Because of the prosecution of homosexual acts and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in 1895, which ended a glittering trajectory through late Victorian English society, most people are unaware that Wilde was actually a family man, indeed initially and enthusiastically so.
He and Constance Lloyd, who also had eminent Anglo-Irish connections in Dublin, wed in 1884. At the time of their nuptials, Oscar was well known in London and also in America, having shortly before toured the United States bringing the Aesthetic gospel to the masses. Still, he was more famous for being famous than for having accomplished very much literarily; but Constance’s marriage settlement enabled the couple, very much in love by all accounts, to marry and set up house in London. In the following years, she added luster to the Wilde brand.
It is surprising that no biography of Constance appeared before 1983—although, oddly enough, that year brought forth two differently documented and often conflicting works. Surprising because Constance was a pathbreaker in many ways, not least in marrying Oscar. Franny Moyle, having written on the loves and aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites, now turns her attention to the Aesthetic movement, of which Oscar Wilde was the most notorious popularizer.
She begins with a dramatic mise en scène, the evening on which Constance learns that Oscar will press the fatal charge of libel against the Marquess of Queensberry. At that very moment he was at the height of his renown, with two plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, showing in the West End. What follows concerns how things reached this point and the aftermath.
Interestingly, it is the story of a marriage. According to Moyle, Constance was prepared “to partner the high priest of Aestheticism in awakening a wide public to just how far art might be extended in life.” She was well educated for a woman of her class, and she seemed to share Oscar’s gift for languages. From childhood she was already familiar with the Pre-Raphaelite painters and, later, with the writings of John Ruskin. Her dresses, reflecting the clothes made fashionable by the Aesthetic movement, created sensations: At gallery openings, “Mr. and Mrs. Wilde were offering Lillie Langtry some serious competition as the main interest for celebrity spotters.” Constance, with her interest in textiles, was probably also responsible for the avant-garde interior design of their residence in Chelsea, which was (per the Aesthetic credo) “aesthetic, practical, and healthy.”
Moyle makes up for the shortcomings of the earlier biographies—though it must be added that a familiarity with the period background would be useful to readers. Besides detailing the Wildes’ late Victorian courtship, Moyle devotes attention to Constance’s many activities, which combined Aestheticism, Liberal politics, and feminism. Constance, we are meant to understand, was her own person. She published children’s stories (including There Was Once, released in the same year as Oscar’s The Happy Prince and Other Tales), theatrical reviews, and articles on the history of women’s and children’s dress. She was an active member of the Women’s Liberal Federation and editor of the newsletter of the Rational Dress Society. She was, as were many of the trendsetters of the 1890s, also deeply involved in theosophy.
An engaging portrait of Constance, quoted by Moyle, is that of the novelist Marie Corelli, a New Ageist avant la lettre. Corelli’s 1892 book of satirical portraits of contemporaries caricatures Oscar as “the Social Elephant” and Constance as his dainty foil:
She does not seem to stand at all in awe of her Elephant lord. She has her own little webs to weave––silvery webs of gossamer––discussions on politics, in which, bless her heart for a charming little Radical, she works neither good nor harm. . . . She has the prettiest hair, all loosely curling about her face, and she has a low voice so modulated as to seem to some folks affected; it is a natural music. . . . [S]he dresses “aesthetically”––in all sorts of strange tints, and rich stuffs . . . with large and wondrous sleeves and queer medieval adornments––it pleases her whim to do so, and it also pleases the Elephant, who is apt to get excited on the subject of Colour. . . . [S]he does not talk much, this quaint Fairy, but she looks whole histories. Her gaze is softly wistful, and often abstracted; at certain moments her spirit seems to have gone out of her on invisible wings, miles away from the Elephant and the literary Castle, and it is in such moments that she looks her very prettiest. To me she is infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself . . . one never gets tired of looking at the lovely Fairy who guards and guides him.
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.