Auctions | May 13, 2014

Inscribed Copy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Bonhams

A specially printed copy of The Importance of Being Earnest inscribed by Oscar Wilde to Major James Nelson, the Governor of Reading Gaol during the writer’s term of imprisonment there is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 18. It is estimated at £40,000-60,000.  Bonhams, the third largest international fine art auction house, holds book sales in London, Oxford, New York and California.

The copy, numbered 13 out of a presentation edition of 100, is inscribed “To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of a great and noble kindness. Feb, 99.”  Elsewhere, Wilde was to describe Nelson as: “The most Christlike man I ever met.”

Oscar Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency in May 1895 and transferred from Wandsworth prison to Reading Gaol in November of that year.  There, the draconian regime of the then Governor, Henry Isaacson—a man with “ the soul of a rat” according to Wilde—had a drastic effect on his mental and physical health.  Isaacson was replaced in July 1896 by Major James Nelson who immediately gave his most famous prisoner access to books—his first words are said to have been: “The Home Office has allowed you some books. Perhaps you would like to read this one. I have just been reading it myself.”

Crucially, Nelson also allowed Wilde to begin writing creatively again. The result was one of his last major works—De Profundis—an extended letter to his lover and the main author of his misfortune, Lord Alfred Douglas—which Wilde wrote over a period of three months. Under the prison rules, all written material had to be handed over each evening and retained by the authorities but Nelson permitted Wilde to consult previous work to help him keep his thread. On Wilde’s release in May 1897 Nelson gave him back the entire manuscript.

The Importance of Being Earnest, which opened on Valentine’s Day 1895, was Wilde’s biggest success as a playwright and the last work he wrote before scandal engulfed him.  Despite its instant success the play closed after 56 performances when Wilde was convicted and was not seen again in the West End until 1902.  It was not published until 1899, the year before Wilde’s death. 100 special copies of the play were published on large paper and it is one of these—number 13—that Wilde inscribed to Major Nelson.

The previous year the playwright had sent Nelson a copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol with the inscription: “Major Nelson from the Author. In recognition of many acts of kindness and gentleness Feb.98”.  Wilde wrote the Ballad shortly after his release in May 1879 when he was living in exile in France. On its publication in 1898, it was attributed to “c.3.3”—a reference to the block, landing and cell in Reading Gaol in which Wilde had lived while a prisoner.  It was considered too risky commercially to identify the author by name though the real identity of c.3.3. was an open secret in literary circles.

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley, said: “This inscribed edition of The Importance of Being Earnest is a poignant reminder of the very real hardship which Wilde suffered in prison and the enormous difference which Major Nelson’s acts of common humanity made to the writer’s morale and health. It is arguable that the Governor saved Wilde’s life and almost certain that without him there would have been no De Profundis.”