Oscar’s Mother

In honor of Oscar Wilde’s birthday, October 16, here is another outtake from Oscar’s Ghost. It seemed appropriate day to share a piece about Oscar’s mother. Before Oscar Wilde’s second criminal trial, he was released on bail, and many of his friends (including Lord Alfred Douglas) were urging him to flee the country. But his mother and brother urged him to stay and stand trial. They were optimistic about his chances in court. A section of Oscar’s Ghost that talked about Lady Wilde’s own experience with the courts did not make it into the final version, but here it is:

Oscar’s… mother Lady Jane Wilde…had made herself known with a bold act of defiance. In 1848, the editor of The Nation, Gavan Duffy was being tried for treason for printing a subversive article “Jacta Alea Est” (The Die is Cast) published under the pen name Speranza. When the attorney general read an excerpt of the article, Lady Wilde, who had been watching from the gallery, sprung to her feet and announced, “I am the criminal who, as the author of the article that has just been read, should be in the dock. Any blame in respect of it belongs to me.”

Like Bosie, Lady Wilde believed in Truth with a capital “T.” Her 1864 collection Poems, dedicated to her two sons, had as its theme “The Freedman is he whom the Truth makes free.” In the introduction she cited Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Oh! give me truths,

For I am weary of the surfaces,

And die of inanition.

She was no stranger to legal battles over the family’s reputation. Three decades before, Lady Wilde had, herself, been involved in a bitter and highly publicized libel case full of sexual intrigue. Oscar’s father, William Wilde, had earned himself a reputation as a womanizer and it was an open secret that he had fathered a number of illegitimate children. In the late 1850s, he formed an intimate friendship with a young patient named Mary Travers. The exact nature of that friendship was never proved, but it was undoubtedly more than professional, as Wilde sent the teenager letters “of an extraordinary character…a dangerous character to subsist between a girl of her age and attractions and a man, whether married or single…”

Initially, Mrs. Wilde had been friendly with the girl, even allowing Travers to take the boys out on outings. Eventually, however, things took a bad turn and Wilde tried to end the relationship. After that Travers embarked on a campaign of harrassment that made the Marquess of Queensberry look like a paragon of restraint. She would appear at the Wilde home and at Dr. Wilde’s office demanding money, a turn of events that may have let to the family decision to send the children from Dublin to Portora School as boarders.

Once she appeared in Wilde’s study holding a bottle of laudanum, a common Victorian medicine made up of alcohol and opium. She poured the full bottle into a wine glass and drank it. Wilde rushed her to the nearest apothecary’s for an antidote. He believed she was trying to make the world believe he had poisoned her. A few days later she wrote to him in the role of patient, seeking an appointment to examine a corn on her foot This unconventional request for a consultation ended with an ominous warning: “I will keep your nose to the grindstone while your wife is away, and when she returns I will see her.”

Wilde agreed to see her, and she would later claim that in the course of the visit he strangled and raped her. After that her behavior became even more bizarre. She had her own obituary printed up in the newspaper and sent a copy to Mrs. Wilde with a drawing of a coffin underneath it. Whatever result she had been hoping for with the stunt failed to materialize, and so she printed up a pamphlet featuring an anti-Wilde poem and hired five newsboys to sell them on the street. She also had them delivered to the Wilde’s home. There Jane Wilde had an altercation with the newsboy who had been sent to try to sell the pamphlet. She kept it without paying for it.

She had finally had enough and she fired off a letter to her tormentor’s father, Dr. Robert Travers:

Sir – You may not be aware of the disreputable conduct of your daughter at Bray, where she consorts with all the low newsboys in the place, employing them to disseminate offensive placards in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde. If she chooses to disgrace herself that is not my affair; but as her object in insulting me is the hope of extorting money, for which she has several times applied to Sir William Wilde, with threats of more annoyance if not given, I think it right to inform you that no threat or additional insult shall ever extort money for her from our hands. The wages of disgrace she has so loosely treated for and demanded shall never be given her. Jane F. Wilde

Travers took exception to the letter, especially to the phrase “the wages of disgrace,” which implied his daughter was a prostitute. He filed a writ for libel seeking damages of £2,000. Lady Wilde entered a plea of justification. The trial was certain to be a sensation with Isaac Butt, the nationalist MP acting as Traverse’s counsel and Speranza herself speaking for the defense. It was certain to shine a spotlight on Wilde’s indiscrete letters, and Traverse’s claim that she had been seduced as a teenager and then raped. This was all potentially devastating to the family. If the public believed her, William Wilde would be personally and professionally destroyed. The matter could have been handled out of court, but, biographer Gerard Hanberry wrote, “Jane would not countenance such surrender.”

The courtroom was packed for the four days of the trial and William Wilde’s private letters were quoted in the newspapers, but Speranza made a much better impression on the stand than the anxious girl did. She refused to admit Traverse had been her husband’s lover, instead she made it appear that the entire affair had been the product of a frenzied imagination. On December 19, 1864 the jury found in Travers’ favor, but awarded her only a farthing in damages. Because she had won the case, the substantial court costs fell to the Wildes. This was hardly a stunning legal victory. It was, however, a moral victory. Public sympathy was clearly with William Wilde and his wife, almost all of the newspapers sided with them and their social calendar remained full. Early in the year, Lady Wilde wrote to a friend in Sweden:

It was very annoying, but of course no one believed her story. All Dublin has called on us to offer their sympathy, and all the medical Profession here and in London have sent letters expressing their entire disbelief of the (in fact) impossible charge. Sir Wm. will not be injured by it, and the best proof is that his professional hours never were so occupied as now.

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