The Magazine

Wife in Shadow

Oscar Wilde's marriage did not end happily.

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By ELIZABETH POWERS
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It was not a marriage of conventional domesticity, however; and for Oscar, the lover of sensuous beauty, the bloom, alas, was soon off the rose—or let us say, off Constance—after the birth of their second son in 1886. Oscar’s restless desire for new experiences, for sensations, led to cultivating the company of young, handsome men.

Here is where the story gets murky. How much did Constance suspect of Oscar’s transition from dandyism to debauchery, especially since the press contained numerous not-so-subtle allusions to his behavior and since, by 1893, he had “effectively entered into a new marriage, with Bosie [Lord Alfred] Douglas,” distancing himself for weeks, even months, at a time from home and hearth? Were her many activities attempts to avoid the obvious? Did none of her friends enlighten her? Was “the Love that dare not speak its name” so unspeakable that she literally could not think it?

Moyle concedes that Constance’s avoidance “is hard to explain, except perhaps in terms of her fleeing from a situation that she did not wish properly to confront.” I wonder if this reticence did not also affect Oscar, who had descended so much into licentiousness that he seemed unable to grasp the extent of his own danger. Friends recommended fleeing abroad after the libel trial, allowing the uproar to die down, but he refused. Constance, in contrast, went immediately into action to protect her children, first by separating herself and her money from Oscar. She changed her children’s names and, after Oscar was imprisoned, moved with the boys to the continent, where she died in 1898 of a mysterious ailment.

In the end, Constance Wilde seems to have never gotten over her love for Oscar. Particularly touching is the correspondence Moyle includes that testifies to her continuing devotion and concern for him. After his prison term, she provided the impoverished Oscar with money and only cut off funding after he had missed a planned visit to his sons, preferring instead Lord Alfred Douglas’s company in Naples. In a perverse way, even the heartless Bosie recognized the sacrosanct nature of the marriage bond: “As to [Oscar’s] wife, he married her for love and if she had treated him properly and stuck to him after he had been in prison, as a really good wife would have done, he would have gone on loving her to the end of his life.”

Elizabeth Powers is the editor of Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea.