On this trip I promised you both literature and crime. And in Reading you’re going to get both.
As you come into the centre from London, look out of the window to your left. You’re looking for the top of a brick red building not too far from the tracks, beyond the warehouses and the trees. This is the old Reading Prison. Or Reading Gaol.
And it’s most famous prisoner? One Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, genius and wit.
Civil society takes its revenge
In 1895 Wilde was sentenced to 2 years hard labour for gross indecency. Much of this time was to be spent here in Reading.
His years of daring had caught up with him: for if Oscar the famous poet was suggestive about his private life, his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas was public and reckless.
When Douglas’ outraged father accused Oscar of homosexuality and Oscar tried to take him to court him for libel, Oscar’s private life was exposed. He was arrested, tried and sent to prison.
The real Wilde
When thinking of Oscar Wilde it’s easy to get caught up in the wit, the languor and the airs. But this was all part of the Oscar mystique.
In reality he was a hard-working and active talent: he was an outstanding young classicist; a lecturer, a journalist and then prolific writer. So life here in Reading prison without his papers and materials must have been doubly hard for him.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written after his release, whilst in exile in France. His poem narrates the execution of a fellow prisoner and highlights the barbarity that all convicts faced.
The finished poem was first published under the pseudonym of “C.3.3.”, referring to the cell in which Oscar lived, although many people could guess its author. It sold well, but could not have given him much comfort – he was confined to a Parisian hotel, cut off from his wife and sons, and he died just four years later.