The Poet and the Spinster: Crimes under the Patriarchy

Women like Lady Constance Lytton were force fed when they went on hunger strike. The Cat and Mouse Act under Asquith was but a feeble attempt to dampen this scandal in Edwardian England.

Abstract

Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis and Constance Lytton’s Prison and Prisoners are powerful autobiographical texts which detail their comparative “conversion” moment in prison. Their crimes? Wilde and Lytton were convicted for their sexuality and sex and nothing more. Wilde, the poet, and Lytton, the “spinster” are both transfigured by their prison experiences. Both De Profundis and Prison and Prisoners move us with their semi-religious transformations.

Oscar Wilde and Lady Constance Lytton were approximately contemporary figures condemned by their male-driven societies. Although both figures enjoyed a higher social standing, the poet and the suffragist were convicted because of their sex and sexuality. Through their prison experiences, both figures produced prison literature that turned inward to document their transformation as individuals punished by their Edwardian and Victorian societies. Written during Wilde’s sentence, De Profundis transcends its initial scathing tone against his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, carefully avoiding to personally indict Douglas. Moving beyond the sordidness of Wilde’s legal proceedings and public humiliation, De Profundis ends with a near- mystic vision of life, where Art triumphs over Life, Love over Hatred, and mercy over justice. By the same token, Lytton’s Prison and Prisoners begins with her fall from grace and places us within the dirty walls of her many prison cells. Lytton’s account of prison life is a fundamentally different one; the narrative of a suffragist convicted time and again for her poltical activities. Moreover, Lytton’s prison experience is just as self-transformative as Wilde’s, leading her back to “individuals concerned, to human beings themselves” (Lytton, Chapter I). Her personal creed harmonizes with Wilde’s discussion of the Individualist in De Profundis — a figure ideally embodied in Christ. Thus, Wilde and Lytton both prevail as coeval figures, whose sufferings transfigure their limited identities in otherwise male-driven societies where womanhood and homosexuality are worthy of punishment.

Wilde and “Bosie” his lover (aka Lord Douglas).

Oscar Wilde’s letter to Bosie reads more than just a lover’s complaints; rather, De Profundis begins by outlining the poet’s personal tragedy in more abstract terms: his loss of Art. Wilde, greatly self-disciplined, principled in his aestheticism, nonetheless blames Bosie as the “absolute ruin of [his] art” as much as he does his “utter and discreditable financial ruin” (Wilde 7). De Profundis illustrates at great length the picture of a decadent lifestyle he shared with Bosie. These episodes include no shortage of outings at fine-dining restaurants; trips to France; or, more generally speaking, picking up Bosie’s many debts — even against the admonition of Bosie’s mother. More significantly, Wilde places the blame squarely on his own shoulders — that is, the “entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me” (Wilde 9). As a homosexual living in a society that legally condemned and punished such behavior, Wilde is not exaggerating when he laments an early opportunity to end a friendship he calls “fatal” (Wilde 14). But this fatality leaves us to wonder what Wilde meant. Spiritually? Or legally or any other way, actually? At any rate, Bosie’s father corroborates Wilde’s crime of “gross indecency” with the infamous letter he wrote his son — one quickly published by a “gang of blackmailers” Wilde claims. Wilde is, in short, charged with corrupting Innocence because he wrote a “charming” letter — which can only be interpreted as expressing homoerotic affections (Wilde 25). Bosie’s father takes great aim at Wilde, working constantly to publicly disgrace him, because he is his son’s lover. When Wilde attempts to legally counteract Bosie’s irate father- this only backfires, landing Wilde in prison (Wilde 42).

Caricature of Oscar Wilde as Narcissus from a collection of portraits etc. Held by the British Library

Wilde belonged to a literary movement that made much of symbols. He understood his role as an artist as someone who lives between “symbolic relations” to art and the culture of his age (Wilde 55). In a strangely prescient way, Wilde’s imprisonment would provide the poet with an experience that spelt out the fullest consequences awaiting publicly-disgraced homosexuals: imprisonment. Thus, something more profound than a lover’s complaints begins to take shape in De Profundis. If Truth in Art is the “unity of a thing with itself,” as Wilde puts it, the “outward which renders inwards — ” then Wilde’s relationship with Bosie and his father is representative of his relationship with Victorian society- a society that will not condone his sexuality (Wilde 66).

Lady Constance Lytton abandons her noble class privileges, transformed into Jane Wharton.

Constance Lytton’s attitude towards the suffragist cause also communicates itself through semi-religious language. To be sure, Lytton’s chapter “My Conversion” outlines the suffragist’s initial impassivity to a cause that would eventually lead her to four imprisonments and force-feeding. Initially, although she shares the wish for the “enfranchisement of women” she does not, however, sympathize with their methods (Chapter 2). They seemed to her “unjustified, unreasonable, [and] without a sense of political responsibility” (Chapter 2). Lytton did not possess Wilde’s prescience. She could not see herself embodying Mrs. Lawrence’s or Miss Kenney’s strong personalities; nor could she immediately accept their militancy. It would take the crude, inhuman experiences of the prison to accomplish this.

He said if I resisted so much with my teeth, he would have to feed me through the nose. The pain of it was intense and at last I must have given way for he got the gag between my teeth, when he proceeded to turn it much more than necessary until my jaws were fastened wide apart, far more than they could go naturally.

- Constance Lytton writing on her force feeding experiences (Prison and Prisoners, Chapter 8)

In 1908, Lytton accepted an invitation to the Esperance Club, a charity that catered to working-class women in Littlehampton. In an extraordinary scene that mirrors the beating of a donkey in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Lytton witnesses a “sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse” (Chapter 2). A large crowd gathered around the animal, men violently handling the animal and “cuffing” it on the face; Lytton formed a deep connection between the animal’s suffering and saw in it the “position of [all] women throughout the world.” At this point, Lytton had yet to be tried and arrested. Her suffragist convictions had not yet fully materialized into action. But after her first imprisonment, Lytton’s experience would more firmly solidify her solidarity with working-class imprisoned women. Lytton recounts that she felt “mentally stunned, physically cowed, [and] and morally indignant” filled with sensations that could only “common to many prisoners” (Chapter 6). Her second arrest at Newcastle, however, strikes a peculiar balance between her new, more militant character and her tendency to avoid violence. Encouraged to throw a stone at window, a common tactic used among members of the WSPU, she is altogether a new woman. She resolved that her stone-throwing “must be more zealously done, more deliberate in its character than the stone-throwing at ordinary windows … I was determined that when they had me in court my act should inevitably be worse than that of other women” (Chapter 10). Lytton’s transformation in prison was as much spiritual as it was physically demanding; especially given her fragile health. Her details of women, along with herself, being force fed are truly grisly. At the same time, these ghastly events are like a Crucifixion scene. It unites her more deeply with the cause of all “defenceless women” as much as it solidifies her unbending commitment to the suffragist cause. When will she see they end to an oppressive government that ignores the cries of broken women? Her view of society is clear: Parliament is only full of empty promises (Chapter 16).

First published in England, 1914

Through their unjust imprisonments, both Wilde and Lytton understand the totality of their mission as individuals. For Wilde, this amounts to forgiving Bosie, and in turn forgiving a society that condemns him because of his sexuality. For Lytton, the prison experience solidifies her role as a militant fighting for gender equality. Prison, which is a necessary arm for a male-driven society, punishes both Wilde and Lytton for their inherent identities. At the same time, prison transfigures two unlikely figures from higher social standing, into the embodiment of their respective ideal: mercy and militancy.

Bibliography

Lytton, Contsance. “PRISONS & PRISONERS.” Prisons and Prisoners., UPenn, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/lytton/prisons/prisons.html.

Wilde, Oscar. De Profundis, Ballad of Reading Gaol and Other Writings . Wordsworth Classics, 1999.

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Allen Bauman

Allen Bauman

Raconteur and essayist with a funny bone. Educator by profession.