Oscar Wilde and the sister’s death that haunted his life and work

Philadelphia find casts new light on Oscar's relationship with Isola, who died 150 years ago this month

 

In late 2014 something extraordinary happened: Mark Samuels Lasner, while working at the Free Library of Philadelphia, discovered a notebook that belonged to Oscar Wilde. The 142-page notebook of poetry drafts and doodles, circa 1874-1881, contains some remarkable material relating to Wilde and his sister Isola. The new material suggests Wilde was haunted by troubled memories of Isola, and – most remarkably – feelings of responsibility for her early death. A re-examination of Wilde’s writings has yielded much material to support this suggestion, which has the potential to change the way we interpret the man and his work.

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, Isola died suddenly at almost 10 years of age, while recuperating from fever. She had been staying with her aunt and uncle at Edgeworthstown Rectory, Co Longford, and was buried nearby in St John’s Churchyard. According to her mother Lady Jane Wilde, Isola died of “a sudden effusion on the brain”. No official record of her cause of death has emerged, and there are no known portraits. Oscar was 12 at the time his sister died.

Wilde scholars have always known Oscar and Isola were close. There is a moving account of Oscar’s inconsolable grief following his sister’s death. As a child he frequently visited Isola’s grave, and decorated an envelope to preserve a lock of her hair, which he kept all his life. There’s also a description of Oscar in adulthood, recalling his sister “dancing like a golden sunbeam about the house”. In Wilde’s poem Requiescat (1881), written in memory of Isola, his love for her is palpable:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

Avignon.

In 2015, I’d just completed a draft of my novel about Oscar and Isola’s childhood when the Philadelphia notebook appeared. I was shaken by its previously unknown draft of Requiescat. The notebook version is spread over several pages, alongside simple doodles of a grave and male and female faces, possibly representing Oscar and Isola. An additional verse in the poem changed everything:

Had we not loved so well
Not loved at all
None would have tolled the bell
None borne the pall

Wilde’s cause and effect connection, between “we” loving so well and Isola’s death, had not been publicly recorded. Another unpublished fragment in the notebook was even more astonishing:

O bitter fate
When some long strangled memory of sin
Strikes with its poisoned knife into a heart
While she has slept at peace.

Those lines seem to have been moderated for the published version of Requiescat:

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest.

Close to the “O bitter fate” stanza in the notebook is another fragment:

The boy strangling the thing it loves

There are many references in Wilde’s works to “strangled” memories and killing the thing one loves. The latter phrase is used most famously in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the poem inspired by Wilde’s prison sentence for gross indecency:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

And later in the poem, when reflecting on an inmate hanged for murder:

But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
And makes it bleed in vain!

To my mind, the implication of the passages I’ve quoted is clear: Oscar associated “long strangled” memories of sin with Isola, and felt some responsibility for her death. Wilde’s other writings, particularly his early poetry, contain recurring themes of grief over a dead golden-haired girl, guilt about a lost boyhood love, fear of divine retribution and reunification with a deceased love in the afterlife. I’ve detailed these instances, and provided some contextual commentary, in a recent article in The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies (January 2017).

Before the Philadelphia find, Wilde’s works had inspired a handful of scholars to explore the possibility of an incestuous attraction or event between Oscar and Isola. Such theories have not gained widespread acceptance due to the lack of evidence and potential stigma involved. While the contents of the Philadelphia notebook might be used to support such theories, it must be remembered they do not substantiate them.

Nor is this question the most important aspect of the draft Requiescat passages; their revelations about Isola’s centrality to Wilde’s emotional and literary life are far more pertinent. Oscar Wilde is an icon of the modern age, who has had an enormous impact on western literature and culture. The indicators that his sister was a key influence, perhaps even his muse, constitute a discovery of major significance.

At the time of writing this article it remains to be seen how other scholars respond to Isola’s presence in the Philadelphia notebook. In the absence of further evidence, nothing can be inferred with any certainty; the nature of Oscar’s strangled memories may remain a mystery of modern literature. As for my novel, it’s a case of back to the drawing board. I’m attempting to incorporate the new notebook information in a faithful and principled way, with a dash of writerly imagination. As Wilde himself said: “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it”.

Readers who would like to learn more about Isola Wilde can attend Edgeworthstown’s 150th anniversary commemorative event at St John’s Church and Rectory, Sunday, February 26th, from 3pm to 5pm.

Dr Angela Kingston is the author of Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). She is seeking a publisher for her novel, provisionally titled Wilde Unrest. @Wilde_writer facebook.com/angela.kingston.author

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