Oscar Wilde wrote a letter from Reading Gaol to the young man, ‘Bosie’ who was his downfall. It is a searing self-castigation and indictment of Bosie’s behaviour. It describes the enslavement of Wilde to a young man who eventually took from him everything he had.
It includes a description of what happened when first Bosie and then Wilde had the flu.
This extract is taken from De Profundis. The Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings. Oscar Wilde. Wordsworth Classics, Hertfordshire. Link: De Profundis & other works P 19 – 23
Wilde wrote on single pieces of paper brought out from the prison one by one. I have added paragraph breaks.
Bored with Worthing, and still more, I have no doubt, with my fruitless efforts to concentrate my attention on my play, the only thing that really interested me at the moment, you insist on being taken to the Grand Hotel at Brighton. The night we arrive you fall ill with that dreadful low fever that is foolishly called the influenza, your second, if not third attack. I need not remind you how I waited on you, and tended you, not merely with every luxury of fruit, flowers, presents, books, and the like that money can procure, but with that affection, tenderness and love that, whatever you may think, is not to be procured for money. Except for an hour’s walk in the morning, an hour’s drive in the afternoon, I never left the hotel. I got special grapes from London for you, as you did not care for those the hotel supplied, invented things to please you, remained either with you or in the room next to yours, sat with you every evening to quiet or amuse you.
After four or five days you recover and I take lodgings in order to try and finish my play. You, of course, accompany me.
The morning after the day on which we were installed I feel extremely ill. You have to go to London on business, but promise to return in the afternoon. In London you meet a friend, and do not come back to Brighton till late the next day, by which time I am in a terrible fever, and the doctor finds I have caught influenza from you.
Nothing could have been more uncomfortable for anyone ill than the lodgings turn out to be. My sitting-room is on the first floor, my bedroom on the third. There is no manservant to wait on me, not even anyone to send out on a message, or to get what the doctor orders. But you are there. I feel no alarm. The next two days you leave me entirely alone, without care, without attendance, without anything. It was not a question of grapes, flowers and charming gifts: it was a question of mere necessaries: I could not even get the milk the doctor had ordered for me: lemonade was pronounced an impossibility: and when I begged you to procure me a book at the bookseller’s, or if they had not got whatever I had fixed on to choose something else, you never even took the trouble to go there. And when I was left all day without anything to read in consequence, you calmly tell me that you bought me the book and that they promised to send it down, a statement which I found out by chance afterwards to have been entirely untrue from beginning to end.
All the while you are of course living at my expense, driving about, dining at the Grand Hotel, and indeed only appearing in my room for money. On the the Saturday night, you having left me completely unattended and alone since the morning, I asked you to come back after dinner and sit with me for a little. With an irritable voice and ungracious manner you promise to do so. I wait till eleven o’clock and you never appear. I then left a note for you in your room just reminding me of the promise you had made me, how you had kept it.
At three in the morning, unable to sleep, and tortured with thirst, I made my way, in the dark and cold, down to the sitting room in the hopes of finding some water there. I found you. You fell on me with every hideous word an intemperate mood, an undisciplined and untutored nature could suggest. By the terrible alchemy of egotism you converted your remorse to rage. You accused me of selfishness in expecting you to be with me when I was ill; of standing between you and your amusements, of trying to deprive you of your pleasures. You told me, and I know it was quite true, that you had come back at midnight simply in order to change your dress-clothes and go out again to where you hoped new pleasures where waiting for you, but that by leaving for you a letter in which I had reminded you that you had neglected me the whole day and the whole evening, I had really robbed you of your desire for more enjoyments, and diminished your actual capacity for fresh delights.
I went back upstairs in disgust, and remained sleepless till dawn, nor till long after dawn was I able to get anything to quench the thirst of the fever that was on me. At eleven o’clock you came into my room. In the previous scene I could not help observing that by my letter I had, at any rate, checked you in a night of more than usual excess. In the morning you were quite yourself. I waited naturally to hear what excuses you had to make, and in what way you were going to ask for the forgiveness that you knew in your heart was invariably waiting for you, no matter what you did; your absolute trust that I would always forgive you being the thing in you that I always really liked the best, perhaps the best thing in you to like. So far from doing that, you began to repeat the same scene with renewed emphasis and more violent assertion: I told you at length to leave the room: you pretended to do so, but when I lifted up my head from the pillow in which I had buried it, you were still there, and with brutality of laughter and hysteria of rage you moved suddenly towards me.
A sense of horror came over me, for what exact reason I could not make out; but I got out of my bed at once, and bare-footed and just as I was, made my way down the two flights of stairs to the sitting-room, which I did not leave till the owner of the lodgings – whom I had rung for – had assured me that you had left my bedroom, and promised to remain within call, in case of necessity. After an interval of an hour, during which time the doctor had come and found me, of course, in a state of absolute nervous prostration, as well as in a worse condition of fever than I had been at the outset, you returned silently, for money: took what you could find on the dressing-table and mantlepiece, and left the house with your luggage.
Need I tell you what I thought of you during the two wretched lonely days of illness that followed? Is it necessary for me to state that I saw clearly that it would be a dishonour to myself to continue even an aquaintance with such a one as you had shown yourself to be? That I recognised that the ultimate moment had come, and recognised it as being really a great relief?… the fact that the separation was irrevocable gave me peace. By Tuesday the fever had left me, and for the first time I dined downstairs.
Wednesday was my birthday. Amongst the telegrams and communications on my table was a letter in your handwriting. I opened it with a sense of sadness over me. I knew that the time had gone by when a pretty phrase, an expression of affection, a word of sorrow would make me take you back. But I was entirely deceived. I had underrated you. The letter you sent me on my birthday was an elaborate repetition of the two scenes, set cunningly and carefully down in back and white! You mocked me with common jests. Your one satisfaction in the whole affair was, you said, that you retired to the Grand Hotel, and entered your luncheon to my account before you left for town. You congratulated me in my prudence in leaving my sickbed, on my sudden flight downstairs. ‘It was an ugly moment for you,’ you said, ‘uglier than you imagine’. ……… [Wilde describes how he had feared for his life.] ……
You concluded your letter by saying: ‘When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting. The next time you are ill I will go away at once.’ When I had finished your letter I felt almost polluted, as if by associating with one of such a nature I had soiled and shamed my life irretrievably. …..
[Wilde determines to separate from Bosie, and on Thursday makes preparations, but reads in the paper on the Friday morning that Bosie’s older brother, the heir to the family estate has been found dead in a ditch with his gun discharged beside him. Wilde says it was ‘now known to be an accident, but then stained with a darker suggestion’ – a suggestion which lingers in the 21st century reader’s imagination too.]
This extract shows in horrid technicolour some of the problems of reactions to illness. The devotion of an older lover contrasted with the abandonment of his young protégé. The frustration and helplessness of the sick person. The murderousness which can be aroused at the illness of a parent-figure or lover upon whom one depends. The ‘polluting’ horror aroused not only by egotistic, greedy ingratitude but, in particular, the rejection of the caring role. The accusations, digs, distortions and blame from one to the other. The threat to real work and the guilty pull towards escapist hedonism. The exaggerations and lies. The struggle not to present oneself as guiltless and pure and the other as totally evil, which is both lost and won. The blame and anger against the ill person, who should be made to pay for the suffering he causes the healthy. And the reversal of this. The cruel, mocking triumph of the healthy over the sick, the young over the old, the poorer over the richer, the untalented over the gifted, when sickness brings them down off their pedestal. Reversing the normal position in which the more fortunate triumph over those ‘beneath’ them – in the mind of the ‘poorer’ at least.
Sadly, some modified version of all the responses to illness described so eloquently by Wilde, may often be found within the heart of any sick person, and anyone who should be caring for them.
A reader may find comfort that they are not as rejecting and self-centred as Bosie – all the time; while also regretting, perhaps, that they cannot be as apparently selfless as Wilde was. Though while caring for Bosie, Wilde did take an hour’s walk every morning and an hour’s drive every afternoon – which many present-day carers would envy. He was being a devoted nurse in the Grand Hotel; with all services, presumably, laid on; and still he suffered.