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Rediscovering the “Whitechapel Girl”

They are remembered as the “Whitechapel Boys,” a group of writers and artists who came from the Jewish working-class district of London and forged promising careers through the early part of the twentieth century.  Isaac Rosenberg wrote some of the finest poetry to emerge from the First World War.  Mark Gertler and David Bomberg became significant modernist painters.

What tends to get lost is that one of the “Boys” was a “Girl.”  Clare Winsten, born Clara Birnberg, studied at the Slade from 1910 to 1912, and developed a fascinating body of work as a painter and sculptor.  She became good friends with George Bernard Shaw, and illustrated three of his books.

Clara Birnberg became Clare Winsten when she married the writer, Stephen Winsten.  He was imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, as she gave birth to the first of the couple’s two daughters.  Stephen’s imprisonment led to Clare’s producing a series of haunting illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol

As part of the exhibition, “Colours More Than Sentences: Illustrated Editions of The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” running at the Berkshire Record Office until 8th June, the University of Reading Department of English has invited scholar and curator, Sarah Macdougall of the Ben Uri Gallery, to share her new research on Winsten’s life and career.  Macdougall will be talking about her rediscovery of the “Whitechapel Girl” at a public lecture at the Berkshire Record Office in Reading at 6-15 p.m. on Thursday 19th April.

The lecture and the exhibition are both free, but places for the lecture are limited.  People can register in advance for the lecture by going to www.berkshirerecordoffice.org.uk/ContactUs.

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by Professor Peter Stoneley, Head of Department, English Literature, University of Reading

A poem about a man who murdered his wife isn’t an obvious choice for Valentine’s Day, but Oscar Wilde made it clear that his The Ballad of Reading Gaol was, in fact, about love:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.

Written after his two years of imprisonment with hard labour from 1895 to 1897, and first published on February 13th 1898, Wilde’s poem focused on an execution by hanging that was carried out in Reading Prison during his own incarceration. Charles Thomas Wooldridge was a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards who, out of jealousy, stabbed his wife to death. Wooldridge thought his death sentence was right, and he did not seek clemency. He was hanged on 7 July 1896, and buried in an unmarked grave within the Prison walls.

Oscar Wilde’s ‘love poem’ was also a plea for prison reform

In the present climate, where attitudes and behaviour towards women are rightfully being challenged, presenting Wooldridge as a hero, or suggesting his actions were a “crime of passion”, seems abhorrent.  Wilde, though, draws Wooldridge with sympathy.  The trooper seems haunted by his crime, as he looks “with such a wistful eye/Upon that little tent of blue/Which prisoners call the sky”.

Further, Wilde chooses to explore the thought that all people fail their love in one way or another: “each man kills the thing he loves”.  The paradox of the poem is that Wooldridge becomes the hero of love because he, out of the intensity of his devotion, commits the greatest crime.

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