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As a fictional Hunter S. Thompson once said, many fine books have been written in prison. With that being said, here are some writers you should consider sending them a cake with a file in it.
There can’t be too many people out there who don’t know that the great Irish writer Oscar Wilde served two years in prison after losing his libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury—father of his lover Lord Alfred Douglas—and being convicted of the crime of homosexuality, the “love that dare not speak its name”. Following his release in 1897, he lived the final three years of his life in exile in France, dying in 1900 at the age of just 45.
Wilde is one of the more famous writers who served time in prison. There are others, many others: from John Bunyan, the seventeenth century Puritan author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, who spent twelve years in jail for preaching the wrong kind of Christianity, to Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and poet who was jailed for four and a half years by the communist regime for subversion. He was later a leader in the 1989 movement known as the Velvet Revolution and in 1993 became the first president of the new Czech Republic.
Many other writers were jailed for political reasons. Voltaire spent time in the Bastille for attacking both the government and the church. Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky spent time as a political prisoner doing hard labour in Siberia and was even put before a firing squad, only to have his death sentence commuted at the very last moment. Émile Zola served a year-long sentence for his role in the “Dreyfus Affair” when he insisted that the French government unjustly accused a Jewish army officer of treason.
Bertrand Russell served time during World War I for being a conscientious objector. Alexander Solzhenitsyn languished for ten years for criticising the Soviet regime. Norman Mailer was jailed briefly for civil disobedience during a 1967 protest against US involvement in the Vietnam War.
In more recent times, Egyptian feminist icon Nawal El Saadawi was imprisoned in 1981 for speaking out against female genital mutilation. Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for his work on Charta 08, a manifesto espousing change in China to allow more freedom of association and expression. He died in 2017 from liver cancer. Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami was jailed between 2011-2016 for writing seditious poetry.
Words certainly have influence and it’s clear that the power of art to effect societal change deeply frightens some governments. These writers were willing to suffer imprisonment and worse to fight for their ideals and our world is the richer for them. But there are many other writers who went to prison for far less lofty reasons.
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Some writers committed horrible crimes of violence. Among them were fifteenth century author of Morte d’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory, who was tried a number of times for rape and armed robbery. Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, a noted playwright, poet and actor, was convicted of manslaughter when he killed another actor in a duel. French poet Paul Verlaine had already scandalised society with his almost openly homosexual lifestyle, but it was his violence against his lover, fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud, that got him sent to jail the first time. He served eighteen months for assault, but poetry aside, clearly didn’t learn from the experience because he later spent two further years in prison for trying to stab Rimbaud to death. The infamous Marquis de Sade was imprisoned for some twelve years for sodomy and attempted poisoning. Naked Lunch author William Burroughs went to jail for shooting his wife.
When she was a teenager in New Zealand, English-born best-selling crime fiction writer Anne Perry was known by a different name, a name you might recognise if you’ve ever seen the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, the story of two young girls, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme who, to avoid being parted by family circumstances, killed Pauline’s mother by beating her to death with a brick. After a five-year prison sentence (the girls were minors), Juliet returned to England and later changed her name and profession.
Playwright Joe Orton and his partner (and later his murderer) Kenneth Halliwell defaced a large number of books at their local council library. The back cover blurb of a Dorothy L Sayers mystery was doctored with the advice: “have a good shit while you’re reading”, language offensive enough to land the pair a six-month sentence. Twentieth century English romance novelist Joan Henry, author of Who Lie in Gaol was convicted for passing fraudulent cheques; much loved American short story writer O. Henry served three years for embezzlement. Best-selling novelist Jeffrey Archer served two years for perjury and perverting the course of justice.
The list goes on. In fact, it’s really quite surprising how many authors ran afoul of the law. Don Quixote creator Miguel de Cervantes was jailed for debt. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey was imprisoned for drug possession. Jack London was jailed for being homeless. Australian literary legend Henry Lawson spent time in prison for drunkenness and failure to pay child support. French writer Jean Genet spent time in prison for theft and vagrancy as did English novelist John Cleland. The American author of The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren, once spent some months in jail for stealing a typewriter.
Can anything be made of all these criminal activities? Some writers were imprisoned for political reasons; some were victims of unfair laws that punished them for their sexuality or their penury; others were violent and deserved incarceration. For some, being in trouble with the law shaped their writing—at least to some extent. Piper Kerman, jailed in 1998 for money-laundering, went on to write the hugely successful Orange is the New Black. A talent for writing is given to all kinds of people and a brush with the law, it seems, may not be the worst sentence of all.