I recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.
He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas, taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father. The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.
For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome. Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.
“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”
Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad. Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.
What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover. His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend. Constance was furious. This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.
It didn’t last long, of course.
The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting. After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes. It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.