The Road to Reading Gaol

Colm Tóibín on the Wilde family

In October 2016, three years after it was closed, I went to Reading Gaol. The prison had been laid out in 1844, each floor cruciform, so that all four corridors could be seen from a single, central vantage point. In cell after cell where, most recently, young offenders had been held, there was a set of metal bunk beds riveted to the wall, with a small table and two stools opposite, and a metal sink close to the small window, high in the wall across from the door, and a toilet on the other side of a small partition. The idea of what it might be like to be here all day and night, cooped up with another person, was fully palpable.

The jail was temporarily open to the public, courtesy of Artangel, an organisation that promotes the showing of art in odd and unexpected places. I had agreed to be locked in Oscar Wilde’s cell, the cell known as C.3.3, on the third floor of Block C, for an entire Sunday afternoon, to read an almost complete version of his De Profundis, which would take five and a half hours. It would be streamed onto a screen in the prison chapel; visitors could also come and look into the cell through a peephole in the door, though I could not speak to them, or they to me. All I could do was read Wilde’s text in the very space where it was written, written at a time when prisoners were held in solitary confinement, when they were forced to maintain silence, even in the short spell each day as they circled the exercise yard.

De Profundis, a 55,000-word letter addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, written by Wilde during the final months of his two-year sentence, is a strange literary creation, a hybrid text. It was the only work he produced while in jail. On 4 April 1897 the prison governor informed the Prison Commission that each sheet of the manuscript ‘was carefully numbered before being issued [to Wilde in his cell] and withdrawn each evening’, but it is more likely that Wilde was given some freedom to revise and correct the pages. When he was released, Wilde gave the manuscript to his friend Robert Ross, who had two copies made. He sent one to Lord Alfred Douglas; the other he later lodged in the British Museum. Sections from Ross’s copy were published in 1905 and in 1908. The complete version, based on the original manuscript, wasn’t published until 1949.

De Profundis is a cross between an intimate address, full of accusation and urgent statement, and a set of eloquent meditations on suffering and redemption and self-realisation. It is a love letter and a howl from the depths. Its tone is hushed and wounded. It is written with passion, intensity and some wonderfully structured sentences. It is lofty, haughty, proud, and also humble, soft-toned, penitent. It was written in a set of different moods rather than composed by a stable imagination. It darts, shifts and often repeats itself. It was created for the world to read and composed for the eyes of one man, sometimes all at the same time. It is a great guilty soliloquy about love and treachery, despair and darkness.

When I was alone in Wilde’s cell that October Sunday with the pages in front of me, pages I had already read over and over in silence, I still had a problem. I did not know what sound the sentences Wilde had written in this solitude should make if they were to be read aloud. I did not know what the voice should be like were these words to be spoken to these cold four walls. Theatrical? Angry? Passionate? Dramatic? Or quiet? Hushed? Whispering? Or trying to find a voice that was real, a voice that needed desperately to be believed or heard, or, maybe even more important, a voice that sought to re-establish its own sound so that the speaker’s identity and sense of self, so crushed by solitude and prison rules, could find a space again. The letter was written by a prisoner to someone who was free, by an older man to a younger one, by a writer to an idler, by the son of a man who had earned his privilege to the son of a man who had inherited his.

But it was also written by an Irishman to an Englishman. And it was that last idea that gave me a clue about how to start speaking the words that Wilde had written. I would speak them in my own voice, as though I was talking to one person only, and see as I went along if I would find out something new about the text that might have eluded me in all my silent readings of it. What I noted as I read was not only the venom that came to the surface at any mention of Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, but also the disdain Wilde felt for Queensberry’s whole clan, as though he were a figure from a lesser culture or indeed a lower species. The conflict in De Profundis was not only between the writer and the recipient, but also between Wilde’s pride in his own class, his own family, and his despising of the entire world that had produced the Douglases. Wilde left himself in no doubt about what he thought of Douglas’s family, or of the hospitality Douglas’s mother had offered, what he called ‘the cold cheap wine of Salisbury’. He resented being used as a pawn in the game between father and son: ‘I had something better to do with my life than to have scenes with a man, drunken, déclassé and half-witted as he was.’

The word ‘déclassé’ is interesting here. In De Profundis, Wilde refers to Lord Alfred Douglas as ‘a young man of my own social rank and position’. But this view, in a country acutely alert to differences in rank, would not have been widely shared. Wilde was merely the son of an Irish knight while Douglas came from two aristocratic families and was a peer in his own right. Wilde’s father worked for a living; Douglas’s father had inherited his wealth. In Douglas’s world, Wilde was an interloper. In the message he left at Wilde’s club, the message that would cause the famous libel action, the Marquess of Queensberry alleged that Wilde was ‘posing as a somdomite’, as he spelled it. He might have added that Wilde was also posing as someone who held a social rank and position higher than it really was. This, in the England of 1895, may almost have been seen as a more serious accusation. But Wilde came from a long tradition of Irishmen who had created themselves in London. He was an artist, he moved freely in society, often using an English accent. He had been to Oxford. He invented himself in England much as his parents had invented themselves in Dublin. In De Profundis, he suggests that his own wit and cleverness were themselves a sort of social rank.

This idea of rank coming from words and wit had belonged to his parents too. In the absence of any other aristocracy in residence in Dublin, Sir William and Lady Wilde represented a type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity. When Wilde describes himself in De Profundis as ‘a lord of language’, he is suggesting that this title is far loftier than Lord Alfred Douglas’s. It was a title that his parents, in the books they wrote and the lives they lived, had handed down to him. When he lists what he lost at the time of his bankruptcy, he includes the ‘beautifully bound editions of my father’s and mother’s works’. In passing, he refers to lines by Goethe, which his mother often quoted, ‘written by Carlyle in a book he had given her years ago, and translated by him’, as though it were the most natural and ordinary thing in the world for Carlyle to have given a book to his mother. But the most significant passage comes shortly after he has been given the news of her death: ‘She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology and science but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation.’

As I went on reading the letter, with light from the same sky coming into the cell as when Wilde was there, I became interested in the silences that lurk between the words in De Profundis, the things Wilde glosses over, that he seems almost to avoid. While Wilde has time to say everything he needs to say, there is one figure all but missing from the pages of his letter, a figure whose life has a considerable number of echoes with the life of Wilde himself. This figure is his father, a man who was more than twenty years dead when Wilde began to write De Profundis. Since Wilde put so much energy into letting it be known that he had invented himself, it is easy to understand how having a father might have seemed at certain moments quite unnecessary for him. Posing as a fully-fledged orphan was another of his modes. But as with Lord Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, his father does not need to appear to inform his version of who he is. While Sir William’s books and the name he bequeathed to his son are mentioned in De Profundis, there is no moment when his father is fully evoked, no moment when anything particular is said about who Sir William Wilde was, and what he did, nothing about how his own search for fame has strange echoes with events in the life of his son, nothing about how Oscar Wilde emerged not, like Jay Gatsby, from his Platonic conception of himself, but from a family, or the fact that many of the ambiguities in his personality, and many of his talents, came from his father.


William Wilde, the son of a doctor, was born in County Roscommon in 1815, and studied medicine in Dublin. In 1837, the year his first illegitimate child, a son, was born, he embarked on a cruise of the Mediterranean. His first book, entitled Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Tenerife, and along the Shores of the Mediterranean, including a visit to Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, Tyre, Rhodes, Telmessus, Cyprus and Greece, in two volumes, was an account of this journey: ‘Nothing can exceed the variety and incongruity of costume and the appearance of the people you meet with in the narrow streets of Algiers.’ It is hard, reading it, not to remember his son Oscar’s account in a letter to Robert Ross of a similar visit almost sixty years later with Lord Alfred Douglas, just months before his downfall: ‘There is a great deal of beauty here,’ Oscar Wilde wrote. ‘The Kabyle boys are quite lovely. At first we had some difficulty procuring a proper civilised guide. But now it is all right and Bosie and I have taken to haschish [sic]: it is quite exquisite: three puffs of smoke and then peace and love.’

William Wilde had interests other than peace and love. His son’s frivolity as revealed in his letters was matched by the father’s earnestness. William was fascinated by the diverse ethnicities, religions and traditions he came across, as well as the wildlife. On the ship he had a dolphin dragged on board and dissected it over three days, gathering material for a scientific paper. In Egypt, he made a close study of monuments, as his son would do, as a student, on a trip to Greece in 1877. William Wilde hired a boy to take him into underground Egyptian graves, affording him an opportunity to display both his vivid prose style and his intrepid spirit:

All was utter blackness; but Alee, who had left all his garments above, took me by the hand, and led me in a stooping posture some way amidst broken pots, sharp stones, and heaps of rubbish, that sunk under us at every step; then placing me on my face, at a particularly narrow part of the gallery, he assumed a similar snake-like posture himself, and by a vermicular motion, and keeping hold of his legs, I contrived to scramble through a burrow of sand and sharp bits of pottery, frequently scraping my back against the roof.

When he arrived at the burial place, ‘I do not think in all my travel I ever felt the same strong sensation of being in an enchanted place, so much as when led by this sinewy child of the desert through the dark winding passages and lonely vaults of this immense mausoleum.’

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[*] I am indebted, especially in my account of Mary Travers, to Emer O’Sullivan’s The Fall of the House of Wilde (Bloomsbury, 495 pp., £12.99, February, 978 1 4088 6316 9).