Monthly Archives: January 2017

Jane Elgee: ‘the most extraordinary prodigy’

Novelist William Carleton died at his home in Rathmines, Dublin on 30 January 1869. You can find an excellent profile of his life and work here.

In December 1850, Carleton sent a copy of the Nation newspaper to engraver and magazine proprietor Ebenezer Landells. The accompanying letter drew his friend’s attention to ‘the critique in the 202nd page’, which ‘was written by Miss Elgee’. In his letter Carleton declared:

She is the most extraordinary prodigy of a female that this country, or perhaps any other, has ever produced. She is acquainted with all literatures and all languages, and all history, ancient and modern.

This extract from David O’Donoghue’s Life of William Carleton, drawing on testimony from one of Carleton’s daughters, makes clear the esteem in which he held the woman who had later married his friend and physician Dr. William Wilde.

Lady Wilde, for whose genius he had the strongest admiration, came to see him. Indeed, nothing could exceed the kindness and sympathy shown to us by both Sir William and Lady Wilde at this time of suffering and sorrow.

Carleton was eulogised in the Irish papers. On 6 February 1869 a poem written in his honour by Lady Wilde was published in the Nation. Here’s an extract:

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Little wonder Carleton had expressed admiration for the ‘great ocean of her soul’.

Source: David O’Donoghue, Life of William Carleton Volume II (London, Downey & Co., 1896)

For much more on Lady Jane Wilde, read Wilde’s Women

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Why Did She Marry Him?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of English writer and poet Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), who was born Richard Thomas Gallienne (the “Le” was a later addition) in Liverpool on January 20, 1866. Although his father, a brewery worker, ensured that Richard, one of his ten children, received a good education and was articled to a firm of accountants, Le Gallienne took no interest in pursuing this career.

Richard Le Gallienne by Alfred Ellis

In 1887, he published his first literary work, My Ladies’ Sonnets. By then, he was also reviewing books for The Academy. The direction his life was to take was determined by the fact that he failed his final accountancy exams in December 1888. He moved to London and began a professional relationship with publisher John Lane that was to continue until 1924. You can read far more about him here.

My interest in Le Gallienne relates to a passionate love affair he had with writer Edith Nesbit, the subject of my next biography, who was married to Hubert Bland at the time. Although married himself, Le Gallienne wrote and published several love poems to Nesbit. One of them, ‘Why Did She Marry Him?,’ interests me particularly.

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Edith Nesbit

Le Gallienne speculates as to why Edith chose to marry the undeserving Hubert Bland (and undeserving he was in many respects, although she did love him in her own fashion). Perhaps he was unaware that Edith, aged twenty-one at the time, was seven months pregnant on her wedding day, 22 April 1880. A certain pragmatism was involved on her part one has to assume.

Why Did She Marry Him?

Why did she marry him? Ah, say why!
How was her fancy caught?
What was the dream that he drew her by,
Or was she only bought?
Gave she her gold for a girlish whim,
A freak of a foolish mood?
Or was it some will, like a snake in him,
Lay a charm upon her blood?Love of his limbs, was it that, think you?
Body of bullock build,
Sap in the bones, and spring in the thew,
A lusty youth unspilled?
But is it so that a maid is won,
Such a maiden maid as she?
Her face like a lily all white in the sun,
For such mere male as he!
Ah, why do the fields with their white and gold
To Farmer Clod belong,
Who though he hath reaped and stacked and sold
Hath never heard their song?
Nay, seek not an answer, comfort ye,
The poet heard their call,
And so, dear Love, will I comfort me—
He hath thy lease, that’s all.
Although Bland family legend has it that Edith and Richard were passionately in love for a time, and that she threatened to leave Hubert for him on at least one occasion, their affair came to an end. Le Gallienne married three times and died in Menton on the French Riviera in 1947.
Le Gallienne also makes a very brief appearance in my first book, Wilde’s Women:
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Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

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In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

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Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Oscar Wilde & The Davis Sisters

The Wilde family was prominent in the Dublin social scene, and well connected with other wealthy Dublin families. One such was the Davis family. Although both Hyman Davis, a dentist, and his wife, Isabella, were Londoners, they spent many years in Dublin and several of their eight children were born there. In the late 1870s, both Willie and Oscar were friendly with Dublin-born James ‘Jimmy’ Davis who, in a chequered career, was alternately a theatre writer, racing correspondent, theatre critic and solicitor.

Jimmy’s younger sister Eliza, who made her name as fashion columnist ‘Mrs Aria’, recorded her recollections of Oscar and Willie in her memoir, My Sentimental Self  (1922).

Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.

Their connection did not end there. Eliza made her name as a journalist, editor of fashion magazine The World of Dress, and author of books on fashion and motoring. When she became involved in a long-term affair with Henry Irving, she suggested, to no avail, that he stage Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua.

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Her intervention on Oscar’s behalf may be attributable to their youthful friendship but may also have been rooted in the fact that her older sister Julia, also a participant in their tennis parties, was given her first break in journalism as a result of an attempt to parody Oscar’s work. Eliza wrote:

Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.

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It is a coincidence that her first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde.

Eliza Davis Aria gazes at a photo of her sister Julia

In 1906, six years after Oscar’s death, Julia, writing as Frank Danby, published a novel, The Sphinx’s Lawyer. In My Sentimental Self, Eliza described this book as Julia’s attempt ‘to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde’.

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In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyeraddressed to her brother Jimmy, who wrote under the name Owen Hall, and who had fallen out spectacularly with Oscar, Julia declared:

‘Because you “hate and loathe” my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you’.  For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’

In the pages that follow, Oscar appears in the guise of Algernon Heseltine, a man treated unjustly by society because he ‘was not as others’ on account of his genius; ‘the applause changed to low suspicious muttering’, Julia observed. It seems certain, given the title of her novel, that Julia’s qualified defence of Oscar was also connected to her great friendship with Ada Leverson, Wilde’s ‘Wonderful Sphinx’.

Yet, although Julia lauded Oscar’s genius and characterised him as a martyr, The Sphinx’s Lawyer was no vindication since she suggested that Heseltine was mad and should ‘have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’.

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Her descriptions of Oscar, as ‘Heseltine’, facing his accusers, are worth reading:

The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth.  The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men.  He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost.  He was not as others.  He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded.  When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.

The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew.  He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible.  Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end.  He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.

For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic].  When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes.  It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it.  The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew.  (104–05)

Sources:

Mrs. Aria London, My Sentimental Self (London, Chapman & Hall, 1922)

Frank Danby, The Sphinx’s Lawyer (New York, F.A. Stokes Company, 1906)

Margaret D. Stetz, ‘To defend the undefendable’: Oscar Wilde and the Davis Family, Oscholars Special Issue: Oscar Wilde, Jews & the Fin-de-Siècle, Summer 2010.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, Wilde’s Women (London, Duckworth & Co., 2015)

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‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’

An excerpt from Wilde’s Women:

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In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’ column in the January 1888 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887 to 1889, Oscar Wilde praised Women and Work, an essay from poet and philanthropist Emily Jane Pfeiffer. He described Pfeiffer’s work, which was subtitled ‘An Essay Treating on the Relation to Health and Physical Development, of the Higher Education of Girls, and the Intellectual or More Systematised Effort of Women,’ as:

‘a most important contribution to the discussion of one of the great social problems of our day’.

Wilde welcomed in particular Pfeiffer’s refutation of Professor George Romane’s preposterous assertion that men and women should be ‘mentally differentiated,’ as outlined in his essay ‘Mental Differences Between Men and Women’.

In order to illustrate his opposition to Romane, Wilde quoted Daniel Defoe:

‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’

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Source:

Oscar Wilde, ‘Literary and Other Notes’, The Woman’s World, Volume I, January 1888, pp.135-6

Defoe’s ‘The Education of Women’ is included in English essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (1910) F. Collier & Son, p.159

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