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ItemID: #124700
Cost: $35,000.00

Ballad of Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde


WILDE, Oscar. The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3. London: Leonard Smithers, 1898. Slim octavo, original half cream cloth, uncut. Housed in a custom half morocco clamshell box. $35,000.

Signed limited Author’s Edition of this ballad exposing the brutality of British prison life during the Victorian era, number 91 of only 99 copies signed by Oscar Wilde. A fine copy.

At the beginning of 1895, Oscar Wilde was at the height of his success and creative ability: his plays The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were both running in London to rave reviews; fashion flowed according to his aesthetic ideals; his bon mots were on everyone's lips; he was at the center of a great social circle; and he was involved in a passionate love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. But Earnest, widely regarded as his greatest play, was also to be his last. By late 1895, he had lost everything. Sentenced to two years' hard labor in prison for "gross indecency," abandoned by virtually all of his friends, he was irrevocably ruined socially. His plays were withdrawn from performance, he was hounded to bankruptcy with all of his possessions auctioned off, he was cut off from his two beloved children and, though only 41 years old, his health was destroyed. In Reading Gaol, he was put under the power of a particularly sadistic warden, whose arbitrary, harsh punishments were physically and psychologically debilitating, and contributed greatly to Wilde's despair. His once lively wit was smothered as prisoners at Reading were forbidden from speaking to one another, and he was denied writing materials. On the rare occasions that he was allowed visitors, he repeatedly expressed the fear that he was going mad. His eyes became "terribly vacant" and he began to lose his hearing as an ear infection that the prison doctors refused to treat, and that would eventually kill him, worsened (Ellman, 499). He was later to say "The horror of prison life is the contrast between the grotesqueness of one's aspect and the tragedy of one's soul" (Mason, 413). During his imprisonment, his relationship with Douglas soured—Wilde felt his life had been ruined by Douglas, and he began to believe profoundly that which would become the central theme of the Ballad: "Each man kills the thing he loves." When Wilde was finally released in mid-1897, he entered into a brief and lonely life of exile. Much of his energy in 1897 was devoted to The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the only work he completed between his release from prison and his death in 1900 at age 46. It was an anguished attack on the cruelties of the British penal system, and an examination of good and evil. Because he was a pariah, it was first published under the name "C.3.3.", Wilde's Reading prison designation. This edition, referred to as both the author's edition and the third edition, is the first to include Wilde's name on it, in the form of his signature only. His name would not appear as part of the text until the seventh printing, in 1899. This was printed in March 1898, two months after the first edition. The Ballad met with immediate and unexpected success—upon publication, it "was selling as no poem had sold for years." Even critics who expressed reservations agreed that "a literary event of importance had occurred" (Ellman, 559-560). In March 1898, the Pall Mall Gazette declared the work "the most remarkable poem that has appeared this year." With illustrated boards by Charles Ricketts. Mason 374.

A very nearly fine copy, remarkable in this condition.

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