On Some Days of the Week

Colm Tóibín

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

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.’

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