The tragic and scandalous life of Constance Wilde

20 August 2012

Constance Wilde. Photo: Williams Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California.

I’ve often spoken here about my huge and immense admiration for Oscar Wilde (hell, I even named one of my sons after not just him but also his post prison alter ego) and so I was intrigued to find that Franny Moyle, a writer that I also very much admire for her excellent Desperate Romantics about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, had written a biography of his unfortunate wife, Constance Lloyd.

The existence of a Mrs Oscar Wilde is often greeted with much surprise and she often seems treated as a shadowy figure, deceived by her husband, pitied by everyone and of no real significance, either personal or professional to Oscar’s life. I was therefore worried that any biography of Constance would, as so many books about famous wives seem to be, just be a veiled excuse for yet another examination of her husband. I was very pleased however to find that I was wrong about this and that in Franny Moyle, she has found a sympathetic but not hagiographical biographer who thoroughly explores many different aspects of Constance’s life and isn’t afraid to question her occasionally rather odd decisions, particularly when it came to her youngest son, Vyvyan.

Oscar Wilde. Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London.

However, one thing this book made me do was question my adoration of Oscar Wilde. Although Moyle makes it clear, and rightly so, that Wilde was a victim of circumstances and the utterly unreasonable sexual hypocrisy of his age and that what happened to him was an absolute tragedy, she also makes a case for Constance and their children also being victims of what happened. Obviously Oscar was pulling the wool over Constance’s adoring eyes from the moment they started courting (before he embarked on his first homosexual affair in 1886 at the age of thirty two he apparently had another secret life involving liaisons with female prostitutes that Constance would also have been unaware about) but that, I suppose, can be forgiven considering the then illegality of his lifestyle which must remain necessarily furtive. However, his often callous ill treatment of Constance even while destroying her life and that of his sons is less excusable and extremely upsetting to read about as is the mercenary way he treated her after leaving prison and when she still thought they might be reconciled.

It’s impossible to judge though. Despite the fact that both Oscar and Constance considered themselves to be very ‘modern’ in their lifestyle and approach to things, they were, ultimately, both still products of their age and when it came to the crunch they were subject to the laws and social mores of their times. In a more enlightened period, they would have been free to divorce and go their own way with no fear of imprisonment, scandal, exile and, in the case of Oscar, separation from his children so I suppose it’s all very well to get all up in arms about how abysmally Constance was treated but what choice, ultimately, did he have once he had made the fatal error of allowing the utterly vile Bosie egg him on into suing his father for slander in the full knowledge that the case for slander was on very wobbly ground indeed when the ‘slanderous’ remarks were actually true?

All of this aside, Constance herself is a revelation. Born, Constance Lloyd on the 2nd of January 1859 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family, she was a sensitive, shy, independent, artistic, daydreamer with a passionate interest in women’s politics, literature, art and spirituality and a talent for linguistics as well as photography and creative writing. However, her life did not have charmed beginnings as she was emotionally abused by her mother, Ada, as a young girl, which left her prone to nervousness, social anxiety and short temperedness.

Miss Constance Lloyd before her marriage.

Luckily (or occasionally unluckily it would seem!) for Constance she had the good fortune to possess a wide eyed, Pre-Raphaelite beauty and a certain magnetic winsomeness of manner which meant that men tended to fall headlong in love with her. However, she refused all suitors until the young Oscar Wilde, already a celebrity, entered her life and began to earnestly pursue her, regarding Constance as almost poetry made incarnate and becoming completely infatuated with her. Their courtship was not an easy one, however, they met just before Wilde embarked on his famous lecture tour of America and there were also his flirtations with other ladies such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillie Langtry and others to contend with as although he may have raved about Greek Love in his various writings, until he entered his early thirties there is no evidence that Oscar had interest in anything other than women.

Eventually the couple were married on the 29th of May 1884 and set up home together on Tite Street, Chelsea. Their sons Cecil and Vyvyan were born rather close together at the start of the marriage in 1885 and 1886 respectively. At first they gave the appearance of being extremely happy together and Oscar certainly seemed to think that having a beautiful, elegantly dressed wife lent a great deal of cachet to his image. However, it may not be a coincidence that 1886 marked both the last birth of a child to the Wildes and also the beginning of his first homosexual relationship and it is suggested that either the birth left Constance unable to resume sexual relations with her husband or that the sight of her in late pregnancy had revolted him to such an extent that he couldn’t bring himself to touch her again. I really doubt the latter but she was certainly plagued with physical problems that would ultimately lead to her premature death in her early forties after a botched operation to correct a spinal issue.

Ultimately though, I don’t believe that someone can be ‘turned’ gay. Either they are or they aren’t. It’s probably most likely that Oscar was always bisexual and had simply never acted on his homosexual impulses until then possibly due to fear of being found out or simply because the opportunity never actually presented itself, at which point he found that actually he preferred them. Either way, I’d hope we’ve moved on a bit from the Victorian tendency to blame wives for their straying husbands. Also it’s worth noting that Constance too eventually strayed and fell in love with a married man when she was at a low ebb about her suspicions regarding Wilde, Bosie and the young men that they surrounded themselves with and who can blame her? Certainly not I.

Before things went wrong for the Wildes, they actually maintained a really successful partnership both in the way that they complimented each other sartorially but also in the professional support that they gave one another. Constance was in fact Oscar’s biggest fan and regarded everything he did with a starry eyed devotion, whereas for his part he encouraged her to explore her creativity and was supportive to the point of defensiveness of her in public. I suppose it sounds a little pretentious really but they were very keen on maintaining what they considered to be an ‘artistic marriage’ with very modern principles, living in a lovely house and surrounded by beautiful things. It must have been a delight to that noted aesthete, Wilde that his wife was just as keen as he to dress flamboyantly and treasure beauty above functionality.

Constance Wilde.

Constance’s interest in fashion is fully explored in Moyle’s book. She was a huge fan of the droopy, probably pretty unflattering Pre-Raphaelite inspired dresses produced by Liberty in the nineteenth century and was appearing in them before her marriage, which probably helped her catch Oscar’s eye. Once they were married she then coupled them with his beloved lilies and sunflowers and the pair even appeared in matching outfits which probably provoked as much mirth as it did admiration.

Coupled with this extreme elegance, Constance (and Oscar too) was also a big supporter of the Rational Dress Society, which was founded in London in 1881 and encouraged women to dress ‘against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly-fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily-weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming‘. Constance was an early member and would often be seen about London in her comfortable divided skirts, with Oscar’s full support of course.

Her support for rational dress went hand in hand with her great interest in feminism, again with Oscar’s support and encouragement which is not unexpected when one consider’s his period as editor of The Woman’s World in the late 1880s when he notably raised the bar for submissions and made it altogether less trivial by adding more articles about politics and current affairs, many of which were written by associates of his wife. Meanwhile Constance was lending her whole hearted public support to women’s organisations, membership of ladies clubs, attending protest marches and involved herself in the campaigning of her friend, Lady Sandhurst who took advantage of a loophole to stand with two others for seats on the London County Council in 1889. Unfortunately, although the ladies won their seats, Lady Sandhurst was forced to forfeit her seat for Brixton after one of the beaten men, Mr Beresford Hope protested. Boo hiss to him. The other two ladies were more fortunate though – one, Jane Cobden defeated a Liberal who happened to support women’s suffrage and so made no protest when she took the seat for Bow and Bromley.

It seems that Constance had many female friends and appears to have been instinctively drawn to older women, probably because her own mother was so unsupportive of her. These friendships were to be a great support and comfort to her when all was revealed about her husband’s secret life although it is noted that she also lost quite a few friends in the midst of the scandal, which is a pity and must have hurt her dreadfully.

Portrait of Constance Lloyd before her marriage by Louis Desange.

The support of her brother, Otho and children, Cyril and Vyvyan was constant though and was a great comfort to her. However, her relationships with her children seem rather odd – both she and Oscar idolised their eldest son Cyril and there seems, at first, to be a distinct difference in the way they treated Vyvyan – while Cyril would accompany them on holiday, Vyvyan would be left at home with his nurses and governess or sent to stay with friends and so on. However, this seemed to change later on, perhaps when Vyvyan had stopped being so prone to ill health or less ‘difficult’ as Constance termed it and they seem to have become very close. I found it sad though to read of poor Vyvyan being left at home yet again or being left out while Constance took Cyril off to have his portrait done or whatever.

The scandal that destroyed the charmed life of the Wilde couple was to have a devastating effect not just on Oscar and Constance but also their children. Shocked and humiliated, Constance whisked them out of the country shortly after Oscar was imprisoned and then changed the family surname to Holland in the hopes it would mean they could have a second chance in life. They were never to see their father again and they never really seem to have escaped the shadow of what happened to him – Cyril’s intended naval career came to nothing because of association with him and he would eventually join the army and die in the trenches of World War I. Not entirely unsurprisingly he had done his best to prove himself ‘manly’ by taking an interest in sport and determining to do what was considered the most ‘manly man’ job of all – joining the forces. In contrast, Vyvyan’s application to study Law at Oxford, his father’s old university, was apparently turned down because of his association with Oscar. Luckily Cambridge accepted him but he eventually temporarily dropped out before resuming his studies later on and eventually becoming a writer and translator, thus utilising talents inherited from both of his parents.

Constance and her eldest son, Cyril.

Constance spent the rest of her life on the continent, mostly in Switzerland and Italy where she had once fondly hoped that Oscar would live with her before Bosie got his claws into him. She had refused to divorce her husband and sought to gain some control by making the allowance she intended to settle on him dependant on his no longer associating with Lord Alfred Douglas, which of course meant that it soon ceased. It is testament to what must have been her indomitable strength of character that she seems to have made the best of her situation and even managed to delight in some aspects of her radically changed lifestyle even if it entailed permanent separation from the husband that she had once idolised. I’ll admit that reading about her continuing hopefulness in the face of continuing disappointments by Oscar was completely devastating to read about.

ps. I still love Oscar, I’m just a lot less starry eyed about him now.

Further reading:

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

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