Prisons can sometimes be settings for great literary scenes. Dickens set much of Little Dorrit in the Marshalsea, and part of The Pickwick Papers in the Fleet. Remember Toad of Toad Hall languishing in gaol and being helped to escape by the gaoler’s daughter? Where would The Count of Monte Cristo be without those superb scenes in the Chateau d’If, while Defoe’s Moll Flanders gets to know prisons all too well. But one of the finest prison works of all time must be Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It was written after he left prison, but describes his time there so poignantly. If you are ever inclined to think capital punishment a good idea, think of his lines
He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty place.
Poor Oscar did two years’ hard labour in three different prisons – his health was destroyed, and apart from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was published under his prison number C.3.3., he never wrote another work. I wonder how he would feel about the fact that Reading Gaol is about to be opened to the public for the first time this month? Visitors can visit the prison cells, and actors will be performing Wilde’s famous prison letter to Bosie, De Profundis, in the prison chapel. Artists will display works inspired by the prison. Reading Gaol was built in 1844 and remained a working prison until 2013. The exhibition will continue into October.
If you cannot manage to get to the UK to see it, then you can at least read some wonderful books about Oscar. My absolute favourite is Oscar’s Books by Thomas Wright – it’s a biography of the man through his reading, showing what Oscar read at school, at university, what books he collected in his glory days, what books he had access to in prison, and what books were sold off in the bankruptcy sales. I also love Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography Oscar Wilde, and another fascinating read is a biography of Bosie, the man who caused Oscar’s downfall – Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas by Douglas Murray. Bosie loved to sue people for libel, but ended up in prison himself for libelling Winston Churchill. He was also an accomplished and successful poet. He renounced homosexuality and got married, but it was a stormy relationship and did not last very long. Oscar and his circle are something of an addiction. And there’s a book just published which looks interesting – The Fall of the House of Wilde: Oscar Wilde and his Family by Emer O’Sullivan – which comes highly recommended by Stephen Fry (who acted the role of Oscar in the film Wilde).
What do you think of Oscar Wilde’s works or the books written about the author? Did you see the film version starring Stephen Fry? I’d love to hear from you, please click below to leave your comments.
Susannah Fullerton: The Importance Of Being Oscar, The Life and Works of Oscar Wilde
Susannah Fullerton: Oscar Wilde at Reading Gaol
Susannah Fullerton: The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
Susannah Fullerton: Symphony in Yellow by Oscar Wilde
Susannah Fullerton’s Charles Dickens: The Masterpieces
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Fall of the House of Wilde by Emer O’Sullivan
Built of Books, How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde by Thomas Wright
The University of Adelaide: Oscar Wilde De Profundis
YouTube: Wilde (1997) – Official Trailer
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