Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol
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.