Monthly Archives: October 2016

Pantisocracy: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey & the search for utopia

Today (21 October) marks the anniversary of the birth of poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was born in Devon, England in 1772. A leader of the British Romantic movement, his best known poems are: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel, and Kubla Khan. His idealism is best exemplified perhaps by his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to establish a utopian community with friend and fellow poet Robert Southey.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

By 1793, Southey aged nineteen and a student at Oxford University, had grown disillusioned with the lack of reform that characterised the aftermath of the French Revolution, and by the persistence of inequality in his native England. As a result, his thoughts turned to a simpler life in America, a new world untainted by the evils of established society.

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Robert Southey

In 1794, Southey was introduced to Coleridge, a student at Cambridge University. They founded a firm friendship on their common commitment to social justice and civil liberty, and formulated a plan to move to America, where they would establish Pantisocracy. This new word was derived from ‘Pan-socratia’, the Greek word for governance by all. They considered ‘Aspheterism’, the holding of property in common ownership, as a key principle. Southey envisaged Pantisocracy as a society:

…where the common ground was cultivated by common toil, and its produce laid in common granaries, where none are rich because none should be poor, where every motive for vice should be annihilated and every motive for virtue strengthened.

Underpinning their scheme was a melange of ideas garnered from the writings of Plato, Paine, Priestley, Hartley, Godwin, and Dyer. This new utopia would, they believed, arise from a commitment to benevolence and civil liberty, a concern for human rights, and an awareness of the perfectibility of mankind. As Southey saw it:

Their wants would be simple and natural; their toil need not be such as the slaves of luxury endure; where possessions were held in common, each would work for all; in their cottages the best books would have a place; literature and science, bathed anew in the invigorating stream of life and nature, could not but rise reanimated and purified.

Women had a place in this idyll too, albeit a subordinate one. As Southey explained:

Each young man should take to himself a mild and lovely woman for his wife; it would be her part to prepare their innocent food, and tend their hardy and beautiful race.

Southey had a clear vision for how he and his fellow-idealist would spend their days, writing:

When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree, we shall discuss metaphysics; criticize poetry when hunting a buffalo; and write sonnets whilst following the plough. Our society will be of the most polished order.

Originally, they thought of settling in Kentucky, but they shifted their sights to the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania. The plan was to invite ten like-minded men and their families to join them. Initially, wealthier members would support the less well off until they became self-sufficient. They were certain that this would be the first of many such communes.

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Susquehanna Valley, Pennsylvania

Although the pair planned to travel to the new world in 1795, they were woefully underprepared. As a result of having studied the misleading promotional accounts that were reaching England from America, they underestimated the physical labour required to set up a new community. For some reason, they assumed that only four hours a day need be dedicated to work, the rest being available for contemplation.

Funding was also an issue. The original plan was that Southey’s wealthy aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, would put up capital. However, when she learned of his plans, and worse still his intention to marry seamstress Edith Fricker, she disinherited him and ejected him from her house into a violent rainstorm. As a result, Southey scaled back the plan. He began to talk of settling on a farm in Wales, of hiring servants to do the bulk of the manual labour, and of retaining private ownership of land with the exception of a small plot to be held communally.

Coleridge was incensed and condemned Southey as a traitor. Since he too had believed he would need a wife to accompany him to America, he had married Edith’s sister Sarah, but theirs was an unhappy union. He never returned to Cambridge but began his career as a writer instead. Having spent some time collaborating with William Wordsworth, he dedicated the next two decades to composing poetry, lecturing on literature and philosophy, and publishing tracts on religious and political theory. Although he lived off grants and donations for the most part, he did spend two years on the Island of Malta working as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Civil Commissioner, Alexander Ball, a post he had accepted in an effort to overcome poor health and a calamitous addiction to opium.

Unable to break his dependence on opium,Coleridge moved to London in 1816, to live in the home of his physician, James Gillman. Although his behaviour was erratic, and he developed a conviction that the world was about to end, he continued to produce wonderful work, including Biographia Literaria, a volume of his finest literary criticism; Sibylline Leaves; Aids to Reflection; and Church and State.

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Coleridge died in London on July 25, 1834. The cause of death was recorded as heart failure compounded by a lung disorder that may have resulted from his opium addiction. He was sixty-one and had lived separately from his family for two decades by then.

You can find the modern day Pantisocracy, an excellent cabaret of conversation presided over by Dr Panti Bliss at this link here.

iTunes

Coleridge has absolutely nothing to do with Oscar Wilde or Wilde’s Women, but you might like to read it anyway.

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Oscar Wilde & Ellen Terry

This is the script of a talk I gave to the Oscar Wilde Society on a visit to Smallhythe Place, once home to Ellen Terry, in September 2016. Do join the society. Such warm and wonderful people keeping the memory of Wilde alive!

Although he would surely have been aware of an actress with a reputation as stellar as Ellen Terry’s, it’s believed that the first time Oscar Wilde saw her perform was when he went with David Hunter Blair, a friend from Oxford University, to see her in Tom Taylor’s comedy New Men and Old Acres at the Court Theatre, London in December 1878. Fellow Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, fell in love with Terry on the strength of her performance in that play.

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Six months later, on 27 June 1879, Wilde watched Terry play Queen Henrietta Maria in Charles I by W. G. Wills at the Lyceum Theatre. He was 24 years old and had just come down from Oxford University with a double first. She was 8 years older at 32, had been married to and separated from artist G. F. Watts, and had two children with Edward Godwin, from whom she had recently split. In 1878, she had left the Court Theatre to become leading lady with Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre.

Wilde was mesmerised by Terry’s performance and wrote a sonnet in her honour, as was his habit. He sent it to her along with a letter expressing his ‘loyal admiration’ for her talent. He declared:

 ‘No actress has ever affected me as you have. I do not think you will ever have a more sincere an impassioned admirer than I am’.

Three weeks later, his sonnet, now titled ‘Queen Henrietta Maria’ was published in society periodical The World. It began:

In the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain;

Terry was very taken with Wilde’s poetic tribute. In her autobiography The Story of my Life, she wrote:

 ‘That phrase ‘wan lily’ represented perfectly what I had tried to convey, not only in this part, but in Ophelia. I hope I thanked Oscar enough at the time. Now he is dead and I cannot thank him any more…I had so much bad poetry written to me that these lovely sonnets from a real poet should have given me the greater pleasure.’

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When Terry appeared in The Merchant of Venice in 1879, Wilde wrote a new sonnet, ‘Portia’, as a tribute to her beauty:

‘For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold,
Which is more golden than the golden sun,
No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.’

This ‘gorgeous dress of beaten gold’ is on display in Smallhythe Place.

Terry’s performance as Camma, Tennyson’s Priestess of Artemis in The Cup in January 1881, prompted Wilde to compose a third sonnet, ‘Camma’, in which he expressed a desire to see her play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. She never did.

NPG Ax131304; Ellen Terry as Camma in 'The Cup' by William Henry Grove, printed and published by  Window & Grove

Wilde included all three of the sonnets he had written for Terry in his collection Poems, published by David Bogue in 1881 at Wilde’s own expense. Although it garnered a mixed critical response and many of the poems were considered derivative, it is worthy of perusal.

So was it simply Wilde’s admiration for Terry’s beauty and talent that prompted these tributes? Since he was a very ambitious young man, it seems certain that they were intended to foster a close association with one of the most famous women in London. Certainly, he would have loved to have persuaded Terry interpret his work.

In  1880, Wilde sent Terry a copy of his first play, Vera, beautifully bound in dark red leather with her name embossed in gold on the binding and inscribed ‘from her sincere admirer the author’. The letter that accompanied it contained the line:

‘Perhaps someday I shall be fortunate enough to write something worthy of your playing’.

Terry was flattered but turned Vera down.

Wilde and Terry moved in the same bohemian circles and had become friends by then. She was a regular visitor to 13 Salisbury Street, the home he shared with artist Frank Miles. Early in 1880, Terry persuaded Wilde to share her box at the Criterion Theatre to watch an adaptation of James Albery’s Where’s The Cat, a satire on Aestheticism, in which Wilde was apparently parodied by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Little wonder he declared the play to be ‘poor’.

One incident that illustrates how close Wilde and Terry had become occurred when Terry was about to take to the stage in the Lyceum to play Camma in The Cup. Another member of the cast that night was Florence Balcombe, Wilde’s former girlfriend and now Mrs. Bram Stoker. Stoker husband was the business manager of the Lyceum and Irving’s right-hand man. The very beautiful Florence, who did not pursue an acting career, had a tiny part as a vestal virgin.

It seems that Wilde still harboured feelings for lovely Florence, since he sent two crowns of flowers to Terry, accompanied by this revealing note:

Will you accept one of them, whichever you think will suit you best. The other – don’t think me treacherous, Nellie – but the other please give to Florrie from yourself. I should like to think that she was wearing something of mine the first night she comes on the stage, that anything of mine should touch her. Of course if you think – but you won’t think she will suspect? How could she? She thinks I never loved her, thinks I forget. My God how could I!

The admiration between Wilde and Terry was mutual. He christened her ‘Our Lady of the Lyceum’ and called her ‘the kindest-hearted, sweetest, loveliest of women’. He also sent her a photograph inscribed ‘for dear wonderful Ellen’.

She declared of him:

‘The most remarkable men I have known were, without a doubt, Whistler and Oscar Wilde…there was something about both of them more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe’.

When Terry embarked on her first tour of America with the Lyceum company in October 1883, she recalled seeing Wilde, accompanied by Lillie Langtry, standing on the quayside in Liverpool, waiting to see them off. She noticed that he held his hand to his mouth to hide his ‘ugly teeth’ but she remarked on his ‘beautiful eyes’. Wilde had toured America the previous year and Langtry had arrived for her first tour towards the end of his.

Terry’s encouragement of Langtry’s ambitions to become an actress, a path she had embarked on at Wilde’s suggestion, and her open admiration for her potential rival’s beauty, endeared her further to Wilde. When Langtry played Rosalind in As You Like It in 1882, Terry sent her a letter of encouragement, followed by a telegram.

Dear Nellie,

I bundled through my part somehow last night, a disgraceful performance, and no waist-padding! Oh what an impudent wretch you must think me to attempt such a part! I pinched my arm once or twice last night to see if it were really me. It was so sweet of you to write me such a nice letter, and then a telegram, too!

Yours ever, dear Nell

Lillie

This was a particularly unselfish act since Terry never got to play this coveted part.

Lillie Langtry as Rosalind in 'As You Like It', by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), 1890 - NPG x46489 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lillie Langtry as Rosalind

When Wilde was courting Constance Lloyd in 1883, he took her to see Othello at the Lyceum, with Terry as Desdemona. Afterwards, Constance became a regular at the theatre and frequently dined with Terry and Irving after shows. Another connection was established when Edward Godwin, Terry’s former partner and the father of her children, decorated the Wilde’s home in Tite Street in 1884.

Wilde loved Terry’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s women. His review of the Lyceum’s Hamlet for the Dramatic Review on 9 May 1885, was full of praise for her:

And of all the parts which Miss Terry has acted in her brilliant career, there is none in which her infinite powers of pathos and her imaginative and creative facility are more shown than in her Ophelia. Miss Terry is one of those rare artists who needs for her dramatic effect no elaborate dialogue, and for whom the simplest words are sufficient.

His review of The Lyceum’s production of an adaptation of Olivia by W.G. Wills, written for the Dramatic Review on 30 May 1885, included the observation that:

To whatever character Miss Terry plays she brings the infinite charm of her beauty and the marvellous grace of her movements and gestures. It is impossible to escape from the sweet tyranny of her personality. She dominates the audience by the secret of Cleopatra.

In that same review, having praised her interpretation of Olivia, he observed:

There was, I think, no one in the theatre who did not recognise that in Miss Terry our stage possesses a really great artist, who can thrill an audience without harrowing it, and by means that seem simple and easy can produce the finest dramatic effects.

In May 1888, Wilde sent a copy of The Happy Prince and Other Tales to Terry. In response, she wrote:

They are quite beautiful, dear Oscar, and I thank you for them from the best bit of my heart…I should like to read one of them someday to NICE people – or even NOT nice people, and MAKE ‘em nice.

Unfortunately, his plans for her to undertake a series of public readings never came to fruition.

In 1889, when Terry’s carriage passed the window of Wilde’s Tite Street home and he noticed that she was wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, an emerald gown shimmering with the iridescent wings of a thousand jewel beetles, he remarked:

‘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.’

He included an image of the finished painting as the frontispiece to the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, which he edited at the time.

Terry too loved the dress and wrote:

‘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 1892, Ellen’s sister Marion Terry played Mrs. Erlynne in the very first production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Although the part was intended for Lillie Langtry, it was to be her most significant role.

The truest test of Terry’s friendship for Wilde came in the wake of his arrest for gross indecency in 1895. While many of his friends abandoned him, one closely-veiled woman called to his mother’s house, where he was staying, bringing a bouquet of violets, the symbol of faithfulness, and a horseshoe for luck. She was identified by Henry Irving’s son Lawrence as Ellen Terry. She also wrote to Constance at that time offering her help and support.

In 1900, when Wilde was living in Paris, Terry visited the city with Amy Lowther. They spotted their friend, much diminished, gazing longingly through the window of a patisserie and biting his fingers with hunger. When they invited him to eat with them, they were much relieved when he ‘sparkled just as of old’. Neither ever saw him again.

After learning of Wilde’s death, Terry stopped his friend Robert Sherard

‘to talk of Wilde and to say many beautiful and kind things about him.’

When she spoke at a dinner held in her honour by the Gallery First-Nighters’ Club in 1905, she included ‘the late Oscar Wilde’ in a list of people seen regularly ‘in the gallery and pit at the dear old Lyceum’.This was a brave statement at the time.

Yet, when writer and poet Richard Le Gallienne asked her to write a foreword to a memorial edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, it seems she never responded.

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One final echo of Wilde and his relationship with Terry appeared twelve years after his death in ‘The Mask’ magazine in July 1912. A story called ‘The Actress’, which Wilde told to Aimee Lowther when she was a child but never wrote down, was published by the magazine’s editor, Edward Craig, Terry’s son. This lovely story of an actress who leaves the stage to devote herself to a lover but is forced to choose between them when love is waning is thought to have been inspired by Terry. Naturally, she chooses the stage.

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Terry with her children Edith & Edward

For more on Oscar, Ellen & all the other women in his life (with full references) read Wilde’s Women.

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‘The subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska’

Helena Modjeska by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, 1880 held in the       Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie

In 1880, when Polish actress, and one of Wilde’s Women, Helena Modjeska arrived in London to star in Heartsease, the English title chosen for Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelia, at the Court Theatre, she asked of Oscar Wilde:

‘What has he done, this young man that one meets him everywhere? Oh yes he talks well, but what has he done? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act – he does nothing but talk. I do not understand.’ 1

Born to Józefa  Benda, the widow of a wealthy merchant in Kraków in 1840, Modjeska was a veteran of the stage by the time she arrived in London. At twenty, she had joined a company of strolling players managed by Gustav Modrzejewski, who she married and had two children by before discovering that he already had a wife who was very much alive.

Modjeska left Modrzejewski after their daughter, Marylka, died in infancy in 1865. She took their son Rudolf, later renamed Ralph Modjeska, to Krakow with her. There, she accepted a four-year theatrical engagement before moving to Warsaw in 1868, where she forged a reputation as a talented theatrical actress. Her two brothers, Józef and Feliks Benda, were also well regarded actors.

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On 12 September 1868, Modjeska married Polish nobleman Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who was editor of the liberal nationalist newspaper Kraj. Their home became the focus of Krakow’s dissident, artistic and literary milieu. The couple’s political activities attracted the attention of authorities and in 1876 they felt obliged to flee to California, where Chlapowski established an experimental and idealistic colony of Polish expatriates on a remote ranch in California. A good account of daily life on the ranch is included in Theodore Payne’s memoir, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties.

When this experiment failed spectacularly, leaving them penniless, Modjeska was obliged to resume her career. Although she had been principal actress at the Polish National Theatre, she needed to learn English to secure major roles. She accomplished this in a matter of months by practising the language between performances for six or seven hours every day.

Modjeska was fêted in London and reported with delight:

‘My success surpassed all my expectations; everyone here seems to think it quite extraordinary, and my manager has already numerous projects concerning my future.’2

The Prince of Wales visited her in her dressing room and she shared a stage with the great Genevieve Ward at a party given his honour; the two women got on famously. Lillie Langtry came backstage to meet her during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Bernhardt, who Modjeska described as ‘the wonderful creature’, sent her a bouquet of white camellias and assured her that she was moved to tears by her performance. When Ellen Terry came to her dressing room, Modjeska declared:

‘Whoever has met Ellen Terry knows that she is irresistible, and I liked her from the first.’ 3

Offstage, Modjeska was embraced by fashionable society. She received an invitation to leading society hostess Lady Jeune’s unmissable ‘five o’clocks’. Wilde had once quipped:

‘There were three inevitables – death, quarter-day and Lady Jeune’s parties.’ (Quarter-days were the four days each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due).

Keen to befriend this newfound star, Wilde invited Modjeska to tea. Her instinct was to refuse, since she thought it unwise to visit a young man unaccompanied, but she relented when he assured her that Lillie Langtry and artist Louise Jopling would be there too.

Before long, Wilde and Modjeska had become good friends. They collaborated on a poem, ‘Sen Artysty; or the Artist’s Dream. When it appeared in the Christmas 1880 edition of The Green Room, it was attributed to ‘Madame Helena Modjeska (translated from the Polish by Oscar Wilde)’. 4

Afterwards, Wilde enthused:

‘If there is any beauty in this poem it is the work of the subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska. I myself am but a pipe through which her tones full of sweetness have flown.’

Wilde and Modjeska also considered adapting Verdi’s opera, Luisa Miller, but this project came to nothing and Modjeska left London to tour in the US and further afield

Helena Modjeska died at Newport Beach, California on April 8, 1909. She was 68 and had been suffering from Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Her remains were returned to Kraków where they were buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published posthumously in 1910.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:

1. As reported by G.K. Atkinson in The Cornhill Magazine 1925, Part 395, p.564

2. Helena Modjeska, ‘Modjeska’s Memoirs: The Record of a Romantic Career Part V, Success in London’, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.879

3. Modjeska, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.883

4. ‘Sen Artysty; or, The Artist’s Dream’ was published in Clement Scott (Ed.), The Green Room: Stories by Those Who Frequent It (London, Routledge, 1880), pp.66-8; http://www.helenamodjeskasociety.com/activity.html accessed on 12 January 2015

Also:

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Willie Wilde & Mrs Frank Leslie: An Unhappy Alliance

On the evening of 4 October 1891, Willie Wilde, aged thirty-nine, became the fourth husband of the formidable Mrs. Frank Leslie, a newspaper magnate who was sixteen years his senior. They hardly knew each other and were married at the aptly named Church of the Strangers in New York.

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Mrs Frank Leslie

The New York Herald referred to the bride as ‘the well known publisher of this city’ and described the groom as ‘one of the editors of the London Telegraph and brother of Oscar’. Since Willie’s best man was humorist Marshall P. Wilder, Town Topics magazine took the opportunity to quip:

‘The groom was wild, the best man wilder, but the bride wildest of all.’

The quiet Sunday evening ceremony was followed by supper in Delmonico’s and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, an apt choice in the light of Oscar’s quip:

‘Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life’.(1)

Mrs. Frank Leslie had been born Miriam Florence Folline in New Orleans on 5 June 1836. At seventeen, and under duress, she married jewellery shop clerk David Charles Peacock. Since they vowed to live apart for the remainder of their lives, it was perhaps inevitable that their marriage was annulled within the year.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known by her stagename Lola Montez. Known for her risque "spider dance". While performing in St. Louis at The Varieties Theatre in March 1853, she got into an argument with the manager, breaking his nose with a candlestick.Photo from the S F City Guides, Bruce Seymor:

Lola Montez

Afterwards, Miriam toured with the notorious Lola Montez, making up one half of the Montez sisters. During that time, she met husband number two, archaeologist E. G. Squier. When Frank Leslie hired Squier to edit his Illustrated Newspaper, he asked Miriam to fill in as editor of his Lady’s Magazine. She made a great success of it.

When he separated from his wife, Frank Leslie moved in with the Squiers and stayed for more than a decade before easing Squier aside to become Miriam’s third husband. When he died of throat cancer in 1880, Frank left Miriam a widow at forty-three and facing seemingly insurmountable debts.

She rose to the challenge, taking on and turning around her late husband’s ailing publishing company. She stamped her authority on the enterprise by changing her name by deed poll to ‘Frank Leslie’, the name he had assumed when he had established the business (he was born Henry Carter in Ipswich, England).

Yet, her creditors were circling and the whole enterprise would have foundered were it not for the intervention of Eliza Jane Smith, a wealthy widow and former housemaid who advanced Miriam a loan of $50,000 to be repaid over five years; it was returned within five months.

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An accomplished linguist and frequent visitor to London for the season, Miriam attended Jane Wilde’s Saturday salons and attempted to emulate them with ‘Thursdays’ of her own. She was described by Jane as ‘the most important and successful journalist in the States’. In Social Studies, Jane elaborated:

‘She owns and edits many journals, and writes with bright vivacity on the social subjects of the day, yet always evinces a high and good purpose; and, with her many gifts, her brilliant powers of conversation in all the leading tongues of Europe, her splendid residence and immense income, nobly earned and nobly spent, Mrs. Frank Leslie may be considered the leader and head of the intellectual circles of New York.’

Jane and Miriam had much in common. Well schooled in literature and the classics, Miriam spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German and Latin. She, like Jane, had translated the work of Alexandre Dumas fils. In a gushing account of this transatlantic alliance, the New York Times described Jane as a ‘close and respected friend’ of Mrs. Leslie’s. The Los Angeles Herald reported that Miriam attributed her decision to marry Willie in no small measure to her ‘devotion to Lady Wilde’, while the Topeka State Journal quoted her as saying:

‘Lady Wilde is so charming that it had a great deal to do with my marrying her son, I think. I have tried to profit by her acquaintance, and hope some day to be in New York what she is in London.’

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Members of the Lotos Club by Pierre Brissaud Country Life, February 1937

 

Miriam had high hopes for Willie, but her plans to install him as a charming companion and lynchpin in her publishing empire came to nothing when it became clear that his preferred haunt was New York’s fashionable Lotos Club, frequented by Mark Twain amongst others. While his new wife worked tirelessly at the helm of her business, Willie could be found drinking, gossiping and reciting parodies of Oscar’s poems. One fellow Lotos Club member recalled:

‘You know, Oscar had a fat, potato-choked sort of voice,’ , ‘and to hear Willie counterfeit that voice and recite parodies of his brother’s poetry was a rare treat.’(2)

Another member remembered him as ‘the most thoroughgoing night owl that ever lived,’ and confirmed that he ‘positively hated daylight’.

The alliance was doomed. During a visit to London, Miriam hired a private investigator to report on Willie’s activities. Confronted with evidence of his boorish behaviour, she started divorce proceedings, charging him with drunkenness and adultery. When their marriage was dissolved on 10 June 1893, Judge C.F. Brown declared that Willie was:

‘addicted to habits of gross and vulgar intemperance, and to violent and profane abuse of and cruel conduct to the plaintiff’.(3)

Describing it as ‘a funny sort of match from the start,’ the Morning Call decided that their relationship would make a delightful social comedy and revealed that the bride had never altered her name, although ‘at times she would let “Wilde” be tacked on with a hyphen’.

Willie claimed, rather disingenuously:

‘The man who marries for money jolly well earns it’.(4)

When asked why he had married Miriam, his supposed reply was:

‘’Pon my soul. I don’t know. Do you? I really ought to have married Mrs. Langtry, I suppose’.(4)

Ironically, Miriam was said to have declared:

‘I really should have married Oscar’.(5)

Yet, after their divorce, she told a reporter from the Evening World:

‘I have only feelings of pity and sorrow for Mr. Wilde,’

adding,

‘I cherish no resentment towards him. He is a remarkably brilliant man of culture, but intemperance has demoralised him’.

She was even kinder about Jane, insisting:

‘Lady Wilde is one of the loveliest of women and extraordinarily intelligent, and there is still the best of feeling existing between us.'(6)

Wilde’s biographer and friend Robert Sherard believed that the marriage had been disastrous for Willie:

‘He went out to America a fine, brilliantly clever man, quite one of the ablest writers on the Press,’

he noted before observing that he came back to England

‘a nervous wreck, with an exhausted brain and a debilitated frame’.(7)

While she was married to Willie, Miriam felt a duty of care to her impoverished mother-in-law, and offered her an allowance of £400 a year. Jane, who was perhaps a little embarrassed at being financially dependent on another woman, would accept only £100, which she justified as the cost of maintaining a London home for the couple. Once the divorce was finalised, Miriam stopped Willie’s allowance, leaving him with no option but to join his mother in genteel poverty in her Oakley Street home. Poor Jane lived in constant fear of bailiffs arriving at her door to collect on Willie’s debts. When she cabled Miriam for help, her friend paid up grudgingly but broke with the family as a result.

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Lady Jane Wilde in old age

In January 1894, six months after his divorce was finalised, Willie Wilde married Dublin-born Sophia Lily Lees. Although she had plenty of suitors, Miriam never married again. When she died in 1914, she left the bulk of her fortune to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in order that it be used for the promotion of the cause of women’s suffrage. A staunch champion of women’s rights, she once declared:

‘The old order is changing and the new coming. Woman must open her eyes to it and adapt herself to it, she must free herself from her swaddling clothes and go out into the world with courage and self-reliance. Oh, what a noble woman the woman of the future may become!’ (8)

She is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s Women.

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REFERENCES & FURTHER READING:

1. Oscar Wilde and Stuart Mason (Ed), Impressions of America (Sunderland, Keystone Press, 1906), p.25

2. From ‘Wilde and Willie’ by Nancy Johnson (archivist) in News and Notes from the Lotos Club, January 2011

3. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

4. Reported in The Nineteen-Hundreds by Horace Wyndham, p.76

5. Madeleine B. Stern, Purple Passage: the life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Norman, Okla. Univ. of Oklahoma Press 1953 ), p.162

6. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

7. Sherard, Real Oscar Wilde, p.323

8. Included in Anne Commire, Deborah Klezmer, Women in World History Volume 9 (Waterford CT., Yorkin Publications, 1999), p.413

 

 

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