Oscar Wilde in his favourite coat. New York, 1882. Picture taken by Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896). (public domain / WikiMedia Commons)

The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Nicholas Frankel

As an activist, Wilde persists as a necessary voice "from the depths" of these stark texts.

The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde
Nicholas Frankel
Harvard University Press
May 2018

Oscar Wilde’s 1895 conviction for “gross indecency” may be more infamous now, unfortunately, than his famous wit. His incarceration inspired one of his most poignant poems, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol“. Lamenting the death of a fellow inmate, Wilde’s best-selling verse, combined with his autobiographical account De Profundis, ensured that his imprisonment would not silence his eloquent, plangent tone. Having suffered, Wilde died not long after his two years behind bars. These events sum up the aftermath of his noted and notorious career; that they often serve as a postscript about the fate Wilde faced after his High Court trial does injustice to his determined will.

His steadfast resistance to the punishments inflicted by Her Majesty’s Prison rallied his supporters and perhaps ameliorated slightly the damage which would be done to those who would follow him into similar British cells over the next century. With headlines of police brutality and judicial immorality as relevant today as back then, creative works which remind audiences of Wilde’s timeless moral principles remain vital.

Veteran Wilde scholar Nicholas Frankel has annotated The Importance of Being Earnest and an “uncensored” edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray. With The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde has also contributed an in-depth, book-length examination of the last phase of Wilde’s abbreviated life. Therefore, Frankel’s expertise provides audiences in this collection of his prison writings with a reliable reference and an accessible version of the two texts mentioned. He provides, on facing pages, their content, supplemented by superscripted reference numbers. These refer not only to the predictable abundance of cultural and literary lore mentioned by Wilde but pithy entries on personages whom would otherwise be lost to obscurity. With these enrichments, a reader will be able to appreciate the late-Victorian contexts which generated Wilde’s bold, honest, and defiant prose. This edition enables us to find deeper insights into this too-often stereotyped period, for at this assault by modernism, many barriers were about to fall.

However, De Profundis and the ballad are not the only inclusions in this volume. Their backlist reliability has kept them familiar to students of the era ever since their first appearance. What have not been so available outside scholarship and archives are the three other entries in this compendium. After an informative introduction by Frankel, a necessary note on the textual sources reminds audiences how the words they read in this edition differ somewhat from those sold as booklets to Wilde’s first generation of followers. Due to the scandal surrounding his trial and conviction, portions were “heavily redacted”. In the past six decades, advances have been made which uncover the errors, incriminations, and deviations which hid Wilde’s full letters from his contemporaries. Frankel avers that Wilde may never have intended, furthermore, to publish what had begun as a letter to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. While De Profundis was issued, none of its first formulations were at all correct.

Frankel rectifies this, and his careful annotations and editorial remarks throughout illuminate another aspect which Wilde’s earliest admirers may not have known. Frankel speckles pages with eerie woodcuts and handsome illustrations from subsequent printings of the two major texts. They allow us to glimpse the aesthetic and emotional impact left on future artists who have labored to pay tribute to Wilde.

This pair of impassioned missives from Wilde’s confinement is bookended and bolstered by three shorter letters. His clemency petition to the Home Secretary from July 1896, his letter to the reform-minded Daily Chronicle from May 1897, and a final letter ten months later merit attention by these dates. The first comes when Wilde is incarcerated. The second was printed nine days after his release. The third appeared two years before he prematurely died. They witness to the larger political concerns underlying Wilde’s predicament. For as he had argued before his arrest, his radical, redemptive ideal of aesthetic cooperation inspired social anarchists, who called for a dramatic transition to a more equitable, and certainly more appealing, lifestyle for all.

What had transpired immediately before and after Wilde’s release informs the 1897 entry, for a friendly warden at Reading, Thomas Martin, was fired for giving ginger biscuits to three children. Having been unable to pay the fine for snaring rabbits, they were jailed. Martin recounted his dismissal five days after Wilde was set free. A few days later, a long contribution to the Daily Chronicle elegantly and memorably seconded Martin’s previously published letter. Subsequently a successful penny-pamphlet, “Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life,” this conveys Wilde’s characteristic command of our language. Those pondering this typical excerpt will not strain to find comparisons far more than contrasts in recent U.S. headlines.

“The child, consequently, being taken away from its parents by people whom it has never seen, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern prison life—the emotion of terror. This terror that seizes and dominates the child, as it seizes the grown man also is, of course, intensified beyond the power of expression by the solitary cellular system of our prisons. To shut up a child in a dimly lit cell for 23 hours is an example of the cruelty of stupidity. If an individual, parent or guardian, did this to a child, he would be severely punished. There would be on all hands the utmost detestation of whosoever had been guilty of such cruelty. A heavy sentence would, undoubtedly, follow conviction.”

Filtering Oscar Wilde’s demise and demands through academic apparatus does not, refreshingly, diminish their timely and forceful impact. (All that’s missing is an index.) A closing footnote may be of interest, considering how inmates have long fared when their identity has been reduced to bureaucratic data. “C.3.3.” served as the pseudonym resorted to by the prisoner-poet when the verbal “Ballad” appeared. By this cell number, Wilde himself was addressed by fellow prisoners and their guards. Now, 120 years later, this anthology may lead another generation back into the gloomy corridors and dank clanks of his psyche. Wilde deserves to be celebrated for enduring this torment with his humanity intact, even as his body had been broken and his spirit sullied. As an activist, Oscar Wilde persists as a necessary voice “from the depths” of these stark documents here.

RATING 8 / 10