Diary Detail
January 2016
25 Monday


Over a century on, Oscar Wilde continues to hypnotise us. The work, though distinctly uneven, is filled with intellectual provocation and delicious fantasy and studded with scintillants, but it is the life – those action-packed 46 years with their almost Greek trajectory of catastrophe, rapid fall and pitiful resolution: hamartia, peripeteia and catharsis – which has marked him out as one of the great  symbolic figures of Western civilisation. We keep coming back to him, trying to make sense of his actions. Was he simply a victim of society? Were there inherent flaws in him which governed, or failed to govern, his actions? What sort of man, indeed, was he? In person, he beguiled many of his contemporaries, but his behaviour was by no means always admirable; often it is barely intelligible. He remains a mystery, his motives as puzzling as Hamlet’s; this, of course, only increases our fascination for him. Every aspect of his life has been pored over and over in a unending procession of books – his childhood, his family, his celebrity, his sex life, his radicalism, his formidable intellectual underpinnings, his Irishness, his illnesses, his death, all comprehensively covered. And still the puzzle remains.


Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life. His mother, first, of course,  his sister Isola whose death when still a  child devastated him, Lily Langtry, whose troubadour he affected to be, his poor utterly bewildered wife Constance, a clutch of influential lady novelists, a handful of leading ladies who appeared or, quite often, didn’t appear in his plays, a couple of stalwart middle-aged friends – Adela Schuster and the woman he dubbed “the Sphinx,” Ada Leverson – and sundry caring supporters, mostly Frenchwomen, at the end. There is no question that Wilde had a deep empathy for women. It is tempting to attribute this to his essential gayness, though he had experienced genuine heterosexual desire (as opposed to the extravagant poses of his relationship to the so-called Professional Beauties like Langtry), not least, of course, for Constance, with  whom, initially at least,  he attained something very close to rapture. Bosie Douglas, that poisonous, mendacious  nightmare, said at least one true thing in his life when he noted that women loved him because “although he was expected to talk brilliantly, he really did a great deal of listening.” 


And when, having failed to secure employment as an Inspector of Schools (a possibility which opens up startling vistas of educational reform), he became the editor of what he described as “a most trivial, vulgar production”, called The Lady’s World, he transformed it, under the new name of The Woman’s World,  into a vigorous platform for the latest thinking on the position of women –  even its stance on fashion was radical, seeking to liberate women from  the tyranny of corset and bustle. “From the Sixteenth Century to our own,” wrote Wilde, “there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and been endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and  monstrous fashion.” This was, interestingly enough, a cause that usually self-effacing Constance Wilde had eloquently championed in a lecture with the provocative title “Clothed in Our Right Minds.” But Wilde’s feminism was nothing to do with his wife’s views: like so very much else in his life, it derived directly from his mother.


The formidable Lady Wilde, née Jane Elgee, had, under the inspirational sobriquet of Speranza, not only written the fiery verse and essays which had made her a heroine of the Nationalist cause in Ireland, but also, no less  influentially, penned stirring polemics  on the subject of women’s rights. She was no straightforward gender egalitarian, however: “Nothing interests me beyond the desire to make him happy,” she had written on marrying the brilliant and alarming Sir William Wilde. “For this I could kill myself.” For her, women were still very much defined in relation to men – not an inferior relationship, she insisted, but one essentially of support and adornment, especially those who married geniuses. Her husband, she had no doubt, was a genius, and so, equally certainly, was her son.  She and Constance, she believed, were both “the daughters of men who wed with the sons of gods.” And this meant they had to pay attention to their appearance: “Humanity is distinguished from apes by two things: laughter and dress,” she wrote. “Nothing generates a morbid discontent like sombre, monotonous, ineffective costume.”


She attired herself in an astonishing array of fancy dress, most frequently appearing, in her younger years, as a Druidess; as time and grief – not least her husband’s trial for rape – and poverty took their toll, she wore black and held court, veiled, in rooms from which every glimmer of daylight had been banished. Guests stumbled about in the semi-dark, but they still flocked to her At Homes, mesmerised by her charisma and enchanted by the conversation. “Paradox is the very essence of social wit and brilliancy,” she decreed, as if prescribing Oscar’s modus operandi.  “The unexpected, the strange combination of opposites; the daring subversion of some ancient platitude are all keen social weapons.” This, she understood, was a dangerous ploy, but she had the antidote: “only assured celebrity makes society pardon originality.” It was not, in the end, protection enough; Wilde had perhaps taken his mother’s lessons too much to heart.


“Fathers should be neither seen nor heard,” Wilde wrote in An Ideal Husband. “Mothers are different. Mothers are darlings.” Wilde’s love of his mother, and his pride in her, was unquestionable; but it didn’t stop him from frittering away vast sums of money on Alfred Douglas in exotic watering-holes while Jane lay sick and impoverished in her dingy Paddington apartment, without, as she said, a shilling in the world.  But he was no doubt simply fulfilling the principles she had laid down before he was born” “the best chance, perhaps, of domestic felicity is when all the family are bohemians, and all clever, and all enjoy thoroughly the erratic, impulsive, reckless life of work and glory, indifferent to everything save the intense moments of popular applause.” Jane Wilde utterly dominates Fitzsimons’ book, and it is in these pages that it lights up, sometimes with a terrible sulphurous glow. “If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son; it will make no difference to my affection,” she told him in the brief moment when he could have fled the country after the collapse of his second trial. “But if you go, I will never speak to you again.” Yeats believed that it was this encounteD that kept him in the country and made jail, and the destruction of his health and his talent,  inevitable.


The book is a duller thing when Jane is not in it. From time to time Fitzsimons lights on extraordinary figures – Ouida and  Marie Corelli, for example –  whose work had a direct influence on Wilde; elsewhere, however, there is an excess of rather plodding résumé of lives that only tangentially illuminate him (four pages on the wives of his brother Willie). Even from these peripheral figures, however, Wilde  provoked exceptionally vivid responses. The actress Elizabeth Robins, for example, with whom he narrowly failed to work, remarked that it was “as if he had been stuffed with spice and caviar. Poke him and he would bleed absinthe and clotted truffles.” But his relationship with these women –   except for Robert Sherard’s remarkable observation that Wilde had in some sense modelled himself on the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt – yields little that is new.  It is still an affecting tale. The story of Constance Wilde, crushed between her husband’s appetites and his ambition, runs through the book like a heart-breaking descant sounded on a  particularly plangent oboe: “when I have you for my husband,” she wrote during their courtship, “I will hold you fast with chains of love & devotion, so that you shall never leave me, or love anyone so long as I can love & comfort.” Even after everything she had endured at his hands – the end of intimacy, abandonment, humiliation, financial ruin – and crippled by advancing multiple sclerosis she wrote “I think that we women are meant for comforters, and I believe no one can really take my place now, or help him as I can.” The persistence of love in the face of his incorrigibly rash and selfish behaviour is a tribute to an essentially delightful quality in him. As  Edith Cooper, one of the two gay women, aunt and niece, who made up the novelist ‘Michael Field’, wrote after it was all over, “now I can think of nothing but the quality that was in him – the pleasurableness.”

© Simon Callow 2013-24