While Oscar Wilde may have been drawn to beautiful young men and the love that dare not speak its name — a phrase coined by the pretty and ruinous “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas — he gained his fame and success largely through the help of powerful women. In “Wilde’s Women,” Eleanor Fitzsimons reminds us of the many writers, actresses, political activists, professional beauties and aristocratic ladies who helped shape the life and legend of the era’s greatest wit, esthete and sexual martyr.
To begin with, there was Wilde’s formidable mother, Lady Jane Wilde. A hot-blooded, Irish nationalist and proto-feminist during her youth, she raged that women were forced into lives of “vacuity, inanity, vanity, absurdity and idleness.” She contended, quite accurately, that “all avenues to wealth and rank are closed to them. The state takes no notice of their existence except to injure them by its laws.” But Speranza — as Lady Wilde was commonly called — also translated poetry from Russian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese. Her collections of Irish folk tales were much admired by W.B. Yeats and she produced the first English version of Wilhelm Meinhold’s great German witchcraft novel, “Sidonia the Sorceress.”
Like her husband, the eminent physician Sir William Wilde, Speranza belonged to Ireland’s intellectual, as well as social, aristocracy. Sir William had been a friend of the novelist Maria Edgeworth, Speranza was the niece of Charles Robert Maturin, author of the Gothic classic, “Melmoth the Wanderer,” and their house was located just down the street from that of Sheridan Le Fanu, editor of the Dublin University Magazine (and author of the best ghost stories of the mid-19th century). Born in 1854, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde grew up surrounded by many of the most interesting people of his time.
Oscar was from the get-go almost insufferably brilliant, winning all the most important university prizes and honors, first at Trinity College, Dublin and then at Oxford. As an undergraduate, though, he fell in love with 17-year-old Florence Balcombe. The cosmopolitan George du Maurier — author of “Trilby,” the tale of the singer hypnotized by the evil Svengali — recalled her, quite simply, as one of the three most beautiful women he had ever seen. Even when she was in her 70s, men would stand on their seats in theaters just to catch a glimpse of her. Alas, Oscar dillydallied and Florence instead married a kindhearted young clerk who eventually became the manager of the great actor Sir Henry Irving. Besides writing a memoir of his distinguished boss, Bram Stoker later published several novels and did rather well with one called “Dracula.”
After he settled in London in the late 1870s, Wilde — through his wit, charm and devotion — quickly won the esteem of the era’s most notable women, including the adventuress Lillie Langtry (whose portrait was prominently displayed in his living room ), the actresses Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt, and even Jennie, Lady Churchill (the mother of Winston). Initially known simply as an esthete, Wilde hadn’t published much beyond some poems when he embarked on a lecture tour of the United States. At customs, he boldly announced that he “had nothing to declare but his genius.” This apologist for art and beauty, quite froufrou with his long hair and velvet knee breeches, addressed largely feminine audiences about “The House Beautiful.” Once, Wilde was asked how to arrange some decorative screens and airily replied, “Why arrange them at all? Why not let them occur?” His charismatic originality captivated admirers as various as Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe and Washington’s noted children’s author, Frances Hodgson Burnett. However, Henry Adams’ wife “Clover”couldn’t stand him.
Upon his return from the United States, Wilde married the shy, intelligent Constance Lloyd in what everyone agreed was a love match (although the bride’s modest inheritance didn’t hurt). Needing a regular income, Wilde soon took over the editorship of “The Lady’s World” magazine, which he quickly renamed “The Woman’s World.” In short order, “Oscar increased the page count from 36 to 48 pages and relegated fashion to the back, while promoting literature, art, travel and social studies.” As editor, he contributed “Literary and Other Notes.” During this same period, Wilde was writing steadily, not just plays such as “Lady Windermere’s Fan”— about an admirable “fallen” woman — but also his bittersweet modern fairy tales such as “The Happy Prince” and “The Birthday of the Infanta.” Shrewdly, Wilde dedicated each story gathered in “A House of Pomegranates” to a leading hostess of the time.
In one fascinating chapter, Fitzsimons writes at length about the two best-selling female authors of the time, Marie Corelli, whose mystical novels, such as “The Sorrows of Satan,” were admired by Gladstone, Thackeray and Queen Victoria, and the sybaritic, luxury-loving Ouida. The latter is now faintly remembered for her foreign-legion classic “Under Two Flags,” but she made her reputation with witty, decadent works such as “Moths” and “Princess Napraxine” that may have influenced Wilde when he came to write his own novel. In 1889, over dinner at the Langham Hotel, a visiting editor from Philadelphia persuaded both Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to contribute to Lippincott’s Magazine. To that auspicious evening we owe Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes adventure, “The Sign of the Four.”
Wilde’s downfall — resulting, in part, from riotous evenings with rent-boys that he compared to “feasting with panthers” — occurred almost simultaneously with the appearance of his most sparkling comedy. “I never travel without my diary,” one character says in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Wilde’s 1895 trial for gross indecency, however, proved more than sensational. It destroyed him. Fitzsimons reminds us that the comic novelist and parodist Ada Leverson, known as “the Sphinx,” stood out among those few friends who remained steadfast.
In the wake of her husband’s conviction, bankruptcy and disgrace, Constance Wilde was advised to change her name and distance herself from a man she still in some measure loved. Her two sons, then aged almost 10 and 8, grew up as Cyril and Vyvyan Holland and never saw their father again. Vyvyan would eventually write a moving memoir, “Son of Oscar Wilde” (1954).
Although “Wilde’s Women” does, almost incidentally, provide a potted biography of the multitalented writer and gay icon, it remains very much a supplement to such standard works as Richard Ellmann’s magisterial “Oscar Wilde” and the delicious “Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde” edited by Rupert Hart-Davis and Merlin Holland (son of Vyvyan). Highly enjoyable and generally reliable, Fitzsimons’s book does sound an occasional false note, as when she describes the ghost-story writer Vernon Lee (née Violet Page) as a “transgender woman,” which suggests more than just cross-dressing. No doubt a computerized spell-checker, geared to British usage, can be blamed for changing the spelling of John Gray, the decadent poet and partial model for Dorian, to John Grey. Balancing these small errors, however, Fitzsimons neatly sums up Wilde’s lesbian niece Dolly as — wait for it — “an incorrigible womanizer.” That’s truly Oscar-worthy.
Michael Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and is the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Eleanor Fitzsimmons
Overlook Duckworth. 372 pp. $32.50