One of the more unusual episodes in Wilde’s Women concerns Oscar Wilde’s brother, Willie. A handsome man endowed with considerable charm, Willie also planned to marry well, and he was always on the lookout for a suitable partner.
In 1876, when Ethel Smyth was eighteen, she was taken to on holiday to Ireland by family friends. While playing the newly invented game of lawn tennis at the home of Lord Fitzgerald in the seaside town of Bray county Wicklow, she met a ‘young barrister, Mr. William Wilde’. The pair got on famously and, by Ethel’s account:
‘discussed poetry, the arts, and more particularly philosophy, in remoter parts of the garden’.
What attracted Ethel to Willie more than any other quality was his musical talent; he was an accomplished and inventive pianist. She was delighted to discover that they were booked on the same crossing from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) to Holyhead the very next day. In Impressions that Remain, Ethel recalled Willie introducing her to:
‘a tall figure clad in dark blue, leaning over the bulwarks and gazing seaward’.
This, she claims, was Oscar to whom she was later introduced. As the crossing progressed, Ethel and Willie’s moonlit chat on deck was cut short when she was overcome by a bout of seasickness that obliged her to retire to the ladies cabin.
They met up again on the train from Holyhead to Euston. Willie, perched on a Huntley & Palmers biscuit tin at Ethel’s feet in the small space between the women’s and men’s carriage berths, made an unexpected and impassioned declaration of love. Unfortunately, he was interrupted when the biscuit tin collapsed beneath him but, undaunted, he continued:
‘Before the train steamed into Euston,’
‘I was engaged to a man I was no more in love with than I was with the engine-driver!’
Once they reached London, Willie took Ethel shopping for an engagement ring and they chose a traditional Irish Claddagh ring, a gold band ending in two hands clasping a heart.
Keen to keep their engagement a secret for the time being, Willie persuaded Ethel to conceal her ring by wearing gloves, something she rarely did. As soon as they parted, she realised she had:
‘accepted this young man from flattered vanity, light-heartedness, adventurousness, anything you please except love’.
Within three weeks, the engagement was off. Graciously, Willie allowed Ethel to keep the ring but she lost it:
‘while separating two dogs who were fighting in deep snow in the heather’.
That was Ethel’s first and last engagement and she never saw Willie Wilde again.
Throughout her life, Ethel Smyth had several passionate affairs, most of them with women. Of course, music was her great passion. She was an exceptionally accomplished composer and her published works include: six operas, a concert mass, a double concerto, a choral symphony, organ pieces, chamber music, and songs with piano and orchestral accompaniment.
In 1922, she was made a Dame in recognition of her work as a writer and composer. In 1934, to mark her seventy-fifth birthday, her work was celebrated with a festival, the finale of which was held at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of the Queen. Sadly, Ethel had lost her hearing by then and was unable to appreciate her own compositions or the audience’s enthusiastic reaction to them.
Finding musical composition increasingly difficult, Ethel turned increasingly to writing. She wrote ten books in all, among them nine volumes of autobiography. Her friend Vita Sackville-West declared:
‘Her books are all unadulterated Ethel. She mixed no water with her whisky. Neat fiery spirit for her.’
Dame Ethel Smyth died in 1944, aged eighty-six.
Dame Ethel Smyth. 1946. Impressions that Remained. New York, Alfred A. Knopf