Reading out of jail

<i>Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde</i> Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (Fourth Estate, &pound;35, 1270pp)
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The Independent Culture

After the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895, some recipients of his letters destroyed them as incriminating documents. (Until the 1960s, at least, the police used ownership of certain books as evidence of homosexuality.) Other recipients, when they came to sell his letters, did so surreptitiously. Thin volumes of Wilde's letters began to be published 20 years after his death in 1900. Excerpts from others dribbled out in booksellers' catalogues.

After the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895, some recipients of his letters destroyed them as incriminating documents. (Until the 1960s, at least, the police used ownership of certain books as evidence of homosexuality.) Other recipients, when they came to sell his letters, did so surreptitiously. Thin volumes of Wilde's letters began to be published 20 years after his death in 1900. Excerpts from others dribbled out in booksellers' catalogues.

Some cut and doctored correspondence was published, and Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland remained anxious about public reactions when the publisher Sir Rupert Hart-Davis began preparing a fuller edition of Wilde's letters for publication. Hart-Davis's work was complicated by a large number of forged documents, and by the number of collectors who felt constrained to keep secret their interest in Wilde. All homosexual acts were criminal offences when Hart-Davis's edition was published in 1962. Vyvyan Holland's eventual decision that it should be unexpurgated was vindicated by its reception.

In ensuing decades, more documents have been discovered, and this centenary edition, meticulously edited by Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland, contains over 460 more letters than in 1962. Holland has traced texts previously available only in garbled versions. And the book's lavish production compensates for occasional skimpiness in footnotes. One would like more explicit hints about why, say, Wilde called Lady Desart "the most lovely and dangerous woman in London".

Wilde's character Dorian Gray wondered "at the shallow psychology of those who conceive the Ego in man as a thing simple, permanent, reliable, and of one essence". To Gray, man was "a complex multiform creature" with "myriad lives". Wilde's letters chart the life-course of a complex multiform creature whose Ego underwent several re-inventions.

The correspondence between 1875 and 1890 reveals an ambitious young Irishman on his travels, flirting with young men and women, living extravagantly in London and editing a woman's magazine. He was deferential, seductive and tenacious. The zest seems wonderful; some of his sentiments too arch and insinuating.

After 1890, four sparkling plays produced in London, America and Europe took him to the acme of Society and literary fashion. His letters then were glossy, self-assured and intoxicated with the fabulous. Their wit has a tipsy bravura that remind us that he was often drinking too much. But his ideas had none of the futility of most soaks. There is a deep, scrutinising intelligence in all the more substantial letters.

Apart from businesslike messages about his working life, the early 1890s letters are intimate and conversational, intended to give pleasure to friends but ephemeral. It is the final sequence that makes this book horrible, compelling and of enduring importance.

This tranche, written from either English prisons or foreign exile, show a man suffering spiritual anguish, physical pain and sickening privation. In petitions to the Home Secretary, written from solitary confinement in Reading Prison, he pleaded for the authorities to relent in their savagery, and wrote with a self-abasement born of cornered desperation.

His homosexuality he described as "monstrous sexual perversion" which "clings like a malaria to soul and body." His isolation was appalling; his fight to preserve his sanity and identity heroic. This phase of the correspondence must rank among the most powerful sequence of prison letters ever.

Some passages - notably those addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas from Reading - may be familiar. One sad but brilliantly recriminatory letter includes a passage in which Wilde recalls his gaolers exhibiting him handcuffed and in convict clothes on Clapham Junction station. "For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time." It is impossible to believe that this story is all literally true, although it has become among the best-known Wilde myths.

These letters are highly political documents. Their disappearance underground, their painstaking recovery, and their explosive contents give them the importance of samizdat documents. They evoke bigotry, small-mindedness and brutish bullying that may have transmuted their forms in the last 100 years, but still fester and corrupt. The frame of mind that seeks to perpetuate Clause 28, and the ferocious moral absolutism of the authoritarian wing of the Conservative Party, have the same infamy as Wilde's persecutors. As he said, "I never came across anyone in whom the moral sense was dominant who was not heartless, cruel, vindictive, log-stupid and entirely lacking in the smallest sense of humanity. Moral people, as they are termed, are simple beasts."

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