Newest Review: ... 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... more
It wasn't just about Oscar
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde - Franny Moyle
Member Name: ladybracknell
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde - Franny Moyle
Advantages: Interesting, informative and in an easy to read style
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.
Summary: The rather tragic life of Mrs Oscar Wilde
More reviews in the field of Biography
- Warren Fellows offers a truth behind the harsh realities of drug trafficking
- Love, Death & Duran Duran
- Marilyn Monroe Revisited...
- Marymoose came...and read...
- An inspirational book about a wonderful little dog
- Salford's chief melon groper
- Nobody Puts Patrick in a Corner
- The healing journey of a father and son - trekking through Mongolia
- A fair assessment
- Mcllvanney gets his man.
- The Tragedy of Erskine Childers - Leonard Piper
- To the Limit - Marc Eliot
- Matt Smith - Emily Herbert
- Coming Of Age - Andy Murray
- Escape from Camp 14 - Blaine Harden
- The Other Side of Nowhere - Danniella Westbrook
- My Life So Far - Jane Fonda
- Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland - Carmen Callil
- The Tiger's Child - Torey L. Hayden
- The Lost King of France - Deborah Cadbury