Reading Readers in the Special Collections

In this week’s blog post Jennifer Scott, a PhD candidate in the English Department, examines a unique copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Goal held in the Special Collections.

There is something undeniably thrilling about handling an early or rare edition of a much-loved work of literature. An even greater thrill of working with Special Collections, however, sometimes comes from an unexpected discovery. The Hartley Library’s copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde – a copy of the fourth edition of this work from 1898 – was, for me, one of those discoveries, holding between its covers a special collection of its very own.

The book is inscribed ‘R. Bruce Boswell 1898’ and has been treated as a kind of scrapbook. Pasted throughout, on the blank verso sides of the pages alongside the text, as well as on the book’s inside covers, are numerous contemporary newspaper clippings, many of which have been marked and dated in the owner’s hand. The clippings concern Oscar Wilde himself, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the impending publication of De Profundis in 1905, and debates surrounding penal reform. Boswell’s careful collation of these clippings, as well as his written comments, show a reader forming links between the reports of the press and Wilde’s own poetic description of his prison experience.

Examining Boswell’s pencil markings, which range from ambiguous crosses and question marks to more revealing statements and questions, one gains a sense of a reader who was sceptical of Wilde’s account and of his views – a reader who even had the gall to correct some of Wilde’s most famous lines, changing ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’ to ‘Each man may kill the thing he loves’ and replacing ‘The brave man with a sword’ with ‘The bravo with a sword’!

Yet, one may also discover a reader willing to thoroughly engage with Wilde’s text and open-minded enough to also highlight some consistencies between Wilde’s account and those reported in the papers.

Remarkably, Boswell is not the only reader to have left their mark on this book either. A second reader, identifiable only as E.G.C., has responded to comments by Boswell, showing debates about penal reform, and Wilde’s place within it, to have transcended public spaces such as courtrooms and the House of Commons, and to have also occurred more privately.

This book provides a unique glimpse of some of the ways in which ordinary readers responded to Wilde and his poem following his release from prison in 1897. Despite Wilde’s name being too cloaked in scandal to appear on the ballad until 1899, Boswell’s copy reveals just how open the secret of its authorship was.

The first six editions of The Ballad of Reading Gaol bore only Wilde’s cell number, C.3.3.

The first six editions of The Ballad of Reading Gaol bore only Wilde’s cell number, C.3.3.

Furthermore, it reveals the human complexity of Wilde’s readership, which did not fall, as it is so easy to imagine, into black and white categories of supporters and detractors. The marginalia of R. Bruce Boswell and E.G.C. rather exhibit a developing engagement with this text that was influenced by both public and private debate.

I first wrote about this book in my MA thesis in 2010. I am now studying for a PhD and recently revisited the book for a conference paper, which I delivered at the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) Annual conference on 23 August 2017.

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