When Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar’s mother, arrived in London on 7 May 1879, she faced an uncertain future having been left with nothing but debts after the death of her beloved husband, Sir William Wilde. As soon as she recovered her customary ebullience, she revived her Saturday salon and let it be known that she would be at home between five and seven. Visitors came in their droves and, in time, she needed to supplement her ‘Saturdays’ with literary Wednesdays.
‘No more successful hostess than Lady Wilde could be found’,
wrote her friend Catherine Hamilton.
‘She managed to put people at their ease, and without talking too much herself, she drew out the best in others’.
Here’s an excerpt from my book, Wilde’s Women, describing these very special gatherings:
When William Butler Yeats persuaded novelist Katharine Tynan to write him a letter of introduction to Lady Jane Wilde, he expressed the hope that he would find her ‘as delightful as her book [Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland]…as delightful as she certainly is unconventional’. To Jane, he was ‘my Irish poet’. In time, he would name Maud Gonne, his great love and muse, ‘The New Speranza’. Yeats, who thought the whole Wilde family ‘very imaginative and learned’, acknowledged that London had few better talkers than Jane. He wrote of her that she ‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance’.
Katharine Tynan felt ‘entirely grateful ‘that Jane was ‘very kind to an obscure Irish versifier’. The first gathering she attended took place in the modest house on Park Street in Mayfair that Jane and her elder son Willie took occupancy of towards the end of 1881. Although they had traded up to a more fashionable address, they were obliged to compromise on space and could barely manage the rent on ‘a little house wedged in between another little house and a big public-house at the corner’. When Katharine was greeted by Jane, decked out in ‘a white dress like a Druid priestess, her grey hair hanging down her back’, the first thing that struck her was the gloom. She recounted a humorous anecdote in her memoir, Twenty-Five Years Reminiscences. As she stumbled in the direction Jane indicated: ‘A soft hand took mine and a soft voice spoke. “So fortunate,” said the voice, “that no one could suspect dear Lady Wilde of being a practical joker! There really is a chair”’.
Once they had negotiated the narrow stairway, guests were greeted by Jane or her garrulous elder son, Willie, who bore a striking resemblance to Oscar. On one occasion, an American friend, Anna de Brémont lost her nerve and hovered on the threshold of the red-tinged semi-darkness until Jane called her by name and rose majestically, ‘her headdress with its long white steamers and glittering jewels giving her quite a queenly air’. The gathering that day consisted of ‘long-haired poets and short-haired novelists – smartly dressed Press women, and not a few richly gowned ladies of fashion’. It was considered, ‘very intellectual’ to be seen at Lady Wilde’s crushes and a cacophony of accents competed to be heard. Local Londoners vied with their Hibernian neighbours and a transatlantic twang dominated at the height of the season when visiting Americans were drawn there by Oscar’s popularity. ‘All London comes to me by way of King’s Road…but the Americans come straight from the Atlantic steamers moored at Chelsea Bridge,’ Jane boasted. Her reception for poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was said to have attracted the cream of literary London.
On that first occasion, Katharine Tynan reported that Jane’s blinds were down in defiance of the bright sunshine outside. Inside, the murk was punctured by the few feeble beams that radiated from a scattering of red-shaded tallow candles ‘arranged so as to cast the limelight on the prominent people, leaving the spectators in darkness’. In almost every account of Jane’s life, it is assumed that vanity was her motivation for keeping her house in darkness so as to distract attention from her ravaged looks. Yet, Catherine Hamilton, among others, testified that her friend remained ‘strikingly handsome’ with ‘glorious dark eyes’ well into her sixties. According to another friend, Henriette Corkran, Jane simply detested ‘the brutality of strong lights’.
Certainly, Jane’s own words support this. She told Oscar that she chose crimson wallpaper punctuated with gleaming golden stars in order to give her home ‘a genial glow’. In her Notes on Men, Women and Books, she expressed approval for Sydney Smith’s aphorism ‘light puts out conversation’, and she also admired romantic poet Samuel Rogers for keeping his dining table in ‘soft shadow’ when most people would have, ‘a vulgar, blinding, flaring glare of gas pouring down upon the heads of the unfortunate, half-asphyxiated guests’.
Although her objective was a ‘genial glow’, the atmosphere at Jane’s Park Street home must have seemed oppressive to some. Pre-Raphaelite painter Herbert Gustav Schmalz, who was rumored to have clashed with Oscar when the latter accused him of leaving one of Jane’s gatherings too early, remembered pastilles of compressed medicinal herbs smoldering on her mantelpiece, and curtain-draped mirrors hanging from ceiling to floor, making it difficult to discern where her room ended and where it began.
As Katharine Tynan’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw that Jane’s walls were crammed with photographs of Oscar in various poses. Their subject arrived shortly afterwards, as he generally did in those early days. In response, the crowd parted, allowing him to bow over his mother’s hand before taking up his favourite position by the chimney-piece, where he struck an aesthetic pose. After a time, he shook off his affectation in order to help his mother pass around the tea. Katherine Tynan declared that, on this and on all such occasions, she found Oscar unfailingly ‘pleasant, kind and interested’; just like his delightful mother.