May 14, 2014
Oscar Wilde book, inscribed to his jailer, is up for auction
by Julia Fleischaker
According to Alison Flood in The Guardian, a copy of The Importance of Being Earnest, inscribed by Oscar Wilde himself, is going up for auction. The backstory offers a poignant rebuke to rules recently put in place forbidding prisoners in the UK from receiving books in the mail while in jail.
After being found guilty of “gross indecency” in 1895, Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol. He was first under the control of Henry Isaacson, a prison governor who Wilde said had the “soul of a rat.” In a letter to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, he wrote of his despair.
“I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb.”
Fortunately, Isaacson didn’t stay for long.
When Major James Nelson took over from Isaacson, he immediately gave Wilde access to books; the new governor is said to have told Wilde: “The Home Office has allowed you some books. Perhaps you would like to read this one. I have just been reading it myself.”
Wilde “had feared he was losing his mind under Isaacson’s regime, writing to the home secretary of ‘the fearful system of cellular confinement’, the absence of writing materials, and the absence of books which he called ‘so vital for the preservation of mental balance.'” Not only did Nelson allow Wilde to read, he even allowed him to write again. Wilde wrote De Profundis while in Reading Gaol.
Nelson bent the rules for Wilde – all written material was meant to be handed to the authorities each evening, but he would let Wilde consult his previous work to keep the thread of his writing, and when the author was released in 1897, Nelson returned the whole manuscript to him.
Wilde described Nelson as “the most Christlike man I ever met,” and the inscription reads, “To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of a great and noble kindness. Feb, 99.”
When the UK’s Justice Secretary Chris Grayling complains that prisoners have it too easy, he would be well served to keep Wilde’s own words in mind. The prisoner, he wrote, “is deprived of everything that could soothe, distract, or heal a wounded and shaken mind”, and “horrible as all the physical privations of modern prison life are, they are as nothing compared to the entire privation of literature to one to whom Literature was once the first thing of life, the mode by which perfection could be realised, by which, and by which alone, the intellect could feel itself alive.”
The inscribed copy of The Importance of Being Earnest is being auctioned off by Bonhams in London.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.