Monthly Archives: December 2015

Irish Times Reviews Wilde’s Women

I’m delighted that the Irish Times asked renowned and respected Wilde scholar Dr. Eibhear Walshe to review Wilde’s Women. I’m also very happy with his balanced and insightful evaluation. He describes my book as ‘a lively new study’. There’s a link to the review here.

Wilde’s Women - cover

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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The Remarkable Rhoda Broughton

Some of the more peripheral characters in Wilde’s Women are so colourful and pioneering that, although their links to Oscar Wilde were tenuous, I was determined to include them. One was the remarkable Rhoda Broughton, who never took to Wilde, nor he to her.

Rhoda-Broughton

Although Rhoda Broughton was born in North Wales, her Irish roots stretched deep. Her late mother, Jane Bennett had grown up at 18 Merrion Square. In 1856, the Bennett parents let their home to Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and his wife, Susanna, Jane’s sister. Le Fanu was well acquainted with William and Jane Wilde, who lived a few doors up. After Suzanna fell into despair and died in mysterious circumstances that were never discussed, Rhoda remained close to her uncle, who encouraged her literary ambitions. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1867, as Rhoda struggled through a tedious novel, ‘the spirit moved her to write’. She tossed her dreary book aside and scribbled furiously for six weeks, producing Not Wisely but Too Well, the lurid tale of young Kate Chester, who stops just short of an adulterous affair with the self-regarding Dare Stamer; it was rumoured to be semi-autobiographical.

Le Fanu serialised it in the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited at the time, and persuaded Rhoda to send it to publisher George Bentley & Sons; Bentley turned it down after his editorial reader Geraldine Jewsbury declared it: ‘The most thoroughly sensual tale I have read in English for a long time’. This was exactly what readers wanted. When Not Wisely but Too Well was brought out by the more audacious Tinsley Brothers, it became the first in a string of hugely controversial bestsellers. Three years later, when the circulating libraries lifted their ban on her books, Rhoda’s popularity soared. Yet, she published anonymously until 1872, and most readers assumed she was a man. One unwitting reviewer for the Athenaeum declared:

That the author is not a young woman, but a man, who, in the present story, shows himself destitute of refinement of thought or feeling and ignorant of all that women either are or ought to be, is evident on every page.

Exuberant and ferociously independent, with a well-deserved reputation as a waspish wit, Rhoda divided opinion. Oscar’s friend James Rennell Rodd observed that she had ‘a great heart but acaustic tongue’.  Among her supporters were Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who shared her apparently irrational dislike of Oscar. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, known to us as Lewis Carroll, refused to attend a dinner with her as he ‘greatly disapproved’ of her novels. Anthony Trollope admired her, but despaired at how she ‘made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say’.

They throw themselves at men’s heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again. Miss Broughton is still so young that I hope she may live to overcome her fault in this direction.

Rhoda insisted she was merely responding to market forces: ‘since the public like it hot and strong, I am not the person to disoblige them’, she declared.

It’s difficult to fathom the animosity that crackled between Oscar and Rhoda as they had much in common: both were blessed with witty and persuasive personalities; both eschewed the narrowly proscribed gender roles imposed by a judgmental Victorian society; and both courted controversy by tackling taboos in their writing. Besides, Oscar was not easily intimidated by anyone. Whatever the reason, he stopped inviting Rhoda to tea and she took this exclusion to heart. Her good friend Ethel Arnold, niece of Matthew and a pioneering journalist in her own right, claimed Rhoda was referring to Oscar when she carped:

I can’t forget those early years of my life, when those from whom I had every right and reason to expect kindness and hospitality showed me nothing but cold incivility. I resent it still, and I shall resent it until my dying day.

Oscar was reportedly furious when Rhoda caricatured him in Second Thoughts as, ‘long pale poet’ Francis Chaloner, who carries a, ‘lotus lily in one pale hand’. Leaving no room for doubt, she furnished Chaloner’s room with a great white lily in a large blue vase that stood alongside easels supporting, ‘various pictures in different stages of finish’. It seems she barely knew him, since she made Chaloner egotistical and humourless. Oscar was understandably wary and novelist Margaret Woods, a mutual friend, recalled:

The last time I met Oscar Wilde was at a private view of the Royal Academy; he then said that he had lately come across Rhoda Broughton and found her tongue as bitter as ever.

He took his revenge by reviewing Broughton’s Betty’s Visions for the Pall Mall Gazette in October 1886: ‘No one can ever say of her that she has tried to separate flippancy from fiction’, he wrote, ‘whatever harsh criticisms may be passed on the construction of her sentences, she at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin’. He closed by declaring: ‘In Philistia lies Miss Broughton’s true sphere and to Philistia she should return’.

Of course, he may have simply disliked her novel, but his words give an insight into how, for all his apparent poise, Oscar was rattled by those who showed him disdain; he could certainly harbor a grudge.

A full description of Wilde’s Women can be found here and the most recent review from The Independent is here.

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‘Crinolinemania’ and Oscar Wilde’s Tragic Half-Sisters

Today, I came across a fascinating article on ‘Crinolinemania’, which mentioned the danger of fire and suggested that 3,000 British women died in a ten year period when their crinoline dresses caught fire. Included in the fatalities from crinoline fires at this time were Oscar Wilde’s half-sisters, Emily and Mary.

CRINOLINES

On Halloween night, 31 October 1871, Emily and Mary Wilde, half-sisters to Oscar, attended a ball at Drumaconnor House in County Monaghan. Towards the end of the evening, Andrew Nicholl Reid, their host, invited Emily to take a last turn around the floor. As they waltzed past an open fireplace, Emily’s crinoline dress brushed against the embers and caught alight. When Mary rushed to her sister’s aid, she managed to set her own dress on fire in the attempt.

Eyewitness reports suggest that Reid wrapped his coat around Emily and attempted to extinguish the flames by rolling her on the ground outside. It seems Mary was left to fend for herself. Describing the incident in a letter to his son William several decades later, John Butler Yeats repeated an account given to him by a Mrs. Hime, a friend who was present that night and had noted the ‘prettiness’ of both young women:

‘After Mrs. Hime had left, one of the girls had gone too close to the fire…with the result that she was instantly in flames…both girls died’.

As is evidenced by the dates recorded in the brief notice that appeared in the Northern Standard on 25 November 1871, the women’s suffering was agonising and prolonged:

DIED

At Drumaconnor, on the 8th inst., Mary Wilde

At Drumaconnor, on the 21st inst., Emma [sic] Wilde

Entries in the Coroner’s Inquisition Book for County Monaghan suggest that this incident was the subject of two separate enquiries. The first examined the circumstances of Mary’s death, referring to her throughout as ‘Miss Wylie’, and her father as, ‘Sir Willm Wylie of Dublin’. Although this may have been a simple spelling mistake, it is perhaps more likely to have been a deliberate attempt to protect William’s good name. Certainly, the report refers to a letter from him requesting that no inquest be held since:

‘doing so, might be of fatal consequence to deceased’s sister, who is dangerously ill from severe burns caused to her while endeavoring to extinguish the burning clothes of her sister’

Confirming the details of Mary’s death, the coroner concluded that everything possible had been done to save her. Poor Emily lingered for almost a fortnight more and a second investigation determined that no inquest was required since both had died accidentally and no intervention would have prevented this. Mary and Emily Wilde were buried in the graveyard of St. Molua’s church in Drumnat, County Monaghan. The headstone erected to commemorate them read:

In memory of

2 loving and beloved sisters

Emily Wilde aged 24

And

Mary Wilde aged 22

who lost their lives by accident

in this parish in Novr 1871

They were lovely and pleasant in

their lives and in their death they

were not divided.

(II Samuel Chap. I, v 23)

William was dreadfully upset by the loss of his daughters: Mrs. Hime insisted that his ‘groans could be heard by people outside the house’. Oscar may not have known his half-sisters but, as he was living at home in Merrion Square when the incident had occurred, he must have observed the decline in his father.

Mrs. Hime’s suggestion that the girls’ mother was with them when they died was supported by local rumour. Anecdotal evidence suggests that, for twenty years afterwards, an enigmatic ‘lady in black’ traveled from Dublin to Monaghan by train, before taking a carriage to Drumsnatt cemetery, where she would stand silently by their graveside. When the churchwarden queried her relationship to the tragic young women, she replied that they had been very dear to her. Although the identity of this veiled woman was never discovered, she was almost certainly the same, ‘woman dressed in black and closely veiled’ who arrived at William’s bedside five years later when he lay dying.

Decades later, Oscar, who campaigned for ‘rational dress’ for women, befriended Henrietta Vaughn Stannard, founder of the Anti-Crinoline League.

More information is available in: Eamonn Mulligan and Fr. Brian McCluskey, “The Replay” – A Parish History (Monaghan, Sean McDermott’s G.F.C., 1984), pp.90-1

and

My book Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

 

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Opening Night of The Importance of Being Earnest – 14 February 1895

earnest

Original cast: Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh & George Alexander

The opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest took place at the St. James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895. Oscar Wilde’s great friend Ada Leverson was among the ‘distinguished audience’ that attended. Her lovely tribute to that brilliant occasion, contained in her memoir Letters to the Sphinx, shows that she saw no reason to believe that:

‘the gaiety was not to last, that his life was to become dark, cold, sinister as the atmosphere outside’.

There had been a ferocious snowstorm that day and the street was blocked with carriages depositing patrons who stepped down into a bitterly cold wind. Yet, such inclement conditions did nothing to deter the ‘Wilde fanatics’ who treated the arrival of his audience as an essential part of any performance. Describing how they ‘shouted and cheered the best known people,’ Leverson recalled that:

‘the loudest cheers were for the author who was as well-known as the Bank of England’.

Oscar, recently returned from Algiers where he had holidayed with Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared suntanned and prosperous, and had dressed with what Leverson described as ‘elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety’. He wore: a coat with a black velvet collar, a green carnation blooming at the buttonhole; a white waistcoat, from which he had hung a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch-chain; and white gloves, which he held in his hand, leaving his beloved large green scarab ring visible to all. On any other man, Leverson admitted, this ensemble might be taken for fancy dress, but Oscar, she thought:

‘seemed at ease and to have the look of the last gentleman in Europe’.

Flamboyant as ever, Oscar had declared lily-of-the-valley to be the flower of the evening ‘as a souvenir of an absent friend’ – Lord Alfred Douglas that was and not his wife Constance, also absent – and those gathered sported delicate sprays of that lovely flower: ‘What a rippling, glittering, chattering crowd was that!’ Ada declared, adding:

‘They were certain of some amusement, for if, by exception they did not care for the play, was not Oscar himself sure to do something to amuse them?’

The play did not disappoint. Irene Vanbrugh, who played Gwendolen Fairfax, wrote in To Tell My Story that it ‘went with a delightful ripple of laughter from start to finish’. During the short time she knew Oscar she admired his ‘charm of manner and his elegance’ and the fact that ‘no one was too insignificant for him to take trouble to please’. Years later, she recalled how she:

‘felt tremendously flattered when he congratulated me at one of the rehearsals’.

irene-vanbrugh

As the curtain fell at the end of the performance that night, Oscar stepped forward and was greeted with an ovation. He stood smoking while he waited for the applause to subside; the evening was a triumph. Yet, a dangerous drama was unfolding in the vicinity of the theatre that night. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, had grown increasingly frantic in his efforts to stop his son seeing Oscar and had planned to make a public protest by throwing a grotesque tribute, a bouquet of rotting vegetables, onstage.

Oscar was tipped off and foiled his nemesis by persuading the theatre manager, George Alexander, to revoke Queensberry’s ticket and to organise for a cordon of policemen to surround the building. Thwarted, Queensberry hung around outside for hours, muttering with fury, before delivering his monstrous bouquet to the stage door. This was the beginning of the end for Oscar.

For what happens next you could do worse than read my book Wilde’s Women. More information about it here.

PBCover

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Sarah’s Menagerie

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Fêted for her talent on-stage, Sarah Bernhardt was also an accomplished sculptor and exhibited at the Paris Salon. In London, she used the proceeds of a sale of her work at the William Russell Galleries to add several exotic creatures to her private menagerie. These included a cheetah and a wolfhound, which she bought from the Cross Zoo in Liverpool. She had hoped to purchase two lions and a dwarf elephant but had be content with seven chameleons, which were thrown in for free by proprietor, Mr. Cross; she had a gold chain made for her favorite, Cross-ci Crossça, so that he could sit on her shoulder while attached to her lapel.

Yet, Bernhardt was not always kind to her animals. The death of Ali-Gaga, her alligator, was attributed to his diet of milk and champagne, and she shot her boa constrictor after he swallowed one of her sofa cushions. So why did she keep so many exotic animals? Did she see them as an extension of her own untamed and unusual persona – she was often credited with having animal traits, most notably those of a snake.  Did she regard these creatures as beloved pets or living accessories? After all, her tortoise Chrysagére, who died in a fire, had a gilded shell set with brilliant topazes. I’d love to know more about the nature of Bernhardt’s relationship with the animals she owned.

Sarah Bernhardt is just one of the remarkable women in my book Wilde’s Women, read more here.

PBCover

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