Review: Wilde’s Women, by Eleanor Fitzsimons
Oscar Wilde’s life is often examined in terms of his connections with men and this book balances that
Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew
This lively new study deals with Oscar Wilde’s professional links with women writers, journalists, actors and activists and connects these experiences with an examination of his relationship with his mother Jane, his wife Constance, his friend and ally Ada Leverson and with other women friends.
Wilde had so many incarnations within a relatively short life – as poet, dandy, novelist, aesthete, dramatist, sexual outcast and, latterly, icon of dissidence – and his editorship of The Lady’s World was only one of these many incarnations.
However it is a significant one in relation to his intellectual and imaginative formation. Wilde took on this job in 1887, retitling the journal The Woman’s World and expanding the scope of the journal’s interests in fashion and topics of domesticity to engage his readers with literature, art, politics and the professional life of the working woman.
Wilde’s commitment to reshaping this journal reflects his interest in challenging conventions of Victorian female identity and Fitzsimons takes as her starting point her perception that: “Given the nature and magnitude of the monstrous injustice perpetuated against him, Oscar Wilde’s life is often examined in terms of his relationship with men.”
She retilts this perceived imbalance by assessing his relationships with women and subtitles her book, How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew. Fitzsimons interweaves her account of Wilde’s own life with “compelling accounts of the many fascinating and brilliant women who influenced, inspired and collaborated with Oscar Wilde throughout his life”.
Fitzsimons takes a chronological approach to her task, with short biographical accounts of the women Wilde knew and loved – Florence Balcombe, Lillie Langtry, and Sarah Bernhardt – as well as the many women he worked with. She goes on to trace their influence on the women protagonists Wilde created in his plays.
For no clear reason, the book takes as its opening moment February 20th, 1892, the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan and argues that the play was inspired partly by the life of Oscar’s beloved friend and muse Langtry.
Wilde’s interest in the subversion of conventional motherhood, as seen in this play, leads Fitzsimons on an account of the influence of Wilde’s mother, the poet and translator, Jane Wilde, known as Speranza.
Quite correctly, Jane becomes a central focus throughout the book and Fitzsimons puts it well when she writes that, “Truly, without Jane there would be no Oscar as we know him.”
One of the many casualties of Wilde’s disgrace was the retrospective trivialisation of his mother’s literary reputation, her transformation from respected poet and intellectual into a kind of Celtic pantomime dame, “queering” her son by her overbearing love and by her own dramatic nature.
A strength here is that Jane is taken seriously as a writer and scholar, Fitzsimons arguing that her self-presentation as a writer was a key influence for Oscar, as was her ability to adapt and survive.
Sensibly Fitzsimons dismisses the idea that Jane’s cross-dressing the toddler Oscar in skirts (a common practice for boys) made him gay, a theory alluded to by an otherwise admiring James Joyce in his 1909 essay, Oscar Wilde, the Poet of Salome.
Jane’s former protégée Bernard Shaw also didn’t help her posthumous reputation, with his own bizarre theory that Speranza suffered from a kind of physical disorder called gigantism, transmuted somehow into a psycho-sexual disorder for Oscar.
Colm Tóibín, in one of the best essays on Wilde in his 2002 collection Love in a Dark Time, observes that hostile or mocking accounts of Speranza surface only in the early 20th century, after Oscar’s fall.
“In all of Oscar Wilde’s letters which refer to his mother, there is not one word of mockery or disloyalty. Mostly he refers to her not as his mother but as Lady Wilde. He seems in his early letters to enjoy referring to her in all her grandeur.”
Fitzsimons has her own theory about Speranza’s key influence when she suggests that Jane did love her sons and empowered them but that her example set them up for a fall. But William Wilde’s example must also have set them up for a fall, in particular his flouting of sexual codes of behaviour? Jane’s decision to take to the stand during the Mary Travers libel case in Dublin in 1864 and her success as a performer in the witness stand clearly influenced Oscar’s own fatal decision to take on the Marquess of Queensbury for libel in the Old Bailey in 1895. Furthermore, Jane has often been seen as the decisive voice in Oscar’s fated decision not to flee to France after the collapse of his first trial.
It is said, by Yeats, that she urged him to stay and face almost certain ruin, in the courageous spirit of her own Irish nationalist idealism. This was contrary to the more measured advice of his wife, Constance, who wanted him to leave and settle in France. This other central figure in his life has always been a much more enigmatic presence and, despite the fact that Fitzsimons draws on Franny Moyle’s 2012 biography to throw new light on her life and early death, again no very clear sense of Constance emerges here. This may not be the fault of this present study, Constance always a shadowy figure when compared to Jane or Oscar.
Fitzsimons’ final judgement of the marriage is uncompromising but, in many ways, irrefutable. “Yet Constance had demonstrated an extraordinary degree of compassion and tolerance for a man who, although extraordinarily harshly treated by society, had behaved very badly towards his wife no matter what his nature and motivation.”
After his fall, both men and women judged Oscar harshly and, although Wilde had been supportive of women writers before his downfall, it is undoubtedly true that many New Women Writers suffered from an association with Wildean decadence.
Overall, this book is for the general reader rather than for the scholar, providing a broad cultural history of professional women’s lives in Wilde’s time, with very useful endnotes – even his niece Dolly, born in the year that he was sent to prison and thus unknown to him, gets a chapter of her own.
I did wonder if Wilde’s mother, wife and niece would each have been given full-length biographies without this connection. Jane deserves scholarly attention but so do many other Irish Victorian women, all now neglected and unknown in the public arena. At the very least, Jane merits a plaque of her own on the house on Merrion Square, just as much as William or Oscar.
Eibhear Walshe lectures in the School of English, UCC. His novel, The Diary of Mary Travers, is published by Somerville Press.