De Profundis and Other Writings

Non fiction, autobiography


Oscar Wilde was one of the earliest and most courageous forebearers in the now centuries-long struggle for gay liberation and the fight for equality. De Profundis is an extended letter written to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, during Wilde’s imprisonment in Reading Gaol on charges of gross indecency. It’s hard to

Wilde wrote the letter between January and March 1897, close to the end of his imprisonment. Contact had lapsed between Douglas and Wilde and the latter had suffered badly from his close supervision, physical labour and emotional isolation. Nelson, the new prison governor, thought that writing might be more cathartic than prison labour. He was not allowed to send the long letter which he was allowed to write "for medicinal purposes"; each page was taken away when completed, and only at the end could he read it over and make revisions. Nelson gave the long letter to him on his release on 18 May 1897.

In early 1895 Wilde had reached the height of his fame and success with his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. Having refused to lessen contact with Alfred (at the insistence of both men’s family members), he was now subject to escalating harassment from Alfred’s father, Lord Queensbury. When Wilde returned from holidays after the premieres, he found Queensberry's card at his club with the inscription: "For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”. Unable to bear further insults and encouraged by Lord Alfred (who wanted to attack his father in every possible way), Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. Wilde withdrew his claim as the defence began but the Judge deemed that Queensberry's accusation was justified. The Crown promptly issued a warrant for his arrest and he was charged with gross indecency with other men under the Labouchere Amendment in April 1895. The trial was the centre of public discussion as details of Wilde's consorts became known. Wilde refused to admit wrongdoing and the jury were unable to reach a verdict. At the retrial Wilde was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, to be held to hard labour. Whilst in prison he collapsed from poor health and burst his right eardrum, an injury that would later contribute to his death.

Lord Alfred sounds like a nightmare boyfriend - the peak of self- indulgence and cowardice: a social climbing, sentimental waste of time. Nonetheless he provided Wilde with the most acute and powerful emotional focus through which the book was written, even if only in resistance to him or in an effort to overcome the illusory affection he’d used to ensnare Wilde’s better judgement. A familiar dynamic.

The opening lines are beautiful and worthy of mention here:

‘Suffering is one long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves.’