Latest Reviews for Wilde’s Women

PBCover

Review Highlights for Wilde’s Women:

  • “A lively debut biography…sharply drawn portraits of a colourful cast of characters…A brisk, sympathetic look at an understudied aspect of Wilde’s eventful life.”
    Kirkus
  • “Fitzsimons has produced a thought-provoking and illuminating read that is sure to offer new lines of thought for even the most knowledgeable Wilde fan. Thoroughly readable and accessible, this is a must for students of Wilde of those who just have an appreciation of the man and his work. “
    We Love This Book
  • “I adored this book. It’s a fascinating, readable account and is stunningly well written. “
    Irish Examiner
  • “illuminating study of Oscar Wilde’s life… Fitzsimons does a fascinating job of reminding us that it wasn’t just the men in Wilde’s life that raised him up and brought him down, but that this troupe of exceptional women played their part too.   “
    Independent
  • “A well-written, deeply researched, and detailed biographical portrait of the many women in Wilde’s life, from his mother and wife to actresses and socialites.”
    Library Journal
  • “Lively new study.”
    Irish Times
  • “Even if you think you know all about Wilde, this highly entertaining book, packed with fascinating detail and anecdotes, will still surprise you.”
    The Lady
  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him [Wilde]: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life.”
    Guardian
  • “Highly enjoyable and generally reliable.”
    Washington Post
  • “I’m hugely grateful to Eleanor for sharing this book with me, it’s been a joy to read and is meticulously researched. You can feel her passion for the subject leaping from the pages, and it’s contagious! “
    Sheroes of history
  • “A remarkable book… the breadth and depth of research is astonishing.”
    Emma Thompson
  • “lively and comprehensive”
    The Women’s History Association of Ireland
  • ” a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.”
    Times Literary Supplement
  • “Worthy and useful addition …provides fresh insights and entertaining asides…brings some interesting figures from Oscar’s world into rewarding new focus .”
    Literary Review
  • “Charting Oscar’s life, Fitzsimons paints a series of vivid portraits of some of Oscar’s female friends and acquaintances, as well as providing sketches of a society in which women were beginning to emerge as influential cultural figures in the form of patrons, writers, performers and more…one of the strengths of Fitzsimons’ work is that she also revives some talented women who have quite simply been forgotten…Wilde’s Women, as much as it is intended to reveal Oscar in the light of his female contemporaries, also illuminates a moment crackling with a sense of possibility for women…what is genuinely revelatory is the extent to which those women outside his immediate circle were also affected by his downfall…Wilde’s Women captures powerful female voices and portrays a group of bold and fearless women who stood by their beliefs and by Oscar when many others would not.”
    Franny Moyle, The Wildean
  • “This is the work of a lifetime and a labour of love from Fitzsimons who has tracked down and ascertained the reciprocal influence between Wilde and the major (and many minor) women in his life.”
    The Heythrop Journal

The latest reviews for Wilde’s Women have appeared in the Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Woman’s History Association.

The TLS review is behind a paywall but highlights include:

‘The originality of this latest Wilde biography lies in its in-depth discussion of influential yet subsequently forgotten women of the fin de siecle.’
and
‘It is a refreshing approach to a familiar life story – an approach which could profitably be taken with other literary figures, who have been judged, generally speaking, by their relationships with men.’
I love this review in American magazine High Voltage!

I’m also absolutely thrilled that Wilde’s Women has been reviewed in The Guardian newspaper by the wonderful Simon Callow, acclaimed actor and a distinguished biographer in his own right.

Also thrilling is the lovely, positive review Wilde’s Women received in iconic magazine The Lady (THE place to advertise for a governess or housekeeper should you require one).

 

Wilde’s Women - cover

Additional reviews can be found below:

The Irish Times asked renowned and respected Wilde scholar Dr. Eibhear Walshe to review Wilde’s Women. There’s a link to the review here.

Wilde’s Women has also been reviewed positively by The Independent here and here, by Kirkus and by We Love This Book (book of the week) among others. There is a round-up of review highlights on my author page on my agent’s website: http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk.

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Oscar Wilde and the Mystery of the Scarab Ring

Here’s a guest post on Wilde’s beloved scarab ring, which I wrote for a fascinating website, www.irishegyptology.com

Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture is a collection of three statues in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland, commemorating Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne

Twitter is much maligned, often quite justifiably. Yet, it can be a wonderful tool for the gathering and dissemination of research. From time to time, it may even throw up something truly fascinating, a real gem in this case. During a recent Twitter exchange, I was fortunate enough to encounter a couple of Egyptologists with an interest in the ownership and display of Egyptian artifacts in the Victorian era. A conversation concerning one intriguing item of jewellery, a scarab ring that belonged to Irish poet, storyteller and playwright Oscar Wilde, prompted me to compile a list of contemporaneous references to that ring. A fellow Wildean provided details of an obscure letter that sheds some light on the possible whereabouts of this remarkable object decades after it went missing in Paris towards the end of Wilde’s life.

The first time I encountered Wilde’s ring was when I read Ada Leverson’s firsthand account of her friend’s arrival at the first night of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1895, weeks before he was arrested and charged with gross indecency:

That evening he was dressed with elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety. His coat had a black velvet collar. He held white gloves in his small pointed hands. On one finger he wore a large scarab ring. A green carnation – echo in colour of the ring – bloomed savagely in his buttonhole, and a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch chain hung from his white waistcoat. (1)

This ring is remarked upon again and again by people who knew Wilde well. Symbolist poet Henri de Regnier recalled how he would ‘idly tap the ash from his gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes with a ringed finger. The setting of this ancient ring held the rounded back of a pharaoh’s scarab’ (2).  This is not the only instance of de Regnier mentioning the ring. In The Life of Oscar Wilde, Robert Harborough Sherard, Wilde’s great friend and biographer, quotes him twice: ‘the scaraboeus of his ring threw off its green lights’ on page 260, and ‘ornamented with a ring in which a beetle of green stone was set’ on page 303. (3)

In A Reminiscence of 1898, Wilfred Hugh Chesson recalls Wilde wearing ‘a scarab as big as sixpence’ (4). In Confessions of a Journalist, Chris Healy mentions that, when being interviewed by him, Wilde ‘gazed reflectively at the beautiful scarab ring on his finger’ (5). In Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900, Rothenstein writes disparagingly of Wilde: ‘His hands were fat and useless looking, and the more conspicuous from a large scarab ring he wore’ (6). Based on this wide-ranging selection of quotes, It would seem Wilde was rarely seen without his distinctive Egyptian ring.

As to the origins of this ring and how it came to be in his possession, I am certain I have read somewhere that it was given to him by his mother, Jane Wilde. Certainly, in The Real Oscar Wilde, Robert Sherard quoted Wilde when he wrote ‘on his fingers were noticeable rings, including a green scarab, the loss of which, in Paris, in those early days, “was the great grief of my life”’ (7). My memory is that Wilde confided in a friend that the reason he was so upset at losing the ring was because his mother had given it to him and she was dead by the time it went missing. It is possible that the ring was given to Jane Wilde by her husband, Wilde’s father, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and written about the history of the region. Reports suggest that the Wilde home, 1 Merrion Square, Dublin, was filled with artifacts he had collected.

As to the fate of Wilde’s ring, an intriguing theory is put forward by Kevin O’Brien in his article ‘Lily Wilde and Oscar’s Fur Coat’. O’Brien suggests that the ring may have been in the possession of Wilde’s sister-in-law Lily Wilde, second wife of his brother Willie. It seems she wrote a letter to Wilde’s friend More Adey in which she referred to an item she was sending him. Referencing this letter (“LW to MA, [21 May 1897], Clark, Finzi, 2411), O’Brien writes in the notes section of his article:

The mysterious enclosure could have been Wilde’s scarab ring that he loved so much and which he thought had been lost with so much else. A letter from Reggie Turner to Robert Sherard, 1 October 1934, Reading, MS 1047/1/1, suggests this possibility. (8)

The final mention I can find of Wilde’s lost ring, which was brought to my attention by Michael Seeney of the Oscar Wilde Society, and was uncovered by John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website, is included in a newspaper article in the Bolton Evening News on 5 April 1938:

Hugh Walpole possessed a rich collection of objets d’art: oils, etchings, expensive rugs and tapestries, Spanish chests, Epstein busts, T’ang horses, even a scarab ring which, he claimed, Oscar Wilde wore in the courtroom while on trial for sodomy. (9)

It seems Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE, celebrated novelist and art collector, had written to A. J. A. Symons on July 14, 1938, to inform him ‘I’d like to buy Oscar’s scarab if it isn’t too costly’ (10). At the time, Symons, a writer and bibliographer, was working on a biography of Wilde, which he left unfinished. Recently, his notes have been compiled in book form for publication by Callum James. There the trail goes cold. To the best of my knowledge the location of Wilde’s scarab ring is unknown. If anyone out there has something to add I’d be delighted to continue the Twitter conversation.

 

An update: John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website has sent me confirmation that Walpole did indeed buy Oscar’s ring, and it was in his possession in 1940. He also found a reference to a scarab ring in Walpole’s novel The Killer and the Slainpublished posthumously in 1942. John is of the opinion that the ring was in Walpole’s possession when he died and that it may have been given to a friend or relative. Unless it was lost or destroyed, someone out there must have a scarab ring in their possession that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, and they may have no idea of its significance. Perhaps we can find them!

Bibliography

[1] Ada Leverson in Letters to the Sphinx (Duckworth, 1930), reproduced in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections Vol II edited by E.H. Mikhail. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979, p.270

[2] Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II p.464

[3] Robert Sherard. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London, T.W. Laurie, 1906

[4] Reproduced in Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II, p.376

[5] Chris Healy. Confessions of a Journalist. London, Chatto & Windus, 1904, p.134

[6] William Rothenstein. Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900. New York, Coward-McCann, 1931, p.86

[7] Robert Sherard. The Real Oscar Wilde, London, T. W. Laurie, 1916, p.223

[8] Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society Thirtieth Anniversary Commemoration Special No. 21, 1994

[9] “Proteus” [Frank Singleton], “Remembering Hugh Walpole,” Bolton Evening News, Apr. 5, 1952.

[10] Original letter in Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.

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Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit!

enesbit

Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit, born on 15 August 1858! Four decades later, she described her fortieth birthday party in a letter to her mother:

I had a very nice birthday. Fabian [her son] made a bonfire in the evening and decorated the garden with Chinese lanterns. I had some pretty presents – a moss agate brooch, a gold ring (fifteenth century), gloves, table centres, a silver watch chain, a book, a pair of little old flint-lock pistols and some beautiful flowers.

A youthful, vivacious woman, she included a comment on this milestone birthday:

I am forty, as you say: but I never feel forty. When I am ill I feel ninety – and when I am happy I feel nineteen!

Although she had been writing stories and verse for years by then, motivated by the necessity of earning money, the first of her classic books for children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers*, would not be published in book form until the following year, when it was brought out by T. Unwin Fisher.

450px-P293_(Treasure_Seekers)

Source:

Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: the life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924. London, The Penguin Group, 1987. p.196

For far more on E. Nesbit look out for my new biography!

* Stories featuring the Bastable children had appeared in magazines as early as 1894 but it was not until 1898 that they were serialised, primarily in The Pall Mall Gazette, in recognisable form.

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The Princess And The Cat By E. Nesbit

INTRODUCTION

In honour of International Cat Day (8 August 2017) here’s a fairytale from E. Nesbit’s story collection Oswald Bastable and Others (1905). Although conventional in many ways, it contains her trademark humorous asides, her counselling that kindness brings rewards, and her egalitarian belief that people have ultimate power over their rulers and a workhouse boy can become a king, but only if he is deserving.

Image result for e nesbit the princess and the cat

The day when everything began to happen to the Princess began just like all her ordinary days. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the Princess jumped out of bed and ran into the nursery to let the mice out of the traps in the nursery cupboard. The traps were set every night with a little bit of cheese in each, and every morning nurse found that not a single trap had caught a single mouse. This was because the Princess always let them go. No one knew this except the Princess and, of course, the mice themselves. And the mice never forgot it.

Then came bath and breakfast, and then the Princess ran to the open window and threw out the crumbs to the birds that flew down fluttering and chirping into the marble terrace. Before lessons began she had an hour for playing in the garden. But she never began to play till she had been round to see if any rabbits or moles were caught in the traps the palace gardeners set. The gardeners were lazy, and seldom got to work before half-past eight, so she always had plenty of time for this.

Then came lessons with dear old Professor Ouatidontnoisuntwuthnoing, and then more play, and dinner, and needlework, and play again.

And now it was teatime.

‘Eat up your bread-and-butter, your Highness,’ said nurse, ‘and then you shall have some nice plummy cake.’

‘I don’t feel plum-cakey at all to-day, somehow,’ said the Princess. ‘I feel just exactly as if something was going to happen.’

‘Something’s always happening,’ said nurse.

‘Ah! but I mean something horrid,’ said the Princess. ‘I expect uncle’s going to make some nasty new law about me. Last time it was: “The Princess is only to wear a white frock on the first Sunday in the month.” He said it was economy, but I know it was only spite.’

‘You mustn’t say that, dear,’ said nurse. ‘You know your rosy and bluey frocks are just as pretty as the white;’ but in her heart she agreed with the Princess Everilda.

The Princess’s father and mother had died when she was quite little, and her uncle was Regent. Now, you will have noticed that there is something about uncles which makes it impossible for them to be good in fairy stories. So of course this uncle was bad, as bad as he could be, and everyone hated him.

In fact, though it was now, as I have said, everybody’s teatime, nobody was making any tea: instead they were making a revolution. And just as the Princess was looking at the half-moon-shaped hole left by her first bite into her first piece of bread-and-butter, the good Professor burst into the nursery with his great gray wig all on one side, crying out in a very loud and very choky voice:

‘The revolution! It’s come at last. I knew the people would never stand that last tax on soap.’

‘The Princess!’ said nurse, turning very pale.

‘Yes, I know,’ said the Professor. ‘There’s a boat on the canal, blue sails with gold letters “P.P.”—Pupil of the Professor. It’s waiting. You go down there at once. I’ll take the Princess out down the back stairs.’

He caught the Princess by her pink bread-and-buttery hand, and dragged her away.

‘Hurry, my dear,’ he panted; ‘it’s as much as your life is worth to delay a minute.’

But he himself delayed quite three minutes, and that was one minute too long. He had just run into the palace library for the manuscript of his life’s work, ‘Everything Easily Explained,’ when the revolutionary crowd burst in, shouting ‘Liberty and Soap!’ and caught him. They did not see the Princess Everilda, because he had just time, when he heard them coming, to throw a red and green crochet antimacassar over her, and to hide her behind an armchair.

‘When they’ve taken me away, go down the back stairs, and try to find the boat,’ he whispered, just before they came and took him away.

And then Everilda was left alone. When everything was quiet, she said to herself: ‘Now, you mustn’t cry; you must do as you’re told.’ And she went down the palace back-stairs, and out through the palace kitchen into the street.

She had never set foot in the streets before, but she had been driven through them in a coach with four white horses, and she knew the way to the canal.

The canal boat with the blue sails was waiting, and she would have got to it safely enough, but she heard a rattling sound, and when she looked she saw two boys tying an old rusty kettle to a cat’s tail.

‘You horrid boys!’ she said; ‘let poor pussy alone.’

‘Not us,’ said the boys.

Everilda instantly slapped them both, and they were so surprised that they let the cat go. It scuttled and scurried off, and so did the Princess. The boys threw stones after her and also after the cat, but fortunately they were both very bad shots and nobody was hit.

Even then the Princess would have got safely away, but she saw a boy sitting on a doorstep crying. So she stopped to ask what was the matter.

‘I’m hungry,’ said the boy, ‘and father and mother are dead, and my uncle beat me, so I’m running away——’

‘Oh,’ said the Princess, ‘so am I. What fun! And I’ve got a horrid uncle, too. You come with me, and we’ll find my nurse. She’s running away, too. Make haste, or it’ll be too late.’

But when they got to the corner, it was too late.

The revolutionary crowd caught them; they shouted ‘Liberty and Soap!’ and they sent the boy to the workhouse, and they put the Princess in prison; and a good many of them wanted to cut off her pretty little head then and there, because they thought she would be sure to grow up horrid like her uncle the Regent.

But all the people who had ever been inside the palace said what a nice little girl the Princess really was, and wouldn’t hear of cutting off her darling head. So at last it was decided to get rid of her by enchantment, and the Head Magician to the Provisional Revolutionary Government was sent for.

‘Certainly, citizens,’ he said, ‘I’ll put her in a tower on the Forlorn Island, in the middle of the Perilous Sea—a nice strong tower, with only one way out.’

‘That’s one too many. There’s not to be any way out,’ said the people.

‘Well, there’s a way out of everything, you know,’ said the Magician timidly—he was trembling for his own head—’but it’s fifty thousand millions to one against her ever finding it.’

So they had to be content with that, and they fetched Everilda out of her prison; and the Magician took her hand and called his carriage, which was an invention of his own—half dragon, and half motor-car, and half flying-machine—so that it was a carriage and a half, and came when it was called, tame as any pet dog.

He lifted Everilda in, and said ‘Gee up!’ to his patent carriage, and the intelligent creature geed up right into the air and flew away. The Princess shut her eyes tight, and tried not to scream. She succeeded.

When the Magician’s carriage got to the place where it knew it ought to stop, it did stop, and tumbled Everilda out on to a hard floor, and went back to its master, who patted it, and gave it a good feed of oil, and fire, and water, and petroleum spirit.

The Princess opened her eyes as the sound of the rattling dragon wings died away. She was alone—quite alone. ‘I won’t stay here,’ said Everilda; ‘I’ll run away again.’

She ran to the edge of the tower and looked down. The tower was in the middle of a garden, and the garden was in the middle of a wood, and the wood was in the middle of a field, and after the field there was nothing more at all except steep cliffs and the great rolling, raging waves of the Perilous Sea.

‘There’s no way to run away by,’ she said; and then she remembered that even if she ran away, there was now nowhere to run to, because the people had taken her palace away from her, and the palace was the only home she had ever had—and where her nurse was goodness only knew.

‘So I suppose I’ve got to live here till someone fetches me,’ she said, and stopped crying, like a brave King’s daughter as she was.

‘I’ll explore,’ said Everilda all alone; ‘that will be fun.’ She said it bravely, and really it was more fun than she expected. The tower had only one room on each floor. The top floor was Everilda’s bedroom; she knew that by her gold-backed brushes and things with ‘E. P.’ on them that lay on the toilet-table. The next floor was a sitting-room, and the next a dining-room, and the last of all was a kitchen, with rows of bright pots and pans, and everything that a cook can possibly want.

‘Now I can play at cooking,’ said the Princess. ‘I’ve always wanted to do that. If only there was something to cook!’

She looked in the cupboards, and there were lots of canisters and jars, with rice, and flour, and beans, and peas, and lentils, and macaroni, and currants, and raisins, and candied peel, and sugar, and sago, and cinnamon. She ate a whole lump of candied citron, and enjoyed it very much.

‘I shan’t starve, anyway,’ she said. ‘But oh! of course, I shall soon eat up all these things, and then——’

In her agitation she dropped the jar; it did not break, but all the candied peel rolled away into corners and under tables. Yet when she picked the jar up it was as full as ever.

‘Oh, hooray!’ cried Everilda, who had once heard a sentry use that low expression; ‘of course it’s a magic tower, and everything is magic in it. The jars will always be full.’

The fire was laid, so she lighted it and boiled some rice, but it stuck to the pot and got burned. You know how nasty burned rice is? and the macaroni she tried to cook would not get soft. So she went out into the garden, and had a very much nicer dinner than she could ever have cooked. Instead of meat she had apples, and instead of vegetables she had plums, and she had peaches instead of pudding.

There were rows and rows of beautiful books in the sitting-room, and she read a little, and wrote a long letter to nurse, in case anyone ever came who knew nurse’s address and would post it for her. And then she had a nectarine-and-mulberry tea.

By this time the sun was sinking all red and splendid beyond the dark waters of the Perilous Sea, and Everilda sat down on the window seat to watch it.

I shall not tell you whether she cried at all then. Perhaps you would have cried just a little if you had been in her place.

‘Oh dear! oh dear! oh dear!’ she said, sniffing slightly. (Perhaps she had a cold.) ‘There’s nobody to tuck me up in bed—nobody at all.’

And just as she said it something fat and furry flew between her and the sunset. It hovered clumsily a moment, and then swooped in at the window.

‘Oh!’ cried the Princess, very much frightened indeed.

‘Don’t you know me?’ said the stout furry creature, folding its wings. ‘I’m the cat you saved from the indignity of a rusty kettle in connection with my honourable tail.’

‘But that cat hadn’t got wings,’ said Everilda, ‘and you’re much bigger than it, and it couldn’t talk.’

‘How do you know it couldn’t talk,’ said the Cat; ‘did you ask it?’

‘No,’ said the Princess.

‘Well, then!’ said the Cat ‘And as for wings, I needn’t wear them if you’d rather I didn’t.’

The Cat took off her wings, rolled them neatly up, like your father rolls his umbrella, tied them round with a piece of string, and put them in the left-hand corner drawer in the bureau.

‘That’s better,’ said Everilda.

‘And as for size,’ said the Cat, ‘if I stayed ordinary cat-size I shouldn’t be any use to you. And I’ve come to be cook, companion, housemaid, nurse, professor, and everything else, so——’

‘Oh, don’t,’ said the Princess—’don’t get any bigger.’

For while she was speaking the Cat had been growing steadily, and she was now about the size of a large leopard.

‘Certainly not,’ said the Cat obligingly; ‘I’ll stop at once.’

‘I suppose,’ said the Princess timidly, ‘that you’re magic?’

‘Of course,’ said the Cat; ‘everything is, here. Don’t you be afraid of me, now! Come along, my pet, time for bed.’

Everilda jumped, for the voice was the voice of her nurse; but it was also the voice of the Cat.

‘Oh!’ cried the Princess, throwing her arms round the cat’s large furry neck, ‘I’m not afraid of any thing when you speak like that.’

So, after all, she had someone to tuck her up in bed. The Cat did it with large, soft, furry, clever paws, and in two minutes Everilda was fast asleep.

And now began the long, lonely, but all the same quite happy time which the Princess and the Cat spent together on the Forlorn Island.

Everilda had lessons with the Cat—and then it was the Professor’s voice that the Cat spoke with; and the two did the neat little housework of the tower together—and then the Cat’s voice was like the voices of the palace housemaids. And they did the cooking and then the Cat’s voice was the cook’s voice. And they played games together—and then the voice of the Cat was like the voices of all sorts of merry children. It was impossible to be dull with a companion who changed so often.

‘But who are you really?’ the Princess used to ask.

And the Cat always answered:

‘I give it up! Ask another!’ as if the Princess had been playing at riddles.

‘How is it our garden is always so tidy and full of nice fruit and vegetables?’ the Princess asked once, when they had been on the island about a year.

‘Oh,’ said the Cat, ‘didn’t you know? The moles you used to let out of the traps do the digging, and the birds you used to feed bring the seeds in their little beaks, and the mice you used to save from the palace mouse-traps do the weeding and raking with their sharp little teeth, and their fine, neat, needly claws.’

‘But how did they get here?’ asked the Princess.

‘The usual way—swimming and flying,’ said the Cat.

‘But aren’t the mice afraid of you?’

‘Of me?’ The great Cat drew herself up to her full height. ‘Anyone would think, to hear you, that I was a common cat.’ And she was really cross for nearly an hour.

That was the only approach to a quarrel that the two ever had.

Sometimes, at first, the Princess used to say:

‘How long am I to stay here, pussy-nurse?’

And the Cat always said in nurse’s voice:

‘Till you’re grown up, my dear.’

And the years went by, and each year found the Princess more good, and clever, and beautiful. And at last she was quite grown up.

‘Now,’ said the Cat briskly, ‘we must get to work. There’s a Prince in a kingdom a long way off, and he’s the only person who can get you off this island.’

‘Does he know?’ asked Everilda.

‘He knows about you, but he doesn’t know that he’s the person to find you, and he doesn’t know where you are. So now every night I must fly away and whisper about you in his ear. He’ll think it’s dreams, but he believes in dreams; and he’ll come in a grand ship with masts of gold and sails of silk, and carry my Pretty away and make a Queen of her.’

‘Shall I like that, pussy-nurse, do you think?’ asked the Princess.

And the Cat replied:

‘Yes, very much indeed. But you wouldn’t like it if it were any other King than this one, so it’s just as well that it’s quite impossible for it to be any other.’

‘How will he come?’ asked the Princess.

‘Don’t I tell you? In a ship, of course,’ said the Cat.

‘Aren’t the rocks dangerous?’ asked the Princess.

‘Oh, very,’ the Cat answered.

‘Oh,’ said the Princess, and grew silent and thoughtful.

That night the Cat got out its rolled-up wings, and unrolled them, and brushed them, and fitted them on; then she lighted a large lamp and set it in the window that looked out on the Perilous Sea.

‘That’s the beacon to guide the King to you,’ she said.

‘Won’t it guide other ships here?’ asked the Princess, ‘with perhaps the wrong Kings on board—the ones I shouldn’t like being Queen with?’

‘Very likely,’ said the Cat; ‘but it doesn’t matter: they’d only be wrecked. Serve them right, coming after Princesses that don’t want them.’

‘Oh,’ said Everilda.

The Cat spread her wings, and after one or two trial flights round the tower, she spread them very wide indeed, and flew away across the black Perilous Sea, towards a little half moon that was standing on its head to show sailors that there would be foul weather.

The Princess leaned her elbows on the window-sill and looked out over the sea. Down below in the garden she could hear the kind moles digging industriously, and the good little mice weeding and raking with their sharp teeth and their fine needly claws. And far away against the low-hanging moon she saw the sails and masts of a ship.

‘Oh,’ she cried, ‘I can’t! It’s sure not to be his ship. It mustn’t be wrecked.’

And she turned the lamp out. And then she cried a little, because perhaps after all it might be his ship, and he would pass by and never know.

Next night the Cat went out on another flying excursion, leaving the lamp lighted. And again the Princess could not bear to go to bed leaving a lamp burning that might lure honest Kings and brave mariners to shipwreck, so she put out the lamp and cried a little. And this happened for many, many, many nights.

When the Cat swept the room of a morning she used to wonder where all the pearls came from that she found lying all about the floor. But it was a magic place, and one soon ceased to wonder much about anything. She never guessed that the pearls were the tears the Princess shed when she had put out the lamp, and seen ship after ship that perhaps carried her own King go sailing safely and ignorantly by, no one on board guessing that on that rock was a pretty, dear Princess waiting to be rescued—the Princess, the only Princess that that King would be happy and glad to have for his Queen.

And the years went on and on. Every night the Cat lighted the lamp and flew away to whisper dreams into the ears of the only King who could rescue the Princess, and every night the Princess put out the lamp and cried in the dark. And every morning the Cat swept up a dustpan full of pearls that were Everilda’s tears. And again and again the King would fit out a vessel and sail the seas, and look in vain for the bright light that he had dreamed should guide him to his Princess.

The Cat was a good deal vexed; she could not understand how any King could be so stupid. She always stayed out all night. She used to go and see her friends after she had done whispering dreams to the King, and only got home in time to light the fire for breakfast, so she never knew how the Princess put out the lamp every night, and cried in the dark.

The years went by and went by, and the Princess grew old and gray, for she had never had the heart to leave the lamp alight, for fear that some poor mariners who were not her King should be drawn by the lamp to those cruel rocks and wrecked on them, for of course it wouldn’t and couldn’t be the poor mariners’ fault that they didn’t happen to be the one and only King who could land safely on the Forlorn Island.

And when the Princess was quite old, and the tear pearls that had been swept up by the Cat filled seven big chests in the back-kitchen, the Princess fell ill.

‘I think I am going to die,’ she said to the Cat, ‘and I am not really at all sorry except for you. I think you’ll miss me. Tell me now—it’s almost all over—who are you, really?’

‘I give it up,’ said the Cat as usual. ‘Ask another.’

But the Princess asked nothing more. She lay on her bed in her white gown and waited for death, for she was very tired of being alive. Only she said:

‘Put out that lamp in the window; it hurts my eyes.’

For even then she thought of the poor men whose ships might be wrecked just because they didn’t happen to be the one and only King with whom she could be happy.

So the Cat took the lamp away, but she did not put it out; she set it in the window of the parlour, and its light shone out over the black waters of the Perilous Sea.

And that very night the one and only King—who in all these years had never ceased to follow the leading of the dreams the Cat whispered in his ear—came in the black darkness sailing over the Perilous Sea. And in the black darkness he saw at last the bright white light that his dreams had promised, and he knew that where the light was his Princess was, and his heart leaped up, and he bade the helmsmen steer for the light.

And for the light they steered. And because he was the only possible King to mate that Princess, the helmsman found the only possible passage among the rocks, and the ship anchored safely in a little quiet creek, and the King landed and went up to the door of the tower and knocked.

‘Who’s there?’ said the Cat.

‘Me,’ said the King, just as you or I might have done.

‘You’re late,’ said the Cat. ‘I’m afraid you’ve lost your chance.’

‘I took the first chance I got,’ said the King. ‘Let me in, and let me see her.’

He had been so busy all these years trying to find the bright white light of his dreams that he had not noticed that his hair had gone gray long ago.

So the Cat let him in, and led him up the winding stair to the room where the Princess, very quiet, lay on her white bed waiting for death to come, for she was very tired.

The old King stumbled across the bar of moonlight on the floor, flung down a clanking wallet, and knelt by the bed in the deep shadow, saying:

‘Oh, my dear own Princess, I have come at last.’

‘Is it really you?’ she said, and gave him her hands in the shadow. I hoped it was Death’s foot-step I heard coming up the winding stair.’

‘Oh, did you hope for death,’ he cried, ‘while I was coming to you?’

‘You were long in coming,’ said she, ‘and I was very tired.’

‘My beautiful dear Princess,’ he said, ‘you shall rest in my arms till you are not tired any more.’

‘My beautiful King,’ she said, ‘I am not tired any more now.’

And then the Cat came in with the lamp, and they looked in each other’s eyes.

Instead of the beautiful Princess of his dreams the King saw a white, withered woman whose piteous eyes met his in a look of longing love. The Princess saw a bent, white-haired man, but love was in his eyes.

I don’t mind.’

I don’t mind.’

They both spoke together. And both thought they spoke the truth. But the truth was that both were horribly disappointed.

‘Yet, all the same,’ said the King to himself, ‘old and withered as she is, she is more to me than the youngest and loveliest of all other Princesses.’

‘I don’t care if he is gray,’ said the Princess to herself; ‘whatever he is, he’s the only possible one.’

‘Here’s a pretty kettle of fish!’ said the Cat. ‘Why on earth didn’t you come before?’

‘I came as soon as I could,’ said the King.

The Cat, walking about the room in an agitated way, kicked against the wallet the King had dropped.

‘What’s this,’ she said crossly, rubbing her toes, for the wallet was hard, and she had hurt herself more than a little.

‘Oh, that,’ said the King—’that’s just the steel bolts and hammers and things that my resolves to find the Princess turned into when I failed and never did find her. I never could bear to throw them away; I had a sort of feeling that they might be good for something, since they hurt me so much when they came to me. I thought perhaps I could batter down the doors of the Princess’s tower with them.’

‘They’re good for something better than that,’ said the Cat joyously.

She went away, and the two heard her hammering away below. Presently she staggered in with a great basket of white powder, and emptied it on the floor; then she went away for more.

The King helped her with the next basketful, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, and the next, for there were seven of them, and the heap of white powder stood up in the room as high as the King’s middle.

‘That’s powder of pearls,’ said the Cat proudly. ‘Now, tell me, have you been a good King?’

‘I have tried to be,’ said the white-haired King ‘I was a workhouse boy, and then I was apprenticed to a magician, who taught me how to make people happy. There was a revolution just at the time when I was put into the workhouse, and they had a Republic. And I worked my way up till they made me President.’

‘What became of the King in that revolution?’

‘There wasn’t a King, only a Regent. They had him taught a trade, and he worked for his living. It was the worst punishment they could invent for him. There was a Princess, too, but she was hidden by a magician. I saw her once when she was trying to run away. She asked me to run too—to her nurse——’

Here his eyes met the Princess’s.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘that was you, was it?’

‘Oh,’ said he, ‘then that was you!’

And they looked long and lovingly in each other’s faded eyes.

‘Hurry up,’ said the Cat impatiently; ‘you were made President. And then——’

‘Oh, why, then,’ said the King, ‘they thought it wouldn’t be any more dangerous or expensive to have a King than a President, and prettier at State shows—ermine, crown, and sceptre, and all that—prettier than frock-coat and spats. So I agreed.’

‘And do your people love you?’ the Cat asked.

‘I don’t know,’ said the King simply; ‘I love them——’

As he spoke there came a flutter and flicker of many thousand wings at the closed casement. The Cat threw the window wide, and in swarmed a countless crowd of white pigeons.

‘These are the blessings of your people,’ said the Cat.

The wings fluttered and flickered and fanned the heap of pearl dust on the floor till it burst into flame, and the flame rose up high and white and clear.

‘Quick!’ cried the Cat, ‘walk through it. Lead her through.’

The old King gave his hand to his poor faded love, and raised her from her couch, and together they passed through the clear fire made of her patience and self-sacrifice, his high resolve, and the blessings of his people. And they came out of that fire on the other side.

‘Oh, love, how beautiful you are!’ cried the King.

‘Oh, my King, your face is the face of all my dreams!’ cried the Princess.

And they put their arms round each other and cried for joy, because now they were both young and beautiful again.

The Cat cried for sympathy.

‘And now we shall live happy ever after,’ said the Princess, putting her other arm round the Cat. ‘Dear pussy-nurse, do tell me, now it’s all over, who you really are.’

‘I give it up. Ask another,’ said the Cat.

But as she spoke she went herself through the fire, and on the other side came out—not one person, but eleven. She was, in fact, the Professor, the nurse, the palace butler, footman, housemaid, parlourmaid, between-maid, boots, scullion, boy in buttons, as well as the rescued cat—all rolled into one!

‘But we only used one part of ourselves at a time,’ they all said with one voice, ‘and I hope we were useful.’

‘You were a darling,’ said the Princess—’darlings, I mean. But who turned you all into exactly the pussy-nurse I wanted?’

‘Oh, that was the Magician,’ said all the voices in unison; ‘he was your fairy-godfather, you know.’

‘What has become of him?’ asked the Princess, clinging to her lover’s arm.

‘He’s been asleep all this time. It was the condition, the only way he got leave to work the good magic for all of us,’ said the many voices that were one.

‘Let’s go and wake him,’ said the King.

So they all went. And when they woke the Magician, who was sleeping quietly in his own private room in the palace where the Princess had once lived, he sneezed seven times for pure joy, and then called for Welsh rabbit and baked Spanish onions for supper.

‘For after all these years of starvation,’ he said, ‘I do really think I may for once take a liberty with my digestion.’

So he had the supper he wanted; but the King and the Princess had roses and lilies and wedding-cake, because they were married that very evening.

And when you have passed through exactly the sort of fire those two had passed through, you can never be old, or ugly, or unhappy again, so those two are happy, and beautiful, and young to this very hour.

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“On the Medway Life is Real” – E. Nesbit

I’ve been neglecting my blog recently as I transition from Wilde to Nesbit but I’m keen to keep posting when I can. We’re planning our holidays in England this year and our odyssey will take us from Keswick in the Lake District (where the husband is running a race), then diagonally down through England to Canterbury (I’m speaking at a conference) via Cambridge. We’ll stay a night in Whitstable, as featured in Sarah Water’s brilliant novel Tipping the Velvet, before heading on to Salisbury (where we’ll see Stonehenge), then to Cornwall to stay with friends and reacquaint ourselves with the lovely seaside town of St. Ives. We travel home via Stratford-Upon-Avon.

I cannot wait. I love England (I lived there for years and my eldest son was born there) but lately it’s just been Brexit Brexit Brexit and I need to fall back in love with that magnificent, historic country. As part of my research for my new biography I’ve been reading E. Nesbit’s beautiful descriptions of her beloved Kent countryside, in particular the River Medway, where she loved to go boating. She recognised an authenticity in river life. In The Incredible Honeymoon, she wrote:

On the Medway life is real, life is earnest. You mostly pull a hundred yards, anchor and fish; or if you do go farther from harbor you open your own locks, with your own crowbar.

Medway

River Medway, Kent

Here’s a lovely piece of descriptive writing from her novel Salome and the Head:

The Medway just above The Anchor (at Yalding, Kent) is a river of dreams. The grey and green of willows and alders mirror themselves in the still water in images hardly less solid-seeming than their living realities. There is pink loosestrife there, and meadow-sweet creamy and fragrant, forget-me-nots wet and blue, and a tangle of green weeds and leaves and stems that only botanists know the names of.

Particularly calming is this tranquil, languid excerpt from The Incredible Honeymoon:

The quiet river, wandering by wood and meadow, bordered by its fringe of blossoms and flowering grasses, the smooth backwaters where leaning trees touched hands across the glassy mirror, and water-lilies gleamed white and starry, the dappled shadows, the arch of blue sky, the gay sunshine, and the peace of the summer noon all wrought in one fine spell to banish from their thoughts all fear and dismay, all doubts and hesitations.

We won’t be boating on the Medway this time round but Edith Nesbit has inspired me to make plans for the future. I hope we’ll always have the opportunity to visit the beautiful home of our British neighbours, just as I hope they/you will continue to visit us.

For more on holidays in Kent visit: http://www.visitkent.co.uk

If you’re looking for a holiday read try Wilde’s Women

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IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

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

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

portrait

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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May 1883: Oscar Wilde Returns to London

To mark 1 May, here’s a tiny May-related excerpt from Wilde’s Women. Oscar, aged 28, returns from Paris to London. He has not been there for some time since he spent 1882 touring America before heading to Paris, where he wrote The Duchess of Padua for Mary Anderson:

an-Portrait-20of-20author-playwright-20Oscar-20Wilde-2C-201885-20120713120618500383-300x0

Oscar with curls. Not a great look tbh.

In May 1883, Oscar returned to London with a head full of curls and an empty wallet. He stayed with Jane before taking furnished rooms, ‘for single men of distinction’ on nearby Charles Street in Mayfair. Frank Harris claimed that Jane had suggested Charles Street. She felt he should live at a suitably impressive address since she ‘never doubted his ultimate triumph’ and ‘knew all his poems by heart’.* These lodgings were managed by a retired butler, and his wife, an excellent cook, both of whom were devoted to their brilliant young tenant; they ‘could not speak too highly of his cleverness, kindness and consideration’ and overlooked his tardiness in settling his account.**

Sherard, who shared these lodgings for a time, tells us that ‘the rooms on the third floor that Oscar Wilde occupied were panelled in oak and there were old engravings in heavy black frames on the walls’. he adds: ‘The fact was that, in despite of an address which implied opulence, we were both very poor. It was while they were both staying in this house on Charles Street that Oscar woke Shepard early one morning to tell him that he had become engaged to Constance Lloyd; ‘At breakfast, he spoke of his bride and seemed much in love and very joyous,’ Sherard wrote.

As for the curls, they put Violet Hunt right off him for one.

For more, read Wilde’s Women:

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*Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde; his Life and Confessions, Vol. I, p.82

**Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde, pp.282-3

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Henry James versus Oscar Wilde

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Henry James, who is regarded as one of the key figures of nineteenth century literature; his most famous works including Portrait Of A Lady, The Bostonians, The American and Washington Square.

Although born in New York City on 15 April 1843, James spent much of his life in London and became a British citizen. His grandfather, William James, was from Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland. Best remembered as a novelist, James was also a playwright and rival of a certain Oscar Wilde. The two clashed on several occasions and James actively campaigned to lessen Wilde’s success during his tour of America in 1882. In honour of his birthday I am posting two excerpts from Wilde’s Women that illustrate the professional rivalry between Henry James and Oscar Wilde:

FROM CHAPTER 1: THE REAL MRS. ERLYNNE

Also present [at the first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan] was Henry James, another would-be playwright but someone who rarely had a kind word for Oscar. He deemed the play ‘infantine’ and of a ‘primitive simplicity’, a pronouncement that had all the characteristics of a fit of professional pique. Yet, even he could not ignore the obvious enjoyment of those seated around him, and he was forced to admit, albeit grudgingly:

There is so much drollery – that is, “cheeky” paradoxical wit of dialogue, and the pit and gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to “catch on” to four or five of the ingenious – too ingenious – mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite “décadent” … and they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy.*

Interior_of_St._James_Theatre,_London_(watercolour)_by_John_Gregory_Crace

The interior of the St. James’s Theatre by John Gregory Crace

FROM CHAPTER 17: A LESS THAN IDEAL HUSBAND

Given the delight with which The Importance of Being Earnest was received, it is extraordinary to think that George Alexander [Actor-Manager at the St. James’s Theatre] passed it on to Charles Wyndham at the Criterion. He asked for it back once he realised that Henry James’s Guy Domville was failing to attract an audience.

For more on their rivalry, professional and personal, read Wilde’s Women:

*Source: Letter from Henry James to a friend written on 23 February 1892, quoted in Daniel Karlin, ‘Our precious quand même’: French in the Letters of Henry James », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, accessed on 2 March 2015. http://cve.revues.org/945

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A Glimpse of Oscar & his Mother

My research requires the reading of firsthand accounts of life during the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a result, although I’m not specifically looking for information on Oscar Wilde at the moment, I often stumble across little anecdotes. The latest comes from Here and There Memories, published in 1896 under the pseudonym Hi Regan. The author of this book was Captain John Joseph Dunne, a colourful character and father to George Egerton, who is the subject of my current research. Here’s what he wrote:

‘A tall, elderly lady, dressed with a certain not unbecoming bizarrerie in yellow silk and black lace, came to sign the roll*. She was accompanied by a puppy-faced young man with a lackadaisical air and drab boots. Till then, though I knew her husband well, I had never seen her, and was rather astonished when she signed ‘Francesca Wilde (“Speranza”).’ Her long-haired escort, a la Buckstone’s ‘stricken one,’ was Oscar, not yet above the horizon of self-assertion, nor perhaps dreaming of future effulgence.’ (380)

*‘Butt started the National Roll as a means to get together funds for the Home Rule League’s operations’ (380).

Young Oscar

Oscar Wilde as a Young Man

We can date this incident to 1874. Oscar would have been nineteen and coming to the end of his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin. That autumn he would continue his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lady Jane Wilde was fifty-two – hardly ‘elderly’ – and would reinvent herself in London shortly afterwards.

My thanks to Michael Seeney for prompting me to point out that Oscar’s hair was short at the time, as the photograph shows. Dunne is writing with hindsight. He was also notoriously unreliable! In A Leaf From the Yellow Book, his relation Terence de Vere White wrote of him that he was ‘a born liar if his reminiscences are to be judged’. Also, he wasn’t particularly well disposed towards Oscar since his beloved elder daughter’s career had suffered greatly in 1895 due to Wilde’s perceived association with John Lane and The Yellow Book.

For far more on Oscar and his mother read Wilde’s Women.

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In Honour of Millicent Fawcett

Here’s a tiny excerpt from Wilde’s Women to mark the announcement that a statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square in London, the first of a woman to be commissioned. I love how forthright she was in expressing her opinion.

Millicent Fawcett

Oscar invited Millicent Garrett Fawcett, prominent suffragist and co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, to address the issue of women’s suffrage [in The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited]. In Fawcett’s opinion, the exclusion of women was, quite simply, morally reprehensible: ‘Even felons were not excluded when once their term of imprisonment was over; lunatics were joyfully admitted’, she argued. It was her bold contention that by enfranchising women, a nation could put an end to war.[i]

[i] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, ‘Women’s Suffrage’, The Women’s World, Volume II, pp.9-12

Read more in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew

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Marie Corelli: ‘the idol of suburbia’

As Women’s History Month comes to a close I’m posting an excerpt from Wilde’s Women that describes the remarkable and hugely successful Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. It is difficult for us to imagine how significant she was nowadays, since she has fallen out of fashion, but at the height of her popularity, she was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. There is a website dedicated to her with a great deal more information. Here is my short profile from Wilde’s Women:

Marie Corelli as ‘Lily’ – Shakespeare Homeplace Trust

Marie Corelli’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Born in London on or around 1 May 1855, a date she rarely admitted to, she was almost certainly the daughter of Elizabeth Mills, lover and later second wife of the journalist Charles Mackay, who was believed to be Corelli’s father. Known affectionately as Minnie, she reinvented herself as Marie di Corelli in order to earn a paltry living giving piano recitals in private homes.

Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, was published in February 1886. It struck a chord and, as a result, a second novel, Vendetta, appeared later that year. By June 1887, Corelli had published a third, Thelma, to great acclaim. Ellen Terry, who lived six doors down from her on Longridge Road, Kensington, adored her books. Lillie Langtry asked if she might dramatise them. Oscar Wilde would have sympathised to hear that she had been snubbed by Rhoda Broughton, who she had been particularly keen to meet.

At the height of her popularity, Marie Corelli was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. According to novelist and poet Arthur St. John Adcock, ‘many of her most enthusiastic admirers are men of the professional classes – doctors, barristers, lawyers, writers, men of education and intelligence’.[i] Her mystical, melodramatic novels were admired by Gladstone and Tennyson, and Queen Victoria had them sent to Balmoral as soon as they appeared.

Yet,Corelli attracted the scorn of critics; Grant Allen in the Spectator called her:

…a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, & was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities & prejudices she gave a glamorous setting.

This didn’t dampen her popularity and she was described with great accuracy as ‘the idol of suburbia – the favorite of the common multitude’.[ii]

Wilde started out as a fan.On one occasion, heassured Corelli that he had ‘read the book [A Romance of Two Worlds] over again,’ adding, ‘you certainly tell of marvelous things in marvelous ways’. He advised her to ignore her detractors, writing: ‘Such a lot of talking-about-you does more good than an infinite number of reviews’.[iii]She appears to have heeded his counsel since, in the foreword to The Sorrows of Satan, she wrote:

No copies of this book are sent out for review. Members of the Press will therefore obtain it (should they wish to do so) in the usual way with the rest of the reading public – i.e. through the Booksellers and Libraries.[iv]

Although she was so pioneering and resourceful herself, Corelli was not a feminist. In her novels, she celebrated the frailty of women, and she opposed the extension of voting rights. Yet Wilde persuaded her to write a speculative article on ‘Shakespeare’s Mother’ for The Woman’s World. He admired her success, but would hardly have wished to emulate her style, which he grew to dislike. Years later, when a prison warder in Reading Jail asked him his opinion of Corelli, he replied: ‘Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here’.[v]

They had fallen out by then and she lampooned him mercilessly in The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary, which was published anonymously in 1892, characterizing him as a lumbering elephant who was guided through life by a dainty fairy, a thinly disguised Constance Wilde. Corelli dismissed Constance as ‘a charming little Radical,’ but she found her compelling; she considered her ‘one of the prettiest things alive’ and ‘infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself’.

Marie Corelli never married. She never discussed her sexuality but would appear to have been attracted to women; she wrote ambiguous love poems and co-habited happily for decades with her companion Bertha Vyver, who referred to her as ‘beloved wee pet’. When she died, on 21 April 1924, crowds gathered outside her home.

[i] Arthur St. John Adcock ‘Marie Corelli: A Record and an Appreciation’, TheBookman, 36, no. 212, 1909, pp.59-60

[ii] In a flattering profile included in ‘Chronicle & Comment’, The Bookman, July 1909, reproduced in The Bookman Volume XXIX, March 1909 – August 1909 (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909), p.461

[iii] Brian Masters, Now Barabbas was a Rotter (London, H. Hamilton, 1978), p.74

[iv] Reproduced in The Bookman, Volume XXIX, p.465

[v]Complete Letters, p.905n2

Read more about remarkable Victorian women in Wilde’s Women:

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