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.
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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).
Vol. 39 No. 24 · 14 December 2017
Colm Tóibín writes that when Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he ‘gave the manuscript [of De Profundis] to his friend Robert Ross, who had two copies made’ (LRB, 30 November). ‘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.’ The facts are that Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross with the instruction that two typed copies should be made. Ross sent one of these to Lord Alfred Douglas (who, incidentally, claimed that he never received it). Ross had the manuscript to hand, not just his typed copy, when he published excerpts in 1905 and 1908. In 1909 he presented the manuscript to the British Museum on condition that no one be allowed to see it for fifty years. He eventually bequeathed the second typed copy to Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland.
Holland published a ‘first complete and accurate version’ in 1949. However, having no access to the manuscript, he took the text from his typed copy. This contained a number of errors: misreadings of Wilde’s handwriting, misprints and omissions. The first truly complete edition, based on the manuscript, was published in 1962 in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Rupert Hart-Davis. On the occasion of the centenary of Wilde’s death in 2000 the British Library published a facsimile of the manuscript with an introduction by his grandson, Merlin Holland. Ross entitled his 1905 edition De Profundis. Wilde himself called it Epistola: In carcere et vinculis – ‘A letter from prison and in chains.’
Oscar Wilde Society, London SW20
Vol. 40 No. 1 · 4 January 2018
Colm Tóibín cites the card the Marquess of Queensberry left at Wilde’s club (LRB, 30 November 2017). ‘The message that would cause the famous libel action,’ Tóibín writes, alleged ‘that Wilde was “posing as a somdomite”.’ In 1981, in a palaeography class in Oxford, R.E. Alton showed us the original card, which quite clearly read: ‘To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’. The error came about because Queensberry misquoted himself when giving evidence at the trial. It’s not a huge difference, but one might as well get it right.
Vol. 40 No. 2 · 25 January 2018
Sean French notes apropos the card left for Oscar Wilde by the Marquess of Queensberry that ‘one might as well get it right’ (Letters, 4 January). In fact, photographs of the card, readily found online, show that Queensberry wrote not ‘To’ but ‘For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite’.