Towards the end of Wilde’s imprisonment he was allowed writing equipment and provided with one sheet of blue folio prison paper at a time, each stamped with the Royal arms. On twenty sheets Wilde wrote a letter addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas, trying to explain his conduct without defending it. British Prison Regulations stated that nothing written by a prisoner while serving sentence was allowed to leave the gaol, except censored letters. The Governor of Reading Gaol wrote to the Prison Commissioners in April 1897 to ask whether the letter could be sent out. Although the reply was negative it was agreed that it could be handed to the prisoner on his release. On the day after Wilde’s release the author handed the manuscript to Robert Ross and two typed copies were then made. One was sent to Douglas, the other was retained by Ross (and later bequeathed to Vyvyan Holland). The original manuscript was presented to the British Library in 1909 (on condition that access was restricted for fifty years).
Writing to Ross, Wilde described the letter as "…the psychological explanation of a course of conduct that from the outside seems a combination of absolute idiocy with vulgar bravado… I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it…" (Complete Letters, p.780).
In 1905 Ross published extracts from the letter under the title De Profundis. A slightly fuller version appeared in the Collected Edition of 1908. Ross’s typescript provided the text for Holland’s edition of 1949. Even that edition failed to present the complete and accurate text. Before the English edition was issued in 1905 there was an authorised German translation that appeared in Die Neue Rundschau.
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