- The Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde ed. by Nicholas Frankel
Referencing the period after his incarceration in the concluding paragraph of his prison letter to his lover, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, Oscar Wilde wrote, “What lies before me is my past. I have got to make myself look on that with different eyes” (Frankel 2018, 290–1). With this new volume of Wilde’s writings begun during his incarceration of 1895 to 1897, Nicholas Frankel provides readers with a chance to reevaluate, to see “with different eyes”, Wilde’s output from a significant episode in his life. Frankel enables such a reevaluation by bringing together five texts: Wilde’s clemency petition to the home secretary (sent in 1896), the lengthy prison letter that Wilde wrote to Douglas (composed 1896–1897), Wilde’s two letters about prison conditions published by the Daily Chronicle (in 1897 and 1898), and his bestselling poem published after his release, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898).
This edition satisfies a clear need within Wilde studies, as it provides students and scholars with complete, annotated texts for, in particular, the relentlessly provocative ballad as well as the extant manuscript of Wilde’s extended letter to Douglas, excerpts of which Wilde’s literary executor Robert Ross published under the title De Profundis in 1905. The full text of the prison letter, when combined with Frankel’s annotations of it, occupies nearly 250 pages of Prison Writings; it is the prominent selection in the volume. In it, Wilde recounts his thoughts and experiences from before and during his incarceration by juxtaposing the personal and philosophical as well as the mundane and the extraordinary. Wilde’s epigrammatic style shines through in, for example, his response to Douglas’s desire to publish an article vindicating Wilde: “All bad art is the result of good intentions” (247). Other passages show Wilde struggling with his bankruptcy, the death of his mother in 1896, and conflicts within his family that would lead to his permanent separation from his children. In his unsympathetic moments, [End Page 146] Wilde blames Douglas’s lavish hotel spending for indirectly bringing about Wilde’s conviction and bankruptcy. Later portions elaborate on the importance for Wilde of Christ and the Romantic writers, as both demonstrate the power of imagination: “out of his own imagination entirely did Jesus of Nazareth create himself” (213). The letter juxtaposes moments of seemingly authentic personal confession with sections of elaborately stylized artifice reminiscent of the characters’ attitudes in The Importance of Being Earnest. Previously, scholars and students wishing to read the text of the entire handwritten letter as it stood upon Wilde’s departure from Reading prison had to access it in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis’s 1270–page Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000) — it had been previously published in Hart-Davis’s The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962) — or in a manuscript facsimile introduced by Merlin Holland (2000). Frankel, by choosing the handwritten letter as his copy-text, neither presents a text that all scholars agree is authoritative, nor, alternatively, includes all of the letters Wilde wrote in prison. Instead, Prison Writings provides readers with an array of works directed at different audiences, whether individuals, such as Douglas or the home secretary, or reading publics, such as the readers of the Daily Chronicle or purchasers of The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
This volume continues Frankel’s particular approach to Wilde scholarship for Harvard University Press. His The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition (2011) uses for its copy-text the emended typescript of Dorian Gray that Wilde submitted to the editor of Lippincott’s magazine in 1890, prior to publication. More recently, Frankel has published a biography of Wilde during and after his release from prison: Oscar Wilde: The Unrepentant Years (2017). His Prison Writings frequently cites the 2017 biography and provides insight into the important primary texts from the period the biography covers. Slightly less useful are the annotations in Prison Writings that cite his Dorian Gray...