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In a telephone interview from London, Merlin Holland spoke with Legal Times’ Joel Chineson about his book The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde and about his grandfather in general. Here are some excerpts from that conversation: Can you tell me a little about the transcript that is the basis of The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde? It was brought into the British Library, where I was co-curating an exhibition, by somebody who said, “This has been in [your] family for years, and I just wondered if you’d be interested in having it for the exhibition.” So I said, “Well, actually, yes.” It’s been a subject of much conjecture for a hundred years as to whether there was a transcript. I imagine that several transcripts were made at the time of the trial by various interested parties. It was a strange case because it was a civil prosecution for a criminal act. The only way you could do that was to take out a civil prosecution in the name of the Queen. But I think despite that, there wasn’t probably an official state transcript kept. You’re probably going to ask me who does the transcript belong to. But I’m not going to tell you, because I’m not allowed to. It wouldn’t make headlines even if I did. And it’s not because this person is worried about any association with homosexuality or anything like that at all. It’s purely a family matter, and the person doesn’t particularly want the family to start agonizing about whether they’re going to sell it. It’s been deposited at the British Library on long-term loan. So anyone who wants to see it can go and see it. It’s not a secret. And the British Library certainly wouldn’t have taken it on if they hadn’t been convinced of its authenticity. In the introduction to your book, you write, “If I could ask my grandfather a single question, it would have to be, ‘Why on earth did you do it?’ ” What did you mean by that? Were you questioning just the libel action or other matters? I’m not querying his liaison with Douglas at all. Just the libel action. There are so many answers to the question, but it would be interesting to have his answer. I think I gave my own views on why I thought he had done it, which indeed are many and varied, and I think all of them to a certain degree, to different degrees, are valiant. But you only have to look at the libel actions taken out by prominent people today to see the lunacy of taking out libel actions against people who are seriously calling into question your integrity in whatever form. As I said in the introduction, there’s a mathematical certainty pretty much these days that if you’re doing it out of a sense of arrogance and trying to protect your so-called reputation, chances are you’re going to finish up on the wrong end of it all. It was all very well if you confined yourself to the columns of the newspaper defending your ideas on art and morality. But once you get into court, then the stakes are that much higher. And in this particular case, the stakes were sky high. After the aborted libel trial, the Marquess of Queensberry supplied evidence that helped convict Wilde of violations of the Criminal Law Amendment Act. He was sentenced to two years’ hard labor. What did hard labor entail? In those days, prison even without hard labor was a pretty horrendous experience. While prison is never a good place in the best of times, in the 1870s and ’80s, prison wasn’t too bad. There were people who have explained, from a 20th and 21st century point of view, that prison was, in fact, in some cases actually marginally better than being in the workhouses. You were probably fed slightly better. The sanitation was passable. And you were kept relatively warm. But that was only up until the mid ’80s or early ’90s. After that, prison officials discovered that prisoners were communicating by tapping the pipes in the sanitary system, so the sanitation was ripped out. Hard labor consisted of the treadmill or the crank, a useless machine which was simply a handle in the wall of your cell that you turned. There was a counter on it that told people how many revolutions of the crank you turned against a friction brake. As far as the treadmill was concerned, in some cases it actually did turn a mill which did grind bread or pump water. But hard labor consisted of, quite literally, hard, physical labor, probably to the extent of about four hours a day. And by the time Oscar had gone there, they had gotten the food down to the absolute minimum according to whether you were doing hard labor or light labor like sewing mail bags. So they worked out how many ounces of beans or suet or dried bread or cocoa or whatever you needed per day just to maintain your current body weight and no more. So it wasn’t a particularly pleasant regime. Added to which, you were in solitary confinement the whole time and had no right at all to speak to any other prisoners. You were absolutely not allowed any form of writing materials and a minimum of reading, which mostly consisted of religious tracts and books like Pilgrim’s Progress or semi-religious material, improving books. So the fact that Oscar was finally allowed pen and paper was an exception. The rules were bent, but it wasn’t until about 15 months after he’d been in prison that he was allowed pen and paper at all. You were allowed to write and receive one letter every three months of a personal nature. Correspondence with your solicitors or legal authorities or petitions or whatever I think were fairly unrestricted, but personal letters were one every three months. Perhaps the person most damaged by this affair, other than Wilde himself, was Wilde’s wife, Constance. They separated by necessity after Wilde was imprisoned, but they never reconciled, never divorced. What can you tell me about her? Over the period of his imprisonment, Constance blew rather hot and cold about getting back together with him. When he came out of prison, he wrote her a long, long letter almost as soon as he arrived in France, which sadly has now been lost, and she said it was the most beautiful letter he had ever written her. And she was all for getting back together with him and was dissuaded by both her close family, her brother, and various other friends where she was living in Italy. So she didn’t rush up to see him as she had planned to do. I can’t see that it would have lasted, but at least it would have given him the hope that he might have been able to see his children again, would have given him a sense of purpose. When he’s living in Berneval, he sees his old friends. He doesn’t see Alfred Douglas until right until the end, in August before he leaves to go to Naples. But I just think that it would have done something for him. I think those last years of his life would have gone in a rather different direction had it been possible for him to see Constance again. After all, he had shared a life with her for 12, 13 years. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the prideful Oscar Wilde who is testifying at the libel trial and the chastened Wilde, the author of De Profundis. One has to approach De Profundis with a certain amount of caution, both from Alfred Douglas’ point of view and from the point of view of what he is saying about other people as well. I mean, it’s a very remarkable document. I think even if it’s not the absolute truth about his life, it’s certainly the truth about what he was feeling at any particular minute of his life. There are the champions of Alfred Douglas who say it’s all lies from beginning to end, and it really wasn’t like this at all. My feeling is that I couldn’t imagine that Oscar would have written these things about Bosie to Bosie if there hadn’t been some element of truth, exaggerated though they might have been. Then, of course, if you look at De Profundis as a statement of hope for the future � when I come out of prison, I’ll be able to live a modest life, and sleep in the hay rigs under the stars, and I’ll be thrown a crust of bread every now and again and that’s fine, like St. Francis of Assisi, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Then there’s that famous letter he writes to Frances Forbes-Robertson in 1899, he says, “I’m wedded to poverty, but in my case, the marriage is not a success.” It’s a great gift to be able to laugh at your own misfortune.

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