Oscar Wilde's prison books

A prominent Liberal politician came to Oscar Wilde’s aid after his conviction and imprisonment in 1895. An article in TLS: The Times Literary Supplement on October 20 made brief mention of the books that were sent to Wilde, whom some thought close to mental collapse, by this helpful MP. The books formed part of a larger collection in a bookcase in Wilde’s cell. Alistair Lexden filled in the details in a letter published in the TLS on November 3.

Sir,-- Oscar Wilde’s Reading Gaol bookcase would indeed not have been stocked without the help of Richard Burdon Haldane (as J.C. writes, NB, October 20), an unmarried future Lord Chancellor nicknamed Priscilla. In his Autobiography (1929), Haldane recalled a memorable visit to the imprisoned Wilde whom he had known “in the days of his social success”. The prison governor had authorized just one book, Pilgrim’s Progress. A tearful Wilde “asked for Flaubert’s works. But I said that the dedication by that author to his advocate, who had successfully defended Flaubert from a charge of indecent publication, made such a book as Madame Bovary unlikely to be sanctioned. He laughed and became cheerful. We hit on St Augustine’s Works and Mommsen’s History of Rome. These I got for him”. (The inclusion of Flaubert in the bookcase must mean that the prison authorities turned out to be more broad-minded than Haldane thought.) His account does not confirm that he got Wilde permission to keep a reading light on “as late as he wanted”. He had his reward: a copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol which “came to me anonymously”.

Alistair Lexden
House of Lords