In this new installment in the engaging mystery series Booklist called “pitch-perfect” and “enthralling”—currently in development as a BBC television series—the incomparable playwright, novelist, raconteur, and now ex-convict Oscar Wilde faces his most fiendishly puzzling case yet.
Oscar Wilde has fled to France after his release from Reading Gaol. Tonight he is sharing a drink and the story of his cruel imprisonment with a mysterious stranger. Oscar has endured the treadmill, solitary confinement, censored letters, no writing materials. Yet even in the midst of such deprivation, his astonishing detective powers remain undiminished—and when first a brutal warder and then the prison chaplain are found murdered, who else should the governor turn to for help other than Reading Gaol’s most celebrated inmate?
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol 1 25–27 May 1895 Newgate Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style.
If I begin at the beginning, the very moment that I stepped from the dock at the Old Bailey was both grotesque and absurd. As I was jostled down the stairwell from the vast and echoing court-room to the warren of half-lit corridors and soulless cells that lies beneath, I stumbled on the worn stone steps and lost my footing. I lurched forward and reached out to catch hold of the warder who led the way. But my grasp failed me. Arms flailing, knees buckling, like a marionette whose strings have suddenly been cut, I tumbled downwards to land in a crumpled and humiliated heap at the stairs’ foot.
The warder coming down the steps behind me laughed. “One moment it’s Oscar Wilde, the next it’s Clown Joey.” It was this man’s jostling that had propelled my fall.
I lay, motionless, my face pressed hard and flat against the cold, black ground. I closed my eyes. I held my breath. In that ghastly moment I did not so much want to die—given the circumstances, that would have been too grandiose an aspiration—I simply wanted to vanish into thin air: to dematerialise, to “cease,” to be no more.
“Up,” bellowed the voice of a second warder. This was the man who had been leading the way. “Up,” he barked again. I heard him turn. With the toe of his boot, he prodded me sharply in the small of my back. “Get up. Now. Now.”
With difficulty, and without assistance, I pushed myself to my knees and then to my feet. As I began to brush the dust from my clothes, the first warder said, “We’ve not got time for that.”
The second added, smiling as he spoke, “You’d be surprised how many fall down these stairs. But there’s no point. Take my advice, Wilde. Accept your fate. Don’t fight it.”
That night, for certain, I could not fight it. I had not the strength. I emptied my mind and let the warders march me where they would. They took me through a labyrinth of tunnels and corridors, passageways and guard-rooms. They were taking me, I later realised, on the subterranean route from the lower depths of the Central Criminal Court in the Old Bailey to the dungeons of Newgate Prison near by. At every turn on the journey there were gates to be unlocked and locked again. I remember that the warders whistled as we went—sometimes singly, sometimes in unison. It is, of course, good for a man to be happy in his work.
I recollect, too, that for an hour, at the end of our meandering, I sat alone in a windowless cell, in pitch darkness, waiting for I knew not what. It was an hour that passed, I know, because when, eventually, I was brought, blinking, from the cell, I took out my pocket-watch to see the time.
I was still holding the watch—a fine half-hunter, a souvenir of my American lecture tour, and happily not broken in my fall—when, a moment later, pushed abruptly through a final doorway, I found myself standing in another cell, this one lit by gaslight. Facing me, seated behind a wooden table, I saw a large, bald man, dressed, astonishingly, in evening clothes.
“I am the deputy governor of Newgate Prison,” he said. His voice was lyrical, high-pitched, and fluting. His accent was distinctive. He was evidently a Welshman. I did not discover his name, but his remarkable appearance I will not forget. His face was spherical and shiny, like a polished apple. His lips were full and ruddy; his nose was small and pug-like; his eyebrows were as black and thick and wild as bramble bushes. They danced up and down like Cossacks as he spoke. “You may keep the watch until Monday morning, Wilde. Return it to your pocket now and place your hands behind your back.”
“Thank you, sir—”
“Do not speak unless I invite you to do so.”
“Do not oblige me to repeat myself. You are not here to make conversation. You are here because you have been found guilty of seven offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 and consequently are sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour.”
I bowed my head, not so much in shame as because the drama of the moment seemed to require it.
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you,” said the Welshman sharply. I looked up at once. The deputy governor’s eyebrows were lifted high. “Before we pack you off to gaol, Wilde,” he went on, almost amiably, “there are formalities to be seen to. A warrant authorising your detention is required. I have it here.” He searched among the papers on the table and brandished a foolscap document before me. “Paperwork must be done, a great deal of paperwork, and I am the man who will do it.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I’m obliged.”
I sensed the warders standing behind me stirring, unsettled by the impertinence of my interjection.
The deputy governor raised a hand to reassure them, but kept his eyes fixed on mine. “You are right to thank me, Wilde,” he continued, mellifluously, easing his chair away from the table and revealing a starched white waistcoat stretched to the limit of its capacity. “Because it is a Saturday night I have been obliged to come in specially to deal with your case. I was on my way to the opera. Madame Patti is giving her Gilda. You know her voice, I’m sure.”
I inclined my head by way of acknowledgement. “To me,” said the Welshman, eyebrows dancing, “her voice is one of the wonders of the world. Her staccatos so precise, her legatos so smooth, her trills so . . .” He hesitated.
“Solid,” I ventured.
The deputy governor emitted a high-pitched laugh and slapped his hand on the table in front of him. “I knew you’d know her voice. She earns a thousand pounds a night and has it paid to her in pieces of gold before she makes her entrance. That puts a spring in her step when she takes to the stage, eh?”
“Perhaps you will catch the second act?” I suggested, leaning forward, lost in the lunacy of the scene now being played around me. The warder at my shoulder pulled me back.
“I don’t need to,” said the deputy governor, smiling. “I know how Rigoletto ends. Don’t we all?” He glanced between the warders mischievously and then returned his gaze to mine. “And Madame Patti will sing again, no doubt . . . whereas you, Wilde, will only be imprisoned this once, I trust.” He sat back in his chair, folding his short arms across his fine stomach. “I am on duty tonight because I choose to be. You might have been dealt with by the prison clerk, but when I heard that your case was due to be concluded today, in the event that you should be found guilty I asked to be called. I am a collector of fine sopranos—and exotic prisoners. I am Newgate’s archivist. This is London’s oldest gaol. We’ve had them all in here over the years, the notable and the notorious. Casanova, Ben Jonson, Captain Kidd . . .” He looked about him with proprietorial satisfaction. “This was once John Bellingham’s cell. He assassinated a prime minister, you know.”
I felt, absurdly, that this last remark required some aphoristic response. My mind raced as I made to speak, but he raised his hand to silence me. “We have work to do.” He pulled his chair up to the table and took up a pen. He leafed through the documents before him and brought one to the top of the pile. He raised his eyebrows to me once more. “I am sorry to see you here, Wilde, but I am glad to meet you. I know who you are. I am an admirer of your writing. I took my wife to see one of your plays last year—An Ideal Husband. I took her for our wedding anniversary. The irony of the title was not lost on her. She is a spirited woman. I hope you are a spirited man, Wilde. The next two years will not be easy for you.”
He dipped his pen into the inkwell. His voice remained light and lilting, but his manner now became more businesslike. “You will be in my charge for just two nights. On Monday morning at break of day you will be taken from here to Pentonville Prison to serve your sentence. Until then you can remain in the clothes you are wearing—and you can keep your watch. Tonight, you will be given a beer with your evening meal. Enjoy it. It will be your last taste of alcohol for some time.”
“May I smoke?”
“Whatever cigarettes you have on you, you may smoke—whilst you are here. On Monday, you will be required to hand over your cigarette case and all your other possessions to the authorities at Pentonville. Do you understand?”
He held his pen over the first of the documents and looked at me enquiringly. “Name?”
“You know my name, sir.”
“You must say it.”
“But you know it.”
“You are a prisoner now, Wilde. Someone else has written the rules.” He put his pen to the paper and prepared to write. “Name?” he repeated.
“Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills.”
“For your own sake, I’ll just list the first.” He wrote down my name. “Place of birth?”
“Date of birth?”
“Sixteenth October 1854.”
“Next of kin?”
“I have a wife, Constance, née Lloyd.”
“She may have changed her surname. I do not know. She spoke of it—to safeguard the children. The ignominy . . .”
“What is Mrs. Wilde’s address?”
“I do not know. She has gone abroad, I think—with our sons.”
“Do you have other family? Brothers, sisters?”
“I have a brother, Willie, but he’s not to be relied on. He has been defending me all over London—and you see the result. Willie could compromise a steamroller.”
The deputy governor smiled. “Are your parents living? I must list a next-of-kin.”
“My mother is living. She will vouch for me. Lady Wilde, 146 Oakley Street, Chelsea.”
“Thank you.” The deputy governor wrote out the name and address. “Occupation?”
“My mother is a saint.”
“Your occupation, Wilde.”
“You have not met the governor of Pentonville, have you, Wilde?” He glanced up at me, his eyebrows twitching. “I shall put you down as ‘author.’ It will be best.” He turned over the document and scanned it, sighing gently as he did so. “Height?”
“Six feet two inches.”
“I shall put ‘Large,’ if you’ll allow me.” I nodded. The Welshman scratched away at the paper. “Distinguishing features?” he asked. “Pray don’t answer,” he said quickly. “I shall put ‘None.’ ” He laid down his pen for a moment and looked up at me. “You will be given a full physical examination on Monday, but I take it that you are in good health?”
“I am dead already,” I answered.
“No, Wilde, for you this is a living hell, perhaps, but you are not dead.”
“I am dead in all but—”
“Silence. Do not indulge yourself. Let us complete these formalities in good order, then I will bid you good-bye. Once our interview is concluded, I will not see you again. I regret that the prison regulations do not permit me to shake you by the hand. Perhaps at some future date we will meet in happier circumstances. Between now and Monday morning you will be locked in your cell and left undisturbed. Do not brood on your fate, Wilde. Do not give way to self-pity. Sleep. Let the time pass. Imagine your sentence is an opera by Wagner. It does not seem possible now, but it will come to an end.”
I believe that was the last occasion that a man made a joke in my presence for two years.
This reading group guide for Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Gyles Brandreth. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol Introduction
In 1895 Oscar Wilde has been sentenced to prison for indecency and eventually lands in Reading Gaol, where must submit to harsh rules for inmates, including no speaking and wearing a hood at all times while outside his cell. He endures this isolation, but when two prison workers die under mysterious circumstances, Wilde must crack the case. This time without the help of Arthur Conan Doyle, long-time friend and crime-solving collaborator, Wilde must identify and stop the killer or risk becoming the next victim.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Gyles Brandreth narrates his story as Wilde biographer Robert Sherard. Why do you think he does this? What effects did that have on your interpretation of the book?
2. Wilde thinks about the turning points in his life and admits, “I would sooner say—or hear it said of me—that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity’s sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.” What do you think he means? Why would he want people to think it about him?
3. Several times in the story Wilde says, “Each man kills the thing he loves,” which he also incorporates into his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Which characters exemplify this statement? Do you think the statement is true?
4. When viewing Warder Braddle’s grave in the prison grounds, Wilde thinks, “In this life we are all of us are confined in different ways.” Consider the ways the prisoners and the prison guards are confined. How is Wilde still confined after his release? How is he a prisoner of his own habits? In what ways do you feel confined?
5. In a conversation with the prison surgeon, Wilde says, “I wrote when I did not know life, Doctor. Now that I do know the meaning of life, I have no more to write. Life cannot be written; life can only be lived.” Do you agree or disagree? What does it say about authors?
6. Discuss how the silence rule at the jail affected Wilde and possibly the other inmates. How would react to such a drastic, inhumane rule?
7. Sebastian Atitis-Snake was found guilty of multiple murders, but Wilde found likable qualities in him. What does that say about Wilde? About Atitis-Snake?
8. Review the Rules for Prisoners in the 1890s on page 306. What do you think these harsh regulations are meant to achieve? Compare this to what their actual effects on the inmates are. Wilde thinks, “Prison life makes one see people and things as they really are and that is why it turns one to stone.” Does prison life have this effect on both the prisoners and the jailers?
9. Wilde expresses his unabashed dislike of journalists when he states “newspapers today chronicle with degrading avidity the sins of the second-rate, and with the conscientiousness of the illiterate, give us accurate and prosaic details of the doings of people of absolutely no interest whatever.” Do you think this can be said of the pursuits and integrity of today’s journalists?
10. Reread Warder Stokes’s description of the hanging beginning on page 268, chronicling the schedule and procedures. Consider also the Regulations for the Administration of Corporal Punishment on pages 309 to 310. Do you think these methods for killing a man make it more or less civilized? Is government-sanctioned killing a necessary evil? Do the rules and regulations make it easier for people to tolerate the prison system—both those within its walls and society at large?
11. Throughout the story Wilde claims, and indeed seems, to care deeply for his wife and sons, yet his behavior after his release from prison further hurts his wife and alienates him from his family. What does that say about his affection for them? In the afterword Wilde wonders, “Why is it that one runs to one’s ruin?” Why does he?
12. Do you think Wilde redeemed himself by murdering Atitis-Snake in order to save Tom? Did the significance of Wilde’s act change for you when you learn that, as an adult, Tom runs a male brothel?
13. How do you think Wilde’s life might have turned out had he not been convicted and sent to jail?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. The book includes an excerpt from Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Read the entire poem and discuss the parallels between it and this novel. How does the poem further illuminate Wilde’s frame of mind and experiences as a prisoner?
2. In this book Wilde says, of his life, “I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb.” In honor of his passion for life, set the mood at your meeting by serving decadent hors d’oeuvres and desserts. Elegant teas would make a fitting accompaniment, as would champagne.
3. Explore the five other books in the series. As Brandreth indicates, there is no particular order in which they must be read. To help make your selection, you can peruse excerpts and find reviews on the series website, www.OscarWildeMurderMysteries.com. For further information on Wilde, Brandreth recommends several excellent biographies in the Acknowledgements.
4. Consider throwing a murder mystery party with your reading group members. There are many board or electronic games available online to provide the structure. You can serve murder-themed (or named) dishes or perhaps even have participants dress in Victorian costumes. To further customize the game, incorporate a selection of Wilde’s many witticisms into the fun.
A Conversation with Gyles Brandreth
This is the sixth book in your Oscar Wilde series. Do you feel there is still more for you to write about him?
There is plenty more to write about. Oscar Wilde’s life was so extraordinary. There were remarkable highs and incredible lows—the stuff of comedy and tragedy. He knew so many people—writers, artists, actors, princes, poets, prostitutes, politicians; he met a pope and Mark Twain (though not on the same day); he knew all types and conditions of men and women—and he travelled widely, in Europe, in America, in North Africa. The possibilities feel limitless. I have now written six mysteries. In my head, I have plot outlines for at least six more. For example, it turns out that Oscar Wilde was a friend of four men who were among those most often accused of being Jack the Ripper—so it could be that, thanks to Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle, my next mystery reveals, at long last, the complete (and unexpected) truth about the most notorious and brutal murderer of the nineteenth century. . . .
Your Wilde series has been extensively and positively reviewed. How does that affect you when working on the next title?
The mysteries have been very generously received and that’s both wonderful and a challenge. It means that I feel I have to keep raising my game. I want the stories to work as satisfying murder mysteries—in the tradition of the best of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers—and at the same time I want my portrait of Wilde and his circle to be as accurate and true as possible. When you meet Oscar Wilde or Arthur Conan Doyle in my stories, I want you to feel you are meeting the real man. With Wilde there is an extra challenge, too: he was reckoned the greatest talker of his time. Yes, I can borrow some of the brilliant things we know he said, but I have to invent quite a few of my own as well.
This series has been published in twenty-three countries. Have your fan receptions been different in each country?
In some countries, the real Oscar Wilde—poet, playwright, prisoner—is almost unknown. There people read the books simply because they are historical murder mysteries. They assume that Oscar Wilde is entirely my invention! In Russia, they are much more aware of Arthur Conan Doyle than they are of Oscar Wilde, so they are more interested in him than in Oscar—and on the cover of one of the Russian editions I see that they have dressed Oscar Wilde in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker and given him a Sherlock Holmes pipe to smoke.
You have exhaustively studied the life and personality of Oscar Wilde, a man who was born almost a century before you. Do you view the distance of time as a benefit or challenge to your understanding of the man?
My father was born in 1910, only a decade after Oscar Wilde’s death. Arthur Conan Doyle was still very much alive then. Bedales, the English boarding school I was sent to as a boy in the 1960s, was founded by a man—John Badley—who knew Oscar and Constance Wilde: their older son, Cyril, was a pupil at the school. Mr. Badley was still alive when I was at Bedales. I took tea with him on Wednesday afternoons during term time. We played Scrabble and talked about Oscar Wilde. Yes, I knew a man who knew Oscar Wilde. And now, in 2013, I find that I am a friend of Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland. The events I am describing took place more than a century ago and yet, curiously, I feel very close to them. And it’s not just the people I feel close to: I feel I know the places, too. With all the books in the series I try to visit the actual locations—and, of course, many of the buildings of the 1880s and 1890s are still with us and some are comparatively unchanged. For example, when I was writing Oscar Wilde and the Vatican Murders I had a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican and, while researching this book, I was privileged to spend time at Reading Gaol. I have sat in the actual cell where Wilde was incarcerated. I have walked along the prison corridors. I have stood in the execution room.
What is the most interesting or striking feedback you have received about your Oscar Wilde series?
Oscar Wilde’s only grandson, Merlin Holland, is a considerable authority on his grandparents’ lives and the editor of the Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. He has read all the books in my series of mysteries and, as well as being very generous about them, has put me right on details of fact when I have gone wrong. Having his feedback has been invaluable. I have also had generous and helpful feedback from people who knew Wilde’s friend Lord Alfred Douglas and from members of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London. When writing these books I want to “get it right.” It’s a murder mystery: it’s historical fiction, but many of the characters were real people (more than you would think) and I want the reality to be real. When this book was first published in London, we held a party at the Cadogan Hotel. The hotel features in Oscar Wilde and a Game Called Murder and is the hotel where Wilde was arrested and taken for trial in 1895. At the party the guests included Wilde’s grandson and great-grandson; several actors who had played Wilde on stage or screen; the priest from the church where the Wildes were married; and representatives from Reading Gaol, including the present governor and a prison officer who had served in the prison for more than thirty years. He said to me, “The Reading Gaol in your book—it’s the real thing.” That pleased me very much.
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol tackles a darker side of Wilde than the earlier books in the series. A sense of isolation pervades the harsh environment of the jail, but here Wilde also endures the absence of Arthur Conan Doyle, with whom he has solved mysteries in previous titles. How did these more somber, introspective elements affect the writing process for you?
Oscar Wilde’s life was a roller-coaster ride and my series of mysteries must reflect that. To put myself into the right frame of mind for this book, I visited the prison and I reread all the letters we have that date from the time of Wilde’s incarceration, including the long confessional letter that he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, now known as “De Profundis.” At the British Library I was able to read—and touch—the original manuscript of the letter. Seeing Wilde’s handwriting on the prison notepaper was a moving experience. I also visited Wilde’s grave in Paris while writing the book and—quite as moving—visited the grave of his wife, Constance, in Genoa.
Even more than a hundred years after his death, Wilde’s works are widely studied and appreciated. Why do they have this timeless relevance? What makes Wilde such an enduringly fascinating person?
Wilde’s works stand on their own merit. The Importance of Being Earnest is, arguably, the best comedy written in the English language. It is a play that will stand the test of time. Recently I appeared on stage in a musical version of the play (as Lady Bracknell) and the more familiar I became with the play, the more I admired it. As I get to know Wilde the man better, I don’t admire him more, but I do find him ever more fascinating. During his life he went out of his way to make himself a mythic personality—and, incredibly, the myth has endured. The tragedy that followed the triumphs helped, no doubt. And—like Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Elvis Presley—he died before his time. He is a wonderful character to write about because he is both touched by genius and flawed. He is somebody you want to meet and, when I am writing these books, I do feel that I am meeting him.
You certainly have extensive experience studying and writing about Oscar Wilde. If you could choose another person as the subject of a historical novel, who would it be and why?
I am happy enough living in the twenty-first century, but if I had to live in another epoch I would choose the nineteenth century so that I could meet the giants of that era who created characters and worlds that are still alive today—characters like Sherlock Holmes and Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. And once I had exhausted the possibilities of the Victorian age, I would move back to the Elizabethan age. Queen Elizabeth I was a remarkable woman and writing about her would be a fascinating challenge. Perhaps I could find a way to team her up with the greatest writer of them all, William Shakespeare. It is strange: Shakespeare knew so much about us and yet we know so little about him. I would like to discover more.
Will your next writing project focus on Oscar Wilde or will you go in a new direction?
I have recently completed Wonderland, a play (with music by Susannah Pearse) about Lewis Carroll and a young actress called Isa Bowman who was one of the first to play the part of Alice in Wonderland on stage. I am currently writing a one-man show called Looking for Happiness and editing the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations. And then it’s back to Oscar and Arthur. I think it has to be. One of my forebears was a Victorian journalist called George R. Sims (famous in his day, almost forgotten now): he claimed to be the first man to identify Jack the Ripper. I have uncovered a stash of his unpublished papers. I now know things I feel the world should know.
Wilde was known for his exceptional wit. Can you share one of your favorites of his quotes?
Now did Oscar Wilde say this? Or did I invent it for him to say? I really do not recall, but I like the line because it reminds me why so many of us love a traditional murder mystery: “There is nothing quite like an unexpected death for lifting the spirits.”