Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde 
by Franny Moyle.
John Murray, 374 pp., £9.99, February 2012, 978 1 84854 164 1
Show More
The Picture of Dorian Gray: An Annotated, Uncensored Edition 
by Oscar Wilde, edited by Nicholas Frankel.
Harvard, 295 pp., £25.95, April 2011, 978 0 674 05792 0
Show More
Show More

In May 1895, the day before Oscar Wilde’s trial began, W.B. Yeats called at Wilde’s mother’s house in London to express his solidarity and that of ‘some of our Dublin literary men’ with the family. He later wrote of ‘the Britisher’s jealousy of art and artists, which is generally dormant but called into activity when the artist has gone outside his field into publicity of an undesirable kind’. In the years after his death, it became easy to see what happened to Wilde as part of a pattern or a plan, as something that Wilde’s mother, who was an Irish nationalist and a great publicity-seeker, might have dreamed up for her son, or a future he might have determined for himself: a cross between St Sebastian and one of the Manchester Martyrs, he would sacrifice himself for love and expose the hypocrisy of ‘the Britisher’ all at the same time. In this way, Wilde could be read as a literary creation, ‘something sensational to read in the train’. Yeats wrote that he ‘never doubted, even for an instant’ that for Wilde going to prison was the right decision: ‘He owes to that decision half of his renown.’ Tragedy, Yeats thought, ‘might give his art a greater depth’.

Despite the neatness of the narrative which Wilde’s life seems to present, there is considerable evidence that what happened to him was the result of drift as much as design, and that things might have been otherwise. There is evidence too that his wife, Constance, rather than being the ‘exasperating, tiresome, silly’ figure imagined by people such as Yeats’s father, was a complex woman of some intelligence, and that the marriage was neither a mistake nor a misunderstanding. There is also evidence that on some days of the week at least, Wilde was as much an ordinary man as a flamboyant artist who willed his own demise. Charles Ricketts, who designed books for him, wrote that ‘most writers on Wilde see in him the aesthete, the predestined victim of a theory, and the martyr to a subversive cult.’ This was wrong: ‘His childish hints at strange sins in Dorian Gray and other works are mere rhetoric … His one great hatred was of dullness, which is very dangerous and can raise a whole nation in its defence.’

Ford Madox Ford, in an article written in 1939, agreed about Wilde’s essential harmlessness, but viewed his antics as a mask to cover his own basic dullness. He remembered the visits Wilde made to his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown:

Mr Wilde was a quiet individual who came every Saturday, for years, to tea … Wilde would sit in a high-backed armchair, stretching out one hand a little towards the blaze of the wood fire on the hearth and talking of the dullest possible things to Ford Madox Brown, who … sat on the other side of the fire in another high-backed chair and, stretching out towards the flames his other hand, disagreed usually with Mr Wilde on subjects like that of the Home Rule for Ireland Bill or the Conversion of the Consolidated Debt.

Wilde continued these visits, ‘as he said later, out of liking for the only house in London where he did not have to stand on his head’.

In his memoir The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats remembered Wilde the married man towards the end of the 1880s:

He lived in a little house at Chelsea that the architect Godwin had decorated with an elegance that owed something to Whistler … I remember vaguely a white drawing-room with Whistler etchings, ‘let in’ to white panels, and a dining-room all white, chairs, walls, mantelpiece, carpet, except for a diamond-shaped piece of red cloth in the middle of the table under a terracotta statuette … It was perhaps too perfect in its unity … and I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his life there, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition.

Wilde’s younger son, Vyvyan, born in 1886, remembered him being ‘a real companion’ to himself and his brother. He had ‘so much of the child in his own nature that he delighted in playing our games … When he grew tired of playing he would keep us quiet by telling us fairy stories, or tales of adventure, of which he had a never-ending supply.’

An artist living with his wife in a pure white space, a father playing with his children, a public man finding his own dullness a great relief: these pictures may be as close to the real Wilde as the pictures that emerge from his trial, or from the work he published between 1890 and 1895. Nonetheless, it is clear that there was a tension between his waking life and his dream life, the life he lived and the life of his desires. That such tension would manifest itself in the sexual realm could not have come as a total surprise to either Wilde or his wife. It was in the blood. Wilde’s father, Sir William, who was an eye surgeon, had three illegitimate children before his marriage. The year Oscar was born his father began an affair with Mary Travers, the daughter of a colleague. She was also his patient. When Sir William tried to end the relationship, Travers claimed that it had begun while she was under anaesthetic. She wrote angry letters to the Wildes and published a pamphlet about a girl raped by a doctor. When Lady Wilde wrote to Travers’s father, accusing her of trying to extort money from her husband, she sued and gave evidence in court about the affair, which appeared prominently in the newspapers.

Constance’s family too was not, as it were, without sin. Her brother, Otho, once ‘saw a young man at Oxford who caused him concern’: he believed him to be his illegitimate brother. Her grandfather John Horatio Lloyd had, in the 1830s, ‘exposed himself in the Temple Gardens’ and run ‘naked in the sight of some nursemaids’, thus losing the opportunity to become solicitor-general. He ‘was forced to retire from political and legal work for four years’, Franny Moyle writes in her illuminating biography of Constance, ‘during which time he went abroad to Athens and became a director of the Ionian Bank’.

Constance Lloyd was born in London in 1859. Her grandfather, the streaker, was ‘an exceptionally wealthy man … not least because his legal practice had become the favoured counsel for the fast-developing railway companies, but also because he invented a type of investment bond on which the development of the railway system became particularly dependent: the Lloyd’s Bond.’ Constance’s father was part of the Prince of Wales’s set; her mother had little interest in her children. Otho later wrote that he and his sister were brought up ‘against the will and determination of two most selfish and egotistical natures’. Constance’s father died when she was 15. Her mother thereafter became nasty and violent. Her attacks on her daughter, according to Otho, ranged from ‘perpetual snubbing in private and public sarcasm, rudeness and savage scoldings’ to threatenings ‘with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall’.

On her mother’s remarrying in 1878, Constance moved into her grandfather’s large house at Lancaster Gate and began to display an interest in art and culture. She frequented the Grosvenor Gallery, which was, Moyle writes, ‘the social nexus for the alternative, Aesthetic, liberal-minded set and was particularly women-friendly’. Wilde had arranged for himself to be invited to the Grosvenor’s opening in 1877, when he was 23 and at Oxford. He moved to London the following year. ‘On his arrival from Oxford,’ Lillie Langtry remembered, ‘Oscar had longish hair and wore an outfit that spoke of bohemian credentials: light-coloured trousers, a black frock coat, brightly coloured waistcoats with a white silk cravat held with an amethyst pin and always carrying lavender gloves.’

‘It is at the Grosvenor Gallery,’ Wilde wrote in 1879, ‘that we are enabled to see the highest development of the modern artistic spirit.’ Two years later, Gilbert and Sullivan caricatured Wilde in Patience as a ‘greenery-yallery-Grosvenor-Gallery-foot-in-the-grave-young-man’. When Basil Hallward completes his portrait of Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel, Lord Henry Wotton says: ‘It is your best work, Basil, the best thing you have ever done. You must certainly send it next year to the Grosvenor. The Academy is too large and too vulgar. The Grosvenor is really the only place.’

Constance Lloyd’s grandmother and Oscar Wilde’s parents were acquaintances in Dublin. So when Lady Wilde, three years after the death of her husband in 1876, moved to London, where she thought she could hold court more cheaply, she was invited to a tea party at Constance’s mother’s house. Constance was there, and so was Oscar. As they began to see more of each other, Constance wrote to her brother: ‘Grand Papa I think likes Oscar, but of course the others laugh at him, because they don’t choose to see anything but that he wears long hair and looks aesthetic. I like him awfully much but I suppose it is very bad taste.’ For the Lloyds, however, it was not merely a matter of long hair. The Wildes had fame of a sort, and Oscar’s was growing, but there was no money. With Oscar on a lecture tour in America for D’Oyly Carte, Constance had Lady Wilde, in her high-flown poverty, to amuse her. ‘We had such a joke yesterday,’ she wrote to her brother in November 1881. ‘I went out with Mama to call on Lady Wilde … we went in and found Lady W all alone in her glory in such wee rooms that Mama and I puzzled internally how she’d got into them.’

Lady Wilde was broke. She wrote to her son suggesting that he bring home an American bride. Surely, she wrote, he could find an heiress with ‘a 1/4 of a million’ and then he could ‘take a home in Park Lane – & go into Parliament’. Instead, when he returned he continued his liaison with Constance, who wrote to her brother in November 1883: ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news! I am engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’ This letter had crossed with another, now lost, from Otho to his sister in which he warned her about Wilde and said he knew a ‘story’ about him. ‘I don’t wish to know the story,’ Constance replied, ‘but even if there were foundations for anything against him it is too late to affect me now.’

Constance’s grandfather made suitable financial arrangements for her, having questioned Oscar about his income and his debts, the latter being rather higher than the former. In the months between the engagement and the marriage, Constance enjoyed being a celebrity in London. She began to take an enormous interest in clothes, and in setting new fashions. The Lady’s Pictorial wrote: ‘Mrs Oscar Wilde, in her large white plumed hats, in her long dust cloaks of creamy alpaca richly trimmed with ruches of coffee-coloured lace, in her fresh and somewhat quaintly made gowns of white muslin, usually relieved by touches of golden ribbon, or with yellow floss silk embroideries, is declared charmante and to be dressed with absolute good taste.’ On the fifth day of her honeymoon, she wrote to her brother: ‘My dress creates a sensation in Paris.’ At the preview of the Grosvenor Gallery summer show of 1885 it was reported that ‘Aestheticism culminated in Mrs Oscar Wilde’s costume of a woollen stuff in dull reseda trimmed with pink.’ A year later, she was, it seemed, a walking advertisement for herself, dressed ‘in every shade of green from the palest lichen to the fullest summer foliage – a lizard trimmed with beetles’. Anna, Comtesse de Brémont, in Oscar Wilde and His Mother, published in 1911, remembered ‘her arrayed in draperies after the medieval style, or cerise and black satin with necklaces of quaint gems’. Another writer in 1885 remarked that the less said about her dress the better.

Sometimes, as they wandered in the world, Oscar and Constance ‘wore planned, matching or complementary outfits that made something of a spectacle’. Constance’s interest in clothes was not merely to have herself noticed. She was actually serious about changing systems of dress. In 1886 she became involved in the Rational Dress Society, presiding over a meeting in Westminster Town Hall. She ran the society’s magazine for the next two years. ‘The Rational Dress Society,’ their pamphlet read, ‘protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movement of the body, or in any way intends to injure health.’ Using her connections there, Constance also became involved in 1888 in the Society for Promoting the Return of Women as County Councillors. When her friend Lady Sandhurst was returned for Brixton in 1889, and it was ruled that as a woman she could not take her seat, the society launched an appeal, which it lost. Soon she also became involved, as did many intelligent women of the age, in the Order of the Golden Dawn. She was one of the 32 members who joined in its inaugural year. ‘Over the course of the next 12 months,’ Moyle writes, ‘Constance, studious as ever, acquired a working knowledge of Hebrew, became familiar with alchemical and kabbalistic symbols, grasped astrology and divination, learned the mysteries of the Tarot, studied the significance of the rituals performed by the Golden Dawn (as well as memorising the rituals themselves) and passed a series of exams to prove it.’

She and Oscar offered a picture to the world as the happiest and busiest couple in London. Their two sons were born in 1885 and 1886. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, however, in a book published in 1930, wrote about an episode that occurred not long after Wilde was married. He had taken Constance shopping:

He waited for her outside Swan and Edgar’s while she made some long and tedious purchases. As he stood there full of careless good spirits, on a cold sunny May morning, a curious, very young, but hard-eyed creature appeared, looked at him, gave a sort of laugh, and passed on. He felt, he said, ‘as if an icy hand had clutched his heart’. He had a sudden presentiment. He saw a vision of folly, misery and ruin.

While studying and campaigning, having two children and being seen in public, Constance managed not to spot her husband’s wandering sexuality, or else she saw it too clearly and enjoyed it as another exciting aspect of being modern. Or perhaps both. ‘Oscar likes you so much,’ she said to a friend of his who called at the house. ‘He says you have such nice improper talks together.’ In 1892 she wrote to her friend Lady Mount-Temple in a tone so naive as to be almost wise:

Oscar had yesterday such a beautiful letter from the brother of a young man who has died lately in Australia. Beautiful to me I mean because it is so full of this boy’s love for Oscar. I will write a copy of it and send it to you, I should like you to see how good O’s influence is on young men, and the brother speaks of this young man as the purest soul he had ever known.

Part of the reason Wilde was sensitive about being laughed at in the years after his marriage was not merely that he was a married man with extracurricular interests – he had sex with Robbie Ross for the first time in 1886 – but also that he was most famous for being mocked. No one took him seriously, except himself and his mother and his wife. Wilde’s lectures and poses were better known than his early plays or poems. For a while after his marriage he edited a magazine, The Woman’s World; he wrote fairy tales and essays. But it was clear, at least to him, that in order to be appreciated by the world in the way he appreciated himself, he would have to produce more substantial work. He wanted both commercial and literary success to increase his notoriety and win some sort of respect among his peers.

In January 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It sold forty thousand copies in Britain in its first six months. ‘There is something almost impertinent,’ Henry James wrote, ‘in the way … Mr Stevenson achieves his best effects without the aid of the ladies.’ Was it, he asked, ‘a work of high philosophic intention, or simply the most ingenious and irresponsible of fictions’? In his ‘Decay of Lying’, published in January 1889, six or seven months before he began The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde wrote about life imitating art and literature anticipating life. ‘Shortly after Mr Stevenson published his curious psychological story of transformation, a friend of mine, called Mr Hyde, was in the north of London, and being anxious to get to a railway station, took what he thought would be a short cut, lost his way, and found himself in a network of mean, evil-looking streets.’ These streets belonged to Wilde’s imagination in a number of ways. They filled some of the books he read as much as they lingered in his uneasy dreams. In the writing of Dorian Gray he could have it both ways: he would work from a number of literary sources, and use whatever personal tensions preoccupied him. He would use the former to disguise the latter when it suited him, or merely take the literary sources and follow them wherever they took him.

Like Stevenson, he would play with clarity and innuendo to amuse and attract late Victorian readers. Like Stevenson, too, he was unsure how much to spell out about the evil lives of his characters, and how much to leave implied. In an early draft of Stevenson’s book, Jekyll confessed: ‘From a very early age, however, I became in secret the slave of disgraceful pleasures.’ Stevenson then deleted ‘in secret’. Later, he changed the sentence to: ‘From an early age, however, I became in secret the slave of certain appetites.’ After publication, he wrote to a friend deploring the ways in which the vices in his book were being read as sexual vices (‘people are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality’) related to ‘this poor wish to have a woman’. He never mentioned that there were passages of his book which could be read as being about homosexuality. Nothing, it seemed, was further from his mind. But Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written in the year male homosexuality was criminalised and some readers at least would have been able to draw their own conclusions about what the maidservant saw from her window in the section called ‘The Carew Murder Case’: two gentlemen accosting each other in a foggy lane ‘with a very pretty manner of politeness’ until one, Mr Hyde, attacked the other. There is no explanation given for why the two gentlemen were meeting in a lane in the first place. Stevenson may have written the scene in all innocence. On the other hand, since he was an expert on the matter of doubleness, he could have inserted it deliberately and at the same time allowed it to slip into the book unnoticed.

The fact that no one seemed to spot this element in Stevenson, that readers were happy to be frightened by the plot instead, must have interested Wilde. He could have fun with Dorian. For example, when he blackmails Alan Campbell at the end of the book, it’s clear that he is threatening to expose him as a homosexual. Wilde could also, for the most part, leave women out of his book, or treat them as less than human. The crucial difference between Wilde’s book and Stevenson’s was that Dorian seems to be enjoying himself, causing havoc and having fun in equal measure, whereas both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remain dour bachelors and take solitary walks. Evil may excite them, but in dark and guilt-ridden ways. They take their bearings from a Scottish sermon. Dorian, on the other hand, is rich and good-looking and amused by life. He has pangs of guilt, but they never last long. Vice is good for him; it is the portrait that suffers.

The public wanted excitement, but they also wanted characters to be heavily punished, not only at the end of a book, but throughout. Wilde pushed his luck by refusing to gratify them. W.H. Smith retaliated by pulling the issue of Lippincott’s that contained the story from the shelves of its stores. ‘Dullness and dirt,’ the Daily Chronicle declared in its review. Dorian was ‘a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction’. The Scots Observer believed it was ‘not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity’. It deplored the fact that Wilde could write ‘for none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’. This was a direct reference to the Cleveland Street Scandal, unfolding while Wilde was writing the book: a number of noblemen, including the eldest son of the Prince of Wales and the prince’s equerry, were involved with a group of male prostitutes who also operated as telegraph messengers.

As Nicholas Frankel writes in his superbly annotated new edition of Wilde’s novel, the magazine version ‘is more explicit in its sexual references and allusions than the revised 1891 book version, in which Wilde, in response to his critics and at the insistence of his publisher, toned down the novel’s homosexual content’. In Wilde’s original version, Basil Hallward says to Dorian: ‘It is quite true I have worshipped you with far more romance of feeling than a man should ever give to a friend.’ The magazine editors changed ‘should ever give’ to ‘usually gives’. The sentence wasn’t included at all in the book. At Wilde’s trial, Edward Carson used the text of Dorian as evidence against Wilde, and made a clear distinction between the two versions, referring to the book as ‘the purged edition’. But the story, as Frankel makes clear, is not as simple as that. Lippincott’s, using a number of readers in their office in Philadelphia, also made serious cuts and changes to the original text, removing ‘objectionable passages’. They changed ‘Why is it that every young man that you take up seems to come to grief, to go to the bad at once?’ to ‘Why is your friendship so fatal to young men?’ and cut a scene in which Dorian is walking at night when ‘a man with curious eyes had suddenly peered into his face, and then dogged him with stealthy footsteps, passing and repassing him many times.’

Wilde drew on many sources as well as Stevenson for his novel. He took the motif of the portrait from his own great-uncle Charles Maturin’s novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). He also added his own version of the Faustian pact to an Irish legend, the story of ‘Tír na nÓg’, versions of which Yeats had included in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888, and which would have been known to Wilde’s parents, who both published books on Irish legends. In it, the Irish hero Oisín spends three hundred years in Tír na nÓg – literally ‘The Land of the Young’ – and thinks it only three years; then, on returning to Ireland, ‘he instantly became a withered, bony, feeble old man,’ just as Dorian was found ‘withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage’. And as Moyle makes clear, Constance’s study of the occult, at its most intense in the period before Wilde began the book, could also have been part of Wilde’s inspiration.

Wilde’s mother would have been pleased at the use of images from Maturin and from Irish mythology in her son’s book. But Constance, who became interested in Christian socialism after her flirtation with the occult, may not have been as happy with his portrayal of Lord Henry’s wife: ‘She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest … She tried to look picturesque, but only succeeded in being untidy. Her name was Victoria, and she had a perfect mania for going to church.’ A few pages later she is described as ‘a bird of paradise that had been left out all night in the rain’. Constance probably didn’t know that her husband’s description of Sybil Vane in the novel has echoes in a letter to Lillie Langtry, unless it was the sort of thing he went around saying. ‘I am going to be married to a beautiful girl,’ he wrote of Constance, ‘with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a blossom.’ Sybil Vane, whose death Dorian will cause, also has ‘a little flower-like face, a small Greek head with plaited coils of dark-brown hair’.

It wasn’t only Constance: Wilde used what was happening to himself in the creation of Dorian. Just as Dorian was blackballed by a London club, so, too, Wilde was effectively blackballed in 1888 by the Savile Club. Just as Dorian was brought by a friend into the smoking room of the Churchill, and ‘the Duke of Berwick and another gentleman got up in a marked manner and went out,’ so, too, as William Rothenstein remembered, when Wilde entered the Hogarth Club ‘an old member of the club, ostentatiously staring at Wilde, rose from his chair and made for the door. One or two other members also got up. Everyone felt uncomfortable.’

In January 1891, six months after the magazine publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and three months before it came out in book form, Constance wrote to Lady Mount-Temple, quoting her friend Bertha Lathbury, the wife of the editor of the Guardian: ‘Darling, I have been for years thinking about this terrible passion of jealousy, and I am quite certain that Mrs Lathbury is right that the only way to conquer it is to love more intensely … Surely if one is jealous of one’s husband, it is because one thinks it possible to make him love one more.’ Soon after she wrote this letter, in the spring of 1891, Lionel Johnson gave Lord Alfred Douglas, then aged 20, a copy of the novel. ‘About Dorian Gray,’ he later wrote, ‘I read it at Magdalen about two or three months before I first met Oscar. Curiously enough I don’t remember hearing much about it from other undergraduates except Lionel Johnson. It had a terrific effect on me. It read it about 14 times running. For years it produced the same effect every time I read it.’ Thus life imitated art, since Dorian himself receives a book in the novel:

After a few minutes, he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

As Wilde became involved with Lord Alfred Douglas, Constance developed friendships of her own, most notably with Lady Mount-Temple, who was ‘an ardent anti-vivisectionist and a promoter of vegetarianism’. Constance first visited her at her house, Babbacombe Cliff, in September 1889, as Oscar was working on his novel. The house, Moyle writes, ‘was a temple to Pre-Raphaelitism and full of the most exquisite treasure … The entrance hall was decorated with tiles designed by William Morris, and its staircase led to a corridor illuminated by stained glass designed by Edward Burne-Jones.’ By the end of 1890 Constance and Lady Mount-Temple had become so close that Constance was referring to her as her ‘mother’. When she was ill at Christmas, Lady Mount-Temple visited her. On 26 December she wrote:

Darling, how beautiful you made my Xmas Day for me, as you do everything that you touch. I had been trying all the morning to feel happy and to be with you spiritually in your communion, and then you came and set the seal to my uncertain efforts, and made even belief seem possible to me.

In November 1891 she wrote: ‘My mother sends me today an icy cold letter from Dublin. Darling if you saw how she writes, you would not wonder that I turn to you for love, and claim a mother’s love because I need it so desperately.’ Lady Mount-Temple read The Picture of Dorian Gray when it appeared in 1890. But there is no evidence that either she or Constance objected to the book. Constance proudly pointed out to her a good review of it by Walter Pater. Despite his other liaisons and their many separations, Oscar and Constance continued to move around London together quite happily. He wrote her devoted letters when he was away and maintained good relations with Lady Mount-Temple.

In Constance’s letters to Lady Mount-Temple there are regular mentions of Cyril, her elder son, but Vyvyan, the second boy, is seldom mentioned. She seems in general to have preferred her first son to the second. This was unfortunate, since it was the second son who would live to write his memoirs and moan about this. ‘In the nursery,’ he wrote, ‘my brother always had, or so it seemed to me, the best toys, and even if a toy was meant to be shared, I was usually deprived of my rights in it.’ But even as late as 1892 the Wildes could behave like a happy family. In August, the parents and children went on holiday to Cromer. They were photographed as a picture of bliss. Oscar would write in the mornings and go walking or driving with his wife in the afternoons. He even took up golf. When they were joined by Lord Alfred Douglas, Constance did not seem to mind. She was becoming ‘a golf-widow’, she wrote to Lady Mount-Temple. When Oscar stayed on alone, Lord Alfred Douglas decided he could not leave, due to illness. ‘I am so sorry to hear about Lord Alfred,’ Constance wrote from Babbacombe, having left the children elsewhere, ‘and wish I was at Cromer to look after him. If you think I could be any good, do telegraph to me, because I can still get over to you.’

The following summer they went to Goring, between Reading and Oxford. The domestic arrangements this time were made by Douglas, and they included eight servants – at Cromer they had had just one – and much champagne and luxury food. Oscar’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan was bringing in money, and two of Constance’s aunts had died, both leaving her a fair sum. The tone of Constance’s references to Oscar in her letters to Lady Mount-Temple now began to change. ‘I cannot make out whether it is my fault or Oscar’s that he is so cold to me and so nice to others. He is gone to Birmingham to see his play acted there tonight. His butler knows his other plans and I know nothing. Darling, what am I to do?’

When Constance travelled to Italy in 1893, she reported to Lady Mount-Temple that ‘Oscar writes to me every day & must be written to every day.’ But when she returned to London Oscar was not at their house in Tite Street: he was staying at the Savoy with Douglas. In the summer, she and Cyril, who was now eight, joined Oscar and Douglas at Goring again. ‘One day,’ Moyle writes, ‘the local vicar called to discover Oscar and Bosie [Douglas] wearing nothing but towels, larking on the lawn and turning a hosepipe on one another in the stifling heat.’ The new governess spotted ‘Oscar with his arm around the boy employed to look after the boats’. Later that year, as Oscar and Douglas began to dislike each other, Constance and her husband, their sons now in boarding school, started to live together again and go out as a couple in London. Constance attributed her new-found closeness to her husband to a helpful visit from Sir William Wilde from beyond the grave, which may suggest that she was mad or easily fooled, but the view that visits by the dead could affect decisions made by the living was common, almost fashionable, at the time among people otherwise known for their intelligence.

It was from a more terrestrial zone, however, that further disruption of the Wildes’ marital harmony came. Oscar had decided that Douglas was a terrible little nuisance and refused to see him. Douglas, who was in France, bombarded him with messages. In February 1894 he telegrammed Constance, begging her to intercede with her husband on his behalf. She agreed, and Oscar went to France to be reunited with Douglas. Moyle views Constance’s agreement as ‘a terrible mistake’: ‘Quite why Constance acquiesced to the demands of the man who had nearly destroyed her marriage is a mystery. It may have been that the four happy months she had spent back in Tite Street had lulled her into a false sense of security.’ In ‘De Profundis’, the long letter he wrote to Douglas from prison, Wilde recalled the episode:

Our friendship had always been a source of distress to [Constance]: not merely because she had never liked you personally, but because she saw how your continual companionship altered me, and not for the better: still, just as she has always been most gracious and hospitable to you, so she could not bear the idea of my being in any way unkind – for so it seemed to her – to any of my friends.

Constance’s motives, however, may have been more complicated than anyone imagined. She was impulsive and generous and she believed in close friendships: that much is true. But she was also easily bored, and she may have got less pleasure from her husband once they were back in Tite Street than we would like to imagine. Bringing Douglas back into the equation would at least add excitement, and give Constance a reason to complain about Oscar to Lady Mount-Temple.

Within a month, she was writing to her friend: ‘Oscar is in London again, but I know nothing about his doings and he does not write.’ Soon afterwards, Douglas’s father saw his son and Wilde in a carriage together and, as Moyle puts it, ‘thought he saw Oscar caress his son inappropriately’. He wrote to his son, who detested him, threatening to stop his allowance unless he gave up his ‘loathsome and disgusting’ relationship with Wilde. In the meantime, Constance had become friendly with Arthur Humphreys, the general manager at Hatchard’s; slowly she began to fall in love with him. By August 1894 she was writing to him:

I am going to write you a line while you are smoking your cigarette to tell you how much I love you, and how dear and delightful you have been to me today. I have been happy, and I do love you dear Arthur. Nothing in my life has ever made me so happy as this love of yours to me has done, and I trust you, and will trust you through everything. You have been a great dear all the time quite perfect to me, and dear to the children, and nice to Oscar too, and so I love you, and I love you just because you are, and because you have come into my life to fill it all with love and make it rich.

Oscar was aware of his wife’s feelings for Humphreys and began to sketch out a play called Constance, with a husband and wife involved in extra-marital affairs. In August, however, he did happy families again for a while; he went with Constance and the children to Worthing, where he played with the boys and worked on The Importance of Being Earnest. Some of the lovely symmetry of that play may have been informed by the symmetry of what was happening in his and Constance’s lives. Thus Jack and Algy served as versions of Oscar and Humphreys, Bunburying away when they got the chance, living for pleasure while attempting to seem responsible; Douglas and Constance were Gwendolen and Cecily, innocent and young and longing for romance. He could also merge with his mother, and a soupçon of Lady Mount-Temple, as Lady Bracknell, arriving, departing, interfering and getting all the best lines. It is easy to understand why he was able to write the play so quickly, and it seems effortlessly, and why he added and then removed a final scene in which creditors follow and find his heroes. In working on the play, he could explore his own guilt and then toss it away. He could get found out and followed, and then decide that it would all end happily ever after instead. He was, in this respect at least, a lesson to us all, if not to himself.

When in the real world he and Constance were joined by Douglas, Constance was irritated by his presence. This may have been exacerbated by the knowledge that Humphreys was on holiday in Florence with his wife. Later, back in London, when Oscar decamped to the coast with Douglas, she and Humphreys met at the Society for Psychical Research and argued about the unemployed. Constance wrote to him on the matter: ‘You have a very strong nature and perhaps it is natural that you should have no sympathy with the unfortunate of the world.’ Over the months that followed she saw little of her husband. He took rooms close to the theatre where An Ideal Husband was to open and then went to Algeria with Douglas. Constance did not stay at home pining for him as he travelled back to England for rehearsals of The Importance of Being Earnest. Besides seeing Humphreys, she went to stay with Lady Mount-Temple, and they gave a party together for Ruskin’s 76th birthday.

In London again, she received a note from Oscar to say that he needed to come and see her. It seems she had no idea how much trouble was about to come her way. He arrived on 28 February 1895 and told her that he was going to sue Douglas’s father, who had left a note at his club saying that Oscar was a ‘posing somdomite’ (sic). The Marquess of Queensberry followed Oscar around London accusing him of corrupting his son (he turned up on the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest with a bouquet of rotting vegetables for the author). When Wilde’s case against Queensberry turned into a fiasco, and he was put in prison awaiting trial, Constance faced a number of serious problems. The first was financial. She had no money and there were many debts. Philip Burne-Jones, the son of the painter, wrote to her on 11 April with advice from Sir George Lewis, who had once been a friend but had acted for Douglas’s father in the case:

Sir George was most anxious that as soon as ever the result of the trial is known, you should sue for a judicial separation … not only for the sake of yourself and your family but for the children’s sake – the children must be made wards in Chancery and you could apply for the custody of them, & Oscar would never reach them or interfere with them. Something you should certainly do before Oscar is liberated – for he will be sure to come for money to you (who he knows has a settled income) … You cannot go on labelled as the wife of this man. I would urge you to change your name & that of the children … Also if anything were to happen to yourself, dear Constance – (which God forbid) Oscar could claim a life interest in your money, & might leave the children stranded.

Cyril had been sent to Ireland; Vyvyan was with his mother. When Constance told Oscar’s mother what her plan was, the old lady scrawled a note to her: ‘I am very poorly and utterly miserable. I do not like the idea of the boys changing their names – it would bring them much confusion.’ On 24 April the creditors forced an auction of the contents of the house in Tite Street. Many items were stolen, including Oscar’s letters to Constance; others were sold at knockdown prices. Constance was overdrawn at her bank so money had to be raised by friends to get the boys out of the country to a remote resort in the Swiss Alps.

When Oscar got out on bail, the first trial having collapsed, he stayed with his friends Ada and Ernest Leverson. Ada remembered a visit by Constance: ‘They were alone for two hours. I loved her very much and was grieved to see her leave in tears. I found afterwards that she had come with an urgent message from her lawyer imploring him to go away without fail before the next trial which would undoubtedly be his ruin.’ Oscar did not leave and on 25 May was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. Between then and her departure for Switzerland in June, there is evidence that Constance made representation to the authorities, using whatever connections she had, about the conditions of her husband’s incarceration.

Constance and her sons were joined in Switzerland by her brother, who had visited Oscar in prison and found him penitent when the subject of his wife was discussed. Constance went back to England and saw her husband in prison in September. ‘It was indeed awful,’ she wrote, ‘more so than I had any conception it could be. I could not see him, I could not touch him, and I scarcely spoke.’ There were, she wrote, ‘two gratings and a passage between us’. She moved from Switzerland to a village outside Genoa and changed her sons’ names from Wilde to Holland. Her health was beginning to fail; she was suffering from creeping paralysis in her right arm and leg. Nonetheless, when news came that Lady Wilde had died on 3 February 1896, Constance determined that she would travel to England to tell him the news herself. She wrote to her brother: ‘I went to Reading on Wednesday and saw poor O, they say he’s quite well, but he is an absolute wreck compared with what he was.’ There were disputes between Oscar and her lawyers about money, and his share in her estate, and this was beginning to cause considerable bitterness. On 1 April 1896, she wrote to Lady Mount-Temple: ‘Some nights here I have had visions of how near the sea was and of how “life’s fitful fever” might be soon ended, but then there are the boys and they save me from anything too desperate.’ Later that month, she and the boys moved to Heidelberg.

Over the next few years she wandered between Genoa, Heidelberg and Switzerland. When Oscar was released from prison, there were further discussions about money and the possibility of his seeing his children. In September 1897, he wrote to say that he was going to delay his visit by a month. But it was the postmark that enraged Constance more than the delay. He had sent the letter from Naples, which suggested he was travelling with Douglas. When the fact was confirmed, she became furious. She wrote to their intermediary: ‘It rouses all my bitterest feelings, and I am stubbornly bitter when my feelings are roused … I have latterly (God forgive me) an absolute repulsion to him.’ She referred to a letter from Oscar as ‘the letter of a madman who has not even enough imagination to see how trifles affect children’. Oscar, in turn, wrote to Robbie Ross:

She wrote me a terrible letter … How can she really imagine that she can influence or control my life? She might as well just try to influence and control my art … So I suppose she will now try to deprive me of my wretched £3 a week. Women are so petty, and Constance has no imagination … I wish to goodness she would leave me alone … I accept the separation from the children: I acquiesce.

Throughout her time in Europe, Humphreys kept in touch with Constance. He sent books to her and to the boys, and, Moyle writes, ‘his letters to her remained deeply affectionate.’ She and Oscar lost touch, even though she heard news that Oscar and Douglas had separated. In January 1898 she wrote to her brother: ‘I have not the ghost of an idea where he is and I can’t imagine how he is living.’ But the following month she read The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poem reduced her to tears and she sent a message to Oscar to say she thought it ‘exquisite’. Oscar’s response was to ask for more money. In March 1898 she wrote to their intermediary: ‘I don’t know what name he is living under in Paris. Is it his own or the name he took when he left England? If he was fixed anywhere, I could make an arrangement to pay 10 francs a day for his board to the hotel.’

Constance’s health continued to deteriorate. It is unclear precisely what was wrong, but she needed surgery. Before the operation, she wrote to Vyvyan about his father: ‘Remember that he is your father and he loves you … whatever he has done he has suffered bitterly for.’ She died in a clinic near Genoa on 7 April 1898. Her brother wrote to Lady Mount-Temple: ‘There seems to be no doubt that Constance was never warned of the danger she ran; she told almost no one that she was going, not one of her family knew it … Of the friends around her not one was allowed to realise her danger.’ She was buried in the Protestant section of the Campo Santo cemetery in Genoa. Both of her sons were away at school. Their lives would now be under the control of a guardian; they did not see their father again. Oscar died in November 1900. In February the previous year he had visited his wife’s grave. In a letter to Robert Ross he wrote: ‘It was very tragic seeing her name carved on a tomb – her surname, my name not mentioned of course … I brought some flowers. I was deeply affected – with a sense also of the uselessness of all regrets. Nothing could have been otherwise and life is a terrible thing.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences