In the following letter, written from exile in Paris following his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde expresses satisfaction that his efforts to highlight the barbarities of the prison system were beginning to have tangible results. He ends by gently upbraiding his correspondent, Georgina Weldon, for her references to his “insane and unnatural penchants”. Weldon had written to Wilde saying that “as he had given up his insane and unnatural penchants, I did not see any reason why an old lady like me should hold him at arm’s distance and that, if he wished, I would see him when I came to Paris.” As Wilde well knew, Weldon herself was very far from being an unimpeachable model of rectitude and stability. Brian Thompson’s biography of her, A Monkey Among Crocodiles: the Disastrous Life of Mrs Georgina Weldon, is well worth a read for those interested in the eccentric byways of Victorian society. Her own autobiographical book, The History of my Orphanage, or The Outpourings of an Alleged Lunatic and How I Escaped the Mad Doctors, brings the general picture into sharper focus. Finally, she is remembered on the very outer fringes of literary posterity as the author of Pussie’s Christmas Song. With friends like this, did Oscar need any additional enemies? Read more about her here, having first concentrated on the more pressing matters contained in OW’s analysis of penal reform!
Yes: I think that, aided by some splendid personalities like Davitt and John Burns, I have been able to deal a heavy and fatal blow at the monstrous prison-system of English justice. There is to be no more starvation, nor sleeplessness, nor endless silence, nor eternal solitude, nor brutal floggings. The system is exposed, and, so, doomed. But it is difficult to teach the English either pity or humanity. They learn slowly. Next, the power of Judges (an extremely ignorant set of men – ignorant, that is, of what they are doing, their power to inflict the most barbarous sentences on those who are brought before them) must be limited. A Judge, at present, will send a man to two years’ hard labour or to five years’ penal servitude with utter callousness, not knowing that all such sentences are sentences of death. It is the lack of imagination in the Anglo-Saxon race that makes the race so stupidly, harshly cruel. Those who are bringing about Prison Reform in Parliament are Celtic to a man. For every Celt has inborn imagination.
For myself, of course, the aim of life is to realise one’s own personality – one’s own nature, and now, as before, it is through Art that I realise what is in me. I hope soon to begin a new play, but poverty with its degrading preoccupation with money, the loss of many friends, the deprivation of my children, by a most unjust law, by a most unjust Judge, the terrible effects of two years of silence, solitude and ill-treatment-all these have, of course, to a large extent, killed if not entirely that great joy in living that I once had. However, I must try, and the details of Prison Reform will have to be worked out by others. I put the fly in motion but I cannot drive the wheels. It is enough for me that the thing is coming and that what I suffered will not be suffered by others. That makes me happy.
One word more. Your letter gave me great pleasure, but when you allude to my life being in some respects “unnatural and insane” you are judging of the life of another by an alien standard. Those very expressions unnatural and insane – were often used of you in reference to your conduct as a wife with duties of affection, and a woman with duties of rational conduct. You know that they were unjustly so used. I know it too. But there were many who had a different estimate: there are many still who have a different estimate. They make the harsh error of judging another person’s life without understanding it. Do not you – of all people – commit the same error. Charity is not a sentimental emotion: it is the only method by which the soul can attain to any knowledge – to any wisdom. Very sincerely yours OSCAR WILDE