Book Review: Constance - The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde
Title: Constance - The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde
Author: Franny Moyle
Publication date: 10/10/2012
Acquired through: Net Galley
What it’s about:
In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children's author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women's rights. A founding member of the magical society The Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs. Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right. But that spring Constance's entire life was eclipsed by scandal. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. She lived in exile until her death.
My thoughts: I’ve been fascinated by Oscar Wilde ever since I saw Peter Egan’s portrayal of him in the miniseries Lillie on PBS back when I was in junior high. This was the man who wrote one of my favorite plays THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, the celebrity of the late Victorian era, which just so happens to be one of my favorite periods of history as well. Over the years I’ve read biographies, attended an exhibition of his work at the Morgan Library, seen the film WILDE starring Stephen Fry as a curiously muted Oscar, I’ve even enjoyed Gyles Brandreth’s mystery series where Oscar plays sleuth. However, I’ve never really given a thought to his wife Constance but then again neither did Wilde towards the end of his life (nor does she play much of a part in Brandreth’s mystery series either). She was always just there in the background, rather muted, almost like the wallpaper.
Now however Franny Moyle has breathed life into Constance in her new biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde which was just published recently in the US. I almost bought the paperback in London (which has a lovely purple cover) but I already had so many books to bring back, that I was afraid that one more would tip the scales when I checked my bag at Heathrow. I’m delighted to stay that the biography more than lives up to its title. Constance turns out to have had quite an interesting and fruitful life apart from just being Mrs. Oscar Wilde, although she was more than proud to claim the name until the scandal broke in 1895.
Like Oscar, Constance Mary Lloyd (1859 – 1898) came from a rather distinguished family. Her father Horace was a barrister who died when she was sixteen, leaving her with her mother who turned out to be emotionally as well as physically abusive to Constance. Thanks to the intervention of her brother Otho, Constance ending up living with her paternal grandfather and her aunts after her mother remarried. Because of her mother’s treatment, Constance was initially rather shy and reticent in company, but she soon came out of her shell. It’s a shame that she never went to university, although she took several courses, because she seems to have been incredibly intellectually curious. She spoke several languages including French and German, later learning Italian during her time in exile in Italy. Although she didn’t meet Oscar until she was an adult, their families knew each other in Ireland, Otho and Oscar were actually contemporaries at Oxford. Oscar had recently had his heart broken by Florence Balcombe who rejected his suit in favor of another Irishman, Bram Stoker.
Looking at the pictures of Constance included in the biography, it’s easy to see why Oscar fell for her. She’s very pretty, with luxurious dark hair and big eyes, with a solemn expression, at least in photographs. By all accounts, Constance was a lively, outspoken woman who had many admirers although she only had eyes for Oscar. At the time of their courtship, Oscar was embarking on the lecture tours of the United States that did much to make him famous on both sides of the Atlantic. The couple were finally married in the spring of 1884, moving shortly afterwards into their home at Tite Street, decorated by Edwin Godwin, that would forever after be associated with Wilde. Within two years, Constance and Oscar would have two sons, Cyril and Vvyan.
It was fascinating to discover that Constance was more than just Mrs. Oscar Wilde, an appendage on his arm, at first nights and social gatherings. Constance was determined from the beginning of their marriage, out of both necessity and also her own desire, to have some sort of a career. At first she thought of going on the stage, but determined that she had neither the talent or nor the drive for it, especially once she had children. She determined to become a writer, and actually succeeded, at first writing theater reviews, and then publishing several books for children. When Oscar became the editor of Women’s World, Constance published a few articles, but she then became the editor for the newsletter for the Radical Dress Society. Constance also held “at-homes” which were wildly popular with their artistic and bohemian crowd. In fact, Constance’s social life was just as active as Oscar’s, she was a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn for a while, was a member of the Society of Psychical Research, became heavily involved in liberal politics, supporting suffrage for women and Home Rule for Ireland. The list of causes and societies that Constance was involved in was as long as my arm. In fact, this is the portion of the book that drags a bit along with the list of surrogate mothers that Constance sought out since her own was so lacking.
I found the sections dealing with Constance as a mother to be far more interesting. While her eldest son Cyril was much loved from the start, it wasn’t until Vvyan was older, that he became interesting to his mother and they forged a strong bond. As a child, Vvyan was constantly being shuffled off to friends and a relative because Constance felt that he was sickly and needed to be out of London. By all accounts, Constance and Oscar were loving and devoted parents who actually spend time playing with their children, as opposed to just seeing them for an hour in the morning or before bedtime. Of course they had nannies and governesses like most Victorian children, but Constance was very involved in her children’s lives, finding the right schools and governesses for them. Later on when Vvyan wasn’t happy at the school he and Cyril were attending in Germany, Constance found another school in Monaco that he liked much more.
Constance comes across as an extremely likeable and level-headed woman on the one hand, despite suffering from ill-health; she never let it keep her down. Her one blind spot seems to have been her husband. She was devoted to him and adored him utterly. It never seems to have occurred to her until it was too late that her husband’s friendships with young men like Lord Alfred Douglas were more than that. It’s unclear whether she was just ignoring the obvious or was ignorant as a lot of women were to the idea that there were men who liked men. The hardest and saddest part of the book is the last third which deals with Oscar’s relationship, and his neglect of Constance and their children. Bosie seems to have brought out all of Oscar’s worst qualities, his selfishness and narcissism which had been tempered and balanced by Constance. Although he’d had relationships with other men, starting with his seduction by Robbie Ross, it was his relationship with Bosie that tipped the scales and made him reckless.
Although I still adore Oscar Wilde, I find it hard to forgive the pain and suffering that he put not only Constance and his children through but also his mother, by his reckless pursuit of a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury (Bosie’s father). How he ever thought that he was going to win is beyond me. He’d already been blackmailed by several rent boys over his relationships with them. He also spent wildly buying expensive cigarette cases, and taking them out to dinner at the Café Royal, taking suites at the Savoy and the Cadogan Hotel. It was one hell of a mid-life crisis, particularly when you consider that he had not one, but two, successful West End plays running, An Ideal Husband (how ironic) and The Importance of Being Earnest. I can’t fault Constance for the actions that she took when she realized that Oscar was going to not only lose the libel case but also would be arrested for gross indecency. Not only did she change the family name to Holland, but she also moved herself and the boys abroad to escape the scandal. Although it seems harsh, I can understand why she felt the need to keep the boys from Oscar while he was still involved with Bosie.
It’s sad that in the end, Constance and Wilde were never able to reconcile their differences truly, and that she died so tragically young, after an operation to improve her back problems.
Verdict: Thanks to Franny Moyle’s biography, Constance Wilde steps out of Oscar’s shadow and into the spotlight. Well worth the read to get the other side of the story. Moyle manages to keep Wilde from taking over the book, allowing Constance through her letters to shine.
Meet the Author
Franny Moyle has a degree in English and History of Art from St John's College, Cambridge, and is the author of Desperate Romantics. She was a leading arts producer at the BBC, which culminated in her becoming the corporation's first Commissioner for Arts and Culture, and is now a freelance writer in London.