March 22, 2013

Regarding Mrs. Oscar Wilde


Constance and Cyril Wilde

Watching Stephen Fry play Oscar Wilde is a treat I’ve put off far too long, evidently. Despite having read most of Wilde’s major work for either my own amusement or for miscellaneous academic ssignments, and despite having added my own appreciative peck to his lipstick-mottled tomb, I found myself embarrassed yesterday after reading Caryn James’ New York Times review of The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, a new biography by Franny Moyle. The famously gay Oscar Wilde had a wife? And kids? How did this escape me?

I failed to plumb the depths of his Wikipedia entry—I failed to see Stephen Fry and Jennifer Ehle nuzzling affectionately in the biopic. No excuse. In penance I submit for your consideration Constance Lloyd, who in 1884 became Mrs. Oscar Wilde.

They met in Dublin when Wilde was lecturing at the Gaiety Theatre. She  came from a wealthy family, her father a Queen’s Counsel barrister. As James puts it in the Times review:

As soon as they married, the Wildes became a celebrity couple. The papers called her ‘Mrs. Oscar.’ Some mocked her involvement in the Rational Dress Society, which advocated practical clothing, and no tightly fitting corsets; traditionalists were horrified when she wore a split skirt. She campaigned for women’s right to serve in Parliament. Although her talent didn’t approach her husband’s (whose did?), she wrote children’s stories, knew several languages and translated reviews of his work from the Dutch.

The couple lived happily together for a few years, producing two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. But their relationship started crumbling in 1886, when Wilde discovered his preference for men. Constance’s gender made her (quite literally) an impossible partner-in-crime.

James in the Times again:

Even after the worst of the humiliations — after he had taken up with the pretty young Lord Alfred Douglas and been sent to prison for the affair, after her household goods had been auctioned to pay the high-living Oscar’s debts, after she had fled to the Continent and changed the family name to protect their two small sons — she could still refer to him as a ‘poor, poor fellow’ and write in a letter, ‘What a tragedy for him who is so gifted!’

Shortly before dying of failed spinal operation at the age of forty, Constance wrote to her son Vyvyan, imploring him, “Try not to feel too harshly about your father; remember that he is your father and that he loves you…”

Constance. An aptly named woman—and wife.



Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.