In 1895, Oscar Wilde had his reputation unmade at a stroke. Once the darling of Victorian society, within weeks he was tried and sent to jail for two years at hard labour. He spent much of his time in solitary confinement. Deprived of human contact, he could do nothing but brood.

Wilde’s youngest son, Cyril, who was then nine years old, got his first inkling of his father’s fate when he saw a placard in Baker Street in London. When he asked what it meant, he got an evasive answer. Nobody dared to mention the gross indecency his father had been convicted of. His eight-year-old brother, Vyvyan, came home from school to find his mother crying over press-cuttings boldly headlined “OSCAR WILDE.” Vyvyan and Cyril never saw their father again.

Vilified by society, condemned to walk a treadmill for six hours a day and sleep on a plank, witness to daily spectacles of violence, he was spared few humiliations. During more than a year of solitary confinement, Wilde’s mind became like a gruesome private cinema. When his wife visited him in Reading Gaol, she witnessed a heart-breaking transformation. “He is an absolute wreck,” she said.

“For more than thirteen dreadful months now,” Wilde told the Home Secretary in a moving letter he wrote around this time, he had been “without human intercourse of any kind; without writing materials whose use might help to distract the mind: without suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man, so vital for the preservation of mental balance.”

He was allowed two books a week. This was not enough to assuage him. He reread them so often that they became gibberish to him, the words swimming into pools of nonsense. Rationing his book supply, he said, left him “deprived of everything that could soothe, distract, or heal a wounded and shaken mind.”

A few months later, he begged the Home Secretary again for early release. Tallying his losses, Wilde acknowledged that he had “lost wife, children, fame, honour, position, wealth.”

He was denied early release, but he was allowed books to read. To occupy his agitated mind, he requested dozens – in English, French, Italian, German.

You can learn more about Wilde’s experience of solitary confinement by reading De Profundis, the moving letter he wrote to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Because of its content, the letter was first published in a heavily censored version.


Listen to our colleague, Dr. Sos Eltis, podcasting about Wilde

Read about a happier time in Wilde’s life and his youthful adventures in Michèle Mendelssohn’s biography, Making Oscar Wilde

More about Professor Michèle Mendelssohn