Posted November 25, 2013 by in View from the UK

Oscar Wilde and Reading Jail

Last week (November 17-23) was Prisons Week in the UK, a time when all major Christian denominations “seek to raise awareness of the issues surrounding imprisonment for prisoners, their families, prison staff, the wider Criminal Justice system, and society as a whole.” Since 1975 this charity has been both advocating and praying for prisoners’ plight.

There are a number of wonderful literary reflections you could read on imprisonment: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson and The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (both discussed in our inaugural Book Debate), or Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (on my list of favorite epistolary novels).

Oscar Wilde in 1882 (Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

Oscar Wilde in 1882 (Napoleon Sarony [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

But one particular literary prisoner has been on my mind recently – one who had a special connection to the town where I now live: Reading, England. And that is Oscar Wilde. On May 25, 1895, mere months after the wild success of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” – that is, sodomy – and sentenced to two years’ hard labor, initially at two London jails and then at Reading Prison, where he would stay until  his release on May 19, 1897.

Wilde poured out the suffering of his prison years in two astonishing literary works: an epic poem entitled The Ballad of Reading Gaol (an obsolete spelling of “jail”), and a long rant-cum-memoir entitled De Profundis (“out of the depths” in Latin, the first line of Psalm 130). The latter is like the antithesis of a love letter: Wilde recounts how his young lover, Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas), has ruined his life – a sort of “how do I resent thee, let me count the ways?” litany.

His two refrains (“hate blinded you” and “your one great flaw was a lack of imagination”), which do become somewhat tiresome, can be attributed to the method of the book’s composition – he was given one miserly sheet of paper at a time by his captors and deposited each sheet again after its writing, so there was no chance for revision or consolidation. Considering that each sheet was collected and published just as it stands, Vyvyan Holland (Wilde’s younger son, who wrote an introduction to the text in 1949) suggests that there is in fact a surprising lack of repetition.

The book takes off about halfway through, when Wilde begins a long meditation on prison: what it has taught him, how it has changed him, why it is a cruel psychological torment. Although he is grateful for the lessons of adopting humility and accepting however experiences have shaped one’s life, he insists that in general prison hardens one’s heart and thus precludes the possibility of using the imagination (of which he so despairs the lack in Bosie) to empathize with the Other. There is also a fascinating Christological section, in which Wilde dismisses religion but prizes Jesus as an exemplar of the human imagination.

I read De Profundis as a potential Greenbelt “Big Read” selection connecting to the festival’s three-year campaign focus on prison reform and reconciliation. My main problem with it, and the reason I abandoned the idea of it in favor of another book choice, was that – at least in the first half of the book – there may be too little about prison, and too much about a love affair gone sour. All the same, it is a priceless literary relic.


A fun read for any Wilde fan is the six-book series of Oscar Wilde murder mysteries by Gyles Brandreth. I can especially recommend the latest book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol (published earlier this year), in which two prison workers die under mysterious circumstances and Wilde has to discover who killed them before he becomes the next victim. I hear that Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books, is a frequent guest and crime-solving partner in the earlier books, so they will be worth a read too.

Early on in my over-ten-year relationship with the town of Reading, my now-husband and I took a pocket-sized, leather-bound copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol up to the boundaries of the prison and sat reading portions of it aloud on a bench below the hulking brick wall.


By Oscar Wilde (archive.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

By Oscar Wilde (archive.org) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

“In Reading gaol by Reading town

There is a pit of shame,

And in it lies a wretched man

Eaten by teeth of flame”


“I know not whether Laws be right,

Or whether Laws be wrong;

All that we know who lie in gaol

Is that the wall is strong;

And that each day is like a year,

A year whose days are long.”


“Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!”


Reading Prison, photographed in 2007 (Andrew Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

Reading Prison, photographed in 2007 (Andrew Smith [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons).

These are powerful words wherever you read them, but there was something particularly eerie about reading them next to the very building that inspired their writing.

In September it was announced that Reading is one of four English prisons that will close by March 2014, to be replaced by a new “super-prison” in Wales. It was a shock to hear that the building, constructed as a prison in 1844 and used as an institution for young male offenders since 1992, will close by Christmas – but it’s good news for the town. There are rumors that the Council may turn it into a new theater or arts center, which would seem a fitting tribute to the legacy of the great dramatic artist who was once resident.

Rebecca Foster

American transplant to England. Former library assistant turned full-time freelance writer and book reviewer. Check out all my articles.