Sentenced to two years’ hard labour for so-called “gross indecency, Oscar Wilde spent his first month in prison bound to a treadmill. Six hours day, he laboured up the same short, steep incline, with five minutes’ rest every twenty-five minutes − activity lacking all purpose other than degradation. His next punishment, carried out all day alone in his cell, was picking apart tarred rope to extract the fibre known as oakum. This work split open the flesh of his hands.
He suffered regular bouts of dysentery and diarrhoea as a result of the wretched prison diet and unsanitary living conditions. An ear infection, which prison authorities refused to treat, left him partially deaf. The glittering, self-created dandy who delighted in outraging convention was no more. Gaunt, with shaven head and coarse prison garb, he had come to resemble the statue in his children’s story, The Happy Prince, rendered repulsively drab once his jewels and gold leaf covering were stripped away.