Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde – Franny Moyle

ConnieIt is no secret that I absolutely love books and this blog is proof of that. The discovery of new reading material literally gives me a dopamine rush that only fellow bookworms can understand. When I saw this book about Constance Wilde (1858-1898), the wife of the late playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), I knew that I had to purchase it. I often quote Wilde in conversation and when writing.  He had a keen sense of human nature and his quotes still hold true today.  At the height of his career, his plays were a hit, and the money was rolling in. But a scandal surrounding his sexual orientation changed all of that and left him a bitter and broken man. His story is complicated but what is often left out of it, is the role of his wife Constance whose own story is equally as moving.  Author Franny Moyle takes a look at her life in this biography that just might make you look at the Wildes in a very different light.

Admittedly, I did not know an extensive amount of information about Constance Wilde.  I knew that Wilde himself had been married and that he was also known to have relations with men.  But what I found in the book far surpassed any of my expectations.  Although Wilde made his fortune in England, their story actually begins in Ireland, where both of them are born.  Moyle provides a brief history of both families before the couple ties the knot.  Within a couple of years, they welcomed two sons, Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967).  To outsiders, the Wildes’ marriage must have seemed like a fairytale come true but behind the scenes there was far more to the story. In fact, the argument could be made that the best part of their marriage was the wedding itself.  Oscar was not known to be simple by any means and the pictures that survive today emphasize that. Constance had signed for a roller coaster ride with a man whose life would be anything but ordinary.  And in the process, she would go through her own trials and tribulations, related mainly to the emotional turmoil created by the man she loved and his “sons”.  At first, the couple has a fairly normal existence with Oscar even attempting to obtain a regular job.  But as fame sets in and the playwright is allowed to indulge in his fancies, trouble slowly brews.  And in conservative Britain, it only spelled doom for the future to come. In nineteenth century, England, sexual freedom was restricted and to be homosexual or bi-sexual was extremely risky and opened on to blackmail quite easily.  Oscar did not seem to mind and his relationships with the same sex were carefully kept secrets by close associates.  His drift away from Constance took hold when Robbie Ross (1869-1918) enters the story and accelerates when he meets Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), known as “Bosie”.  The young Lord would play a crucial role in the lives of both Oscar and Constance in ways they could never have imagined.

There is so much material about the couples’ life that it is easy to forget that Constance is the focus of the book.  And although Moyle covers Oscar’s escapades to highlight the growing distance between husband and wife, she does make sure to tell Constance’s story as well which has its own interesting moments.  One of them is undoubtedly her interest in the occult and association with the Golden Dawn, which we would consider to be a secret society.  Whatever Constance did believe, organized religion was not at the top of her list.  Further, she comes across as quite liberal for her time and fully believed in woman’s rights. Her efforts to help other ladies of stature excel in life are shown to emphasize her standing in society.  But in spite of her successes and fame, her relationship with her own children was complicated as well in particular with younger son Vyvyan.  As Moyle explains, Vyvyan was aware of his mother’s feelings and she relays his thoughts in this passage:

“When he grew up, Vyvyan acknowledged the fact that he was something of a disappointment. He adored Constance, he said, but noted that I was always conscious of the fact that both my father and my mother really preferred my brother to myself; it seems to be an instinct in parents to prefer their first born … I was not as strong as my brother, and I had more than my fair share of childish complaints, which probably offended my father’s aesthetic sense … And most of all, both my parents had hoped for a girl.”

Mother and son started off rough but there are bright moments in the story, particular towards the end.  Constance’s brother Otho Holland Lloyd (1856-1943) adds a crazy sub-story that left me shaking my head. Oscar’s brother Willie Wilde (1852-1899) is perhaps the most tragic figure in the entire story, but he is mentioned only on occasion.  Readers will notice that Constance is plagued by a mysterious illness that becomes crippling as the story progresses.  At the time, doctors had very little knowledge of what was taking place but this article sheds light of what is the most likely explanation for her decline and demise.  It is clear in the story that the bouts of pain are debilitating, and I can only imagine the level of discomfort she must have been in.  Added to that misery was Oscar’s galivanting across Europe with young men, putting himself and the family at risk.  Oscar becomes engulfed in his new world without a care in the world, but every story has its antagonist and that applies here in the form of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900), who was Bosie’s father.  At this point in the book, the story takes a dark and tragic turn resulting in Oscar’s downfall, marriage turmoil and Constance’s flight to save herself and her two boys.

As I read through the story, I could not help to think that Oscar was either crazy, oblivious or so sure of his well-kept secrets that he did not stop to consider that his alternative lifestyle could be his demise.  Queensberry was certainly a rough figure and Oscar had too much ego to make a retreat.  Instead, he meets fire with fire and thus, the stage was set for the battle that changed Wilde’s life and that of his family.   A scandal of that magnitude would hardly register in 2020 but in 1895, tolerance was nothing like it is today and Oscar soon learned that a steep price was to be paid for his extravagance, and his life with Constance was never the same again.  Readers will feel a sense of loss and grief as the playwright’s mental and physical health declines while incarcerated. And although Oscar does get released, his best days are behind him but incredibly, his spirit is not completely broken. I stared in shock while reading about his actions after leaving prison.  It was one more episode in the crazy and unorthodox life of Oscar Wilde.

Constance plays a significant role in Oscar’s well-being while in jail and following his release.  But her duty was to her two sons and she does shy away from doing whatever is needed to protect her two boys.  However, her love for Oscar never wavers but she makes it clear to him where she stands.  And as the couple sees each other for the last time, a sense of dread hangs over the story.  Towards the end, they were separated geographically with Constance in Genoa, Italy and Oscar Paris.  They are two tragic figures bonded by marriage, parenthood, and their love for the stage. Today, Constance Wilde is hardly mentioned in discussions about the famed playwright, but she was far more important than most have realized.  Yet, she did live a tragic and scandalous life that is capture here for all to see.

““The very essence of romance is uncertainty.” – Oscar Wilde


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