Despite the title, which echoes a certain hit play of 1895, being Mrs. Oscar Wilde was of as little importance to Constance as she was to Oscar. The reflected glory would be paid for in grief.
The Wilde family in the mid-1880s had as its head a noted Dublin physician, but Sir William was known more as a seducer of his female patients than as otolaryngologist. The family also had some literary distinction, for Lady Jane Wilde, who wrote as "Speranza," published poetry and translations, and in London was hostess of a literary and artistic salon. Of course she spoiled things a bit by penning Irish revolutionary effusions, and, as a large, dominating, unfeminine woman who probably provided her son Oscar with his model for Lady Bracknell, she was not exactly everyone's dream mother-in-law. Then there was son Willie, who appeared on his way to becoming a leading journalist, but here, too, was a flaw, for he gave higher priorities to wine and women than to words.
At 26, Constance was poised and pretty but past her prime for a society wedding. Nevertheless, for a few years, when Oscar Wilde thought that he was in love and that the presence of a vivacious young wife might overcome his bent for young men, the family of Constance Holland Lloyd, unaware of any problem lurking in the closet, might have congratulated itself on managing a fine marriage.
Constance had seemingly done well to capture Oscar. A rising London personality, he had Oxford credentials, a musical voice that magnetized listeners, and a gift for language. What he lacked was money, but the possibilities for earning golden guineas were there. He was in demand as a lecturer on "The House Beautiful" and as poet and critic. That he dressed more and more like a Regency dandy did make him a bit conspicuous, but the affectation made him more marketable as a personality. He wrote eloquent love letters to her when he was away from London lecturing, and when home in their beautifully decorated house in Chelsea, he was man enough to sire two sons in their first three years of marriage. It was a Victorian idyll.
Then something went wrong. Or what had been wrong all along came to the surface. Gradually, Oscar slipped away from sharing bed and board with Constance at Tite Street. First it was bed, Oscar murmuring something about a recurrence of venereal disease he had picked up in youthful dissipations, and his wish not to pass the problem on to his wife. Yet he soon demonstrated every willingness to share whatever it was with the young men who were invited to the house, and with whom he began spending his nights at London hotels.
The scandal became open enough for Constance to consider a legal separation or even a divorce, but additional notoriety was less in her best interest, she thought, than the appearance of Victorian constancy. (Her husband's best play would not be about the importance of being earnest, but about the importance of appearing to be . . .) Only when Oscar went to jail in 1895 (they had been married for 14 years) did she leave the House Beautiful, untenable now because of her husband's bankruptcy, and arrange for a legal separation.
Fortunately, Constance's 800 pounds sterling a year from her late grandfather was in her name alone, and it enabled her to survive on the Continent. Living was cheaper there, and she had loyal friends. Few knew that Constance Mary Holland was Mrs. Oscar Wilde. But while Oscar languished at hard labor in Reading Gaol for two years -- the maximum sentence for his morals offenses -- Constance withered from a spinal ailment. She died in April 1898, at 40, two years before her husband. They had not seen each other after a single prison visit in 1896. Pathetically, Oscar visited her grave in Genoa and sobbed at the marble cross that bore her Christian names but omitted the name she had acquired by marriage. He had, himself, avoided using it, traveling as "Sebastian Melmoth." Although a wreck of his flamboyant former self, he had not changed his ways, or his friends.
The critic and satirist Max Beerbohm, a visitor to Tite Street in the good days, once joked that he was writing a book about the brothers of famous men, and was planning to include his own brother. One may ask about biographies of the wives of famous men. Is there some new perspective gained in seeing the life from the angle of the spouse? Was the spouse a considerable figure in her own right? Unimportant in herself, unobtrusively decorative as a wife, Constance Wilde was a victim, not a heroine. This book adds little to what we know about her, or her husband's tragedy. Told with apparently invented conversation, dozens of empty rhetorical questions and a gift for cliche', it is brief because there is not much more to say. If retelling Constance Wilde's story has any value, it is not because she was married to a notorious husband: it is because we see her immured in a horrendously miserable marriage in an age when wives were supposed to accept and tolerate whatever befell them. Being constant in such circumstances belongs to another age, and Joyce Bentley's book suggests how far we've come.