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).