By George Dobbs

“Libby Prison” by David Gilmour Blythe

On this day 297 years ago, Voltaire was imprisoned in the infamous Bastille. We’re marking the occasion with a collection of well known literary figures who were influenced to write by their time on the inside.

1. Voltaire

The great French satirist lived in dangerous times. Royal word was the law, and that meant anyone could be imprisoned without charge if a nobleman demanded it. Voltaire was first imprisoned in 1717 for alleged insults to the ruling regent, Philippe II. During his time inside, he wrote his first play, Oedipe, and established himself as a respected wordsmith. Sadly, the theatre attracted more opportunities for accidental offense. A nobleman named Rohan had Voltaire beaten for some perceived slight during a performance, and when Voltaire responded by challenging Rohan to a duel, he was promptly sent off to the Bastille again, this time without charge. He was released in 1726 on the promise that he would take himself to England and stay out of trouble.

Illustration from Le Morte d’Arthur

2. Sir Thomas Malory

Malory didn't invent the story of King Arthur, but his rendition of Arthurian legend in Le Morte d'Arthur is the best known today. The irony is that Malory's life was far removed from the paragons of chivalry he sought to represent. From 1450 on, his offenses included attempted assassination, grievous bodily harm, extortion and theft from a holy building. The lords of the land were so appalled by his conduct that when the king issued pardons to swathes of noble prisoners, he left Malory out as an exception. The author was finally pardoned when a new king took the throne in 1461, but not before he'd orchestrated two prison escapes: once by swimming a moat and another time by fighting his way out with a sword and dagger.

3. Miguel de Cervantes

The great Spanish writer was constantly in and out of captivity. He was was captured by Algerian pirates in 1575 and spent the next five years attempting to escape from North Africa. He fictionalized his experiences in the captive's tale of Don Quixote. After being ransomed, he returned to Spain, but ran into difficulties paying his taxes. In 1597 he was imprisoned in Seville, and according to his author's preface, it was here that he had the idea for Don Quixote. Just when his book was due to be published, he was imprisoned yet again for sheltering a young man who'd been injured in a duel. It's been suggested that the mistaken chapter headings in Don Quixote were due to Cervantes rushing through the printing draft before he was dragged off to his cell.

4. Oscar Wilde

Wilde was brought down after a brutal series of highly publicized court cases in which he was accused of “gross indecency” for his sexual relationships with men. Thus, he went from being the witty master of English society to prisoner C. 3.3. For a while, Wild was denied pen and paper, and was even forced to do hard labor. He described it later in the lines “every stone one lifts by day/ becomes one's heart by night.” Thanks to the work of reformer Lord Haldane, Wilde was eventually transferred to Reading Gaol, a prison in Berkshire, England, and allowed the freedom to write. As well as producing a philosophical work, De Profundis, there, he laid the foundations for his great poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

5. Dashiell Hammett

After making his name by writing about gritty criminal investigations, Hammett was locked up himself for refusing to give evidence against a group of communists. He told his long-term partner, Lillian Hellman that he didn't know anything about the names the court was looking for, but, like his thick-skinned heroes, he had to stick to his principles. “I don't let cops or judges tell me what democracy is,” he said. Apparently he remained every bit as hard-boiled while locked up, writing a letter to be passed on to Hellman that said, “I don't need proof she loves me and don't want it.” And when when he was released after six months, he insisted jail “wasn't bad at all.” Hammett began writing a literary novel partly linked to his experiences named Tulip, but died before he could finish it.

Aside from writers' predisposition to getting into trouble, there seems to be something about the spirit of prison life that lends itself to literary accomplishment. Time and want of distractions almost certainly accounts for some of it, but perhaps there's also something about hard isolation that encourages a person to fall back on what made them write in the first place.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

(Image credits, from top: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 20 Minutos)

KEEP READING: More on History