Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 10

After Reading: Prison, Publication, and Personal Letters

It is largely, if not completely, thanks to the efforts of Robert Ross, literary executor and longtime friend of Oscar Wilde's, that readers for Wilde's works appeared early in the twentieth century. It was Ross who was responsible for the recirculation and reprinting of Wilde's works after Wilde's death in 1900. But Ross's reclamation project really began as early as Oscar Wilde's May 1897 release from his two-year prison term, which he started serving at Pentonville, continued at Wandsworth, and finished at Reading Gaol. In September 1897, Wilde solicited Ross's help in publishing The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the "long poem" Wilde wrote during the summer after his release; its publication and plans for distribution occupied Wilde and his friends for most of the rest of the year. Ross wrote several letters to Leonard Smithers, the London publisher and mutual friend of Ross's and Wilde's who undertook to print and sell The Ballad of Reading Gaol. These hitherto unpublished letters tell a short dramatic tale of how the "after-Reading" market for Wilde was negotiated.

To understand the drama underlying the letters, something of Ross's sense of responsibility needs also to be understood. Ross played a double role of stage manager and valedictorian for Wilde's re-entry into the world of letters. As stage manager, Ross wished to cast a favorable light on Wilde's works. But as for the name of Oscar Wilde, made notorious by the court of law, another type of management was needed. In the letters Robert Ross wrote to Leonard Smithers, Ross was careful to use Wilde's alias, "Melmoth." He obviously believed that Oscar Wilde, the man, had a name that had taken on the power to strangle the efforts of Oscar Wilde, the artist.

Later Wilde, too, acknowledged the strangulation. On January 9, 1898, just as The Ballad went to press in England, he wrote to Smithers, "As regards America--I think it would be better now to publish there without my name--I see it is my name that terrifies--I hope an edition of some kind will appear. I cannot advise about what should be done--but it seems to me that the withdrawal of my name is essential in America as elsewhere and the public like an open secret." No American edition of the poem ever appeared, however.

--Anjali Gallup-Diaz

Robert Ross. Friend of Friends. Letters to Robert Ross, Art Critic and Writer, together with extracts from his published articles. ed. Margery Ross. London: Jonathan Cape, 1952.

Ross met Wilde in 1886 when Wilde, who had returned from his successful American tour, visited Oxford and impressed a new generation of Aesthetes with his views. Barely ten years later Ross assigns himself valedictorian on behalf of Oscar Wilde, and between the time of Wilde's release until the time of Ross's own death in 1918, ensures, as Ross himself puts it, that "with the possible exception of Dickens and Byron,[no other] British author of the nineteenth century is better known over amore extensive geographical area."


Robert Ross, (1869-1918) Autograph Letter Signed. Extract.
Saturday [During Wilde's imprisonment; 1896?]
To More Adey

Written on the occasion of a visit to Wilde at Reading, this letter is interesting in its descriptions both of Wilde and Robert Sherard who accompanied Ross to the prison. "It is the worse interview I have had with Oscar," writes Ross, "because Sherard was nearly breaking down all the time." During the interview, Oscar mentions his grievance against the prison doctor who, he claims, treats him unkindly. The doctor makes an appearance in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and is the object of worries on the part of the Chiswick Press about the possibility of libel.

Dear More,    

     I went yesterday to Reading and met Sherard at Paddington.  We got
on like two turtle doves.  He told me of all the murderers he had known... 
Then Oscar appeared... His eyes were horribly vacant, and I noticed that
he had lost a great deal of hair... It is also streaked with white and
grey.  You must allow perhaps for my exaggeration but I try not to do so
and I am writing from pencil notes taken down immediately after leaving
the prison.  I did not break down at all, although it is the worst 
interview I have had with Oscar, because Sherard was nearly breaking down 
all the time and shewed himself fearfully nervous, both before Oscar 
arrived and afterwards.  ...The remarkable part of the interview was that 
Oscar hardly talked at all except to ask if there were any chance of his 
being let out... Asked how he felt generally, he said in a half aside low 
voice, 'They treat me cruelly.'  I think he referred to his food he added 
as if for the benefit of the warder, 'I have only been in Infirmary 2 days 
since I was at Reading.'  It was then I asked about the doctor and he 
said... 'The Doctor is unkind to me.'

Extract from Robert Ross to More Adey, Saturday [1896?], Robert Ross. Friend of Friends. (1952).

Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900) Autograph Letter Signed [facsimile]
[28 November 1897?]
To Leonard Smithers

Wilde responds to his publisher's attempt to modify the description of the prison doctor, "I cannot sacrifice the lines about the watch." Wilde's exasperation regarding the Press's display of queasiness spills over into a general exasperation with friends and acquaintances who have seemingly abandoned him. "I did not think friends, such as they are, and my myriad enemies [would]...force me by starvation to live in silence and solitude again. After all in prison we had food of some kind..."

Photocopy of manuscript held in the Robert Taylor Collection at Princeton University Library.

Robert Ross,(1869-1918)
Autograph Letter Signed
Monday Evening, No Year
To Leonard Smithers, Fales Manuscript Collection

Ross remarks that Wilde, whom he refers to as Melmoth, has asked him "to see Pinker though in what capacity he does not say except that he must have 300 pounds at least for the poem. I do not know anything about Pinker whose name suggests a sort of pill." James Pinker is an American agent who has made vague promises of procuring syndication of the poem overseas. At this early stage of The Ballad's life Ross acknowledges his doubts about a wide distribution: "Except his plays, I do not think his work has any market value but I may be quite wrong and I know nothing about America." But Ross is certain about one thing: "His [Wilde's] namemust always be mentioned if not printed in inverted commas."

Robert Ross, (1869-1918)
Autograph Letter Signed
[16 November 1897]
To Leonard Smithers

Ross opposes Wilde's plan to dedicate the poem to personal friends because such a gesture would encourage undue speculation about the friend(s) and detract from the work itself. "In the first place I think the dedication with or without initials is rot and at all events quite unsuitable to a poem of that sort. I should be deeply touched and gratified of course had the poem been really dedicated to me and simply had my initials. But what I am really concerned about is that without initials and (we agree here I think) everyone will believe rightly or wrongly that Bosie Douglas is intended. This will damage the reception of the poem everywhere and immediately prejudice everyone against it directly they open the book." (Ross's underlining.)

Robert Sherard, (1861-1943)
Autograph Letter Signed
June 8, No Year
To Carlos Blacker

Sherard and Blacker were friends of Wilde's who had remained loyal throughout the trials and imprisonment but whose relationship with Wilde grew strained during the exile years. Sherard authored several memoirs after Wilde's death which were intended to be both truthful and exonerating. This short undated note might be said to provide another version of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, as Sherard writes, "I had some interesting things to tell you about Oscar's life in prison. Would you believe that he actually nouait une intrigue in prison with one of his fellow-prisoners, sending his billets doux [sic] through the friendly warder."

The Ballad of Reading Gaol. London: Leonard Smithers, 1898.

The first edition appeared in January 1898 without the author's name on the title page. It was published by Leonard Smithers at the Chiswick Press, (whose imprint is also absent). The poem's author is indicated on the title page by C.3.3, which designates the location of Oscar Wilde's prison cell: it was the third one on the third floor of the C wing of Reading Gaol.




Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
After Berneval. Letters of Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross. London: Beaumont Press, February 20, 1922. Edited by More Adey.

Wilde's literary executor after Ross's death. This volume is the second of a limited edition of selected letters of Wilde that Ross hadenvisioned publishing. However, Ross died before he could complete the project. In the letter displayed, dated Sunday [February 13, 1898], Wilde thanks Ross for suggestions to Smithers about who should get copies of the poem, but complains of continuing unkindnesses on the part of former friends, "The lack of recognition in people is astonishing."


Robert Ross Autograph Letter Signed
Saturday [1898?]
To Leonard Smithers

Ross's pleasure at Wilde's success prompt him to suggest further literary projects to Smithers: [I]t would be worth your while to issue Oscar's plays. But contrary to Oscar's wishes begin with 'The Importance of Being Earnest,' which is far the would do Oscar good in thelong run. By creating discussion about his work and making Fleet Street recognize him as the dramatist first and the p--t afterwards." The word that is unnamable, requiring the dashes, is clearly not "poet," but quite possibly "pederast."


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900) The Ballad of Reading Gaol. London: Leonard Smithers, 1899. Seventh edition.

Smithers inserts the author's name on the title page for the firsttime, but encloses it in brackets: a semiotic device close enough to "inverted commas" to prove Ross's prediction correct.





Leonard Smithers, (1861-1907)

A Few American Friends
Autograph Letter Signed
New York, September 11, 1895
To: J. B. Manning, Esq.

This odd letter from a "Few American Friends" to the director of Reading Gaol requests the release of Wilde and Alfred Taylor. The Friends offer a bribe of 200,000 pounds if Manning will "pay some people in the prison to look the other way." Manning is instructed to use the personals column of the New York Herald to communicate with the "Friends" if he is interested in assisting them..



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