Monday, August 1, 2011

{review} constance: the tragic and scandalous life of mrs oscar wilde

Franny Moyle Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011)

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

‘My dearest Otho,’ his sister announced, ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news! I am engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’
Poor Constance Wilde. This book made me very angry with Oscar Wilde. I don't think that I had fully perceived the amount of damage that his sensational fall from grace had done to anyone apart from himself.
Every day that I see you, every moment that you are with me I worship you more, my whole life is yours to do as you will with it, such a poor gift to offer up to you, but yet all I have and so you will not despise it.
Franny Moyle has written a most interesting book about the woman who married Oscar Wilde. In a sense it is also an interesting book because it reveals how little remains of a Victorian woman's life unless it is recorded contemporaneously with that life. Constance, we find, has been almost entirely historically subsumed within the life of her famous husband. Perhaps, too, the 'cult' of Oscar Wilde has pushed her into a lesser position? And, further, owing to the loss of many of her letters and possessions (for example, when the Wilde household was sold off to pay his creditors), there are some very patchy areas of her life which require an imaginative leap towards reconstruction.

Moyle has done a good job of filling in the blanks. Her Constance is a woman of letters, a clever translator, a contributor to her husband's work, a feminist, a political animal, an avid interpreter of Aestheticism in art and design, a fashionista (and early advocate of 'rational dress' who "used fashion to convey something of her political, feminist leanings") and a woman of intense religious feeling. She was also 5'8" (I love that detail).

When they became engaged,
Oscar was just as infatuated with her as she was with him, a fact revealed in Oscar’s letter to his friend Lillie Langtry. ‘I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd,’ he wrote, a grave, slight, violet-eyed Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a flower, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her.
What happened? It is possible to make some assumptions in the broadest terms: Constance's second pregnancy was very difficult; and Oscar had always enjoyed spending time apart from his wife anyway. And then there was the increasing recognition of his sexual preference for men.
The journalist and author Frank Harris, a friend of Wilde’s, claimed that years later Oscar recounted to him how during this period his sexual attraction to Constance plummeted: When I married, my wife was a beautiful girl, white and slim as a lily, with dancing eyes and gay rippling laughter like music. In a year or so the flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless, deformed: she dragged herself around the house in uncouth misery with drawn blotched face and hideous body, sick at heart because of our love. It was dreadful. I tried to be kind to her; forced myself to touch and kiss her; but she was sick always, and – oh! I cannot recall it, it is all loathsome.
There were constant worries with money; with the children; with Constance's health (Moyle makes a valiant attempt to figure out what was wrong with Constance; unsurprisingly, given the lack of information, it was likely something gynaecological); with Oscar's absences; with his friendships with young men as he strove to fill that ‘secret sacred niche’ [urgh! What a phrase…]. Yet they managed to hold things together:
On the surface they were fine. Yeats, who joined the Wildes on Christmas Day in 1888, described Oscar’s life in Tite Street as a ‘perfect harmony … with his beautiful wife and two young children’. And yet Yeats, with terrific perception, added that his home life ‘suggested some deliberate artistic composition’.

Constance with her eldest son Cyril, 1889 (Source)

Constance filled her life with activities. She was a keen supporter of clubs where unaccompanied women could dine without critical comment. Her other interests were political, such as the Rational Dress Society and the Women's Liberation Federation (to whom she gave papers on Irish Home Rule and other international issues):
‘I was astonished and delighted to notice yesterday … how very much Mrs Oscar Wilde has improved in public speaking,’ one critic noted after a WLF event. ‘She was always graceful and always charming, but now there is an earnestness and an ease about her which is the result of practice in platform speaking, and I shall not be surprised if in a few years Mrs Wilde has become one of the most popular among “platform ladies”.'
It seems that she also turned to religion and the occult (Theosophy was a popular pastime for Victorian men and women), becoming a member of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (amusingly, "[p]rospective members… could apply via the offices of the Sanitary Wood Wool Company in Holborn"). The Latin name she chose to assume in the Temple was, tellingly, 'Qui Patitur Vincit' - 'Who Endures Wins' and her course of study for the Temple involved learning Hebrew.

Her tolerance for Oscar's young male friends was extraordinary; it is difficult to determine how much she understood about what was going on around her, literally in her own home.
‘Having got all our rooms quite full yesterday a telegram comes from Lord Alfred Douglas asking to be put up for a night! I don’t believe that even you have to contrive to put 7 people into 6 rooms. However, fortunately he put it off till to-day, and I think we can manage.’41 The day after Bosie arrived, Constance had to return Cyril to Hunstanton. When she got back to Cromer, she discovered that, far from staying for just a day, Bosie had installed himself for the duration. She didn’t mind too much. The daily golf sessions Oscar began enjoying with Bosie were a source of amusement for her rather than concern. ‘I am becoming what I am told the wives of golfers are called a “golf-widow”,’ she quite happily related...
It is with Bosie, of course, that it all goes off the rails. It has always astounded me that, even after his prison time, Wilde was unable to resist Bosie, 'a friendship that was entirely destructive of everything fine in me either from the intellectual or ethical point of view' (1893). Constance's unhappiness about Bosie's influence leads her, in turn, to look outside her increasingly fraught marriage for support and love. There are hints that she fell in love with Arthur Humphreys (general manager of Hatchard's), with whom she was editing some of Oscar's works. But then the great scandal broke, Wilde was sentenced to jail, the Wilde house was broken up for the creditors, and Constance was forced to flee overseas with the two children to escape the scandal. As one of her few remaining friends, Lady Georgina Mount-Temple wrote to her daughter,
‘I do not think there could be a greater trial with such disgusting shame … one cannot bear even to allude to it... Can one touch pitch and not be defiled? You are quite right in keeping aloof – so would I if I did not feel called upon to shelter her.’
And that's a friend!

The final years of Constance's life were a misery. Exiled from England by the scandal, she continued to face constant battles with money, and with Oscar's friends who wished to interfere with their putative divorce and financial settlements (astonishingly, Constance continued to provide funds to her husband). There was the indignity of his taking up with Bosie again - and breaching the conditions under which she was providing an allowance. And there was her continued ill-health, which led to her decision to undergo what proved to be a fatal surgical procedure. Constance was only 40 when she died, on the 7th of April 1898. She is buried in Genoa.

Moyle's biography is a well-researched and sensitive reclamation of her subject's life. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. So that you can become nicely irate about poor Constance Wilde, I leave you with Bosie's comment on her death:
‘As to his wife,’ Bosie said, ‘he married her for love and if she had treated him properly and stuck to him after he had been in prison, as a really good wife would have done, he would have gone on loving her to the end of his life … Obviously she suffered a great deal and deserves every sympathy, but she fell woefully short of the height to which she might have risen.’

Rating: 9/10.

If you liked this... I'm in the mood to loath Wilde after this book, but he's still a genius. Perhaps I ought to go back and try to read between the lines of An Ideal Husband...


  1. One of the early vintage Penguins (no. 1193) is by Vyvyan Holland, Oscar Wilde's son, telling this story of the impact of his father's life on the family. And in As We Were, E.F. Benson, who was his contemporary, is also quite scathing in his comments on Oscar Wilde and his legacy. It's that reminder that our view of the past is always based on only the small parts of the story which have survived.

  2. Thanks Karyn - it is terribly sad to read how Vyvyan Holland always believed that he was the least loved child; that his older brother received all the attention from his mother and father.


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