LIKE MOTHER, LIKE SON

 

ALTHOUGH her real name was Jane Elgee and she was the grand daughter of an English bricklayer, she claimed to have been descended from Dante. She even called herself Speranza - the Italian for hope. From 1846 to 1848, while still in her 20s, she became the most popular poet in Ireland for her nationalistic verses published in The Nation, which were particularly eloquent about the suffering of the people during the Famine.

She was a renowned linguist, translator and advocate of women's rights, and presided over a packed weekly salon for the Dublin literati in her house at 1, Merrion Square. Later when she moved to London, she established the same weekly event, which was frequented by writers such as Yeats and Ruskin.

But she was buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green in London, her funeral paid for by her son, Oscar Wilde, who was then in prison. "Presumably her remains are still there, and although there is no marker, we know where the grave is," says Merlin Holland, Oscar's grandson, "but it seemed more appropriate to put the memorial on the Wilde family vault in Mount Jerome, beside her husband, Sir William Wilde. After all, Speranza lived most of her life in Dublin, and she made her reputation there."

The plaque, which will be unveiled next Saturday, exactly 100 years after her death, pays tribute to her as "Speranza of The Nation, writer, translator, poet and nationalist, author of works on Irish folklore, early advocate of equality for women, and founder of a leading literary salon". It also gives the dates of her three children: Willie, Oscar (both of whom only survived their mother by a few years) and her only daughter, Isola (who died tragically of a fever at the age of 10).

The commemoration of Speranza with this new plaque grew out of a plan to celebrate the centenary of the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest on February 14th last year: "Permission was given for Oscar to be put into Poets' Corner in Westminster. I raised the money to pay for the memorial, and there was some left over afterwards, which I decided use to commemorate Speranza," says Merlin Holland.

There has been little family lore available to him about his great grandmother: "My father, Vyvyan Holland, remembered her as a rather terrifying old lady. But he only knew her up until he was about nine, and she was not what you would call a small boy's view of a comfortable granny."

Oscar was devoted to his mother, sharing everything from her love of shocking people with outrageous costumes and remarks to her interest in the supernatural and the Gothic. He wrote: "All poets love their mothers . . . I worship mine of sufferance and slavery?" The piece resulted in the Government seizing the issue and suppressing the paper for sedition.

Gavan Duffy, already in prison on charges of treason for his membership of the Young Irelanders, was accused of being the author. Before his trial, Speranza came forward and admitted that she was responsible (normally she kept her real identity a secret, to save the feelings of her Protestant family). She said afterwards: "I shall never write sedition again. The responsibility is more awful than I imagined or thought of."

Her verses, as her biographer Joy Melville points out, are best read aloud, as on paper they can seem rather simplistic and sensational: "We'll conquer! We'll conquer! No tears for the slain,/ God's angels will smile on their death hour of pain." But at the time, they were eagerly taken up by street balladeers, and were much appreciated by a large audience, who identified closely with her sentiments.

Speranza's poetry also influenced Oscar's work: parallels are particularly - obvious between his Ballad of Reading Gaol and Speranza's The Brothers (about the true story of a trial and execution in the 1798 Rebellion).

Although her views on the role of women waxed and waned, Speranza and her husband, the celebrated ophthalmologist and historian William Wilde, had an affectionate relationship, in which they had a healthy respect for each other's independence.

She showed an amazing lack of jealousy in the face of his affairs. When they married, he had already fathered three children (whom he acknowledged and supported). When he was dying Speranza permitted no one to enter his room, except for a strange, veiled woman whom Speranza knew to have been her husband's mistress.

But by far the most testing situation she encountered was the notorious Mary Travers trial. Mary Travers met William Wilde as his patient and the two formed a close friendship, based largely, it would seem, on her need for a father figure. Jane was tolerant of the relationship, but when Mary began to pester the Wildes and all of Dublin with her printed story of how she had been drugged and sexually abused by William Wilde, Jane wrote to Mary's father to complain. Mary sued for libel. Melville notes that like Oscar in his more infamous trial, for "indecent acts", 30 years later - Speranza refused to settle out of court, and during the trial, carried herself with great composure, even garnishing her evidence with witticisms. Speranza must have looked intimidating to a child, standing six feet tall and dressed in the elaborate costumes she favoured, festooned with veils and jewellery. In her later years her outfits became increasingly eccentric, largely because she could not afford new clothes and so put together imaginative combinations of the dresses she had worn 20 years before, such as "a low cut lavender coloured silk dress over a crinoline, with a piece of crimson velvet about a foot deep round the skirt and a miniature, some six inches by four, pinned on her breast," according to one of the visitors to her London salon.

Her physical largesse was matched by largesse of mind: she was a well read, witty, generous, tolerant person. These maternal qualities, which Oscar inherited, must also have made his youth a happy one. Something of the carefree environment Speranza obviously cultivated is communicated in her recipe for a happy home: "When all the family are Bohemians, and all clever, and all enjoy thoroughly the erratic, impulsive, reckless life of work and glory.

It was for the nationalistic writings of her youth that she became a household name in Ireland. Her fiery verse was devoured by readers, from whom she received ecstatic fan letters such as the following: "From early boyhood I have learned to revere your Queenly poetic name and read your songs and burning Lays of Ireland".

Charles Gavan Duffy, editor of The Nation, said of her: "Speranza's virile and sonorous songs broke on the public ear like the splash in later times of a great wave of thought in one of Swinburne's metres Miss Elgee . . . had probably heard nothing of Irish nationality among her ordinary associates, but as the strong and generous are apt to do, had worked out convictions for herself."

SHORTLY before the tiny and abortive 1848 Irish rising, she wrote her famous unsigned article Jacta Alea Est" ("The die is cast") for The Nation:

"We appeal to the whole Irish Nation is there any man amongst us who wishes to take one further step on the base path".

It seems that Speranza's considerable influence was brought to bear on Oscar to ensure that he did not back down from the infamous trial which centred on his homosexuality. Many of his friends were urging him to leave the country, but his mother apparently said: "If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again."

MELVILLE notes: "Her Irish pride was still strong and she would not expect her son, the son of Speranza, to lack moral courage. She would hate the thought of losing a battle with the English by default. Perhaps she remembered her own witness box appearance in the Travers v. Wilde trial some 30 years before, when she successfully survived her skirmishes with the prosecution and the plaintiff was only awarded damages of a farthing. It would have seemed unlikely to her that her son could possibly lose a court case."

It has been claimed that Speranza even influenced Oscar's sexual development; the evidence given is usually a photo of Oscar as a small child dressed by his mother as a girl. Merlin Holland is sceptical: "There is a photo of Synge as a little boy wearing a dress too. Small boys often wore dresses in Victorian times. On a practical level, this made it easier to change their nappies." He adds: "There is a theory that dominant mothers can contribute to the development of homosexuality in their sons. But if this is so, why was Willie (Oscar's brother) not homosexual too?"

Oscar and his mother remained loyal and devoted to the end. "Oscar was a good son," says Merlin. "He used to visit his mother once a week, pick up the unpaid bills on the mantelpiece, take them away and pay them. He even helped her from prison. Willie, Oscar's older brother, was drinking himself into a slow death. He sponged from his mother, which made Oscar furious." The money which Oscar had allocated to support his mother was actually split three ways, as Willie, his wife Lily and their newborn baby were also living with Jane while Oscar was in prison.

AFTER Oscar went to Pentonville Prison, Jane kept to her room. She wrote: "Life is agony and hope, illusion and despair - all commingled, but despair outlasts all."

"My own mother died last year," says Merlin Holland. "I found myself imagining Oscar, stuck in prison, knowing his mother was dying, but not permitted to go and see her. In France even convicted murderers are allowed out to see their mother if she is dying. But he was not. Speranza asked to see him and when she was told this was impossible, she turned her face to the wall. It must have been appalling."