Before I go into why I loved this book, I should make clear that I have not read the entire correspondence that is contained in this book – this is a 1230-page volume!
I have mostly browsed correspondence and opened the book at random to read whatever letter such method revealed to me. However, there were letters that were of particular interest to me and that caused me to pick up the book in the first place, such as Wilde’s correspondence to Lord Queensberry and the letters relating to his trial and imprisonment.
What I have found with this wonderful book is that:
– Wilde was a humorous and warm correspondent. There are several letters in this collection that were to unidentified correspondents who seemed to be members of the reading or theatre-going public, who just decided to write to him. Wilde evidently did not know these people, and yet, he still answered the letters in manner that felt engaged with whatever it was that the senders had asked him.
– Wilde had a LOT of social engagements and used them negotiate advances on plays and writings. At least, much of the correspondence seems about that – not just for himself but also for other writers, actors, and producers.
– The letters to Bosie’s mother show a genuine, deep concern of Wilde’s over Alfred’s well-being. The both may have been toxic for each other (Wilde and Bosie, I mean), but from the letters to Bosie’s mother, it appears Wilde did seek help when he feared Bosie to be in danger of harming himself. (The book doesn’t contain the answers to his letters, so I do not know whether Bosie’s mother acknowledged Wilde’s concerns.)
– Letter to Bosie that Wilde wrote from Reading Gaol which is commonly published as De Profundis is contained in this volume also, and it was extraordinary to see the letter in the context of the other correspondence of the same time, in which Wilde mostly tried to settle his affairs, asking for debts to be paid following the trial. For whatever image we may have of Wilde as the flamboyant bon vivant, he was serious about settling debts and not owing people dues.
Of course, Wilde’s imprisonment didn’t just deprive him of his freedom, he also lost most of his contacts and some of his business partners took advantage of Wilde not being able to pursue them for fraud or theft or not-paying his royalties. He was thoroughly stripped of his civil liberties and his rights.
And this is where the book was really hard to read. It really shows the change from Wilde being a student, to becoming famous, to falling from grace, to being utterly dependent on the few friends that stayed loyal to him. At the end, there were only two of them. Two.
Here are some of the more harrowing passages from the letters to Reginald Turner about Wilde’s prison stay:
“17 May 1897
[…] I cannot tell you how good and dear it was of you in my eyes. Other people came forward with promises of large sums of money […] every one of them has backed out.
You, dear Reggie, simply and quietly and thoughtfully go and get me a beautiful and useful thing. You make no noise beforehand: you blow no lying trumpets like Frank Harris: you don’t pose as the generous friend: you simply do a sweet kind action, unostentatiously, and you are the only one who has really helped me on my going out. I can’t tell you how touched I am: I shall never forget.
The person who has sent me money to pay for my food and expenses on going out is my dear sweet wife, and you have bought me my travelling bag: and now I want yourself; I want you, if you can, to be ready to meet me when I go out, at Mortimer, a place six miles from here.
I am ill, and unnerved. Already the American interviewer and the English journalist have arrived in Reading: the Governor of the Prison has just shown me a letter from an American interviewer stating that he will be here with a carriage on Wednesday morning for me, and offering any sum I like if I will breakfast with him! Is it not appalling?
I who am maimed, ill, altered in appearance so that no one can hardly recognise me, broken-hearted, ruined, disgraced – a leper, and a pariah to men – I am to be gibbeted for the pleasure of the public of two worlds!”
Wilde also brought home some of the less apparent issues of the criminal justice system of his day:
“27 May 1897 [to the editor of the Daily Chronicle]
Sir, I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the warder Martin, of Reading Prison, has been dismissed by the Prison Commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child.
I saw the three children myself on the Monday preceding my release. They had just been convicted, and were standing in a row in the central hall in their prison dress, carrying their sheets under their arms previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them. I happened to be passing along one of the galleries on my way to the reception room, where I was to have an interview with a friend. They were quite small children, the youngest – the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits – being a tiny little chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit. I had, of course, seen many children in prison during the two years during which I was myself confined. Wandsworth Prison especially contained always a large number of children. But the little child I saw on the afternoon of Monday the 17th, at Reading, was tinier than any of them. I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those that have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.”
Wilde does not provide any graphic details of the cruelty he experienced, but the change in his outlook on life is very visible. He was a broken man on his release.
The last letter in the collection is a letter to Frank Harris in which Wilde begs him to send the money that Harris owes Wilde so he can settle his doctor’s bill, and the Epilogue included in this – I have to say it again – magnificent compilation includes the letters between Wilde’s last two friends – Reginald Turner and Robert Ross – who both cared for Wilde in his last days as he was dying from meningitis.
Simply heart-breaking stuff.
Lastly, I would like make another note about what drew me to this book in the first place – the book was a collaboration between Rupert Hart-Davis and Merlin Holland.
Hart-Davis had previously compiled the first ever major collection of Wilde’s letters in 1962, and continued to collect material and letters which he then published in 1985. It is the collaboration with Merlin Holland that, I suspect, adds another level of depth to this particular edition – together with a further 300 letters which Holland was able to add from Wilde’s family estate. For those not in the know, Merlin Holland is Wilde’s grand-son.