Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 18

Mitigation of Punishment; but not Release

On my return to London I saw Sir Ruggles Brise. No one could have shown me warmer sympathy, or more discriminating comprehension. I made my report to him and left the matter in his hands with perfect confidence. I took care to describe Oscar’s condition to his friends while assuring them that his circumstances would soon be bettered. A little later I heard that the governor of the prison had been changed, that Oscar had got books and writing materials, and was allowed to have the gas burning in his cell to a late hour when it was turned down but not out. In fact, from that time on he was treated with all the kindness possible, and soon we heard that he was bearing the confinement and discipline better than could have been expected. Sir Evelyn Ruggles Brise had evidently settled the difficulty in the most humane spirit.

Later still I was told that Oscar had begun to write “De Profundis” in prison, and I was very hopeful about that too: no news could have given me greater pleasure. It seemed to me certain that he would justify himself to men by turning the punishment into a stepping-stone. And in this belief when the time came I ventured to call on Sir Ruggles Brise with another petition.

“Surely,” I said, “Oscar will not be imprisoned for the full term; surely four or five months for good conduct will be remitted?”

Sir Ruggles Brise listened sympathetically, but warned me at once that any remission was exceptional; however, he would let me know what could be done, if I would call again in a week. Much to my surprise, he did not seem certain even about the good conduct.

I returned at the end of the week, and had another long talk with him. He told me that good conduct meant, in prison parlance, absence of punishment, and Oscar had been punished pretty often. Of course his offenses were minor offenses; nothing serious; childish faults indeed for the most part: he was often talking, and he was often late in the morning; his cell was not kept so well as it might be, and so forth; peccadilloes, all; yet a certificate of “good conduct” depended on such trifling observances. In face of Oscar’s record Sir Ruggles Brise did not think that the sentence would be easily lessened. I was thunder-struck. But then no rules to me are sacrosanct; indeed, they are only tolerable because of the exceptions. I had such a high opinion of Ruggles Brise — his kindness and sense of fair play — that I ventured to show him my whole mind on the matter.

“Oscar Wilde,” I said to him, “is just about to face life again: he is more than half reconciled to his wife; he has begun a book, is shouldering the burden. A little encouragement now and I believe he will do better things than he has ever done. I am convinced that he has far bigger things in him than we have seen yet. But he is extraordinarily sensitive and extraordinarily vain. The danger is that he may be frightened and blighted by the harshness and hatred of the world. He may shrink into himself and do nothing if the wind be not tempered a little for him. A hint of encouragement now, the feeling that men like yourself think him worthful and deserving of special kindly treatment, and I feel certain he will do great things. I really believe it is in your hands to save a man of extraordinary talent, and get the best out of him, if you care to do it.”

“Of course I care to do it,” he cried. “You cannot doubt that, and I see exactly what you mean; but it will not be easy.”

“Won’t you see what can be done?” I persisted. “Put your mind to discover how it should be done, how the Home Secretary may be induced to remit the last few months of Wilde’s sentence.”

After a little while he replied:

“You must believe that the authorities are quite willing to help in any good work, more than willing, and I am sure I speak for the Home Secretary as well as for myself; but it is for you to give us some reason for acting — a reason that could be avowed and defended.”

I did not at first catch his drift; so I persevered:

“You admit that the reason exists, that it would be a good thing to favour Wilde, then why not do it?”

“We live,” he said, “under parliamentary rule. Suppose the question were asked in the House, and I think it very likely in the present state of public opinion that the question would be asked: what should we answer? It would not be an avowable reason that we hoped Wilde would write new plays and books, would it? That reason ought to be sufficient, I grant you; but, you see yourself, it would not be so regarded.”

“You are right, I suppose,” I had to admit. “But if I got you a petition from men of letters, asking you to release Wilde for his health’s sake: would that do?”

Sir Ruggles Brise jumped at the suggestion.

“Certainly,” he exclaimed, “if some men of letters, men of position, wrote asking that Wilde’s sentence should be diminished by three or four months on account of his health, I think it would have the best effect.”

“I will see Meredith at once,” I said, “and some others. How many names should I get?”

“If you have Meredith,” he replied, “you don’t need many others. A dozen would do, or fewer if you find a dozen too many.”

“I don’t think I shall meet with any difficulty,” I replied, “but I will let you know.”

“You will find it harder than you think,” he concluded, “but if you get one or two great names the rest may follow. In any case one or two good names will make it easier for you.”

Naturally I thanked him for his kindness and went away absolutely content. I had never set myself a task which seemed simpler. Meredith could not be more merciless than a Royal Commission. I returned to my office in The Saturday Review and got the Royal Commission report on this sentence of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour. The Commission recommended that it should be wiped off the Statute Book as too severe. I drafted a little petition as colourless as possible:

“In view of the fact that the punishment of two years’ imprisonment with hard labour has been condemned by a Royal Commission as too severe, and inasmuch as Mr. Wilde has been distinguished by his work in letters and is now, we hear, suffering in health, we, your petitioners, pray — and so forth and so on.”

I got this printed, and then sat down to write to Meredith asking when I could see him on the matter. I wanted his signature first to be printed underneath the petition, and then issue it. To my astonishment Meredith did not answer at once, and when I pressed him and set forth the facts he wrote to me that he could not do what I wished. I wrote again, begging him to let me see him on the matter. For the first time in my life he refused to see me: he wrote to me to say that nothing I could urge would move him, and it would therefore only be painful to both of us to find ourselves in conflict.

Nothing ever surprised me more than this attitude of Meredith’s. I knew his poetry pretty well, and knew how severe he was on every sensual weakness perhaps because it was his own pitfall. I knew too what a fighter he was at heart and how he loved the virile virtues; but I thought I knew the man, knew his tender kindliness of heart, the founts of pity in him, and I felt certain I could count on him for any office of human charity or generosity. But no, he was impenetrable, hard. He told me long afterwards that he had rather a low opinion of Wilde’s capacities, instinctive, deep-rooted contempt, too, for the showman in him, and an absolute abhorrence of his vice.

“That vile, sensual self-indulgence puts back the hands of the clock,” he said, “and should not be forgiven.”

For the life of me I could never forgive Meredith; never afterwards was he of any importance to me. He had always been to me a standard bearer in the eternal conflict, a leader in the Liberation War of Humanity, and here I found him pitiless to another who had been wounded on the same side in the great struggle: it seemed to me appalling. True, Wilde had not been wounded in fighting for us; true, he had fallen out and come to grief, as a drunkard might. But after all he had been fighting on the right side: had been a quickening intellectual influence: it was dreadful to pass him on the wayside and allow him callously to bleed to death. It was revoltingly cruel! The foremost Englishman of his time unable even to understand Christ’s example, much less reach his height!

This refusal of Meredith’s not only hurt me, but almost destroyed my hope, though it did not alter my purpose. I wanted a figurehead for my petition, and the figurehead I had chosen I could not get. I began to wonder and doubt. I next approached a very different man, the late Professor Churton Collins, a great friend of mine, who, in spite of an almost pedantic rigour of mind and character, had in him at bottom a curious spring of sympathy — a little pool of pure love for the poets and writers whom he admired. I got him to dinner and asked him to sign the petition; he refused, but on grounds other than those taken by Meredith.

“Of course Wilde ought to get out,” he said, “the sentence was a savage one and showed bitter prejudice; but I have children, and my own way to make in the world, and if I did this I should be tarred with the Wilde brush. I cannot afford to do it. If he were really a great man I hope I should do it, but I don’t agree with your estimate of him. I cannot think I am called upon to bell the British cat in his defence: it has many claws and all sharp.”

As soon as he saw the position was unworthy of him, he shifted to new ground.

“If you were justified in coming to me, I should do it; but I am no one; why don’t you go to Meredith, Swinburne or Hardy?”

I had to give up the Professor, as well as the poet. I knocked in turn at a great many doors, but all in vain. No one wished to take the odium on himself. One man, since become celebrated, said he had no position, his name was not good enough for the purpose. Others left my letters unanswered. Yet another sent a bare acknowledgment saying how sorry he was, but that public opinion was against Mr. Wilde; with one accord they all made excuses. . . .

One day Professor Tyrrell of Trinity College, Dublin, happened to be in my office, while I was setting forth the difference between men of letters in France and England as exemplified by this conduct. In France among authors there is a recognised “esprit de corps,” which constrains them to hold together. For instance when Zola was threatened with prosecution for “Nana,” a dozen men like Cherbuliez, Feuillet, Dumas fils, who hated his work and regarded it as sensational, tawdry, immoral even, took up the cudgels for him at once; declared that the police were not judges of art, and should not interfere with a serious workman. All these Frenchmen, though they disliked Zola’s work, and believed that his popularity was won by a low appeal, still admitted that he was a force in letters, and stood by him resolutely in spite of their own prepossessions and prejudices. But in England the feeling is altogether more selfish. Everyone consults his own sordid self-interest and is rather glad to see a social favourite come to grief: not a hand is stretched out to help him. Suddenly, Tyrrell broke in upon my exposition:

“I don’t know whether my name is of any good to you,” he said, “but I agree with all you have said, and my name might be classed with that of Churton Collins, though, of course, I’ve no right to speak for literature,” and without more ado he signed the petition, adding, “Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College, Dublin.”

“When you next see Oscar,” he continued, “please tell him that my wife and I asked after him. We both hold him in grateful memory as a most brilliant talker and writer, and a charming fellow to boot. Confusion take all their English Puritanism.”

Merely living in Ireland tends to make an Englishman more humane; but one name was not enough, and Tyrrell’s was the only one I could get. In despair, and knowing that George Wyndham had had a great liking for Oscar, and admiration for his high talent, I asked him to lunch at the Savoy; laid the matter before him, and begged him to give me his name. He refused, and in face of my astonishment he excused himself by saying that, as soon as the rumour had reached him of Oscar’s intimacy with Bosie Douglas, he had asked Oscar whether there was any truth in the scandalous report.

“You see,” he went on, “Bosie is by way of being a relation of mine, and so I had the right to ask. Oscar gave me his word of honour that there was nothing but friendship between them. He lied to me, and that I can never forgive.”

A politician unable to forgive a lie — surely one can hear the mocking laughter of the gods! I could say nothing to such paltry affected nonsense. Politician-like Wyndham showed me how the wind of popular feeling blew, and I recognised that my efforts were in vain.

There is no fellow-feeling among English men of letters; in fact they hold together less than any other class and, by himself, none of them wished to help a wounded member of the flock. I had to tell Sir Ruggles Brise that I had failed.

I have been informed since that if I had begun by asking Thomas Hardy, I might have succeeded. I knew Hardy; but never cared greatly for his talent. I daresay if I had had nothing else to do I might have succeeded in some half degree. But all these two years I was extremely busy and anxious; the storm clouds in South Africa were growing steadily darker and my attitude to South African affairs was exceedingly unpopular in London. It seemed to me vitally important to prevent England from making war on the Boers. I had to abandon the attempt to get Oscar’s sentence shortened, and comfort myself with Sir Ruggles Brise’s assurance that he would be treated with the greatest possible consideration.

Still, my advocacy had had a good effect.

Oscar himself has told us what the kindness shown to him in the last six months of his prison life really did for him. He writes in De Profundis that for the first part of his sentence he could only wring his hands in impotent despair and cry, “What an ending, what an appalling ending!” But when the new spirit of kindness came to him, he could say with sincerity: “What a beginning, what a wonderful beginning!” He sums it all up in these words:

“Had I been released after eighteen months, as I hoped to be, I would have left my prison loathing it and every official in it with a bitterness of hatred that would have poisoned my life. I have had six months more of imprisonment, but humanity has been in the prison with us all the time, and now when I go out I shall always remember great kindnesses that I have received here from almost everybody, and on the day of my release I shall give many thanks to many people, and ask to be remembered by them in turn.”

This is the man whom Mr. Justice Wills addressed as insensible to any high appeal.

Some time passed before I visited Oscar again. The change in him was extraordinary. He was light-hearted, gay, and looked better than I had ever seen him: clearly the austerity of prison life suited him. He met me with a jest:

“It is you, Frank!” he cried as if astonished, “always original! You come back to prison of your own free-will!”

He declared that the new governor — Major Nelson18 was his name — had been as kind as possible to him. He had not had a punishment for months, and “Oh, Frank, the joy of reading when you like and writing as you please — the delight of living again!” He was so infinitely improved that his talk delighted me.

“What books have you?” I asked.

“I thought I should like the ‘Oedipus Rex,’” he replied gravely; “but I could not read it. It all seemed unreal to me. Then I thought of St. Augustine, but he was worse still. The fathers of the Church were still further away from me; they all found it so easy to repent and change their lives: it does not seem to me easy. At last I got hold of Dante. Dante was what I wanted. I read the ‘Purgatorio’ all through, forced myself to read it in Italian to get the full savour and significance of it. Dante, too, had been in the depths and drunk the bitter lees of despair. I shall want a little library when I come out, a library of a score of books. I wonder if you will help me to get it. I want Flaubert, Stevenson, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, Dumas père, Keats, Marlowe, Chatterton, Anatole France, Théophile Gautier, Dante, Goethe, Meredith’s poems, and his ‘Egoist,’ the Song of Solomon, too, Job, and, of course, the Gospels.”

“I shall be delighted to get them for you,” I said, “if you will send me the list. By the by, I hear that you have been reconciled to your wife; is that true? I should be glad to know it’s true.”

“I hope it will be all right,” he said gravely, “she is very good and kind. I suppose you have heard,” he went on, “that my mother died since I came here, and that leaves a great gap in my life. . . . I always had the greatest admiration and love for my mother. She was a great woman, Frank, a perfect idealist. My father got into trouble once in Dublin, perhaps you have heard about it?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “I have read the case.” (It is narrated in the first chapter of this book.)

“Well, Frank, she stood up in court and bore witness for him with perfect serenity, with perfect trust and without a shadow of common womanly jealousy. She could not believe that the man she loved could be unworthy, and her conviction was so complete that it communicated itself to the jury: her trust was so noble that they became infected by it, and brought him in guiltless.19 Extraordinary, was it not? She was quite sure too of the verdict. It is only noble souls who have that assurance and serenity. . . .

“When my father was dying it was the same thing. I always see her sitting there by his bedside with a sort of dark veil over her head: quite silent, quite calm. Nothing ever troubled her optimism. She believed that only good can happen to us. When death came to the man she loved, she accepted it with the same serenity and when my sister died she bore it in the same high way. My sister was a wonderful creature, so gay and high-spirited, ‘embodied sunshine,’ I used to call her.

“When we lost her, my mother simply took it that it was best for the child. Women have infinitely more courage than men, don’t you think? I have never known anyone with such perfect faith as my mother. She was one of the great figures of the world. What she must have suffered over my sentence I don’t dare to think: I’m sure she endured agonies. She had great hopes of me. When she was told that she was going to die, and that she could not see me, for I was not allowed to go to her,20 she said, ‘May the prison help him,’ and turned her face to the wall.

“She felt about the prison as you do, Frank, and really I think you are both right; it has helped me. There are things I see now that I never saw before. I see what pity means. I thought a work of art should be beautiful and joyous. But now I see that that ideal is insufficient, even shallow; a work of art must be founded on pity; a book or poem which has no pity in it, had better not be written. . . .

“I shall be very lonely when I come out, and I can’t stand loneliness and solitude; it is intolerable to me, hateful, I have had too much of it. . . .

“You see, Frank, I am breaking with the past altogether. I am going to write the history of it. I am going to tell how I was tempted and fell, how I was pushed by the man I loved into that dreadful quarrel of his, driven forward to the fight with his father and then left to suffer alone. . . .

“That is the story I am now going to tell. That is the book21 of pity and of love which I am writing now — a terrible book. . . .

“I wonder would you publish it, Frank? I should like it to appear in The Saturday.”

“I’d be delighted to publish anything of yours,” I replied, “and happier still to publish something to show that you have at length chosen the better part and are beginning a new life. I’d pay you, too, whatever the work turns out to be worth to me; in any case much more than I pay Bernard Shaw or anyone else.” I said this to encourage him.

“I’m sure of that,” he answered. “I’ll send you the book as soon as I’ve finished it. I think you’ll like it”— and there for the moment the matter ended.

At length I felt sure that all would be well with him. How could I help feeling sure? His mind was richer and stronger than it had ever been; and he had broken with all the dark past. I was overjoyed to believe that he would yet do greater things than he had ever done, and this belief and determination were in him too, as anyone can see on reading what he wrote at this time in prison:

“There is before me so much to do that I would regard it as a terrible tragedy if I died before I was allowed to complete at any rate a little of it. I see new developments in art and life, each one of which is a fresh mode of perfection. I long to live so that I can explore what is no less than a new world to me. Do you want to know what this new world is? I think you can guess what it is. It is the world in which I have been living. Sorrow, then, and all that it teaches one, is my new world. . . .

“I used to live entirely for pleasure. I shunned suffering and sorrow of every kind. I hated both. . . . ”

Through the prison bars Oscar had begun to see how mistaken he had been, how much greater, and more salutary to the soul, suffering is than pleasure.

“Out of sorrow have the worlds been built, and at the birth of a child or a star there is pain.”

18 Cfr. Appendix: “Criticisms by Robert Ross.”

19 I give Oscar’s view of the trial just to show how his romantic imagination turned disagreeable facts into pleasant fiction. Oscar could only have heard of the trial, and perhaps his mother was his informant — which adds to the interest of the story.

20 Permission to visit a dying mother is accorded in France, even to murderers. The English pretend to be more religious than the French; but are assuredly less humane.

21 “De Profundis.” What Oscar called “the terrible part” of the book — the indictment of Lord Alfred Douglas — has since been read out in Court and will be found in the Appendix to this volume.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02