In 1897, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour for ‘Gross Indecency’. First placed in Pentonville Prison, then Wandsworth, Wilde was finally sent to Reading Gaol where he served the rest of his sentence as prisoner C.3.3. with a governor who wanted to “knock the nonsense” out of him. During the transfer to Reading, Wilde was jeered and spat at. Deeply affected by this, Wilde wrote that he cried each day at the same hour and for the same amount of time.
The poet who had once given his profession as ‘Idleness’ was set to the regimen of ‘hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed’ which told on him both mentally and physically. Whilst a working man may have survived the imprisonment, Wilde, with his gentleman’s constitution, had essentially been given a death sentence. Wilde was set to a relentless schedule of the treadmill and the crank. Collapsing during chapel Wilde’s ear dream was ruptured, an injury that later contributed to his death, and he was sent to the infirmary for two months in order to recover.
Cell C.3.3. had a bare bed, a basic mattress with a blanket on it which had to be folded each morning. The windows were not barred, but had a stone casement that matched the cold bare brick work of the rest of the cell. The toilet was a small porcelain pot in the corner of the room. The only source of light was a single gas flame. There were no ornaments or books: Wilde’s world was a far cry from his proclamation that ‘Life imitated Art’.
Wilde declared that ‘Prison doesn’t break your heart, it turns it to stone’. Richard B. Haldane, the Liberal MP and reformer, sought to alleviate the mental pressure Wilde endured by ensuring Wilde was permitted books. His reading list included authors: Dante, Pater, Newman and the Bible (in French). Haldane also ensured writing material was given to Wilde, and it was in 1897 during his incarceration that Wilde wrote his best work ‘De Profundis’ (a ‘letter’ to Lord Alfred Douglas which was posthumously published in 1905).
On release, Wilde went to Paris in order to escape hostilities in Britain or Ireland. Whilst there he wrote his last work, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ (1898). In 1900, Wilde died destitute in Paris at the age of 46.
Although originally buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux just outside Paris, in 1909 his remains were interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Robbie Ross, Wilde’s long suffering friend, requested Sir Jacob Epstein design the monument and leave a space for his ashes. After Ross’ death in 1950, his ashes were duly interred alongside Wilde.
If the Gross Indecency Act had not been made statute in the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, ten years before Wilde’s conviction, he may not have been subject to such a severe prison term nor, I suggest, would his reputation have accelerated as it has done since the twentieth century without the ‘tragic’ finale. Since Wilde’s death though, he has become subject to what we may call a process of secular canonization. It seems Wilde’s life is now more meaningful than he ever intended it to be.