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 homosexual 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contributor to the Notable British Trials Series—was able to use (after bland initial refusal) the hitherto unpublished and inaccessible Home Office papers and files of the Prison Commissioners of the time.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 brown rag, put into convict clothes and locked into a cell. “The cell was appalling.” The window grating was choked up and he could hardly breathe. Light was a pale glare from the gas-jet in the corridor outside. Each prisoner was supplied with a small tin chamber-pot, which he was allowed to empty three times a day, but not ever during the twelve hours between locking-up time at five o’clock in the evening and five the following day when it was forbidden to leave the cell for any reason whatsoever.

The prison diet consisting as it did mostly of weak gruel—so-called stirabout, of coarse Indian meal—suet, water and greasy cocoa, was the frequent cause of diarrhoea, and the miseries and tortures which sufferers from this endemic prison complaint underwent, especially at night, can be imagined. It was no uncommon thing for warders, when they came in the morning out of the fresh air to open and inspect the cells, to be violently sick.

For days Wilde could not eat anything at all. The smell and sight of the food turned his stomach. He lay on his plank bed and shivered all night. The plank bed was a prescribed item of the discipline and inevitably produced insomnia, “a revolting and ignorant punishment.” “…I could not sleep,” he later told Frank Harris, “I grew weak and had wild delusions…the hunger made you weak; but the inhumanity was the worst of it. What devilish creatures men are. I had never known anything about them. I had never dreamt of such cruelties.”

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.”

Oscar Wilde remained in solitary cellular confinement for twenty-three hours of twenty-four for the length of his sentence, that is for two years. The outlines of the tragic story are well-known. The deterioration of his mental and physical condition; his transfer to Wandsworth where he had the breakdown and the fall which caused the injury to his ear; his final transfer to Reading; the waiting between trains at Clapham Junction, standing on the center platform handcuffed and in convict dress (a member of the laughing audience stepped up and said, “By God, that’s Oscar Wilde,” and spat him in the face); Reading under the odious Major Isaacson, who applied the system with the greatest harshness and stupidity; 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; recently, 70 per cent of those questioned in a British public opinion poll said that they were in favor of a return of flogging.

… Wilde was in his cell… Suddenly he was startled by the most horrible and revolting shrieks, or rather howls, which broke the prison silence and made him think at first that some animal like a bull or a cow was being unskilfully slaughtered outside the walls. He soon realized that the howls proceeded from the basement of the prison, and he knew that some wretched man was being flogged. “I need not say how hideous or terrible this was to me,” Wilde wrote, “suddenly it dawned on me that they might be flogging this unfortunate lunatic.” They were…the wretched creature had received twenty-four lashes in the cookhouse, by order of the Visiting Justices on the report of the doctor.

On the next day, Wilde saw the poor fellow at exercise, his weak, ugly, wretched face bloated by tears and hysteria almost beyond recognition. “It was my last Sunday in prison, a perfectly lovely day, the finest day we had had the whole year…and here in the beautiful sunlight, walked this poor creature…grinning like an ape, and making with his hands the most fantastic gestures, as though he was playing in the air on some invisible instrument…all the while these hysterical tears were making soiled runnels on his white swollen face…. The other prisoners all watched him, and not one of them smiled. Everybody knew what had happened to him, and that he was driven insane…was insane already.”

In the course of the first of the two long letters on prison reform Wilde addressed to the Daily Chronicle after his release, he wrote:


…the case is a special instance of the cruelty inseparable from a stupid system… Prison doctors have no knowledge of mental disease of any kind. They are a class of ignorant men. The pathology of the mind is unknown to them. When a man grows insane, they treat him as shamming, they have him punished again and again. Naturally the man becomes worse. When ordinary punishments are exhausted, the doctor reports the case to the justices. The result is flogging.

A man in prison is helpless. He can take no action (except, but never easily, spiritual action). Not only must he submit to the misery of his hourly existence, watch his own decline in health and nerve and mind, he can do nothing to halt or reverse the breaking of his life that is taking place outside. Our reaction to disaster is to do something, get in touch with someone, reach friends, advice, claim help, in short fight back or rebuild. Wilde, as other men in prison, found his life collapsing, disappearing like the home at midday after the earthquake. Evidence of total ruin comes to them in the Governor’s office, through the grill in the visitor’s cage, the specially permitted lawyer’s letter. It was so that Wilde heard of his bankruptcy, of his mother’s death, his wife’s threat to divorce, Lord Alfred’s paranoical indiscretions, the loss of the custody of his children, the forced sale of his books. Everything went from him. There was nothing left. Friends planned a petition to the Home Secretary praying for his early release: signatures of well-known people of high character in the learned professions, the arts, the Church were essential; such signatures could not be found, well-known people of high character were afraid to sign and refused. (Bernard Shaw, who had himself drafted the petition, told Wilde’s brother that his own signing would be of no use as he was considered a notorious crank and his name “would reduce the petition to absurdity and do Oscar more harm than good.”) There was nothing left. No future for the artist whose name had been erased from the title pages of his works, whose plays no management dared put on, whose books no book-seller dared put up for sale; no future for the man whose needs were “social position and comely things.”

If Oscar Wilde had been prosecuted and convicted under the Labouchere Amendment today—something that would be quite possible and, given circumstances similar to those of the Queensberry prosecution for libel, inevitable—his actual treatment in prison would have been incomparably less harsh; he would not have suffered from actual hunger, the medical treatment would have been more adequate, he would have found Pentonville structurally and sanitarily unchanged but it is unlikely that he would have been sent to Pentonville at all; he would have gone to a prison for first offenders and he would have served a shorter sentence: petition or no petition, he would have had six months remitted for good conduct. But we have no right to assume that on coming out today he would not have found his life in ruin. It is not much more likely that his wife would have stuck to him or the Queensberry family been less intractable or that he would have been allowed the custody of his boys (though it is more likely that they would have been allowed to keep their father’s name). And as to social position, whatever contemporary version of that Oscar might have created for himself, we only have to reflect for an instant on the case of Dr. Stephen Ward to realize that he would not have kept it. (Ward was innocent of breaking—except in the most twisted technical sense—a perfectly sensible law; Wilde was guilty of breaking a cruel and ignorant one; neither of them could survive an exposure of their sexual lives in an English criminal court.) There is only one respect in which Wilde would have been immeasurably better off today, he would not have come out of gaol a bankrupt and a pauper. Not that he would have consented to sell his life story to the Sunday Press (he turned down in anguish an American newspaper’s offer to name his own price for an interview on the morning of his release), he would not have had to. No one would have dreamt taking his name off the lights: after his trial, his unfilmed plays would have been filmed right away, his books would have reached a new mass audience. His copyrights would have been protected; his debts would have been paid; when he crossed on that night-boat to Dieppe he would have been at least a very affluent man.

As it was, Wilde’s last months at Reading were beset by the problems of how to live after his release. Tom Martin, the new young Warden, he who was sacked for the sweet biscuit, asked him, “I suppose you will go to some of your friends?” “Yes,” said Wilde, “but only because I have nowhere else to go. I would like to be able to go into a nice house…. When one has been unfortunate, everything which is good is so remote—so impossible.”

This Issue

January 23, 1964