Pit of Shame by Anthony Stokes
Reviewed by GavelBasher [Phillip Taylor MBE and Elizabeth Taylor of Richmond Green Chambers]

You may or may not have thought of a gaol – even a famous one—as anything worth writing a book about, but fortunately and perhaps predictably, the author, Anthony Stokes does not agree with this view. He is a prison officer at the once infamous Reading Gaol immortalised by its most famous inmate, Oscar Wilde – and now a Prison and Young Offender Institution.

Pit of Shame is the product of ten years of archival research into the gaol’s 500 year history and if that’s not fascinating enough, check out the thought provoking foreword by Theodore Dalrymple, contributor to “the Spectator” and a former hospital and prison doctor.  Reading’s current Governing Governor, Pauline Bryant – the first woman to be in overall charge at Reading – also adds a note of appreciation for the ‘initiative and hard work’ which resulted in the publication of ‘this great book’.

Here is a book which will be of interest not only to criminologists and penal reformers – who should all read and note Dalrymple’s remarks in the Appendix – but to students of English literature.

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was the last literary work written by Wilde, who might have been somewhat gratified to learn that, after his death, some two years after his release, the poem occasioned many a re-think about prison reform.

To those in the know, however, the poem speaks the truth about the prison although not necessarily the prisoners.  Wilde, it seems, was selective in his choice of anecdote and comment regarding, for example, the murderer he cites as CTW, who, killed his wife ‘the thing he loved…murdered in her bed.’

Either deliberately, or because he was not familiar with all the facts, Wilde excites our compassion for CTW by omitting to add that he actually lay in wait for his wife with a razor, cutting her throat three times.  Due to what was noted at the time as ‘an unforgiveable degree of premeditation’, CTW’s plea for clemency was turned down and he was subsequently hanged.

What we find particularly apposite and insightful in this intriguing volume is the insight Dalrymple offers into Wilde’s mind-set.  Months before he went to jail Wilde penned a few maxims proclaiming his cherished beliefs in an Oxford undergraduate magazine called ‘Chameleon’, writing that ‘any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.’

Well — whatever your attitude is to an attitude like that, Dalrymple — and presumably author Anthony Stokes – doesn’t like it.  He condemns ’the sheer callow, shallow, ‘spoilt-child’ silliness of all this…upon…which the brilliantly gifted Wilde wasted so much of his life and energy….’

‘Wilde was never a wicked man,’ adds Dalrymple.  ‘It was nevertheless only in prison that he learned the value of truth, sincerity and goodness, and by then it was too late.’

If you want to read more, including the research and bibliography at the back of this very readable book, (which makes it a boon to scholars) buy it. (5 stars)

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