Monthly Archives: June 2016

Wilde Tales: What of the Stories We Will Never Hear?


When Aimée Lowther was a girl, she would rush home to write down the wonderful stories that her friend Oscar told her. Years later, in 1912, four of these stories were published in The Mask: A Quarterly Journal of the Art of the Theatre. They were ‘The Poet’, ‘The Actress’, ‘Simon of Cyrene’ and ‘Jezebel’. Each was captioned, ‘An unpublished story by Oscar Wilde’, and prefaced with the words:

This story was told by Wilde to Miss Aimée Lowther when a child and written out by her. A few copies were privately printed but this is the first time it has been given to the public.

Lowther was in her forties by then, and had enjoyed some success as a playwright and amateur actress. As Wilde’s life had ended twelve years earlier, in room sixteen of the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, he was unable to verify her claims. However, one of these stories, ‘The Actress’, was believed to have been inspired by his great friend Ellen Terry. Edward Gordon Craig, editor of The Mask, was Terry’s son and Aimée Lowther was her close confidante.

Wilde loved Lowther. It is recorded in Richard Ellmann’s biography on Wilde that, when she was just fifteen, he declared: “Aimée, if you were only a boy I could adore you.” In return, she remained loyal to him to the end, and a visit from her could lift his spirits even when he was at his lowest ebb: ‘…your friendship is a blossom on the crown of thorns that my life has become’, he told her in a letter, now collected in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. In A Pride of Terrys, Marguerite Steen wrote that, in 1900, Lowther and Ellen Terry spotted a much diminished Oscar Wilde gazing longingly through the window of a Parisian patisserie and biting his fingers with hunger. They invited him to dine, and were greatly relieved when he ‘sparkled just as of old’, but they never saw him again.

The veracity of Lowther’s claim that Wilde told these four stories to her is borne out by a letter he sent her in August 1899, asking that she not allow the publication of ‘the little poem in prose I call ‘The Poet’’, as it was due to ‘appear next week in a Paris magazine above my own signature’. No such magazine has ever been identified. However,
confusion arose when Gabrielle Enthoven, a passionate collector of theatrical memorabilia, claimed that Wilde had told these stories to her. In 1890, she commissioned the private printing of Echoes, a limited edition, twelve-page pamphlet containing the four stories in question. Aimée Lowther owned a copy of Echoes, which she later gave to Oscar’s younger son, Vyvyan, and the stories reproduced in both Echoes and The Mask are almost word for word the same.

Of course it is entirely possible that Wilde told the same stories to both women. He was a born storyteller and could harness the power of the spoken word in a way that was reminiscent of the seanchaí (a figure familiar to him from his father’s careful documenting of the oral tradition that thrived in his native Ireland).

In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde has his Lord Illingworth say, ‘A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world’. His own popularity was assured by his eagerness to entertain, to the extent that society hostesses took to including the words ‘to meet Oscar Wilde’ on invitations, in a bid to boost attendance at their gatherings.

Wilde’s popularity as a storyteller was enhanced by the fact that he possessed an exceptionally melodious voice, which Lord Alfred Douglas described as ‘golden’. Frank Dyall, the actor who played Merriman in the first production of The Importance of Being Ernest, recalled Wilde’s voice as being:

…of the brown velvet order – mellifluous, rounded, in a sense giving it a plummy quality, rather on the adenotic side, but practically pure cello, and very pleasing.
~ from Hesketh Pearson’s The Life of Oscar Wilde

To add drama to a narrative, Wilde would modulate his voice from a whisper to a cry of triumph, losing himself in his stories to the extent that those present described him as seeming dazed by the effort of telling them. Yet his true power was in the words. In his autobiography, William Butler Yeats, Wilde’s contemporary and compatriot, said of him: ‘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.’

One guest fortunate enough to be present at a lunch hosted by publisher and bon vivant Frank Harris described how Wilde’s musical voice and infectious laughter cut through the lively chatter, causing everyone present to fall silent in order to listen exclusively to him. In response, Wilde filled the hours that followed with humorous anecdotes, embryonic plotlines for plays he was contemplating, macabre tales told in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, and his distinctive take on instructive Bible stories. Frank Harris published several of these spontaneous stories under the heading ‘Poems in Prose’, in The Fortnightly Review, but it is probable that they lost something in the transcribing. In his introduction to Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde,Robert Ross, a great friend and literary executor to Wilde, claimed:

To those who remember hearing them from Wilde’s lips, there must always be a feeling of disappointment on reading them. He overloaded their ornament when he came to transcribe them, and some of his friends did not hesitate to make that criticism personally.

Although he made no attempt to alter his accent, Wilde spoke excellent, ponderous French and, in Paris, earned a reputation as ‘the poet who tells fantastic tales’. His visit to that city in 1891 was described by L’Echo de Paris as, ‘le “great event” des salons littéraires parisiens’. Young André Gide, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature towards the end of his long life, found Wilde utterly captivating and met with him every day for three weeks. After parting from Wilde, Gide felt unable to put pen to paper for several days. In correspondence published by the University of Chicago Press, it is noted that, when he finally made contact with poet Paul Valéry on Christmas Eve, 1891, Gide asked him to ‘please forgive my silence: since Wilde, I hardly exist anymore’.Once, as Gide and Wilde were dining at the home of Princess Ouroussoff, wife of the Russian ambassador to France, the princess swore that a halo appeared around Wilde’s head as he talked.

Princess Ouroussoff was not alone in attributing otherworldly properties to Wilde’s flights of fancy. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that Wilde could cure depression or disease simply by speaking to an afflicted person for just five minutes. The artist W. Graham Robertson, who described Wilde as ‘a born raconteur’ in his auto-biography Time Was, was certain that Wilde had cured him of a ‘violent toothache’ by telling his stories ‘so brilliantly that for an hour and a half I laughed without ceasing’. Some were moved despite themselves. The poet Ernest Dowson attested that Wilde ‘had such a wonderful vitality and joie de vivre that after some hours of his society even a pessimist like myself is infected by it’.

Although he was a very public raconteur, Wilde saved some of his best stories for home, remarking that it was the duty of every father to invent fairytales for his children. In his memoir, Son of Oscar Wilde, Vyvyan Holland wrote of a ‘never-ending-supply’ of fairy stories and tales of adventure, many of them inspired by the imaginings of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling; Wilde always was a literary magpie. Holland recalled one particular bedtime story, reminiscent of ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, which described the helpful fairies who lived in the great bottles of coloured water found in the windows of chemist shops. They would dance about at night before making the pills that the chemist would dispense the next day.

Many of Wilde’s bedtime stories were rooted in the misty mythology of the West of Ireland, where his father had once kept a holiday cottage at Moytura. He kept his boys rapt with his description of the ‘great melancholy carp’ that lived in the deep waters of Lough Corrib, refusing to move off the bottom of the lake unless Wilde himself called them up with the ancient Irish songs that his father had taught him. At times, Wilde was moved to tears by his own ingenuity. His eyes glistened as he told his boys the story of ‘The Selfish Giant’ and when his elder son, Cyril, wondered why, Wilde replied that really beautiful things always made him cry.

Several of Wilde’s stories started life in the nursery of his Tite Street home, but in a letter to Amelie Rives Chanler, from 1889, he was adamant that they were intended ‘not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty’. His great friend Helena Swanwick recognised that the only stimulus he needed to tell a story was to be in the company of good listeners. In her memoir, I Have Been Young, she describes Wilde:

…his indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions, whose extravagance piled up and up.

Once, after she allowed her scepticism to show, he enquired playfully: ‘You don’t believe me, Miss Nelly? I assure you… well, it’s as good as true.’

Such was Wilde’s prolificacy that only a tiny fraction of the stories he told ever made it into print, and he would commit a story to paper only if the reaction of his audience merited it. If one of his stories was published, Wilde would often dedicate it to a society hostess whose largesse he had enjoyed. The stories in his collection A House of Pomegranates, which is dedicated to his wife, Constance, pay tribute to four such women: ‘The Young King’ is dedicated to Margaret, Lady Brooke, who would one day lend great support to Constance; ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ was chosen for Princess Alice of Monaco — Wilde told her it was the best of the four; ‘The Star-Child’ was saved for the socialite Margot Tennant, who had recently become Mrs. Asquith, and would later disown Wilde when he most needed her support; and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ was dedicated to Lady Desborough, ‘as a slight return for the entrancing day at Taplow’. Later, Lady Desborough received a ‘little book that contains a story, two stories in fact that I told you at Taplow’. This ‘little book’ was Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

After Wilde was imprisoned, Adela Schuster, whom he christened ‘Miss Tiny’ on account of her size, believed that his stories might save him. She wrote to his friend More Adey:

Could not Mr. Wilde now write down some of the lovely tales he used to tell me? […] I think the mere re­minder of some of his tales may set his mind in that direction and stir the impulse to write.

In her letter, Schuster recalled, in particular, two stories that Wilde had told her: one concerning ‘a nursing sister who killed the man whom she was nursing’; and a second that was about ‘two souls on the banks of the Nile’. To these Adey added, ‘the moving sphere story and the one about the Problem and the Lunatic’.

Sadly these, and many others, never found their way into print. In a letter to Robert Ross, dated May 1898, Wilde wrote: ‘I really must begin The Sphere.’ He never did, although Frank Harris did publish a version of it as ‘The Irony of Chance (after O.W.)’. Ross sheds light on the inspiration for many of the stories that ‘unfortunately exist only in the memories of friends’, confirming that they were:

Invented on the spur of the moment, or inspired by the chance observation of someone who managed to get the traditional word in edgeways; or they were developed from some phrase in a book Wilde might have read during the day.

How disappointing it is that we will never hear them. How I envy those who enjoyed that great pleasure.

Note: This essay was first published in Thresholds as The Unrecorded Stories of Oscar Wilde and is an edited version of Chapter 13 of Wilde’s Women.

Hear the stories from The Happy Prince and Other Tales read beautifully & analysed by experts here:


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Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner

I’ve written a post on the pioneering South African feminist writer Olive Schreiner for the Sheroes of History Blog. Here’s a link:

South African writer Olive Schreiner was born in what is now Lesotho on 24 March 1855. The ninth of twelve children born to Rebecca Lyndall and her husband, Gottlob Schreiner (1814–1876), a German-born missionary, she and just six of her siblings survived childhood. In adulthood, she suffered debilitating ill-health, exacerbated for a time by grinding poverty.

For a time, Schreiner earned a living as a governess and teacher, but she devoted her free time to writing The Story of an African Farm, a radical feminist novel informed by her experience of growing up in Africa. As soon as she could afford to, she sailed for Britain where she hoped to train as a doctor. Unfortunately, although she attended lectures at the London School of Medicine for Women, established in 1874 by an association of pioneering women physicians, ill-health prevented her from completing her training.

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Maria Cassavetti Zambaco (1843-1914)

Having inherited her father’s vast fortune in 1858, Maria Cassavetti Zambaco, a British artist and model of Greek descent, led a more independent life than most women of her time. She was even known to go about unchaperoned while still unmarried.

Maria Zambaco by Edward Burne-Jones (1871)

A talented artist, she studied at the Slade School under French painter, etcher, sculptor, and medallist Alphonse Legros. In Paris, she studied sculpture under Auguste Rodin. Her work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, and at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London in 1889. She also exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon. The British Museum holds several of her medals, including this one depicting the head of a young girl:

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Zambaco’s love life was rather chaotic. In her teens she was wooed by George du Maurier, satirical cartoonist and grandfather of Daphne; when she showed no interest in him, du Maurier described her as ‘rude and unapproachable but of great talent and a really wonderful beauty’. Aged 18, she married Dr. Demetrius Zambaco, who was eleven years her senior. They had two children together but the marriage was not a success and she moved back to her mother after six years.

In 1866, Zambaco met Edward Burne-Jones when her mother commissioned him to paint her. As the subject was left to him, he chose an episode from Cupid and Psyche, which he worked on for several months. Although Burne-Jones was married at the time, he embarked on a tempestuous affair with Zambaco that lasted several years.

Burne-Jones Cupid finds Psyche Photo (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Burne-Jones treated Zambaco as a peer. They read Homer and Virgil together and she trained as an artist under him. She also sat as a model for some of his most iconic paintings including The Beguiling of Merlin, one of Oscar Wilde’s favourites.  Zambaco repeatedly tried to persuade Burne-Jones to leave his wife but he refused and she is rumoured to have involved him in a suicide pact, convincing him to wade into the canal in Regent’s Park with her. The attempt failed and the affair ended, but they remained friends afterwards and she was by far his most influential muse.

Zambaco also sat as a model for artists George Frederick Watts, James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but she became more interested in developing her own artistic talent and produced award winning sculptural works.

Naturally, since she features here and in my book Wilde’s Women, Zambaco had a connection to Oscar Wilde. She lived much of her life in Paris and presided over an important artistic salon. It was she who introduced Oscar Wilde to his friend and biographer Robert Sherard. Years earlier, when writing about Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, Wilde had described Zambaco as ‘a tall, lithe woman, beautiful and subtle to look on, like a snake’.

Burne-Jones: The Beguiling of Merlin Lady Lever Art Gallery, Merseyside

Maria Zambaco died in Paris in 1914. She features in my book Wilde’s Women


For more on Edward Burne-Jones and his relationship with Maria Casavetti Zambaco you can read Fiona MacCarthy’s book ‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’. There’s an extract here.

There is also a brilliant online exhibition of her work and that of her contemporaries Aglaia (née Ionides) Coronio (1834-1906)and Marie (née Spartali) Stillman (1843-1927) available via the University of York here. Together these women were known as ‘The Three Graces’.


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Wilde’s Half-Brother, Dr Henry Wilson

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Dr Henry Wilson

In June 1877, Oscar Wilde wrote to his friend Reginald ‘Kitten’ Harding expressing his sorrow at the unexpected death of a cousin. This ‘cousin’ was Wilde’s half-brother, Dr. Henry Wilson, one of three children born to his father, William, before his marriage to Jane Elgee. Each one of these children, a son and two daughters, was acknowledged privately by their father and supported by him.

Henry Wilson, who was thirteen at the time of his father’s wedding, was commonly passed off as his nephew. Yet, Wilde took a keen interest in his eldest son’s progress, paying for his education and bringing him into St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, the hospital he had founded, to work alongside him until he succeeded him as senior surgeon.

Wilson’s death came as a dreadful shock to his family. Just four days earlier, Oscar had attended a dinner party he hosted and had attested that his half-brother seemed in perfect health. Wilson had fallen ill that evening, an illness that Oscar attributed to a chill he had caught while out riding.

Despite the best efforts of six colleagues who remained with him during his final days, Henry Wilson died of pneumonia on 13 June 1877. He was thirty-nine years old and had never married. An obituary in the Dublin Journal of Medical Science described Wilson as being ‘under the guardianship of his relative Sir William Wilde’, and eulogised him as a learned and popular man with a ‘kindly and cheerful manner’ and a ‘genial nature’.

Willie and Oscar Wilde were chief mourners at Wilson’s funeral and fully expected to be the main beneficiaries of his will. Instead, he bequeathed £8,000, subject to a life interest granted to two unnamed female relatives, to St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital.


‘In Memoriam Henry Wilson’ Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Volume 64, Issue 1, 2 July 1877, pp.98-100

Wilde’s Women


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The Birth of Cyril Wilde

Constance Wilde (later Holland) with her son Cyril

Baby Cyril Wilde arrived into the world at ten forty-five on the morning of 5 June 1885. That same day, his father, Oscar, insisted in a letter that his ‘amazing boy’ knew him quite well already.[i] He told a friend, actor Norman Forbes Robertson, that Cyril was ‘wonderful’.[ii]

By all accounts, Cyril, and his younger brother Vyvyan, who arrived eighteen-months later, were lovely, boisterous lads who enjoyed more freedom than many of their Victorian contemporaries. Eyewitness accounts confirm that their parents were indulgent and very fond of them.

Vyvyan & Cyril Wilde (later Holland)

Both boys adored their father, who was kind-hearted and playful and perfectly happy to join in with nursery games, even if they involved getting down on all fours in order to play the part of a bear, a lion, a horse or whatever was required of him. He once spent an entire afternoon repairing a beloved wooden fort.

Boisterous games often spilled out into the beautiful dining-room of their Tite Street home, where all three would dodge between the legs of the spindly white chairs before tumbling together in a tangle on the floor. When they grew tired, Oscar would tell them the most wonderful stories.

Further Reading:

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland is a remarkable account of a fractured childhood, and gives unparalleled insights into a life that is perhaps more speculated about than any other. It contains a warm account of the time he and his brother had with their father, which lends added poignancy to the tragedy that they never saw him again after 1895.

Wilde’s Women also contains an account of Cyril’s life.


Cyril died young and his tragic final years are described here.

[i] Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (Robinson, Revised edition, 1999), p.53

[i] Letter to Nellie Lloyd, 5 June 1885, Complete Letters, p.261


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Thomas Hardy’s Influential Mother, Jemima

To commemorate the death of Thomas Hardy on 11 January 1928, I’m going to take a break from writing about Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane, to write instead about Hardy’s mother, Jemima.

Jemima Hardy

Jemima, a former maidservant and cook from an impoverished and volatile Dorset family, acquired a love of reading from her own mother, Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Hand. Her sophisticated literary tastes ran to Latin poetry and French romances in their English translation, and it was said that Dante’s Divine Comedy was her favourite book.

When Jemima was thirteen, she was sent to work as a domestic servant. Aged twenty-six, her marriage to Thomas Hardy, a master mason and building contractor, was arranged by her family when it was discovered that she was pregnant with young Thomas. Happily, their marriage was a stable and contented one.

It was Jemima who instilled in her son Thomas a love of literature. She taught him to read and write before he turned four, and she sent him to school from the age of eight to sixteen. When he was ten, she enrolled him in a progressive non-conformist school run by the British and Foreign School Society in Dorchester. There, he learnt Latin and French among other subjects, but his favourite pastime was to read.

Perhaps it was a mark of Hardy’s gratitude that he maintained a great affection for his mother throughout her life. He wrote a poem to mark her death:

After the Last Breath

(J.H. 1813–1904)

There’s no more to be done, or feared, or hoped;

None now need watch, speak low, and list, and tire;

No irksome crease outsmoothed, no pillow sloped

        Does she require.

Blankly we gaze.  We are free to go or stay;

Our morrow’s anxious plans have missed their aim;

Whether we leave to-night or wait till day

        Counts as the same.

The lettered vessels of medicaments

Seem asking wherefore we have set them here;

Each palliative its silly face presents

        As useless gear.

And yet we feel that something savours well;

We note a numb relief withheld before;

Our well-beloved is prisoner in the cell

        Of Time no more.

We see by littles now the deft achievement

Whereby she has escaped the Wrongers all,

In view of which our momentary bereavement

        Outshapes but small.

Thomas Hardy


For more on Hardy and his literary life read:

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