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Oscar Wilde: Prisoner C33
Oscar Wilde memorial gate in Reading
Oscar Wilde memorial gate in Reading
Life in Reading gaol broke Oscar Wilde's spirit.
He lived only three years after his two-year-imprisonment there.
Here, Dr Ronan McDonald, lecturer in Modern English Literature at the University of Reading, talks about Wilde's trauma and jail writings.
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Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment for homosexuality, which in his day was a crime under gross indecency.

During his jail term, first at Wandsworth prison and then at Reading, Wilde underwent a transformation.

The indulgent, witty playwright and author was released a broken man, humiliated and bankrupt.

Dr Ronan McDonald says:"After his time in jail Wilde was much more serious, much more religious and there's certainly a strong Christian element to Wilde. But to some extent that element was always in his work, if you look at his earlier children stories, The Happy Prince etc, there's a sense of the redemptive powers of suffering."

Dr Ronan McDonald
Dr Ronan McDonald reads outside Reading Gaol

At Reading, Wilde was reduced from a famous highly-acclaimed name down to a code.
"He had cell number C33", says Dr McDonald, "which was also a pseudonym under which the Ballad of Reading Gaol was first published, he also wrote a number of letters signing them, prisoner C33."

He adds: "For someone of Wilde's temperament, two years hard labour was always going to be a hard stint.

"In Ballad of Reading Gaol he talks about suffering as indeed he does in his other jail publication De Profundis, which is an essay talking about the time leading up to his imprisonment in the form of a letter to his long-time lover, Alfred Douglas.

"In De Profundis he speaks a lot about suffering in truth, he aestheticises the suffering and turns it into a form of art."

The Oscar Wilde memorial Gate behind Reading gaol
The Oscar Wilde memorial Gate behind Reading Gaol

Dr McDonald describes Wilde's time in jail as "a journey", adding, "one of the things he always said during his time in jail that he had always experienced the other side of life - the extreme pleasure, the indulgence the fame - and that this was the other part of his tragedy, he saw it as a fall from favour."

In France he wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol, which is an elegy for an executed man, Charles Wooleridge, a guardsman who killed his wife in a fit of jealousy.

Oscar Wilde memorial walk railing with a quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Oscar Wilde memorial walk railing with a quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

"It was one of the first executions in Reading Gaol for some time, and it was a very traumatic event during Wilde's time" says Dr McDonald.

"Wilde's was a very humane, sensitive and imaginative response to this man's plight and to the brutality of his institutional punishment."

He adds: "The Ballad is a poetic meditation on suffering, a spiritual redemption and a very pungent critique of capital punishment but also the brutality and the dehumanisation of prison life in the late Victorian period.

The idyllic Oscar Wilde memorial walk can be seen as an ironic tribute to a man whose time in Reading was mostly traumatic.
The idyllic Oscar Wilde memorial walk can be seen as an ironic tribute to a man whose time in Reading was mostly traumatic.

He says finally:"I think Wilde was someone who always saw the other side. He spent his life coming up with lots of paradoxes and witty phrases which turned values on his head. I think he saw his time in Reading, for all his suffering, as a completion of the tragedy in his life."

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