Oscar Wilde’s gaol and Jane Austen’s school

Taking a walk through the roads in Reading could be tiresome for someone who doesn’t know the roads, who’s a visitor, an outsider. On a busy day, it could also be unexciting. My colleagues ask me how I felt about Reading town. I smile and say, “Not very exciting”. They laugh and say “now I’m a true Reading-dweller since I’ve understood how living in this small town can be”.

When I first went to town centre, I got lost. I couldn’t find the right bus for returning to Caversham. I had to ask at least five persons to find my way back to where I’m living. The next time I went to town centre I took a printout of a map to get there. The map had all sorts of instructions. The good thing about living in developed countries is they have tried to make everything easy for you. They have online route planner. All you need to do is type “from” and “to” in the boxes and the site will calculate a few routes for you. Then you choose your own route.

So, reaching Reading was easy like anything. Since I had the map, I could find out my colleague’s house in no time. She took me to near Reading Gaol where Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years imprisonment for homosexuality, which in his day was a crime under gross indecency.

During his jail term, first at Wandsworth prison and then at Reading, Wilde underwent a transformation. He had cell number C33 which was also a pseudonym under which the Ballad of Reading Gaol was first published. He also wrote a number of letters signing them, prisoner C33.

I’ll give you a stanza from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its ravelled fleeces by.”

Close to it was Abbey boarding school. That was another surprise for me. In 1785-1786 Jane Austen went to the Abbey boarding school in Reading. This bears some resemblance to Mrs Goddard’s casual school in Emma.
Not only that, I saw the Abbey Gate. Let me tell you a bit about it — the Tudor monarchs were frequent visitors to Reading. There is an old story that King Henry VIII once locked up the Abbot of Reading in the Tower of London so he could win a bet made with him while in disguise. This is commemorated by a pair of ghosts who appear in the area. They are supposedly the King taking the Abbot to London. There are two horsemen, both stout huntsmen in Lincoln Green. One beckons on a cloaked companion. The horses’ hooves make no sound. At the dissolution, despite their being good friends, the King had the Abbot hanged outside the Abbey Gate. The Abbey’s Inner Gateway is one of the few remnants of this house still standing today. It was the original home of the Abbey school.

If you pass by the prison, you’d see Wilde’s poems written on the pavement walls and plaques in memory of Jane Austen. Well, so many things at one place! All my fear of getting bored evaporated.

And suddenly, contrary to what my colleagues told me, Reading was a very exciting place!

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