On this day in history, the Irish author and poet Oscar Wilde was released from jail after serving two years of hard labor. Wilde was the author of such important works as “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1890) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895).
Wilde had been arrested for “gross indecency” [read: committing homosexual acts] under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Wilde pleaded not guilty, but on May 25, 1895 was convicted and sentenced to the maximum allowed: two years of hard labor.
Wilde was imprisoned first in Pentonville Prison and then Wandsworth Prison in London. Inmates followed a regimen of “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed,” which wore very harshly on Wilde. His health declined sharply, and in November he collapsed during chapel from illness and hunger. His right ear drum was ruptured in the fall, an injury that later contributed to his death.
Richard B. Haldane, the Liberal MP and reformer, got Wilde transferred in November to Reading Gaol, 30 miles west of London. Haldane eventually also was able to procure for Wilde access to books and writing materials. Between January and March 1897 Wilde wrote a 50,000-word letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which he was not allowed to send, but was permitted to take with him upon release. When he got out, he gave the manuscript to another lover, Robert Ross and it was eventually partially published as De Profundis in 1905. It was not completely published until 1962.
When released, Wilde left England for the continent, to spend his last three years in impoverished exile. He wrote two long letters to the British newspaper, “The Daily Chronicle,” describing the brutal conditions of English prisons and advocating penal reform.
Wilde reunited with both Ross and Douglas, but his wife Constance refused to meet with him or to let him see their sons.
Wilde’s final residence was in a dingy hotel in Paris where he suffered from poverty, depression, and a sense of hopelessness. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900 with Ross at his bedside. Wilde’s physicians reported that the condition stemmed from an old suppuration of the right ear, which he had sustained in prison.
In 1954, on the centenary of Wilde’s birth, when a plaque was erected by the London County Council on him former home, Wilde’s old friend the playwright Laurence Housman (and sibling of poet A.E. Housman) wrote:
His unhappy fate has done the world a signal service in defeating the blind obscurantists; he has made people think. Far more people of intelligence think differently today because of him. And when his Ballad of Reading Gaol, he not only gave the world a beautiful poem, but a much needed lesson in good will, pity, pardon and understanding of the down-and-out.”