said, “and if I neglected this even in the slightest, I was punished. The punishment was so horrible to me that I often started up in my sleep to feel if each thing was where regulations would have it, and not an inch either to the right or the left.” In time, however, he was to learn to do this correctly. One of the warders…has described how Wilde, when he had arranged all his tins as they should be, would “step back and view them with an air of child-like complacency.”

Reading under Major Nelson who, though bound by the rules himself, did for Wilde—and others—what he could and more; daily use of pen and paper for the first time since fourteen months and the composition of the letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, later known as De Profundis; the execution of the young guardsman which became the central subject of The Ballad of Reading Gaol; the three very small children, one too small to be fitted in a prison uniform, whom Wilde saw, and heard cry at night with hunger (they had been fined for snaring a rabbit, their parents could or would not pay their fine and so the children were sent to prison; Wilde paid their fine and got them released; a warder who had given a sweet biscuit to the youngest child was dismissed from the prison service, forfeiting his pension); the flogging of the lunatic soldier. This, one might remember, happened not in a concentration camp but in one of Her Majesty’s prisons sixty-five years ago;

The Agony of Oscar Wilde
Sybille Bedford
NYROB – January 23, 1964 issue.

The article was reviewing this book:
Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath
by H. Montgomery Hyde