The Agony of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath

by H. Montgomery Hyde
Farrar Straus, 221 pp., $4.50

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde; drawing by David Levine

It was a savage sentence. It was, in fact, the highest which the law allowed. To the trial judge, Mr. Justice Wills, it appeared inadequate. Two years imprisonment with hard labor—“totally inadequate for a case such as this,” he said, addressing Oscar Wilde from the bench at the Old Bailey on May 25th, 1895. Wilde in the dock tried to utter a few words. “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” Mr. Justice Wills waved to the warders, and Wilde, as it is still our custom, was instantly whisked away to the cells below. English judges, then as now, were not required to make any study of penology, many of them had never seen the inside of a prison; to many of us, lacking in experience or imagination, two years may seem survivable; the few who “were familiar with prison conditions in England at that period realized that the punishment which faced Wilde was one of terrible severity.”

The law in question was the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1887, and the relevant section, offenses against which Wilde was found guilty of, was itself an amendment of that act. It was the notorious Labouchere Amendment, slipped into legislation mainly intended to deal with female prostitution by a crusader on a late stale August night and passed by a drowsy and depleted House of Commons, which made what we now call homo-sexual behavior between consenting adults a criminal offense in England. This law, then, at the time of Oscar Wilde’s arrest and trial, was barely eight years old. It is still with us, though it may well be that its course is nearly run and less than eight years now will see it out.

Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath is an account of Wilde’s imprisonment and the effect it had on him, presented with clarity, intelligence, and restraint. It is a story of stupidity, cowardice, and suffering: official stupidity, public cowardice and ignorance, individual suffering. Based, only too irrefutably, on new documentary material, marshalled with exemplary coherence, and of course on Wilde’s own letters. (The book is indeed a fascinating complement to the corresponding years in the admirable Hart-Davis edition of The Letters.) Mr. Montgomery Hyde—the author of The Trials of Oscar Wilde, barrister, Member of Parliament, distinguished contributor to the Notable British Trials Series—was able to use (after bland initial refusal) the hitherto unpublished and inaccessible Home Office papers and files of the Prison Commissioners of the time.

When he entered prison, Oscar Wilde was forty-one years of age. Two things, as Robbie Ross wrote after his death (five and a half years later!), were absolutely necessary for him, “contact with comely things, as Pater says, and social position.” He was taken to Pentonville in North London, handcuffed in a horse-drawn police van. He was made to undress and get into a bath of filthy water and dry himself with a damp…

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