The Push to Preserve Where Wilde Was Jailed for Being GayBreaking News
tags: English history, literature, Oscar Wilde, LGBTQ history
The metal stairway creaks and groans underfoot on the way to cell C. 3.3, a bare oblong room of painted brick behind a large and forbidding prison door.
It was here that Oscar Wilde was incarcerated for around 18 months in the late 19th century because of his homosexuality, and this was the inspiration for his grimly realistic portrayal of life behind bars, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
“You feel goose bumps going in there,” said Matt Rodda, a lawmaker representing part of this town, around 40 miles west of London, who compared the prison — closed on health and safety grounds in 2013 — to a time capsule.
But few have seen the prison, which is rarely opened to the public, and moves to turn it into a public space have reached an impasse.
Last month a 2.6 million pound bid — the equivalent of $3.7 million — from the municipality, Reading Council, to buy and convert the prison into a museum and arts center was rejected as too low by the government, which owns the property.
Several movie stars, including the Reading-born actress Kate Winslet, support plans to open the site as — seemingly — does the street artist Banksy, one of whose murals is said to appear on one of the prison walls.
“It’s got tremendous potential,” said Karen Rowland, a councilor in Reading with special responsibility for cultural issues, who is originally from New York and thinks the location is of importance not only as an artistic and cultural asset.
“Doubling that with LGBTQ+ interest, and having come from living right next to Stonewall in New York City, I know the value and the importance of a national heritage site for that community,” she said, referring to the Greenwich Village bar in New York credited as the starting place of the gay rights movement.
The town of Reading proved to be an important place in the life of Oscar Wilde, a celebrated literary figure until 1895, when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel in London and subsequently convicted of “gross indecency.” When he was transferred from a prison in London to Reading Gaol, it was supposed to be an improvement in his conditions. But prison rules still forbade most social interaction, the food was appalling and the sanitation worse.
For an aesthete and sybarite like Wilde, incarceration was a crushing change of fortune depicted vividly in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which he wrote after his release. It recounts the fate of an inmate who was hanged in the prison grounds.
“Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine”
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