If you were asked to name a man you would not readily associate with women, Oscar Wilde might spring to mind. Due to the relentless focus on his sexuality and the magnitude of the injustice perpetrated against him, Wilde’s life is often examined in terms of his relationships with men.
Yet, as I discovered when researching my book Wilde’s Women, he had a genuine fondness for women and they in turn were drawn to him. As Vincent O’Sullivan, Wilde’s friend and biographer confirmed in Aspects of Wilde:
I have always found, and find today, his [Wilde’s] warmest admirers among women. He, in his turn, admired women. I never heard him say anything disparaging about any woman, even when some of them required such treatment!
Of course, as the second son of the sharp-witted Lady Jane Wilde, how could Oscar be anything but admiring and supportive of strong women? As Speranza, Oscar’s mother became a celebrity long before her son. A revolutionary poet and essayist, an accomplished translator, and a quixotic campaigner for women’s rights, she also insisted that a loyal wife should accommodate her husband’s indiscretions.
Wilde’s life was not short on tragedy and the first of these was the loss of his beloved sister Isola, probably to meningitis, when he was twelve years old and she was not quite ten. The Wilde family was devastated by this loss. Jane had described her daughter as ‘the radiant angel of our home – and so bright and strong and joyous’ and Oscar treasured a lock of her hair until the day he died.
What of romance? Wilde is a gay icon and appears to have been attracted exclusively to men for much of his life, yet as a young man he was involved with several women. His first girlfriend, the extraordinarily beautiful and vivacious Florence Balcombe, dropped him to marry fellow Dubliner Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. The letters and poems he sent her during their two year courtship demonstrate a depth of feeling that might surprise those who believe his only love was Lord Alfred Douglas.
Aged twenty-nine, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, mother to his beloved sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Although far less flamboyant than her husband, Constance was highly accomplished, politically active and hugely supportive of him. She was devastated by his infidelity, but did everything she could to help him after his arrest. Wilde loved Constance dearly for a time and he mourned her when she died.
Throughout his life, Wilde promoted progressive women. Most notable perhaps are the two years he spent editingThe Woman’s World, which he transformed into ‘the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life’. He commissioned leading thinkers and campaigners on gender and women’s rights to explore topics that included access to education and the professions, and voting rights for women. In his monthly ‘Literary and Other Notes’, he enthused about women writers.
Every play Wilde wrote, from Vera, his very first, to The Importance of Being Earnest, which had the working title Lady Lancing, was named for a woman in early drafts. Most feature iconic women characters: Mrs. Erlynne in Lady Windermere’s Fan, Mrs. Allonby in A Woman of No Importance, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Through his social comedies, he exposed the deep-rooted hypocrisy that prevailed in patriarchal Victorian society, reserving his most biting commentary for puritanical women who insisted that the strictures imposed on them be applied equally to men. Wilde’s favourite of his plays, according to his friend Ada Leverson, was Salomé. He dreamed of seeing Sarah Bernhardt play the eponymous princess but, sadly, never did.
An ambitious outsider, Wilde understood the importance of befriending society women who presided over the most fashionable and influential drawing rooms in London and beyond. He cultivated friendships with free-thinking, enterprising and intelligent women like Lillie Langtry, one time mistress of the Prince of Wales, and Ellen Terry, one of the most acclaimed actresses of the day, and he delighted aristocratic women with his stories, which he dedicated to them.
Nowhere was the support of powerful women more important than in America, where dozens of wealthy and influential women who delighted in his compelling personality promoted him with enthusiasm.
Wilde provoked extraordinary loyalty in women who are largely forgotten today: witty author and satirist Ada Leverson, and the extraordinarily generous Adela Schuster, who funded him after he was imprisoned. He collaborated on a poem with Polish actress Helena Modjeska, who had fled political persecution, and funded American actress Elizabeth Robbins when she brought the plays of Ibsen to England and staged them herself. He harnessed the epigrammatic language used by women like the extraordinarily popular but largely forgotten novelist Ouida and his work was often compared to hers.
When his popularity was at its height, Wilde was fêted and adored by women from every walk of life. Yet many of them abandoned him during the few years that remained to him after he was released from prison. Many of the warmest and most revealing accounts of him were written by women who remained loyal to the end. Rather than treating Wilde as a brilliant but broken man who paid the highest price for being who he was, we should remember him as feminist and pacifist Helena Swanwick did: ‘His extravaganzas had no end, his invention was inexhaustible, and everything he said was full of joy and energy’.
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer and journalist specialising in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize with her essay ‘The Shelleys in Ireland’ and she is a contributor to the Romanticism Blog. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Irish Times, the Guardian, History Ireland andHistory Today. She is a regular radio and television contributor. Her first book, Wilde’s Women will be published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015.