Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 26, No. 10. 1963.
Oscar Wildes Story At Last Public
Oscar Wildes Story At Last Public
This volume, by a distinguished "barrister, criminologist and author," continues the story of Oscar Wilde after the three trials of 1895. It is obviously an expansion of the earlier work, The Trials of Oscar Wilde, by the same author.
However, the new volume does have justification in itself, claiming to be "a sombre and at times terrifying picture of penal conditions in England towards the close of the last century and their impact on a man of Wilde's personality and acute sensitivity" (foreword).
A Well documented work which gives in close detail the influences on and general situation of an imprisoned Wilde, it seems to be a yoking together of somewhat ill—matched forces. Wilde's story is an extremely interesting one in itself and perhaps this book makes hard work of combining detailed accounts of general penal conditions with the individual story of Wilde's incarceration.
Nevertheless, Mr. Montgomery Hyde has made good use of the Home Office and Prison Commission Papers relevant to Wilde's imprisonment. Using his position as an MP, Hyde put a question in the House to the Home Secretary as to why these papers should be withheld from view. Permission being finally granted, Hyde was able to see a report on Wilde's mental condition which resulted in a transfer to Reading, various petitions from Wilde himself asking for more books, etc., and remission of sentence, petitions from friends and solicitors, and formerly unknown details about circumstances of the composition of De Profundis.
The two petitions Wilde made from prison, reprinted on pages 71 and 82 of The Aftermath, are indeed the "remarkable" documents Hyde claims they are. Officials noted of the petitions: "certainly does not contain evidence of failure of brain-power" (p.76), "The prisoner's fear of mental breakdown or a decay of his literary capability is expressed in too lucid, orderly and polished a style to cause apprehension on that point" (p.84).
While it is obvious that Wilde did suffer physically in several ways (eye-sight, hearing, loss of weight, etc.), unusual concern was shown about him over the whole period of his imprisonment, and he obtained special dispensations, particularly during the latter part of his term under Major Nelson at Reading Prison.
The story told of Wilde having to stand in a cold stone corridor while waiting for a new pair of shoes is ridiculed by a warder who struck up an acquaintanceship with him near the end of his sentence and who was later sacked for a kind deed towards a prisoner (Appendix E. p.214).
These and other examples cast doubt on the attitude Hyde takes in many places in assuming terrible consequences on Wilde of the conditions of his imprisonment. Although these must rightfully be deplored, it appears that the special conditions allowed Wilde ameliorated his situation considerably.
Hyde never tries to make out a similar argument towards the effects on Wilde's psychology as he implies in the more detailed analysis of Wilde's physical sufferings.
Inevitably in his treatment of De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Hyde touches on how imprisonment affected Wildes mental state, but this remains at a superficial level.
The real value of the book is in the historical aspect when it is dealing with Wilde's writings rather than in any literary or psychologically oriented study.
Even as a history, the book is dissatisfying in the limits Hyde sets himself. The foreword describes the book as "a sequel to the court-room story," a later chapter says "this is not the place to narrate the tragedy of the last phase of Wilde's life, since the book is principally concerned with his prison experiences and his writings" (p.181).
However, within these limits Hyde has done a significant job in processing the "large storehouse of material" which exists on this aspect of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde.—W.A.