Legenday wit Oscar Wilde spent two unpleasant years in prison in England for "gross indecency" -- how officials in 1895 chose to describe homosexual activity. The socialite playwright, whose comedy "The Importance of Being Earnest" had debuted earlier that year, was sentenced to hard labor.
Wilde was sent to prison in Reading in November 1895, where he wrote that the man in charge had "the soul of a rat." He wrote letters seeking relief from solitary confinement, a pen and paper, something to read.
The prison leadership changed, and its new head, Maj. James Nelson, was sympathetic toward Wilde. He told him he would be allowed to read books; Wilde broke down and cried, saying they were "the first kind words that have been spoken to me" since his arrival at the prison.
Nelson also allowed him pen and paper, and bent the rules restricting writing so Wilde could work.
After he was released, Wilde inscribed a special edition of "The Importance of Being Earnest" to his former jailer. He wrote:
"To Major Nelson: from the author. A trivial recognition of a great and noble kindness. Feb, 99."
The copy of the play was numbered 13 from a special printing of 100. It will be auctioned by Bonhams in London on June 18 and is expected to be sold for as much as $100,000.
The auction comes at a time when new leadership in Britain has tightened restrictions on what materials prisoners are allowed to have -- specifically, books from outside prison walls. More than 28,000 people have signed an author-led petition urging that inmates be allowed access to books.
The head of books at Bonhams, Matthew Haley, told the Guardian, "This inscribed edition of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' is a poignant reminder of the very real hardship which Wilde suffered in prison and the enormous difference which Maj. Nelson's acts of common humanity made to the writer's morale and health."