Monthly Archives: January 2016

Yeats on Wilde

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about our great poet W.B. Yeats recently, since 2015 marked the 150 year anniversary of his birth. I’m taking this opportunity to comment on his connections to the Wilde family as outlined in my book, Wilde’s Women. He was rather skeptical about Oscar & Constance’s marriage.

W.B. Yeats as a young man

Although Yeats knew the Wildes well, and thought them ‘very imaginative and learned’, his retrospective commentary, on Oscar in particular, is coloured by the events that marred Oscar’s life. For this reason, it should be treated with some caution. Yet, his observations offer valuable insights into the lives of Lady Jane Wilde and Oscar Wilde in particular.

Perhaps most telling of all is a remark Yeats included in Letters to The New Island (1934):

‘When one listens to her [Lady Jane Wilde] and remembers that Sir William Wilde was in his day a famous raconteur, one finds it no way wonderful that Oscar Wilde should be the most finished talker of our time’

He certainly thought highly of Oscar’s abilities as a raconteur, and he praised him in The Trembling of the Veil, writing:

‘I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous’.

In 1887, Ward and Downey published Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, a compendium of folk tales, several of them collected by her late husband, William, while he was compiling data for the Irish censuses of 1841 and 1851. Yeats praised this collection lavishly and referred to it liberally in his own Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.

Lady Jane Wilde

His admiration for Lady Wilde prompted him to ask novelist Katharine Tynan to write him a letter of introduction to her; he expressed the hope that he would find Lady Wilde:

‘as delightful as her book …as delightful as she certainly is unconventional’.

Jane, always welcoming to young Dubliners who were trying to make their way in London, as she and her sons had, embraced him as ‘my Irish poet’. He in turn acknowledged that London had few better talkers. Noting her ambitious nature, he decided that Jane:

‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance’.

Perhaps his greatest tribute to Jane was to christen Maud Gonne, his great love and muse, ‘The New Speranza’. Both women were six feet tall.

Yeats also admired Oscar’s writing. He asked permission to include ‘Requiescat’, the poem inspired by the tragic early death of his sister, Isola Wilde, in the anthology of Irish verse he compiled. In reply, Oscar wrote:

 ‘I don’t know that I think ‘Requiescat’ very typical of my work’.

Undeterred, Yeats used it anyway and it was hailed as, ‘the brightest gem in this collection’.

Later, Yeats commented on Oscar’s only novel, declaring: ‘Dorian Gray, with all its faults, is a wonderful book’.

He also realised how astute it was of Oscar to dedicate many of his stories to society women who could further his career, and he declared of Wilde’s plays:

‘the famous paradoxes, the rapid sketches of men and women of society, the mockery of most things under heaven, are delightful’

Yet, he realised how subversive they were and understood that the only real people in A Woman of No Importance were the villains and non-conformists, declaring that the:

‘tragic and emotional people, the people who are important to the story, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot, and Hester Worsley, are conventions of the stage.’

When it came to Oscar’s personal life, Yeats believed he was constructing an elaborate facade. He recalled spending Christmas Day 1888 with Oscar and Constance, and wrote:

‘I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his [Oscar’s] life there, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition’.

Decades after Oscar’s early death, Yeats admitted:

‘of late years I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history’.

He speculated that Oscar might have fled to safety had his mother not declared:

‘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’.

Many years earlier, she too had lost a libel action, but she had treated it as a victory and a vindication nonetheless.

Yeats also shed light on the source of Lady Wilde’s intense nationalism. When he delivered a speech marking the centenary of the birth of Young Irelander Thomas Davis on 20 November 1914, Yeats included an account, which he claimed came directly from Jane, of how she had happened upon Davis’s funeral procession in September 1845.[i] Impressed that a poet with such high ideals could provoke this outpouring of adulation and grief, she decided to embrace his cause. Oscar recounted a similar version of this incident during a lecture he delivered to the Irish Diaspora in San Francisco in 1882.

By coincidence Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, was also present at Davis’s funeral in his capacity as member of the Royal Irish Academy. Years later he was invited to head a committee formed to commemorate Davis, and it was he who commissioned the marble figure of Davis by sculptor John Hogan that stands in Dublin’s City Hall.

Thomas Davis

Thomas Davis

Sources:

[i] W.B. Yeats, Tribute to Thomas Davis (Cork, Cork University Press, 1947), p.17.

Much of the information for this post comes from: W.B. Yeats. 1922. The Trembling of the Veil. London: Werner Laurie and my book, Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

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OUIDA: THE FORGOTTEN NOVELIST WHO INSPIRED OSCAR WILDE

When Michael Dirda reviewed Wilde’s Women for the Washington Post last year, he drew attention to two women novelists in particular, writing:

In one fascinating chapter, Fitzsimons writes at length about the two best-selling female authors of the time, Marie Corelli, whose mystical novels, such as “The Sorrows of Satan,” were admired by Gladstone, Thackeray and Queen Victoria, and the sybaritic, luxury-loving Ouida. The latter is now faintly remembered for her foreign-legion classic “Under Two Flags,” but she made her reputation with witty, decadent works such as “Moths” and “Princess Napraxine” that may have influenced Wilde when he came to write his own novel.

Since she is one of my absolute favourites of Wilde’s Women, I have written this longer piece on the remarkable Ouida.

Ouida

It is 1867. Where in London would an inventive woman with a healthy bank balance, desirous of inhabiting a rarefied world of beauty and luxury, choose to live? Why, the Langham Hotel of course. One of the hotel’s most celebrated residents was Maria Louisa Ramé, known as Ouida, her own childhood mispronunciation of her middle name. Although largely forgotten, she was one of the most successful novelists England has ever produced.

Ouida was born into 1 Union Terrace,her maternal grandmother’s now-demolished modest home in Bury St. Edmunds. Her parents were local woman Susan Sutton, and Louis Ramé, a Guernsey native who made an erratic living teaching French. An exotic charmer who hinted at a close friendship with Louis Napoleon, Ramé was an unreliable presence in his daughter’s life.

Ouida dreamed big and began writing novels in her teens. Before a single word had been published, she convinced her mother and grandmother to move to London on the strength of her future success. Her confidence was rewarded when Tinsley Brothers paid fifty pounds – almost five thousand in today’s terms – for the rights to Held in Bondage, her first novel. It became an instant sensation.

As her celebrity grew, and with it her bank balance, Ouida took a suite of rooms in the Langham Hotel, a luxurious establishment finished to the highest standards with ornate Italianate public areas, modern plumbing, and a series of ‘rising rooms’, hydraulic lifts that carried guests from floor to floor. Her gatherings there were scandalous. Since she considered women ‘ungenerous, cruel, pitiless’, her guest list was made up almost exclusively of men.

Langham_hotel

One aristocratic woman of her acquaintance complained that Ouida ‘was not charitable to her own sex, and was very intolerant of women who had made a shipwreck of their own lives’. It was said that the only woman she ever invited to her suite at the Langham was the formidable Isabel Burton, wife of explorer, Richard.

Ouida’s decadent novels celebrated a lush aristocratic existence and her aesthetic style kicked against the fetters imposed by Victorian notions of prudence, rationality and worth. She pioneered a new style of language, studded with witty epigrams, which allowed her characters to indulge in the most subversive behaviour imaginable. Her paeans to beauty earned her a devoted following amongst Aesthetes and Pre-Raphaelites, but she was also hugely popular with the shop girls and footmen who frequented the circulating libraries or saved up for six shilling, single-volume reprints of her latest novel.

In appearance and manner, Ouida adopted the standards she set for her heroines. She cultivated a wildly eccentric look and allowed her mane of blonde hair to tumble down her back until she was well into her thirties. Her dresses, made to her own design by Charles Worth, had short sleeves and curtailed hemlines contrived to show off her dainty hands and tiny feet to best effect. She favoured pale shades, white satin in particular, and was said to make her timid mother wear black for contrast.

Yet, a rival described her as ‘small, insignificant-looking with no pretension to beauty, her harsh voice, and manner almost grotesque in its affectation’. Ouida didn’t seem to notice, perhaps she simply didn’t care. She loved to hold court, cutting through the chatter with a ‘harsh and unpleasing’ voice that was likened by an acquaintance to ‘a carving-knife’. When one brave soul shushed her during a musical performance, her indignant reaction was that, since she talked better than others, she ought to be listened to.

Ouida was prolific and wrote by candlelight, propped up in bed at the Langham, scratching a goose quill dipped in violet ink across large sheets of blue paper. When she rose, she would adopt the costume of a character in her current novel, one day a princess, the next a peasant maiden. She accessorised with blooms favoured by her fictional creations.

Above all else, Ouida adored opulence and her extraordinary excesses were funded from the ever-increasing payments she negotiated with eager publishers. Every penny was spent as soon as she got it, often on some fabulous though utterly unserviceable objet d’art. She collected exquisite china and served tea to her guests in priceless Capo di Monte cups, or invited them to wash down platters of uncommon delicacies with the finest vintage wines. Novelist W. H. Mallock recognised this mad extravagance as her attempt to ‘live up to the standards of her heroines’.

In 1871, at the height of her fame, Ouida swapped the Langham for a sprawling villa in Florence; it was falling down around her but it had belonged to a Medici. Returning to London and the Langham for an extended stay in 1886, she accepted an invitation to one of Lady Jane Wilde’s literary ‘Wednesdays’. A fellow guest reported that she

‘spoke in quick disjointed sentences with a peculiar accent, and constantly referred to Oscar – in fact she directed all her conversation to him’.

Wilde invited Ouida to contribute to The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited at the time, and she wrote four articles for him. ‘Have you read my article on War in Oscar Wilde’s magazine?’ she asked a friend. ‘The magazine is so good, its only defect is its title’. In ‘Apropos of a Dinner’, Ouida argued that, although smoking was a ‘silly and injurious habit’, women should be allowed to remain at the dinner table while men indulged; she horrified all of London by doing so herself.

In ‘The Streets of London’, she criticised the ugliness of the city, arguing that a profusion of railings gave ‘almost every house in London the aspect of a menagerie combined with a madhouse’. She despaired of basements, describing them as ‘subterranean places in which nothing but the soul of a blackbeetle can possibly delight’.

In ‘Field-work For Women’, which she illustrated with reproductions of oil paintings she had done in Florence, Ouida postulated that outdoor agricultural labour was far more beneficial to women than unhealthy factory work. In ‘War’, she denounced the evils of combat, which ‘cripples and impoverishes every class of the nation’, and she expressed her vehement opposition to conscription.

Reviewing Ouida’s ‘amazing romance’ Guilderoy in the Pall Mall Gazette, Wilde dubbed her ‘the last of the romantics’. His admiring verdict was ‘though she is rarely true, she is never dull’. Certainly, Ouida was never troubled by pedestrian notions of accuracy. In any case, her fans were always clamouring for another of what Max Beerbohm described as the

‘lurid sequence of books and short stories and essays which she has poured forth so swiftly, with such irresistible élan’.

What appealed to her readers was the unashamed glamour of her situations. That her themes were judged unwholesome only added to her appeal, although her books were often hidden when disapproving visitors called. Seduction, adultery, voyeurism and prostitution were tackled head-on and, although she steered clear of overt homosexuality, her books were undeniably homoerotic.

Under_Two_Flags.jpg

Ouida popularised the indolent male dandy connoisseur. Her women were strikingly beautiful and aristocratic socialites, loyal to no one but themselves, who spoke in epigrammatic language reminiscent of Wilde’s. While her influence should not be overstated, critics recognised something of her style in his work. In a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the St. James’ Gazette opined that while ‘the style was better than Ouida’s popular aesthetic romances the erudition remained nonetheless equal’. Their critic concluded, ‘the grammar is better than Ouida’s – the erudition equal; but in every other respect we prefer the talented lady’.

Writing in McBride’s Magazine, Julian Hawthorne, journalist son of Nathaniel, claimed:

Mr. Wilde‘s writing has what is called “colour,” – the quality that forms the main-stay of many of Ouida‘s works, – and it appears in the sensuous descriptions of nature and of the decorations and environments of the artistic life.

Ouida’s short play Afternoon, which was published in 1883, introduced ‘Aldred Dorian’, a collector of beautiful objects and a painter of portraits.

When Wilde sent Ouida a copy of Dorian Gray, she declared: ‘I do understand it’. She had returned to Florence by then, having spent more recklessly than ever during her four month stay in London. While there, she had ordered a new wardrobe from The House of Worth and lavished £200 a week on ‘turning her sitting room in the Langham Hotel into a glade of the most expensive flowers’. When W. H. Mallock hosted a luncheon for her in the Bachelors’ Club, she arrived:

…trimmed with the most exuberant furs, which, when they were removed, revealed a costume of primrose-colour—a costume so artfully cut that, the moment she sat down, all eyes were dazzled by the sparkling of her small protruded shoes.

Such extravagance emptied Ouida’s purse, obliging her to seek assistance from friends. In The Real Oscar Wilde, Robert Sherard claimed that it was Wilde who ‘furnished her with sufficient money to pay the Margaret Street people [where she had modest lodgings], and rescue her luggage, and then to return to Florence’.

In Italy, Ouida fared no better. When the lucrative publishing deals dried up, she swapped her villa for an ever-degenerating series of lodging houses from which she was sometimes evicted by force. News of her plight reached fellow novelist Marie Corelli, who persuaded the editor of the Daily Mail to establish a fund to assist her. On reading this, Ouida became incandescent with rage and demanded that he never print her name again.

Ouida_cartoon

When friends petitioned the Prime Minister to grant her a Civil List Pension of £150 a year, she railed that this sum was ‘only fit for superannuated butlers’. When Ouida was aged seventy and a shadow of her former self, living in a modest lodging house in Viareggio, the Daily Mirror captioned a photograph of an ancient Italian peasant woman ‘Ouida’. The real Ouida protested vigorously; that newspaper made amends after she died of pneumonia on 25 January 1908, by launching a Memorial Fund. When the company of the Lyceum Theatre gave a fundraising gala matinee, a  special train was run from Bury to London for the occasion.

The inscription on the Ouida Monument, unveiled on 2 November 1909, reads:

‘This memorial was erected from funds subscribed by readers of the Daily Mirror and by friends and admirers in all parts of the world.’

Ouida Monument Bury-St-Edmunds

Ouida Monument, Bury St Edmunds

Part memorial, part drinking fountain, the monument, which is stained and neglected now and obscured for much of the year by trees, also features a bronze plaque depicting an idealised profile portrait of a woman, flanked by Courage, who carries a sword, and Sympathy, who cradles a puppy. An inscription, written by Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, reads:

‘Here may God’s creatures whom she loved assuage her tender soul as they drink.’

What would Ouida have made of all this? Not much, it seems. Years earlier, when she had learned that a plaque was to be erected at 1 Union Terrace, she complained to a friend: ‘This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind.’

Months after her death, her publisher Macmillan brought out her final novel, Helianthus in its incomplete form. Today, her books are out of print and she is largely forgotten, but they are all available online and are well worth revisiting.

PBCover

Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. Follow me on twitter @EleanorFitz

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Oscar & Constance: a love story

On this day in 1884, Oscar Wilde wrote a letter to his good friend Thomas Waldo Story – sculptor, art critic, poet and literary editor – from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield, where he was lecturing at the time.

In this letter, he described in glowing and playful terms the young woman to whom he had become engaged weeks earlier:

Her name is Constance and she is quite young, very grave, and mystical, with wonderful eyes, and dark brown coils of hair: quite perfect except that she does not think Jimmy [Whistler] the only painter that ever really existed: she would like to bring Titian or somebody in by the back door: however, she knows I am the greatest poet, so in literature she is all right: and I have explained to her that you are the greatest sculptor: art instruction cannot go further.

We are, of course, desperately in love.

Constance Lloyd before her marriage to Oscar Wilde (Merlin Holland Picture Archive)

Constance Lloyd before her marriage to Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd on May 29, 1884. This letter is reproduced in Holland, Merlin and Rupert Hart-Davis (Eds). The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, Fourth Estate, 2000), pp.225-6

Read more about their marriage in Wilde’s Women

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Was Yvette Guilbert “The Ugliest Woman in The World”?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944), French cabaret singer and actress of La Belle Époque. Artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was captivated by her and she modeled for him many times, although what emerged was not always a flattering likeness.

Yvette Guilbert Salue le Public (1894)

Perhaps Toulouse Lautrec was faithful in his rendering of Guilbert’s unconventional appearance. Rumour has it that she exchanged the following words with Oscar Wilde at the studio of Wilde’s friend, artist Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy:

Ne suis-je pas, Monsieur, la femme la plus laide de France ? (Am I not, Sir, the ugliest woman in France?)

Guilbert asked.

To which Wilde replied:

Du monde, Madame, du monde (The world, Madame, the world).

It’s a great story but I’m not certain I believe it since Wilde was generally far more gallant than that. Although I decided not to include this peripheral figure in Wilde’s Women, there is evidence that she met Wilde.This pencil drawing, dated 1898, by Catalan artist Ricard Opisso i Sala (1880-1966), shows Toulouse Lautrec, Wilde and Guilbert sitting together at Le Moulin de la Galette, Montmartre, Paris.

They are together in death since both are buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The main source for this article can be found on the http://www.oscholars.com website here.

 

 

 

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The Raven and the Revolutionaries

Today, 19 January marks the anniversary of the birth of American author Edgar Allan Poe in 1809. In December 1811, just weeks before her son’s third birthday, Poe’s mother, Eliza Poe, an English-born American actress, died from tuberculosis. His father, David Poe, who was of Irish descent, had abandoned the family by then. Local paper, the Enquirer, reported on Poe’s mother’s death:

“On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time“.

220px-eliza_poe

Only known image of Eliza Poe

Poe was taken into the home of Scottish Merchant John Allan, who gave the young boy his name. Best known for his chilling yet utterly compelling tales of the macabre, it was Poe’s supernatural narrative poem, The Raven that brought him to the attention of an admiring American public when it appeared in the New York Mirror on February 8, 1845; it had been published in the American Review the previous month under the pseudonym ‘Quarles’. Within weeks, The Raven had been reprinted a dozen times and had spawned several parodies.

Poe raven

From Nevermore: The Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane  in Cornell University

This hugely positive response ensured that Poe achieved fame in his lifetime, and his literary legacy lingers to this day. References to The Raven in popular culture include appearances in: Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) when Georgette, the lead character in ‘The Queen is Dead’, reads the poem aloud; in Joan Aiken’s novel Arabel’s Raven (1972); in Stephen King’s novel Insomnia (1994); in the 1989 film Batman when Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale to ‘Take thy beak from out my heart’; and in The Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ when Lisa reads the poem aloud to Bart and Maggie.

The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror

Yet, Poe might never have achieved such prominence without the help of Anne Lynch Botta (1815-1891), a prominent patron of the arts whose literary gatherings at her brownstone salon at 25 West 37th Street, were described as a ‘bibliophile’s dream’, and were attended by every major poet, artist and musician of her day, among them Emerson, Irving, Trollope, Thackeray, Horace Greeley, Fanny Osgood and Margaret Fuller. Lynch Botta introduced Poe, virtually unknown in New York, to her influential circle and encouraged him to read early versions of The Raven aloud.

Manet Le Corbeau Illustration

Illustration by Edouard Manet

Although a published poet herself, friends confirmed: ‘It was not so much what Mrs. Botta did for literature with her own pen, as what she helped others to do, that will make her name a part of the literary history of the country’.[i] In The Literati of New York – No. V, Poe wrote of her:

In character Miss Lynch is enthusiastic, chivalric, self-sacrificing, “equal to any Fate,” capable of even martyrdom in whatever should seem to her a holy cause — a most exemplary daughter. She has her hobbies, however, (of which a very indefinite idea of “duty” is one,) and is, of course, readily imposed upon by any artful person who perceives and takes advantage of this most amiable failing.

He described her appearance too:

In person she is rather above the usual height, somewhat slender, with dark hair and eyes — the whole countenance at times full of intelligent expression. Her demeanor is dignified, graceful, and noticeable for repose. She goes much into literary society.

Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta ap95 Metropolitan Museum cropped.jpg

Anne Lynch Botta

While his literary talent also emerged in time, it may have been the revolutionary credentials of his formidable mother that attracted Lynch Botta to young Oscar Wilde, who she entertained during the early weeks of his 1882 tour of America. Her own father, a revolutionary Dubliner named Patrick Lynch, had been first imprisoned, then deported from Ireland, aged eighteen, after the failed rising of 1798. By coincidence, Lady Jane Wilde, as she had become by then, presided over a hugely popular literary salon of her own in London, where she had resettled after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. Both women are included in my book, Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

UPDATE: John Cooper’s blog on Oscar Wilde in America is a wonderful source of information and he provides fascinating new insights into Wilde’s connection with Botta in a recent blog post.

[i] Memoirs of Anne C. L. Botta, written by her friends (New York, J. S. Tait & sons, 1893), p.23

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Latest Reviews for Wilde’s Women

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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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Wilde as Literary Magpie

The Public Domain Review has a great article On Oscar Wilde and Plagiarism, which he engaged in unashamedly. My favourite quote on the subject, which I include in Wilde’s Women, comes from bestselling Victorian novelist Ouida; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was often compared to her work:

“I have written three comedies in one year,’ he [Wilde] said to a friend of mine, and my friend replied: ‘A great exercise of memory!”

Love her!!

I’ll write a post about her soon…

Ouida

Bestselling Victorian Novelist Ouida

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The Family of Things

I was delighted to join Helen Shaw of Athena Media recently as the tenth guest on their excellent ‘The Family of Things’ series of podcasts. You can visit the website here or listen on iTunes.

Here’s the blurb from the Athena Media Website:

Author and researcher Eleanor Fitzsimons is our latest guest in The Family of Things.

 

Eleanor Fitzsimons PR Shot

Eleanor Fitzsimons: Author of Wilde’s Women

Eleanor’s acclaimed biography of Oscar Wilde from the perspective of the women in his life ‘Wilde’s Women’ opens new windows on both Wilde and his work.

Eleanor’s beautifully written and carefully researched study was published in Ireland in Autumn 2015 and is being released in the US this year. In this conversation with presenter Helen Shaw she introduces us to Wilde’s intriguing mother, Jane Wilde, a celebrated writer in her own time, and his much suffering wife Constance LLoyd as well as the women writers who influenced and inspired Wilde.

Eleanor describes her work as ‘recovering’ lost stories of women in history and sees her journey as akin to excavating the past; bringing forth what has been forgotten or obscured.
Wilde’s Women is published by Duckworth Overlook and you can follow Eleanor’s work and story via twitter.

 

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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

English actress Ellen Terry is immortalised in an iconic painting by Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was considered the leading portrait painter of his day. In this portrait, which I was privileged to be allowed to include in my book Wilde’s Women,Terry is wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, a remarkable emerald gown that shimmered with the iridescent wings of the one thousand jewel beetles that had been sewn into it.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

One of my favourite passages in Wilde’s Women describes Oscar Wilde glancing out of the window of his Tite Street home and seeing Terry, a great friend of his, arriving at John Singer Sargent’s Chelsea studio for a sitting. This extraordinary sight prompted him to remark:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.[i]

Later, Wilde chose Singer Sargent’s iconic painting for the frontispiece of the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887-1889.

To his great credit, Sargent suggested that Alice Comyns Carr, a vocal advocate of aesthetic dress who had worked on the design for Terry’s magnificent costume, should co-sign his painting since he considered her as much its creator as he. The woman who made Comyns Carr’s design a reality was dressmaker Ada Nettleship who, along with her team of thirty seamstresses, also made Constance Wilde’s beautiful aesthetic wedding gown. Constance’s gown, the subject of intense public scrutiny, went on public display in March 1884, and was described in society magazine Queen:

…rich creamy satin dress…of a delicate cowslip tint; the bodice, cut square and somewhat low in front, was finished with a high Medici collar; the ample sleeves were puffed; the skirt, made plain, was gathered by a silver girdle of beautiful workmanship, the gift of Mr. Oscar Wilde; the veil of saffron-coloured Indian silk gauze was embroidered with pearls and worn in Marie Stuart fashion; a thick wreath of myrtle leaves crowned her frizzed hair; the dress was ornamented with clusters of myrtle leaves; the large bouquet had as much green in it as white [ii].

Terry loved her Lady Macbeth costume and wrote about it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life:

One of Mrs. Nettle’s greatest triumphs was my Lady Macbeth dress, which she carried out from Mrs Comyns Carr.  I am glad to think it is immortalised in Sargent’s picture. From the first I knew that picture was going to be splendid. In my diary for 1888 I was always writing about it:

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“The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent.  The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful . . .”

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“Sargent’s picture is almost finished, and it really is splendid. Burne-Jones yesterday suggested two or three alterations about the colour which Sargent immediately adopted, but Burne-Jones raves about the picture . . .”

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“Sargent’s picture is talked of everywhere and quarrelled about as much as my way of playing the part . . .”

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“Sargent’s Lady Macbeth in the New Gallery is a great success.  The picture is the sensation of the year.  Of course, opinions differ about it, but there are dense crowds round it day after day.”

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Since then it has gone nearly over the whole of Europe and is now resting for life in the Tate Gallery.  Sargent suggested by this picture all that I should have liked to be able to convey in my acting as Lady Macbeth.

She looks both wonderful and terrible it it.

The dress, which is exhibited at Smallhyde Place, Terry’s former home, was painstakingly restored in 2011. I am very much looking forward to visiting Terry’s former home with the Oscar Wilde Society. I delivered a talk on the close connections between Terry and Wilde in the barn theatre in September 2016 and you can read the transcript here.

References:

[i] W. Graham Robertson, Time Was (London, H. Hamilton ltd., 1933, reprinted by Quartet Books, 1981), p.233

[ii] From Queen, reprinted in Freeborn County Standard from Albert Lea, Minnesota, 23 July 1884, p.7; also described in Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.258

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BARS Blog – On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part I

Today saw the publication of my first blog post (but not my last) for the brilliant and very highly regarded British Association for Romantic Studies. Part one of ‘The Year Without a Summer’, which kicks off their commemoration of the events of 1816, appears here. I’ve reproduced it below. Do please visit the blog and comment if you have anything to add.

INTRODUCTION:

We are very pleased to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons (winner of the 2013 Keats-Shelley Prize and author of Wilde’s Women) to the BARS blog. This post, part of the ‘On This Day’ series, presents Part I of her essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’. Eleanor’s essay looks at 1816 as the year of no summer and examines the impact that catastrophic weather patterns had on the work of writers and painters such as Turner, Austen and the Shelleys. Part II is to follow.

We think you’ll all agree that this is a great way to introduce 1816 in 2016, a year in which we will be celebrating the bicentenaries of many important Romantic events. If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer (anna.mercer@york.ac.uk). 

EVERY CLOUD: HOW ART AND LITERATURE BENEFITED FROM A YEAR WITHOUT SUMMER TurnerWeathercoteCave-300x300JMW Turner. Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour. British Museum

Often, an artist must go to great lengths to get the aspect he desires. In 1808, English Romantic landscape painter Joseph Mallord William Turner scrambled to the bottom of Weathercote Cave, a misnamed pothole situated close to the hamlet of Chapel-le-Dale in North Yorkshire. On reaching a plateau, thirty-three meters below ground level, he unpacked his kit and produced a characteristically vibrant watercolor that captured the wild torrent of water as it tumbled from a cavity situated two-thirds up before terminating in a violent whirlpool at the base of towering rocks. Barely discernible at the foot of the canvas is a tiny figure that appears to represent the artist himself. Turner’s somewhat dramatized representation, which he presented to his great friend and patron Walter Fawkes, is titled simply Weathercote Cave, Yorkshire and can be seen in Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery.

Turner loved to paint the Northern English landscape and experimented with dramatic light and weather effects in his compositions. In recognition of his deep appreciation for the untamed beauty of the region, Longman & Co. commissioned him to produce one-hundred-and-twenty watercolours for incorporation into an illustrated history of Yorkshire, the accompanying text to be supplied by the Reverend Dr. Thomas Dunham Whitaker, the highly respected author of a well-received series of scholarly histories. Although artist and author had worked together on Whitaker’s The History of Whalley (1801) and his The History of Craven (1812), this would be by far their most ambitious collaboration and Turner’s fee of three thousand guineas was the highest paid to a British artist at the time.

On July 12, 1816, Turner left London and travelled north to Farnley Hall near Otley, the home of Walter Fawkes, who was to accompany him on this lucrative tour. Regrettably, the undertaking proved to be far from pleasurable. Although the entire Fawkes family set out with the artist on a series of excursions to local beauty spots, the company disbanded at the end of a week of almost constant rain that culminated in a thorough soaking as they traversed the moors that led to the towering cliffs of Gordale Scar. In order to complete the sketches that would form the basis of his finished watercolours, Turner had no option but to negotiate his way around the vast county of Yorkshire, a distance of more than five hundred miles, alone on horseback in torrential rain. At some point, a capricious wind must have snatched his little sketchbook from his hands, since one page is coated in mud to this day. As he went, he recorded how his progress was hampered by the frightful weather that blighted the summer of 1816: ‘Weather miserably wet. I shall be web-footed like a drake…but I must proceed northwards. Adieu’, he lamented in a letter to watercolorist James Holworthy, dated July 31, 1816

Turner returned to Weathercote cave that summer with the intention of sketching it for inclusion in his book, but days of incessant rain had left it submerged and completely inaccessible; ‘Weathercote full’, he scribbled on the pencil study he made that day. His finished painting, the cumbersomely titled Weathercote Cave, near Ingleton, when half-filled with Water and the Entrance Impassable, a watercolour, is on view in the British Museum; this time the perspective is from above. Days later, the route Turner followed took him across the treacherous Lancaster Sands, a low tide shortcut that intersected Morecombe Bay and was particularly dangerous after heavy rainfall. As he went, he sketched a sodden band of horsemen huddling together in the lee of the Lancaster coach while ferocious rain crashed down from an angry sky. His dramatic Lancaster Sands is housed in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Turnerlancaster-sands-300x205

After all his efforts, Turner must have been disappointed when spiralling costs ensured that the project was scaled down significantly and just one of the proposed seven volumes was published. He had been desperately unfortunate in his timing. The apocalyptic weather that blighted the summer of 1816 was truly exceptional and had its origins in an event that occurred fifteen months earlier and many thousands of miles from England. On the evening of April 10, 1815, the tiny island of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago was rocked when Mount Tambora, the highest mountain in the region and a volcano that was long believed to be extinct, produced its largest eruption for ten thousand years. The outcome was catastrophic. Eyewitness accounts describe how the summit disintegrated, leaving behind a crater measuring three miles wide and half a mile deep. Horrified locals watched open-mouthed as three towering columns of rock-laden fire shot thirty miles skywards and a pyrocastic flow of incandescent ash surged down the mountainside at a speed of in excess of one hundred miles an hour, scouring everything in its path. On reaching the coast, twenty-five miles from its point of origin, this boiling mass cascaded into the sea, destroying aquatic life for miles and forming vast platforms of pumice that blockaded vital ports and inlets.

Ten times the quantity of debris that had buried Pompeii two millennia earlier rained down on Sumbawa and its neighboring islands during what remains to this day the largest recorded eruption in history. On Sumbawa, the cool air that was sucked into the vacuum left by the inexorable rise of superheated air formed a ferocious whirlwind that moved across the ravaged landscape, destroying everything before it. The tiny villages of Tambora and Sanggar, which had clung safely to the slopes of Mount Tambora for generations, were wiped out entirely and an estimated ten thousand people died in an instant. Fresh water sources were contaminated and crops withered in the fields, resulting in the death by starvation of a further eighty thousand inhabitants of the region. For days, the archipelago was battered by towering tsunamis and such was the extent of the devastation and loss of life that the indigenous Tambora language was eradicated forever.

On the northern shore of Eastern Java, three hundred miles away, residents of the city of Surabaya reported that the ground shook beneath their feet. On hearing a series of thunderous roars, startled inhabitants of the island of Sumatra, which lay one thousand miles northwest of Sumbawa, concluded that they had come under attack from some deadly enemy force, although they couldn’t be sure if it were human or supernatural. Within days, the entire region was enveloped in an ash cloud so fine that tiny particles suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere blocked adequate sunlight from filtering through. The entire East Indies, as the region was known, was plunged into an oppressive and unnatural darkness. Within three months an aerosol cloud of sulphide gas compounds had encircled the Earth from pole to pole. Volcanic dust entered the high stratosphere, supplementing debris deposited there by two earlier volcanic eruptions: La Soufrière on the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent in 1812, and Mount Mayon on the island of Luzon in the Philippines in 1814. Although he had not witnessed the spectacular eruption of La Soufrière, Turner had painted it, basing his vivid oil painting on a sketch made by Hugh Perry Keane, a barrister and sugar plantation owner who was present that day. Keane wrote an account of the eruption in his diary:

Thurs 30: … in the afternoon the roaring of the mountain increased & at 7 o’clock the Flames burst forth, and the dreadful Eruption began. All night watching it – between 2 & 5 o’clock in the morning, showers of Stones & Earthquakes threatened our immediate Destruction …Wed 6 May: … The Volcano again blazed away from 7 till ½ past 8. Thurs 7: Rose at 7. Drawing the eruption.

Turner’s painting, The Eruption of the Soufrière Mountains in the Island of St Vincent, 1815, can be viewed at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool.

TurnerEruptionofSoufrière-Mountains-300x219

All this volcanic activity had a disastrous impact on the weather, and nowhere on Earth escaped the consequences of this latest cataclysm. Across the globe, average temperatures plummeted by five degrees Fahrenheit as weather patterns were thrown into absolute chaos. In time, 1816 would be dubbed ‘the year without summer’. In Asia, unseasonably cold weather coupled with unprecedented early monsoons caused catastrophic floods that destroyed the rice crop and wiped out valuable livestock. Famine gripped China, killing many thousands of her citizens, while India was devastated by a cholera epidemic that swept through the subcontinent. In North America, accumulating snow was observed in the Catskill Mountains as late as June 1816, and it snowed on Independence Day in the southern state of Virginia.

Unprecedented quantities of weirdly-hued, ash-laden snow fell all over Europe and it was still snowing in London as late as July 1816. By the following September, the Thames had frozen and abnormally large hailstones were flattening the wheat and barley crops as they ripened in the fields. In neighboring Ireland, eight weeks of incessant rain resulted in the failure of both the potato crop and the corn harvest, triggering a widespread famine that provided a foretaste of what was to come three decades later. Starvation was followed inexorably by disease. Typhus erupted throughout the British Isles before fanning outwards across Europe and killing tens of thousands of her citizens.

Part 2 can be read on the BARS website here.

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