Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle.
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle: review
Mrs Wilde was more than just a long-suffering wife. She matched Oscar in both intellect and ambition, says Robert Douglas-Fairhurst.
By Robert Douglas-Fairhurst 10 Jun 2011 in The Telegraph
Tragic heroines have an unfortunate habit of living up to their names. For Aeschylus, Helen of Troy was a “destroyer of ships, destroyer of men, destroyer of cities”, punning on the Greek root “hel” (“destroy”). In The Old Curiosity Shop, Dickens marks Little Nell’s death with a church bell ringing its “remorseless toll”, as if “Nell” had a ghostly extra “K” hovering around it. Their fate is written into their lives like the lettering through a stick of seaside rock. Nomen est omen.
Constance Wilde has usually been thought of the same way, as the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency” (that is, consensual sex) with other men. Her contemporaries recognised as much, as when the actress Ellen Terry wrote to her as “Dearest Constancy” in the weeks before the trial.
The circulation of such stories indicated a widespread desire to establish Constance as something other than a wife crushed by rejection and betrayal. She was a marital martyr, the standard of loving constancy against which her husband’s errant ways should be judged.
Fortunately, the evidence of Franny Moyle’s fine biography, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance’s unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this. Like one of Wilde’s epigrams, in fact, Moyle takes pleasure in turning our assumptions on their heads.
In some ways Oscar and Constance were a good match. Both had troubled family histories: in his case a surgeon father accused by a former patient of raping her while she was anaesthetised, and in hers a grandfather who exposed himself by running around naked “in the sight of some nursemaids”, followed by a mother whose parenting techniques included “threatening with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall”.
More importantly, both husband and wife were clever and ambitious, and for the first few years of their marriage their lives ran along parallel tracks. While he lectured on the need for women to abandon constricting corsets and dangerously flammable crinolines, she put the idea of “rational” dress into practice by wearing daringly baggy trousers and plenty of wool. His theories about the “house beautiful” were supported by her designs for their marital home in Chelsea, an ordinary red-brick villa that they transformed into a temple to aestheticism. Even Oscar’s disappearances into a hidden side of London’s nightlife found echoes in his wife’s experiments with the occult.
Seen with 20-20 hindsight, there were plenty of warnings that their marriage was built on sand. While Oscar had hoped to demonstrate “the pervading influence of art in matrimony”, from the start his love letters were suspiciously theatrical in tone, as if he couldn’t quite tell the difference between affection and affectation.
More dangerous was Constance’s agreement to take in a lodger, Robbie Ross, a precocious 17-year-old who was already, as Moyle quaintly puts it, “a practising homosexual”, and who promptly found someone else to practise with by seducing his host.
Finally, most serious of all, there was the trust she placed in Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the pouting and grasping acolyte who soon learnt that he could twist Oscar around his little finger.
Eventually Constance rumbled “that BEAST”, but as late as 1895 she was prepared to attend the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest sandwiched between them, unwilling to believe that her husband, who had been accused by Bosie’s father of “posing as a somdomite” (sic), had in fact spent far longer posing as a happily married man.
Even after Oscar’s imprisonment, she continued to collect reviews and editions of his work, and only gave up hope of being reconciled when he chose to return to Bosie rather than to her.
Their children were often caught in the crossfire. Although she doted on their elder son, Cyril, she described the sickly younger Vyvyan as “sweet and affectionate” but also “extraordinarily wilful and wayward”. Clearly she worried about how much he took after his father.
Shortly after the final separation she died, following a botched operation in Genoa, and was buried under a tombstone that in 1963 received the inscription “Wife of Oscar Wilde”. Rarely has a simple statement of fact sounded more like a reproach from beyond the grave.
Though unapologetic about his sexual behaviour, Oscar’s treatment of his wife and children left him writhing with remorse. Moyle suggests his fairy tales may have been covert confessions of these feelings, given their emphasis on personal sacrifice, but she also helpfully points out that Constance was far from being merely a spurned wife. She, too, had an affair, writing slyly to her lover that he would make “an ideal husband”, and in some ways she was just as much of a pioneer, with her interests in socialism and pacifism, her involvement in women’s rights, and her enthusiasm for ventures such as Dorothy's Restaurant, where women could dine – and more shockingly smoke – alone.
She might even have raised a rueful smile at the historical irony that she once took Oscar along to meet a friend in Dorothy's. After all, it must have taken a certain comic resilience, as well as genuine sadness, for her to have written that it was pointless being jealous of the young men who were taking up so much of her husband’s time, “when I know that the one I am jealous of fills a place that I cannot fill”.
Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde
by Franny Moyle
384PP, John Murray
Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, By Franny Moyle
The importance of being in earnest denial
REVIEWED BY LESLEY MCDOWELL SUNDAY 19 JUNE 2011 in The Independent
In her sympathetic and fascinating biography of Constance Wilde, Franny Moyle largely refrains from making judgements.
So it's something of a shock when she writes, on the start of Wilde's libel trial: "[Constance] was ... about to pay a high price for the streak of rebellion in her character that had led her into the arms of the man she now must have known was about to ruin her life."
Constance Lloyd was born into a well-to-do, upper-middle-class family in 1858, the second child of cold, distant parents. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother resented her only daughter's beauty; it wasn't long before bohemian Constance, favouring the loose, flowing dress of the Pre-Raphaelites, was attracting admirers. She preferred artistic types and fell passionately in love with the king of them all: Oscar Wilde. In spite of obstacles such as American heiresses and lengthy book tours, their relationship blossomed and he proposed. Wilde was then considered rather a ladies' man, Moyle notes, but already there were hints, by Constance's brother Otho, of more worrying tendencies.
Constance didn't want to know and it's hard not to like her stance and admire her brave challenge to society and determination to marry the man she wanted. Did she really "pay a high price" for that, as Moyle suggests? She was very happy for a long time – two children quickly followed the Wildes' marriage (Moyle hints that the second birth ended sexual relations between a couple which had, up until then, been passionate). But Constance wanted her life to be about more than a husband and babies, and she published children's stories (Moyle argues convincingly that she may have not simply transcribed Wilde's story, The Selfish Giant, but actually rewritten it), became involved with the women's suffrage movement, and studied spiritualism; this resulted in a very strange initiation ceremony which many believed she only did because Wilde wanted good material for a story.
As her husband's fame and fortune increased, so Constance became something of a celebrity in her own right. Is that why she ignored her husband's associations with handsome young men? It seems remarkable that she could have been unaware of his predilections, his nocturnal visits to opium dens and brothels. Moyle gives Constance the benefit of the doubt, but it seems a classic case of denial. Constance made too many trips away to friends' homes in the final years of their marriage for it to have been anything but running away from the truth. What cannot be denied, though, is that this brave, loyal woman lived up to her name, visiting her husband in prison and willing, even, to take him back. She died at the age of 40, after a botched operation. Constance lived a remarkable life, and, tragic though the end may have been, I wonder if she would have changed much of it.
Lesley McDowell is the author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, £16.99
Heartbreak, betrayal and the unimportance of being Mrs Oscar Wilde
CONSTANCE: THE TRAGIC AND SCANDALOUS LIFE OF MRS OSCAR WILDE BY FRANNY MOYLE (John Murray £20)
By BEL MOONEY 1 July 2011 in Daily Mail online
When Oscar Wilde first visited her in 1881 she was ‘shaking with fright’. Just over two years later Constance Lloyd wrote to her beloved brother: ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news. I’m engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’
Otho Lloyd congratulated his prospective brother-in-law by the next post: ‘If Constance makes as good a wife as she has been a good sister to me, your happiness is certain. She is staunch and true.’ And indeed she was.
But no one could possibly have imagined what future heartbreak and shame Oscar Wilde presented to his wife within the heart-shaped engagement ring he designed himself.
Last week I was sitting next to a distinguished historian at lunch who, on hearing that I was reviewing this book, quipped: ‘Oh, is there enough to make a whole book on Mrs Oscar Wilde?’
Thus are the wives of famous men consigned to the shadows. In the case of Oscar Wilde, popular belief sees the gay man marrying for convenience (and children) before reverting to his true sexuality. Even his work has been over-shadowed by the image of a precious, witty, man-about-town, sporting a green carnation.
No wonder his wife seems a mere cipher - an object of pity, but not a person in her own right. Franny Moyle’s terrific biography sets the record straight.
I have no doubt that Oscar Wilde genuinely loved her - at least, at first. And with good reason. Pretty, energetic, intelligent and talented, Constance Wilde is portrayed by her biographer as a thoroughly modern woman.
Rebelling against her dreadful mother and espousing radical causes - from supporting striking dockers to arguing that women should wear less cumbersome clothes - Constance was certainly somebody worth knowing.
She spoke French, read Italian, painted with skill and went to college to study Shelley.
An early feminist, she had bold, innovative ideas about fashion and interior design and wrote children’s stories, too. This young woman was perfectly equipped to become half of a celebrity couple.
Ironically, the author of The Importance Of Being Ernest, and so many other works of genius, was once thought to be rather a ladies’ man.
But that was before the green carnations, the monstrously egotistical affectations, the rent boys and Lord Alfred Douglas.
It would be wrong to think of Oscar’s marriage as a cover-up of his real self. Seven months after their wedding in 1884 he wrote to Constance from Scotland: ‘I feel your fingers in my hair and your cheeks brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours.’
So - love there was and frustration at the separations ‘that keep our lips from kissing’.
But this fashionable couple embarked on a dangerous path, believing in freedom and independence as much as any self-consciously ‘cool’ partnership of the Sixties in our own time. Right from the beginning they spent too much time apart. Then, just one year after writing the passionate letter above, Wilde confessed to a friend that the romantic feelings he once held for his wife had shifted into ‘a curious mixture of ardour and indifference’.
It is a strange experience to read this book, like watching a car crash in slow motion and longing to cry out: ‘Stop!’
Intelligent and imaginative as she undoubtedly was, Constance must have observed that her husband was inordinately fond of the company of young men. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) raised eyebrows because of its focus on male beauty, but Constance was (as Moyle puts it) ‘immune to the insinuations’.
By now she had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, travelled a lot, spent weeks at a time in Devon with an older woman friend, tried to juggle their perilous finances, but still delighted in her husband and took pride in his work. It is one of Franny Moyle’s missions to emphasise ‘the commitment the couple continued to have to one another in the first years of the 1890s’.
Nevertheless, I can only see Constance as a woman in denial, constantly on the move to avoid subconscious awareness of what her husband was up to and her own incipient depression.
She doted on her eldest son, neglected Vyvyan and ignored the chasm opening up within her marriage. Even her closest friend - perhaps scenting danger - told her to slow down.
Which is not to blame Constance in any way for the tragedy that befell her family. That was left to the poisonous Lord Alfred Douglas, who dragged Oscar Wilde into the depths and then (years later) had the insolence to reproach the wronged wife for what happened.
‘Bosie’ was a spoilt, effete young aristocrat who entered Wilde’s life as a fan and became his lover and destroyer. Wilde was smitten by the beautiful young man, but his passion turned into a fatal addiction.
On the one hand he frequented expensive hotels, lavishing money he didn’t have on Bosie, as well as entertaining ‘renters’ and behaving with increasing recklessness.
On the other hand, Constance’s ‘beloved Oscar’ could dedicate his second book of fairy tales to his wife in loving and uplifting language. Wilde was pulled in two directions, but it was the manipulative, demanding, greedy, selfish Bosie who won.
The facts of the notorious libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and the subsequent trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency - resulting in two years’ hard labour - are well known.
But here we focus on poor Constance - well-named for all she tried to do for her husband, but forced in the end to flee abroad and change her name to Holland.
Later Vyvyan remembered his mother ‘in tears, poring over masses of press cuttings’. So-called celebrities caught in the spotlight today can’t even approach the public disgrace that was faced by anyone associated with Oscar Wilde - including his innocent wife.
The drama ended sadly, madly, badly. The love that once existed between Constance and Oscar was reduced to a fight over money and mutual recrimination.
Constance died a miserable death aged 39 after an operation in Genoa. Wilde followed her two years later, having visited her grave (then omitting his name) and writing sorrowfully: ‘Life is a terrible thing.’
As for the beastly Bosie, his judgement on Constance takes your breath away: ‘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 good deal and deserves sympathy, but she fell woefully short of the height to which she might have risen.’
Franny Moyle does not gloss over Constance’s failures as a mother, nor her wilful blindness as a wife, but leaves us with a picture of a brave woman who married the wrong man - but loved him just the same.