Oscar Wilde’s two-year imprisonment. in solitary confinement caused him profound moral, emotional and physical shock. He nonetheless claimed to have been saved by his fellow prisoners. He told André Gide that for the first six months in gaol, he was ‘terribly unhappy’, and had wanted to kill himself. What prevented him was ‘looking at the others ’. Seeing them, and seeing that they were as unhappy as he was, made him feel pity, and it was this that broke his obsession with his own fate.
Those other prisoners, though, have largely escaped from modern scholarship. They do not feature in any detailed or analytical way in studies of Wilde’s prison years, or in studies of his later writing. Who was in prison with Wilde? How does knowledge of them elucidate Wilde’s experiences, and his literary responses to those experiences?
Research in the Reading Gaol Archive at the Berkshire Record Office confirms much that we would expect of the typical late-Victorian prison population. Most prisoners were given short sentences for trivial crimes. The most frequent offence was petty theft, followed by drunk and disorderly. The vast majority of Wilde’s fellow prisoners were labourers, and he was almost certainly the only university-educated, middle-class prisoner in Reading. The literacy rate was significantly below that of the population at large.
How did Wilde’s particular offence situate him in Reading? He was, so far as the extant material allows us to know, the only person in the Prison at the time who had been convicted of a sexual offense involving two men. But looking across a slightly longer period, it is clear that Wilde was not unusual. The prison documents indicate that in 1893-4 at least three young men (two labourers and a sailor) were sent to Reading to serve sentences for ‘Buggery’ and ‘indecent acts with another male person.’ The records also give tragic confirmation of Wilde’s arguments about the cruel imprisonment of children and the mentally disturbed.
Wilde was enthusiastic in letters about his ‘pals’ in the Prison. He wrote, ‘I have seven or eight friends: they are capital chaps: of course we can’t speak to each other, except a word now and then at exercise, but we are great friends.’ The evidence is fragmentary, but there are fleeting glimpses of some of the ‘pals’ in the documentation. Perhaps most notably, there is the labourer and petty thief, Henry Bushnell, a small, dark-eyed man to whom Wilde would seem to have been attracted. Bushnell was so prolific, and so inept, in his stealing that he made regular appearances in Reading Prison through the 1890s. There are no other known photos of the many working-class men in whom Wilde took an interest before, during or after his time in Reading Prison. But because Bushnell was a frequent offender in the local area, he appears in the photo albums on no fewer than seven occasions.
There are narrow limits to what we can learn of Wilde’s ‘others’. We have a profusion of letters and memoirs by and about Wilde, with their many layers of tone, reference, and point of view – writing that takes on renewed significance for looking at his fellow prisoners. But those ‘others’ themselves survive only in brief notations of prison documents, and stumps of narrative from newspapers. And the brokenness of those accounts, and their judicial and carceral forms, are their ultimate meaning. The ‘others’ suffered for much of their lives from unremitting hardship. Their stories, inevitably, lack the coherence and continuity of middle-class narratives. The extraordinary fact is that Wilde’s story came into contact with theirs at all, a fact that he invited us not to forget.
Coda: In September 2013, in what was widely interpreted as a cost-cutting measure, the United Kingdom Ministry of Justice announced that Reading Prison, along with a number of other local prisons, was to be closed. By 21 January 2014 the Prison had been fully de-commissioned. Wilde’s cell, C.3.3, along with all the other cells, is now permanently empty.