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Over the years I have read a few biographies of Oscar Wilde, all of which recount in some detail his meteoric rise and position as, briefly, the most successful playwright of his time - then, like a clap of thunder, his fall and complete disgrace. I had always suspected that he was not the most pleasant of men. Witty and a great personality, yes, but quite possibly a rather nasty one. All the time I had wanted to know more about the effect the scandal had on his wife and family. At last somebody has told us - and done so extremely well.
CONSTANCE WILDE: THE BIOGRAPHY
Born in 1858, Constance Lloyd's early life was rarely happy. Her formative years were marred above all by a widowed mother who abused her mentally and physically until she was driven to live with the family of her late adored father. Leading a rather sheltered life, she became fascinated by what she saw of the contemporary Bohemian set, in particular Oscar Wilde himself. At the age of 26 they were married, in spite of a letter from her elder brother Otho warning of grave doubts as to the suitability of her husband-to-be. This letter crossed one from her to Otho telling him that she has just become engaged and was 'insanely happy'. Tantalisingly, although we know this letter existed, we are not told anything more about its contents, only that it has since - perhaps not surprisingly - been destroyed.
In the absence of much information about her to the contrary, it might be assumed that Constance was a meek, submissive wife, content to stay at home and look after the family - sons Cyril and Vyvyan, born within the first two years of their marriage - while he pursued his literary career. In fact she was quite a capable, even unconventional personality herself. At their married home in Chelsea, she had a major hand in the design of the house, supervising the builders much of the time, when she was not writing children's stories herself (and perhaps, we now learn, collaborating in some of those which have been credited to him alone), promoting the concept of more sensible clothing for women, and becoming politically involved. A pacifist and radical who fiercely defended and argued for the rights of the unemployed to a better life, she would have probably been an active Liberal or even Labour Party member had she lived a few years longer and enjoyed better health.
Although she and Oscar were mutually infatuated at first, the magic in their marriage went awry around the time of the birth of their second son Vyvyan in 1886. As he spent more time away from the house while he was out socialising with friends, particularly young boys, relations between them deteriorated sharply. It is debatable, and even the author cannot say with certainty, when Constance became aware that her husband found other men far more sexually alluring than her, or indeed other women. It is hard to avoid the theory that she shut her eyes to the unpalatable truth, especially as homosexuality was an offence punishable by a prison sentence, until it was too late. By 1893 some of their friends were becoming increasingly sympathetic towards her, and impatient with, even resentful of, his growing arrogance, shameful treatment and lack of attentiveness towards her, and public comments like how he never came home any more because he no longer remembered his address. A number of his former friends, who were convinced that his associations with the outrageously selfish and effeminate 'Bosie', Lord Alfred Douglas, were dangerous, had had enough by now and completely disassociated themselves from him. One can hardly blame them.
Husband and wife had drifted apart, but towards the end of the year their relations improved. He stayed at home more (so he remembered their address after all), made an effort to spend time with her and the boys, and temporarily broke off his relations with the tiresome, ever-demanding Bosie. Yet early next year, apparently lulled into a sense of false security, she made what proved a fatal mistake. Bosie, who should have stayed away, sent her a telegram begging her to allow Oscar to see him again. Although he had already come close to destroying their marriage, she agreed out of kindness to let her husband travel to Paris so both men could meet again. Exactly twelve months later, Bosie's father, Lord Queensberry, wrote his famous and very public 'somdomite' [sic] card to Oscar, who sued for libel and thus paved the way for his trial on the grounds of gross indecency, was convicted, and imprisoned for two years.
Now Moyle reveals the answer to a question which we have long wondered about - why he did not flee abroad while he still had the chance, when the legal authorities were perhaps hoping he would save everyone no end of trouble. It was not merely vanity at supposing he would be acquitted, but rather that he had no ready luggage he could take with him, as it had been impounded by the hotel he stayed in because of his failure to pay the bill. Yes, you read that correctly. Britain's most successful playwright of the day could not settle a simple account like that, presumably because he was too disorganised and had to rely on somebody else (his poor put-upon wife, perhaps, in the absence of a manager or minder) to deal with the tradesmen.
With the aid of previously unpublished letters, the author has built up a fascinating, very poignant portrait in words of Constance Wilde. It would be all too easy to suggest that her subject is only famous because she married such a famous, unconventional man, but after reading this book we can see this is not the case. She was a gifted, interesting woman in her own right.
The portrayal of her personality during such a desperately difficult time for her is vivid. Part of her, it seems, never ceased to love her wayward husband. The theory is advanced that she shared in the widespread view of the time that homosexuality was an unnatural disease which might be cured. In the last few chapters the tale becomes increasingly moving, as we read of her flight abroad during his imprisonment in order to protect herself and their sons. Such was the scale of his disgrace that his wife was also sadly and irredeemably tainted by association. In order to shield Cyril and Vyvyan from the worst consequences of their father's downfall, she changed their family name from Wilde to Holland, and even considered divorce.
It would be good to tell you that she eventually made a new life for herself and found some fulfilment, maybe even a new career. Sadly it was never to be. Her health had never been strong, and though there is no precise diagnosis as to her problems, by her late thirties she was becoming increasingly immobile she could no longer write with ease because her hands were shaking so much, and she suffered from some kind of creeping paralysis. During an operation on her spine in 1898, she succumbed to a heart attack, aged just forty, thus predeceasing her disgraced husband by two years.
Anyone fascinated in Wilde, or latter-day Victoriana, will find this book an essential part of the story, from another angle. I found it difficult to put down, and finished it with perhaps as much sympathy and admiration for its subject as the friends had who rallied round her after her husband's disgrace. It must be said that Oscar, a brilliant wit though he may have been, emerges from this book as arrogant, all too ready to believe in his own infallibility as if he was somehow above the law - and, when we consider how supportive of him she had always been, selfish to the point of being despicable. However, it was inevitable that any woman married to someone as vain and obsessed with his own publicity as Oscar Wilde would not have an easy time being his wife - quite apart from the fact that it must be said any woman who had someone like Oscar Wilde as a husband would not be guaranteed much fun in the bedroom.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]
Lots of people are aware of the rise and dramatic, not to mention very public fall of Oscar Wilde and nowadays his sad history is regarded with a good deal of sympathy. Not much, however, has been made of the effect that these events must have had on his wife but Franny Moyle's biography sets out to tell Constance Wilde's side of the story.
Franny Moyle is a freelance writer who graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English and History of Art and worked for several years in broadcasting before leaving to concentrate on other projects. She has previously written Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites which was subsequently turned into a TV series.
I picked this book in my local library and have to confess to not knowing anything previously about Constance Wilde, in fact, I didn't even know that Oscar's wife was called Constance. I'd never previously given her more than a passing sympathetic thought but this biography turned the rather shadowy figure of the wife of the famous Oscar into a living, breathing human being who endured a public humiliation every bit as traumatic for her as it was for her husband.
From the moment Constance received the hastily scrawled note from her husband telling her he was coming to see her at 9 o'clock that evening, her life changed forever. Up to that point, Oscar and Constance Wilde had been something like the Posh and Becks of the late Victorian era. Oscar, of course, was hailed as a genius (not least by himself) and Constance, too, was well known as a writer and a leading light in the world of women's politics and the new Aesthetic movement as well as frequently having articles published in various magazines. Just like our own dear Posh, Constance's clothes choices were often the subject of discussion in the press and like any politically minded woman of the day, she was known for her rather unconventional style, which more often than not was simply not wearing corsets!
The golden couple had made their home in the rather bohemian Chelsea living amongst other writers, artists and the like and in February of 1895, they were living the dream. But as we all know, the higher you go, the harder you fall and it's true to say that Oscar Wilde was at the absolute pinnacle of his career. He had two successful plays on in the West End and the future was looking rosy when the bottom fell out of both their worlds. Franny Moyles depiction of a marriage in freefall is told with sympathy for both parties and though this is a biography of Constance Wilde's life, there is also a great deal written here about her husband.
The author tells Constance's story from her rather unhappy and definitely unloved childhood through to her untimely death. Although Constance was often overshadowed by her much more famous husband, she was no meek little Victorian wife and had a considerable intellect having been educated in various girls' schools and even taken a university course in English Literature, though at that time women weren't granted degrees. Her upbringing had been within a comfortable upper middle class home, though there was little love or affection from either parent. Her father was something of a philanderer and it's likely sired several children outside his marriage, and her mother was a rather selfish woman who displayed little interest in her children, and was frequently abusive both verbally and physically to her daughter. Franny Moyle postulates on whether Constance's treatment at the hands of her mother was due to jealousy as her own looks diminished and those of her daughter became more obvious. Despite her education and undoubted intellect, Constance was of the social strata where women didn't work and she was expected to marry well, though she doubted she would. It seems her mother's treatment had left her believing she was unworthy. As she confided to her brother, 'You say I shall have a chance of marrying. I see none. I have no beauty, no conversation, no small talk even to make me admired or liked.'
When Constance's mother remarried, she moved out of the family home to live with her grandfather and aunt in Lancaster Gate and she began to change from the shy and withdrawn young woman she'd been whilst living with her mother into a determined and strong-minded young woman with a love of art who was a devotee of the new aesthetic movement which was growing up around the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street. This movement was a haven for liberal-minded young artists who frequently had unconventional attitudes and lifestyles and it seems Constance was attracted to those who like to walk on the wild side.
Equally, Oscar Wilde had grown up in Ireland within a family that wasn't without scandal. His father had three illegitimate children from a previous relationship before marrying Oscar's mother, who was herself a rather flamboyant and unconventional woman. During the marriage fathered another child on a woman who subsequently accused him of rape.
When Constance met Oscar and the courtship began, it was very much to the disapproval of her family, not least from her brother who had heard a rather scurrilous story involving Oscar. However, the romance progressed albeit at a rather slow pace and eventually Constance and Oscar were engaged and eventually married and so began their rise to become one of London's most talked-about couples.
During the marriage which seems to have been happy at least on the surface, both Oscar and Constance followed their own interests and frequently lived apart and in many ways their marriage was unconventional more or less from the first year. With the birth of their two sons, the Wilde family was complete and Oscar was a devoted and enthusiastic father but by this time Constance's health had begun to suffer and she was frequently complaining of loss of feeling in her arms and legs as well as bad headaches, a condition which would worsen over the next few years and for which she frequently sought medical treatment.
Oscar by now was already beginning to live his double life, that of a devoted family man who nevertheless was beginning to indulge more and more in his relationships with men, a side which was becoming more important to him, especially with the horribly manipulative Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas with whom he was besotted. There is a great deal of Constance's correspondence quoted in this book and though I would have thought it must have been impossible for her not to realise that there was far more to Oscar's relationship with Bosie than met the eye, her letters indicate that she was blissfully unaware of the nature of the relationship until, of course, Bosie's father began his letter writing campaign and the subsequent court case which resulted in the destruction of the entire Wilde family.
Fran Moyle has written an interesting account of the life of Constance Wilde based on a wealth of reference material as well as from Constance's own correspondence. She was a prodigious letter writer. It doesn't dwell too long on her childhood but provides a detailed portrait of a marriage which had appeared happy and successful and which disintegrated following the famous libel case and Oscar's subsequent conviction for gross indecency and it's impossible not to feel deep sympathy for Constance who from being a privileged and well respected member of society became such an object of pity and the subject of scandal all through no fault of her own.
There are plenty of photographs of all the major players in this story to accompany the text . Those of Constance show a rather serious looking woman who, though not exactly plain, doesn't come across as particularly beautiful either, though apparently she was regarded as such.
I was surprised to learn that true to her name, Constance, supported Oscar throughout his trial and during his prison sentence and kept in touch with him even when she had exiled herself to Europe, seeing him a couple of times a year and sending him annual photographs of the children he would never see again. Constance remained in Europe until her death.
I find it hard to say that I enjoyed a book that deals with a life which was largely an unhappy one but it has certainly shed some light on the rather forgotten figure of Constance Wilde. The author's writing style is descriptive and is very easy to read, sometimes coming across more like a novel than a biography, and it not only brings to life the London of the Fin de siècle but puts flesh on the bones of Constance, Oscar and their coterie of friends. Franny Moyle's biography tells Constance's story sympathetically and yet in a balanced and truthful manner and which doesn't make any moral judgements.