PRISON YEARS, 1895-97

On 25 May 1895, at the Old Bailey, Wilde was sentenced to two years at hard labor. Of the intent of such punishment, H. Montgomery Hyde has written:

The deterrent object of imprisonment had been officially laid down as "hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed." Evidence given by a variety of witnesses before a recent Home Office Committee on Prisons had shown that two years imprisonment with hard labour, involving solitary cellular confinement, with its attendant laborious and largely useless work in the shape of the treadwheel [pumping water or grinding grain], the crank [turning the handle in a cylindrical metal drum] and oakum picking [separating loose fibers in old rope used in caulking scams of wooden ships], which had to be performed on a poor and inadequate diet, were calculated to break a man in body and spirit.

After a month of turning the crank or treadmill, prisoners were generally given less arduous labor, such as sewing mail bags, making mats, or picking oakum in their cells - as described in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: "We turn the crank or tear the rope, / Each in his separate Hell...." The latter work was useless since iron ships had long since replaced most wooden ones.

Moreover, no provision was made to reduce a sentence for good behavior on the part of the convict, who was confined to a poorly ventilated cell for 23 hours a day under primitive sanitary conditions. Insomnia inevitably resulted from sleeping on a plank bed, "an instrument of torture". Visitors - each permitted only 20 minutes - and outgoing or incoming letters were possible only once every three months. Other than the Bible, a prayer book, and hymn book, books were not allowed for the first three months of imprisonment; then, the convict could borrow one book a week from the prison library, stocked with commonplace theological works selected by the prison chaplain. Of these conditions, Wilde wrote on 23 March 1898, to the editor of the Daily Chronicle in order to urge reforms when a prison hill was before the House of Commons:

The present prison system seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and the destruction of the mental faculties.... Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute-creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.

After being sentenced on Saturday, 25 May 1895, Wilde spent the weekend in a jail adjacent to the Old Bailey, then transferred on Monday to Pentonville Prison in North London (where his weight was recorded as just under 14 stone - or about 195 pounds - and his height over six feet). In June, Wilde's first visitor was R. B. Haldane (1856-1928), a Liberal M.P. who was a member of the Gladstone Committee, charged with reviewing prison administration; his visit to Pentonville was probably prompted by a newspaper report that Wilde had developed serious mental problems, a report subsequently found baseless. A casual acquaintance of Wilde in former days, Haldane arranged to have books, including Pater's The Renaissance, sent to him as well as writing materials to encourage his resumption of artistic work. During his first visit, according to Haldane, Wilde burst into tears, though he soon became cheerful - amused, apparently - when told that Madame Bovary was unlikely to be sanctioned by the prison.

On 4 July 1895, Wilde was transferred from Pentonville to Wandsworth Prison, located south of the Thames. Why he was transferred is not entirely clear, since it seemed to have been the intention of the authorities to have Wilde serve out his sentence at Pentonville, but Hyde surmises that Sir Evelyn Ruggles-Brise (1857-1935), the enlightened Chairman of the Prison Commission, and Haldane "had considerable confidence in the Chaplain at Wandsworth...on whom they could rely to keep a particular eye on [Wilde]".

This prison, however, was not much of an improvement. Wilde later wrote that he "longed to die. It was my one desire". But it was at Wandsworth that a fellow prisoner - in a famous incident - whispered to Wilde "in the hoarse prison-voice men get from long and compulsory silence" during the exercise period in the prison yard: "I am sorry for you: it is harder for the likes of you than it is for the likes of us"  - an act of kindness that moved Wilde, who had encountered little sympathy since his imprisonment. Unaccustomed to speaking without moving his lips, a skill learned by the other prisoners, he responded: "No, my friend, we all suffer alike." Because he wished to spare his fellow prisoner any punishment, Wilde informed the prison governor, when brought to him by a warder, that he had begun the conversation; hence, he was confined in a dark cell up to three days on bread and water.

The first visitor in late August to see Wilde after the initial three months in prison was Robert Sherard, his future biographer, whose "chivalry and courage" on Wilde's behalf was remembered with "pride and gratitude". On leaving the prison, Sherard, who was approached by a newspaper reporter, said that he "was much struck by [Wilde's] courage and resignation, though his punishment weighs terribly upon him," and Sherard later informed the Daily Chronicle that Wilde was "insufficiently fed" and was "suffering greatly from sheer want of nourishment".

Indeed, Wilde now weighed approximately 167 pounds, a loss of about 28 pounds since he had left Pentonville Prison in June. The doctor at Wandsworth consequently recommended increasing his diet. When Ruggles-Brise and the other Prison Commissioners sent the Superintending Medical Officer of Prisons to examine Wilde, they found "no evidence of despondency. On the contrary, the prisoner is adjusting himself in a sensible manner to his new environment, and seems to have no difficulty in reconciling himself to the inevitable".

Hyde, however, writes: "The truth is that Wilde was a consummate actor and was in fact much nearer a breakdown than appeared to the two doctors". Ten days after facing the ordeal of being brought before the public in the Bankruptcy Court on 24 September and after suffering from semi-starvation, diarrhoea, and sleeplessness, Wilde collapsed on the floor of the prison chapel. After Sherard visited him in the infirmary, he wrote to More Adey: "He is a perfect wreck and says he will be dead before long".

The fear of insanity prompted officials in the Home Office to dispatch two specialists from the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum to examine Wilde, who, they concluded, was not suffering from a "mental derangement" and who would benefit from open-air activities, such as gardening, and more suitable indoor activity, such as bookbinding, in another prison outside of London. At the same time, articles that were currently appearing in the Daily Chronicle and in the French press critical of Wilde's treatment at Wandsworth may have convinced the Home Office to follow the specialists' recommendations and transfer him to Reading Prison.

On 20 November, Wilde underwent "the single most humiliating experience of Wilde's prison life" during his transfer to Reading. Forced to stand on the center platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffs "for the world to look at," Wilde recalls being "surrounded by a jeering mob". Reading Prison, a fortress-like building of red brick with battlements, was a small county prison able to house 192 men and 29 women. Its governor, Henry B. Isaacson (1842-1915), who had retired as a lieutenant-colonel in the Royal Marines, was a stern administrator under whose rule Wilde would spend eight months. Borrowing a phrase from Tennyson's "Lucretius" (1868), Wilde later described Isaacson as a "mulberry-faced Dictator": "...a great red-faced bloated Jew who always looked as if he drank, and did so". But Isaacson was not a Jew - an error undoubtedly inspired by his name - but a Christian, the son of the Rev. Stuteville William Isaacson, Rector of Bradfield St. Clare, Suffolk.

Ellmann writes that Isaacson was "flattered at Haldane’s preference for Reading over Wandsworth" and that Isaacson had addressed his staff: "A certain prisoner is about to be transferred here, and you should be proud to think the Prison Commissioners have chosen Reading Gaol as the one most suitable for this man to serve the remainder of his sentence in". Despite his negative reaction to the governor, Wilde was assigned to work in the garden and act as the "schoolmaster's orderly." Thus, he was free of the hard, manual labor that most prisoners were required to perform.

In a letter to More Adey after a visit to Wilde, Robert Ross also described Isaacson as "a Jew, tall and not unlike the head master of a public school. He at first was haughty and impatient, but became quite polite and amiable after a few minutes." Concerned about Oscars mental condition and general heath, Ross got "nothing" out of Isaacson concerning Wilde's physical condition, though he was favorably impressed by the governor. Frank Harris, reporting Isaacson's boast that he was "knocking the nonsense out of Wilde," believed that the governor was "almost inhuman". To André Gide, Wilde wrote that Isaacson was "very harsh because he was entirely lacking in imagination".

In July 1896, Major J. O. Nelson, who succeeded Isaacson, administered the prison in a more humane manner, which prompted Wilde to refer to him as "this new personality that has altered every man's life in this place"; later, Wilde called him "the most Christ-like man I ever met". In his last months in prison, Wilde struck up a friendship with Warder Thomas Martin, who wrote his reminiscences of Wilde - "The Poet in Prison" - included as Chapter 17 in Sherard's 1906 biography, which is dedicated to him. one who "proved himself the true friend of an unhappy man." Despite Martin's inflated rhetoric, his compassion and admiration for Wilde are evident:

What the Poet was before he went to prison I care not. What he may have been after he left prison I know not. One thing I know, however, that while in prison he lived the life of a saint. or as near that holy state as poor mortal can ever hope to attain.... Farewell, brave heart! May your sleep be as peaceful as your smile. May the angels hover around your tomb in death as they hovered around your tomb in life.

Shortly after his release from prison, Wilde read of Martin's dismissal for giving some sweet biscuits to a hungry child in the prison; he immediately sent a lengthy letter to the Daily Chronicle in protest and detailed the inhumane treatment of children in prison as he had observed it - a protest that was instrumental in helping to bring about prison reform.

Shortly before his release on 19 May 1897, Wilde told More Adey that Nelson was "most sympathetic about my going out and full of kindness... . At the end of May, from Berneval-sur-Mer, Wilde wrote to Nelson with "affectionate gratitude" for his "kindness and gentleness" to him in prison, and "for the real care that you took of me at the end, when I was mentally upset and in a state of very terrible nervous excitement." He concludes by asking Nelson to allow him to sign himself, "once at any rate in life, your sincere and grateful friend".

When The Ballad of Reading Gaol appeared in 1898, Robert Ross, at Wilde's direction, sent a copy to Nelson, who responded with the literary judgment that the poem was "not worthy of the writers best effort. It is a terrible mixture of good bad and indifferent.... I fear he is too sensitive and may I say in confidence of too unstable and morbid a nature. Let us hope we shall someday see something really worthy of so brilliant and so unique a pen".

In July 1899, Wilde also sent Nelson a copy of the first publication of An Ideal Husband; if he responded, his letter to Wilde has not survived. When De Profundis appeared in February 1905, Nelson wrote to thank Ross for having sent him a copy: "I think it one of the grandest and saddest efforts of a truly penitent man. One has to read but little to recognize what literature has lost in the death of a man like poor Oscar Wilde".

References: André Gide, Oscar Wilde, trans. Stuart Mason (1905); R. B. Haldane, An Autobiography (1929); H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath (1963); Karl Beckson, "Oscar Wilde and the 'Almost Inhuman' Governor of Reading Gaol," N&Q (Aug. 1983).

Reading Gaol