I was thinking this evening about Oscar Wilde’s prison related deprivations. It was prompted by a comment made by Wilde’s prison warden. The warden said that while Wilde was holding up in prison despite being subjected to hard labour, he would not survive more than three years after being released. Men who are unused to such treatment never do.
The man knew what he was talking about. Wilde died at the age of 45, exactly three years after his release.
How long was Wilde’s prison term? I knew at one time but could not remember. My first thought was that it was less than a year. Or was it three years? In fact it was two years. That might not seem very long if one is just sitting in a jail cell, reading books and writing letters. But Wilde was not that fortunate In case you are wondering,
The deterrent object of imprisonment had been officially laid down as “hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed.” Evidence given by a variety of witnesses before a recent Home Office Committee on Prisons had shown that two years imprisonment with hard labour, involving solitary cellular confinement, with its attendant laborious and largely useless work in the shape of the treadwheel [pumping water or grinding grain], the crank [turning the handle in a cylindrical metal drum] and oakum picking [separating loose fibers in old rope used in caulking scams of wooden ships], which had to be performed on a poor and inadequate diet, were calculated to break a man in body and spirit.
The last sentence of the above quote bears emphasis — hard labour was calculated to break a man in body and spirit. Being sentenced to hard labour was a serious matter, and I would guess it was a bit unusual for it to be imposed on a gentleman. Indeed, Wilde suffered enormously from hard labour. He did not complain, and he never showed bitterness over his treatment. But the punishment was brutal. If you are interested in the more lurid details, you might refer to the above link.
And perhaps Justice Wills, who had sentenced Wilde, would have been pleased by this. At sentencing, Wills said in open court
It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years.
Worst case? Two years at hard labour — calculated to break a man in body and spirit — in effect, a delayed death sentence prefaced by torture, was “totally inadequate”? Clearly Justice Wills had got his dander up.
What provoked him? I do not see the extreme provocation from what I know of the legal matter itself. True. the alleged activities were considered to be salacious but there was no violence or obviously great harm to society. To the contrary, in the Victorian era, illegal sexual activity by members of polite society was not so serious as long as it was conducted in a discrete manner. Wilde was not an aristocrat, but he was accepted in polite society. And he was not accused of publicly conducting illegal activities. Nor was there any evidence that Wilde had injured anyone, either physically or otherwise. Last but not least, the witnesses for the prosecution were notoriously unreliable, and testifying for money. So, yes, there was a crime involved. But was it that horrendous? One shudders to think what additional punishment the good Judge would have imposed had he had the power to do so. Perhaps burning at the stake?
So if it was not the legal issues, what was so bloody awful? My best guess is that it had less to do with the homosexuality than the publicity about it. This was not a run of the mill trial. To the contrary, Wilde was a celebrity, and the press riveted public attention on the matter. Wilde contributed to this by his eccentric manner in court, and by having his lawyer read letters from Queensberry to evidence bullying. Unfortunately, these letters also referred to the prime minister, Gladstone and even the queen. This created an indirect suggestion that these figures —- who should have been above reproach in public — were somehow involved in the scandal. And of course, Wilde had attempted to use his libel suit to continue what came out as a scandalous lifestyle. Perhaps there was a feeling that unless Wilde was smacked down, the above figures and the court might be seen by the public as endorsing public immorality. That could not be tolerated!
BTW, this line of thought finds support in the way the government acted. The first criminal prosecution of Wilde ended in a mistrial. The government might have let the matter drop and some argued at the time that this was the right thing to do. The government did the opposite, going full bore with the toughest prosecutor they could find, in order to go back to court and this time get a conviction. There is no recorded reasoning for this decision. Using hindsight, it does appear to be excessive, though in line with Justice Wills’s level of outrage about the case.
And the government got their conviction on the second go round. The punishment then had the desired effect. Wilde was broken, bankrupted, and soon dead. And not only that, Wilde’s reputation was so blackened that his wife had to change the family name to protect their two young boys. As Churchill put it, Wilde was “obliterated”.
One hundred years later, it is not so easy to understand why all of this was necessary. The fact is that Queensberry did provoke Wilde – not just once, but repeatedly. He was acting like a nut case, which apparently he was. Wilde may have been less than brilliant in deciding to bring his libel suit, but one wonders what alternatives he had given that Queensberry was likely to continue his provocations. It was not just a matter of honor. Queensberry was attempting to disrupt Wilde’s ability to earn his living. Given this, one might expect at least some sympathy from someone. Nope. There were clearly emotional elements to the case that are hard to fathom from our perspective.
Perhaps we might conclude by stating the obvious – the intense emotions arose from something that we see very differently now. The Victorians were obsessed with public propriety. They would have found the rise of someone like Donald Trump unthinkable. Come to think of it, I am still getting over that one myself. No matter what happened in private, for Victorians, it had to stay there. Wilde may not have intended to breach this standard —, and he had a point that it was Queensberry who was forcing things into the open — but in the end Wilde got the blame for doing just that. The man who used publicity to make his literary fame, died from an overdose of it. No one comes out smelling like a rose from this, though Wilde’s work is still entertaining. We disregard the unpleasantness of his obliteration.