Monthly Archives: April 2016

The Sacking of Tite Street

Illustrated Police Budget, May 4, 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor opened on 26 April 1895, in a gloomy courtroom at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, which was housed at the time in a dispiriting building adjacent to Newgate Gaol. Both men faced counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to procure the commission of acts of gross indecency, although the conspiracy charges were later withdrawn.

Wilde and Taylor had been charged in accordance with Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, commonly referred to as the Labouchère Amendment, which contained no definition of gross indecency and, as a result, outlawed a broad spectrum of homosexual behaviour that was considered less serious than sodomy but was easier to prove. As a consequence, it was regularly exploited by blackmailers.

The ‘Old Bailey’

A bankruptcy sale of the Wilde family’s possessions had been held at their Tite Street home two days earlier. Many items were pilfered during the ensuing melee, including several irreplaceable manuscripts and Wilde’s poignant letters to Constance, which she had kept in a blue leather case. The items that were sold achieved far less than their true value.

An Irish-born publisher gave an account of proceedings to Wilde’s friend and biographer Robert Sherard:

‘I went upstairs and found several people in an empty room, the floor of which was strewn, thickly strewn, with letters addressed to Oscar mostly in their envelopes and with much of Oscar’s easily recognisable manuscript. This looked as though the various pieces of furniture which had been carried downstairs to be sold had been emptied of their contents on to the floor.'[1]

The sacking of the Wildes’ Tite Street home was a terrible humiliation. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s Women, believed many of those in attendance that day delighted in Oscar’s downfall and wrote:

‘It was already well known that Oscar had bitter enemies as well as a large crowd of friends. And if his chief enemy [Queensberry] was eccentric, many of his jealous rivals were quite unscrupulous.'[2]

Wilde’s prized books, numbering around two thousand volumes, were bundled together and offered at knockdown prices, making just £130 in total.[3] Artist James McNeill Whistler sent representatives to buy back a number of his works for less than £40.

Ernest Leverson was present that day and managed to acquire a full-length portrait of Oscar by Harper Pennington, which had hung above the fireplace of the Wildes’ Chelsea home, for £17. Oscar joked about the corrupting influence this work might have on visitors to the Leversons’ home, writing to Frank Harris in June 1897:

I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views.

The nursery was raided and toys belonging to Cyril and Vyvyan were sold, a loss that caused them great distress. In all, the sale raised just £230.

SOURCES:

[1] Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.359-60

[2] Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, p.35

[3] Donald Mead, ‘Heading for Disaster: Oscar’s Finances’, The Wildean, No. 46, January 2015, p.89

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Ada Rehan: Wilde’s ‘brilliant & fascinating genius’

Ada Rehan was one of Ireland’s most celebrated actresses but she is barely remembered by us today.

Ada Rehan

Born Delia Crehan in Shannon Street, Limerick on 22 April 1860 (or perhaps 1857), Rehan moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was still a child. Her unconventional name was the result of typographical error made by the Arch Street Theater of Philadelphia, early in her career, when management billed her as Ada C. Rehan. She adopted this as her stage name and gained an international reputation as an excellent Shakespearean actress, doing particularly well in his comedies.

As Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’ (Getty Images)

Statuesque at 5′ 8″, with striking grey-blue eyes and rich dark brown hair, she was much admired. Theatre critic William Winter, who wrote a book about her, recorded that:

‘Her physical beauty was of the kind that appears in portraits of women by Romney and Gainsborough—ample, opulent, and bewitching—and it was enriched by the enchantment of superb animal spirits.’

Of course, there was far more to her than her looks. Oscar Wilde described her as:

‘that brilliant and fascinating genius.’

In 1879, Rehan joined impresario Augustin Daly’s New York based theatre company; she remained his leading lady for twenty years, enjoying enormous success on the stages of America and Europe. For a time, she was considered a worthy rival to the magnificent Sarah Bernhardt.

In September 1891, when Wilde was assembling his cast for the first production of Lady Windermere’s Fan, he wrote to Daly requesting that he consider the part of Mrs. Erlynne for Rehan, insisting:

‘I would sooner see her play the part of Mrs. Erlynne than any English-speaking actress we have, or French actress for that matter,’ [i]

Daly turned him down.

Augustin Daly reading to his company (Rehan is seated on the floor in front of him)

In 1897, after Wilde was released from prison , Daly offered him an advance to write a new play for Rehan, but negotations faltered and Daly died in Paris on 7 June 1899. For Rehan this was as much a personal tragedy as a professional one and she was touched by Wilde’s kindness at this very difficult time, remembering:

‘Oscar Wilde came to me and was more good and helpful than I can tell you – just like a very kind brother…I shall always think of him as he was to me through those few dreadful days’. [ii]

Wilde finally agreed terms with Rehan in February 1900. In return for an advance of £100 with the promised of £200 on acceptance, he agreed to write:

‘a new and original comedy, in three or four acts.’

It was to be produced anonymously:

‘in London at a first-class West-End theatre’. [iii]

Wilde assured Rehan that he would have her play finished by 1 June, but he soon realised that this deadline was wildly optimistic. Although he offered to return her advance, which was long gone by then, he asked that she give some time to raise it. Rehan was disappointed but agreed to the delay. Perhaps inevitably, Wilde never managed to return her money and he was dead before the year was out.

Ada Rehan retired from the stage in 1906, and lived in New York City until her death in 1916. Obituaries were published in the New York Times and the Limerick Chronicle, and she was commemorated more than two decades later when a WWII Liberty ship (a US Navy cargo ship) was named the USS Ada Rehan.

French poet Louis Brauquier with the USS Ada Rehan (from http://www.flickr.com/photos/chartrain)

Ada Rehan is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

REFERENCES:

[i] Letter to Augustin Daly, August 1897, Complete Letters, p.489

[ii] Robertson, Time Was, p.231

[iii] Russell Jackson, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Contract for a New Play 1900’ in Theatre Notebook, Volume 50, Number 2 contained in Volumes 50-52 (Society for Theatre Research, 1996), p.113

 

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Bram Stoker & The Sinking Of RMS Titanic

News of Bram Stoker’s death, on 20 April 1912, was overshadowed somewhat by reports of the sinking of the RMS Titanic five days earlier. This tragedy resonated particularly with Bram’s wife, Florence, who rushed into her husband’s bedroom where he lay dying to tell him of the incident. It must have filled her with dread and evoked painful memories.

RMS Titanic

At 4 a.m. on 13 April 1887, while Florence and her son Noel, aged seven at the time, were sailing from the port of Newhaven in East Sussex to Dieppe on the steamship Victoria, a thick fog had descended, causing the Victoria to hit some jagged rocks. Her bow was ripped open and she sank within two hours. Nineteen passengers lost their lives. As the Victoria went down, there was a scramble to reach the four flimsy lifeboats she carried. Florence and Noel made it on to the third boat and spent twelve hours marooned at sea before they were up picked up by a steam tug and brought ashore at Fécamp in Normandy. The wreck report for the Victoria can be read here and there is a fascinating eyewitness report from the Evening Star newspaper here.

Florence Stoker and her son Noel

Florence was very grateful to have survived the tragedy and the Stoker family made an annual pilgrimage to Fécamp to commemorate the rescue. The incident blighted her life somewhat. When Bram toured America with Henry Irving and his company, he complained of the loneliness of being away from his wife and he always invited her along. Florence, who loved adventure, did join him once, but she never lost her fear of sea travel and the week-long voyage terrified her.

The inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic opened on the day Bram Stoker died, aged sixty-four. It is interesting that his most celebrated work, Dracula, contains an account of the shipwreck of a mysterious Russian ship, albeit under very different circumstances.

Read my profile of Florence here.

For more on Bram, Florence and their relationship read my book Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

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Julia Constance Fletcher

In 1876, when she was eighteen, Julia Constance Fletcher, an American-born author who was living in Venice at the time, published A Nile Novel, or Kismet under her pseudonym, George Fleming. It was a huge success and is considered a minor American classic to this day. Months after its publication, Julia bumped into Oscar Wilde, who was holidaying in Rome with friends.

Wilde found Julia absolutely fascinating, particularly when he learned of her brief, tempestuous affair with Byron’s grandson Ralph Gordon Noel Milbanke, thirteenth Baron Wentworth and second Earl Lovelace. The son of the brilliant Ada Lovelace, who had died when he was thirteen,  he was, by then, two decades older than Julia. There were scandalous whispers of a broken engagement, prompted apparently by Lovelace’s discovery that Julia’s parents were divorced. Afterwards, Lovelace engaged in several desperate but futile attempts to retrieve letters and keepsakes that had belonged to his celebrated grandfather.

JCF

There are no confirmed photographs of Julia Constance Fletcher but she is thought to be the woman in the middle

On returning to Oxford, Wilde begged a mutual friend to supply Julia’s address ‘immediately’. Her reply to the letter he sent so delighted him that he told his friend she wrote ‘as cleverly as she talks,’ adding, ‘I am much attracted by her in every way’.[i]

When Wilde won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna, he dedicated the published version:

TO MY FRIEND

GEORGE FLEMING,

AUTHOR OF “THE NILE NOVEL,” AND “MIRAGE”

Their friendship endured. A decade later, when he was editor of The Woman’s World, Wilde serialised Julia’s novel The Truth about Clement Ker. In 1894, the year before he was imprisoned, he attended the first night of Mrs. Lessingham, a dramatic exploration of female solidarity that Julia staged in collaboration with pioneering actress Elizabeth Robins.

Julia Constance Fletcher outlived Oscar Wilde by almost four decades. Although she never married, and devoted the latter half of her life to the care of her ailing mother, she had several affairs including one with Siegfried Sassoon’s father, Alfred, who subsidised the publication of her novel Andromeda, published in 1885, and introduced her to his wife Theresa in Venice in 1888.  Alfred moved out of the family home in 1891, but did not move in with Fletcher, choosing to remain in Britain instead. In The Old Century, Sassoon writes very movingly about his father leaving, but makes no mention of an affair.*

When war broke out in 1914, Julia worked tirelessly as a volunteer nurse in the military hospitals of Venice. Her wartime services to her adopted nation earned her the Croce de Guerra, the Campaign Ribbon with two stars, the medal for epidemics, the Duke of Aosta’s medal of the Tirza Armata, and the silver medal of military merit. An obituary in The Times of 11 July 1938, lamented the loss of, ‘her brilliant personality and exceedingly witty talk’.[ii]

She is deservedly one of Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

* My thanks to carolenoakes.co.uk for this information.
[i] Letter to William Ward, July 1877, Complete Letters, p.58
[ii] ‘“George Fleming” novelist and dramatist’, The Times, 11 June 1938, p.14

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A Poetic friendship: Jane Wilde & William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

William Rowan Hamilton

On this day (13 April) in 1855, Jane Wilde met physicist, astronomer and mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton at a dinner party hosted by Colonel Thomas Larcom, Under Secretary for Ireland, and his wife Georgina. As both Hamilton and William Wilde were members of the Royal Irish Academy, the former was asked to hand Jane in to dinner. To his astonishment, after practically no introduction at all, this, ‘very odd and original lady’ asked if he would be godfather to her ‘young pagan’. He was further taken aback to learn that this child was to be given:

‘a long baptismal name, or string of names, the two first of which are Oscar and Fingal!’

Although he declined, Jane bore no grudge, and endeared herself by expressing admiration for poetry composed by his late sister Eliza. The next time they met, Hamilton presented Jane with an inscribed copy of Eliza Hamilton’s Poems.

Dunsink Observatory, Dublin

Over lunch at Dunsink Observatory, Hamilton’s home, Jane informed her host that baby Oscar had been baptised the previous day and they drank a toast to his health. Afterwards, he gave her a tour of his atmospheric house, which Eliza had believed to be haunted. Jane expressed a hope that this was true. Yet, although she liked and admired Hamilton, she was unable to hide her resentment at the wealth his eminence had secured and declared:

‘Let a woman be as clever as she may, there is no prize like this for her!’

Hamilton’s correspondence with Jane demonstrate a great regard for her intellect. He felt free to discuss any topic with her and included quotations in Latin and Greek, which he acknowledged need not be translated. He admired her noble nature and regarded her as an ‘entirely truthful person’. His long, rambling letters could be quite flirtatious. In one, he described her as:

‘a very remarkable, a very interesting, and (if I could be forgiven for adding it) a very lovable person.’

Yet, he kept his distance and congratulated her on ‘being so happily married’.

Jane Wilde

The characteristics William Rowan Hamilton admired in Jane Wilde were not generally prized in Victorian women. Describing her as ‘almost amusingly fearless and original and averse’, he admired her determination to ‘make a sensation’. Although their politics were at variance, this formed no barrier to their friendship. While his heart ‘throbbed with sympathy, for the great British Empire’, he argued that this had the advantage of allowing him to understand Jane better, since they shared the experience of sympathising with a whole nation.

Hamilton was an accomplished poet who had, in his youth, been mentored by William Wordsworth. When Jane sent him her sixteen-stanza Shadows from Life, he praised it as ‘wonderfully beautiful’ but suggested several changes, which she made. He also shared it with poet Aubrey de Vere, who declared:

‘She certainly must be a woman of real poetic genius to have written anything so beautiful and also so full of power and grace as the poem you showed me’.

De Vere went on to urge:

‘for the sake both of poetry and Old Ireland you must do all you can to make her go on writing, and publish a volume soon.’

When Hamilton invited both to a ‘Feast of Poets’, he warned Jane not to allow De Vere to convert her to Catholicism, which she found fascinating.

Sources:

Chapter 3 of Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

PBCover

Robert Graves. Life of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, knt., LL. D., D.C.L., M.R.I.A., Andrews professor of astronomy in the University of Dublin, and royal astronomer of Ireland, etc. etc.: including selections from his poems, correspondence, and miscellaneous writings. Volume III, (Dublin, Hodges, Figgis, & Co., 1882-89)

Terence de Vere White. The Parents of Oscar Wilde (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1967),

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Beatrix Potter: Teenage Celebrity Spotter

I love stumbling across little anecdotes and insights into the life of Oscar Wilde. Sometimes their source is extraordinary. Take for instance two entries in the journal of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist. I included them in Wilde’s Women.

Beatrix Potter

Young Beatrix Potter (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Potter’s father, Rupert Potter, a lawyer and a keen amateur photographer, was a close friend of the painter Sir John Everett Millais. Beatrix was just seventeen-years-old when she recorded the following in her journal of 1884. Oscar and Constance had been married for less than two months by then:

Saturday, July 12th. Papa and mama went to a ball at the Millais’ a week or two since. There was an extraordinary mixture of actors, rich Jews, nobility, literary, etc. [Cartoonist George] Du Maurier had been to the ball the week before, and Carrie Millais said they thought they had seen him taking sketches on the sly. Oscar Wilde was there. I thought he was a long, lanky melancholy man, but he is fat and merry. His only peculiarity was a black choker instead of a shirt-collar, and his hair in a mop. He was not wearing a lily in his buttonhole, but, to make up for it, his wife had her front covered with great water-lilies

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, by Rupert Potter, July 1886 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir John Everett Millais by Rupert Potter

In 1885, when Beatrix recorded the following, Constance would have been six months pregnant with Cyril:

Sunday March 15th. Saw Oscar Wilde and his wife just going into the Fine Arts to see the Holman Hunt. He is not peculiar as far as I noticed, rather a fine looking gentleman, but inclined to stoutness. The lady was strangely dressed, but I did not know her in time to see well.

Source: Beatrix Potter & Glen Cavaliero (Ed.), Beatrix Potter’s Journal (Harmondsworth, Warne, 1986). A fascinating book full of remarkable observations!

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Elizabeth Marbury, Elsie de Wolfe & a House in Irving Place

Elizabeth Marbury & Elsie de Wolfe

In 1844, an ornate three-story Italianate-style house was erected at 122 East 17th Street in New York; it also had the designation 49 Irving Place.

49 Irving Place. Photo by Alice Lum

Beginning in 1831, during Irving’s lifetime, politician and developer Samuel Bulkley Ruggles had laid out Union Square, Irving Place and Gramercy Park, as well as Lexington Avenue, on property he owned. In 1833, he chose the name ‘Irving Place’ in honour of the celebrated author, who never lived there.

Always a desirable address, 49 Irving Place was rented in the early 1890s by actress-turned-interior-designer Elsie de Wolfe and her partner, Elisabeth Marbury, an innovative literary and theatrical agent who represented Oscar Wilde in America. The women lived there for almost two decades and the 1905 census records Marbury as head of the household with de Wolfe as her ‘partner’.

Marbury and de Wolfe established a hugely successful salon in their lovely home and it seems likely that it was de Wolfe, always a keen self publicist, who started the rumour of a connection with Irving. The first mention of the property having been his home appeared in The New York Times in 1897, in an article describing the house and praising the ‘wonderful talents’ of Elsie de Wolfe.

This anonymous article quoted Irving, waxing lyrical about the design and layout of his ‘former home’, at great length. Although it was without any foundation, this same connection was made in dozens of books, newspapers and magazine articles over time until it became widely accepted.

In one instance The Times noted:

‘Teas at the home of Miss Marbury and Miss De Wolfe, in the old Washington Irving residence, at Seventeenth Street and Irving Place, are regular Sunday afternoon affairs of importance in the literary and dramatic world during the height of the season.’

Marbury and de Wolfe left the house in 1911. In 1927, it was acquired by the National Patriotic Builders of America, who wished to convert it to a museum and preserve it as a shrine to Irving. A subsequent fundraising effort hit controversy when descendants of Irving insisted that he had never even entered the building, let alone lived there. Nevertheless, in 1834 a plaque was erected to commemorate the false connection.

Photo by Alice Lum

As to Oscar Wilde, Marbury first met him during his 1882 tour of America at the home of a Professor Doremus. He was holding a cup of tea at the time and endeared himself by offering it to her. Ever the publicist, she realised that his eccentric appearance was:

‘well conceived and of value in stimulating curiosity and in providing copy for the press’.

As she got to know him better, Marbury summed Wilde up perfectly, observing:

‘His wit scintillated incessantly. His joy in the phrases he compiled was always evident though never offensive’.

In My Crystal Ball, her somewhat fanciful memoir, Marbury described Wilde holding court at his Tite Street home, thinking aloud the plots of his plays:

‘I remember one terrible tragedy, brutally conceived, which revolved around a most revolting theme,’

she wrote.

‘It took me many days before I could prove to him that despite the dramatic value of the story that the managers and public would never tolerate the motive’.

In 1898, Marbury was charged with selling The Ballad of Reading Gaol in America. Although tears rolled down her cheeks as she read it, she admitted to Leonard Smithers:

‘Nobody here seems to feel any interest in the poem’.

Ultimately, she secured $250 from the New York World.

In her memoir, Marbury claimed to have encountered Wilde in Paris towards the end of his life. He was, she wrote, ‘unkempt, forlorn and penniless’, living in ‘a wretched room in the attic of a squalid little hotel’.

Whatever the general accuracy of My Crystal Ball, Marbury was effusive in her praise for Wilde’s talent, considering De Profundis to be his ‘masterpiece and a rich contribution to the treasure house of English literature’. As it was ‘conceived and written in the depths,’ she wrote, ‘[i]t was given to the world as Oscar’s last message to save others from the depths’.

Undoubtedly, she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

For more information see:

New York Times, 13 March 1994, ‘The ‘Washington Irving’ House; Why the Legend of Irving Place Is but a Myth’

Elizabeth Marbury, My Crystal Ball (New York, Boni & Liveright, 1923)

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