‘Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde’ by Franny Moyle

2011, 328 p

Look carefully at the cover of this book, because in many ways the cover sums up the challenge of writing this book.  Constance (Mrs Wilde) has often been relegated to a bit part in the much more flamboyant story of Oscar Wilde.  This biography is about her, in her own right, but even in the marketing of it, the name ‘Oscar Wilde’ dominates.  Look, too, at the picture of the family.  It is actually two photographs combined.  The photograph of Constance with her older  son, Cyril, was taken in 1889.  While it is a charming photograph, I was chilled throughout the book by the favourism that both Constance and Oscar showered on Cyril, at the expense of his younger brother Vyvyan who was about three at the time this photograph was taken.  It was, indeed, as if they had only the one child. Then, to the right of this artificially-compiled family portrait, is Oscar. I suspect (although I admit to not being absolutely sure) that this photograph was taken in 1892 .  If so, by this time, Oscar and Constance’s marriage was already under strain, with Oscar already enmeshed with Robbie Ross and he had already met, and been smitten with Bosie.

However, Constance did not linger at home alone in the shadows, as this book shows.  When she married Oscar, they formed what we would now call a celebrity couple, noted for their radical aesthetic tastes and pre-Raphaelite sensibilities.  Constance was a striking beauty.  She too wrote stories, and she was well-known for her adherence to the principles of the bohemian Rational Dress Society.  She had a number of strong female friendships, particularly with older women, and she thought nothing of packing her children off to stay with others- particularly the less-favoured Vyvyan- and vacationing with friends for months at a time.  Like many other late 19th century men and particularly women, she was attracted to Theosophy and spiritualism.  Moyle draws heavily on the correspondence between Constance and her brother Otto, and to her close friend Lady Mount-Temple with whom she often stayed.  Oscar is, of course, mentioned in these letters, but they are written to her own friends and relatives, not Oscar’s.

We all well know about the court case and Wilde’s imprisonment.  It’s well-trodden territory and yet Moyle is still bewildered by Constance’s easy encouragement of Wilde’s friendships with men, and again by Oscar’s erratic behaviour after his release from jail, especially in demanding money from Constance who had already been more than generous.  Moyle’s sympathies are very much with Constance, who despite changing her own and her children’s surname to “Holland” continued to love Oscar after his conviction, visited him in jail, and was equivocal about divorcing him although she gained a judicial separation from him eventually.  She died in April 1898 following surgery, anecdotally on her spine although it may have been gynecological, at the age of 42 and just over a year after Oscar had been released from prison.

The book cleared up one thing for me.  In Stephen Fry’s film ‘Wilde’ (and was ever a man born to play a part as this?), Oscar is shown visiting Constance’s grave on which is engraved ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’. I commented while watching at the time that it was a brave statement to make, given Wilde’s broken reputation at the time.  In reality, Constance’s grave originally made no such claim.  It read instead ‘Here rests in peace Constance Mary, daughter of Horace Lloyd Q.C.’.  The inscription ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’ was added in 1963 by her brother’s descendants.  I have mixed feelings about it, and I wonder how she would have felt about the omission in the first place, and its reinstatement many years later.

My rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: It interested me.

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