Monthly Archives: March 2017

E. Nesbit: The Husband of Today and The Wife of All Ages

Often, poetry is where we find the truth. March 21 is World Poetry Day and to celebrate I’m posting two companion poems written by Edith Nesbit during the early years of her marriage to Hubert Bland, a notorious philander who fathered children with at least two other women.

Lays&Legends

The first of these poems, ‘The Husband of Today,’ was written in the early 1880s and included in Nesbit’s published collection, Lays and Legends (1886). Here, a straying husband assures his wife that only his fancy has been fired and not his soul. These fleeting passions, he insists, will never usurp the ‘love that lights life’.

The Husband of Today

Eyes caught by beauty, fancy by eyes caught;

Sweet possibilities, question, and wonder –

What did her smile say? What has her brain thought?

Her standard, what? Am I o’er it or under?

Flutter in meeting – in absense dreaming;

Tremor in greeting – for meeting scheming;

Caught by the senses, and yet all through

True with the heart of me, sweetheart, to you.

Only the brute in me yields to the pressure

Of longings inherent – of vices acquired;

All this, my darling, is folly – not pleasure,

Only my fancy – not soul – has been fired.

Sense thrills exalted, thrills to love-madness;

Fancy grown sad becomes almost love-sadness;

And yet love has with it nothing to do,

Love is fast fettered, sweetheart, to you.

Lacking fresh fancies, time flags – grows wingless;

Life without folly would fail – fall flat;

But the love that lights life, and makes death’s self stingless

You, and you only, have wakened that.

Sweet are all women, you are the best of them;

After each fancy has sprung, grown, and died,

Back I come ever, dear, to your side.

The strongest of passions – in joy – seeks the new,

But in grief I turn ever, sweetheart, to you.

The wife answers in a companion poem, ‘The Wife of All Ages,’ also published in Lays and Legends, directly after ‘The Husband of Today’. Here, she dismisses his entreaties and insists that, as far as she is concerned, his ‘meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming’ is simply love and nothing less. Were their roles reversed, she suggests, he would have little patience with such fine distinctions.

In this powerful response to her husband’s justification of his disloyalty, the wife insists that she would withdraw were she not bound to him, against her better judgement it seems:

The Wife of All Ages

I DO not catch these subtle shades of feeling,

Your fine distinctions are too fine for me;

This meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming,

To me mean love, and only love, you see;

In me at least ’tis love, you will admit,

And you the only man who wakens it.

Suppose I yearned, and longed, and dreamed, and fluttered,

What would you say or think, or further, do?

Why should one rule be fit for me to follow,

While there exists a different law for you?

If all these fires and fancies came my way,

Would you believe love was so far away?

On all these other women—never doubt it—

‘Tis love you lavish, love you promised me!

What do I care to be the first, or fiftieth?

It is the only one I care to be.

Dear, I would be your sun, as mine you are,

Not the most radiant wonder of a star.

And so, good-bye! Among such sheaves of roses

You will not miss the flower I take from you;

Amid the music of so many voices

You will forget the little songs I knew—

The foolish tender words I used to say,

The little common sweets of every day.

The world, no doubt, has fairest fruits and blossoms

To give to you; but what, ah! what for me?

Nay, after all I am your slave and bondmaid,

And all my world is in my slavery.

So, as before, I welcome any part

Which you may choose to give me of your heart.

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Oscar Wilde the Irishman: A speech he made in Minnesota on St. Patrick’s Day, 1882.

Much time is devoted to speculation as to exactly how Irish Oscar Wilde believed himself to be. Although he truly saw himself as a citizen of the world, and was careful to ingratiate himself with those who occupied the highest positions of power and influence in England, he was also the son of an Irish nationalist mother.

On 17 March 1882, Wilde, aged twenty-six, participated in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that were organised in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. He was touring America at the time, lecturing to audiences the length and breadth of that emerging nation. A comprehensive account of the event, including his apparently impromptu remarks, was carried in the Saint Paul Globe the following day. This is Wilde at his most Irish – he was wise to give his audience what they wanted. Perhaps he was also sincere in his sentiments.

Here’s my account of the occasion, based on the report in the Saint Paul Globe:

MI-oscar-wilde-cloak-irish-sayings

On a rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1882, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, Father John Shanley took to the stage at the Opera House and declared that he was:

…pleased to announce the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters – of a daughter who in the troublous times of 1848 by the works of her pen and her noble example did much to keep the fires of patriotism burning brightly in the hearts of Ireland’s sons. A son of that noble woman was present in the person of Mr. Oscar Wilde, who had kindly consented to say a few words on this happy occasion, and whom he had the pleasure of introducing

Wilde, who had been sitting in a box to the side of the stage, ‘skipped’ onstage, dressed in ‘his too too raiment,’ the outfit he had worn when he had delivered a lecture the previous night. This was described as:

cut away coat, velveteen waistcoat, velvet knee britches, black stockings and pumps, one hand gloved in a white kid, the other bore lace handkerchief and necktie, and the long straight brown hair hanging down upon his shoulders.

Wilde was greeted with ‘a generous demonstration of applause,’ which he acknowledged with a slight bow from the front of the stage. He began to speak:

Ladies and gentlemen, when I gave myself the pleasure of meeting with you to-night, I had not thought I would be called upon to say anything, but would be allowed to sit quietly in my box and enjoy listening to the loving and patriotic sentiments that I knew would be given voice. But the generous response you have given to the mention of the efforts of my mother in Ireland’s cause, has filled me with a pleasure and a pride that I cannot properly acknowledge. It is also a pleasure to me that I am afforded this opportunity during my visit to America to speak to an audience of my countrymen, a race once the most artistic in Europe.

There was a time before the time of Henry II, when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality. The few books saved from the general wreck are remarkable for their literary excellence and beauty of illustration. There was a time, too, when Ireland was the university of Europe – when young Monks educated in Ireland went forth as educators to all other European countries, while at the same time students from these same countries flocked to Ireland to study the arts, etc., under the great masters of Ireland. There was a time when Ireland led all other nations in working in gold. In those times no nation built so splendidly as did Ireland. The cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices of  those days showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.

Those proud monuments to the genius and intellectuality of Ireland do not exist to-day. When the English came they were burned. But portions of these blackened, mouldering walls still remain to remind visitors of the beauty of the work wrought by Ireland, for the pleasure and enjoyment of Ireland, in the days of her greatness. But with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years. And he was glad it had not, for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.

Art was an expression of the liberty loving, beauty loving sentiment of a people. But the artistic sentiment of Ireland was not dead in the hearts of her sons and daughters, though allowed no expression in their native country. It is that sentiment which has reduced you to meet here to-night to commemorate our patron saint. It finds expression in the love you bear for every little nook, every hill, every running brook of your native land. It is shown in the esteem you bear for the names of the great men whose deeds and works have shed such lustre upon Irish history. And when Ireland gains her independence, its schools of art and other educational branches will be revived and Ireland will regain the proud position she once held among the nations of Europe.

He thanked the audience once more, and was rewarded with ‘generous applause as he withdrew from the stage’.

For more on Oscar Wilde read my book Wilde’s Women

PBCover

For  more on Wilde’s lecture tour of America visit this brilliant website: http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org

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Lady Jane Wilde & Her Love for Sweden

I’m really pleased that Wilde’s Women is still being reviewed 18 months after publication. I’m particularly delighted that a Wildean scholar of the calibre of Professor Peter Raby reviewed it for Women’s Studies, a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. ‘The author writes sympathetically & vividly about Lady Wilde, as she does about Wilde’s wife, Constance,’ Raby writes.PBCover

In response, here is an extract that describes the admiration Jane Wilde had for Scandinavian women and the freedoms they were afforded:

Shortly after [her daughter] Isola arrived, Jane formed an extremely significant friendship with a progressive young Swedish woman named Charlotte ‘Lotten’ von Kraemer. Then, as now, Scandinavians took a more enlightened approach to gender equality and Jane’s admiration demonstrates how far ahead of her time she was. It must be remembered that many Victorian women were complicit in their subjugation, propping up male-dominated institutions that kept them down and shunning women who objected.

Image result for Charlotte ‘Lotten’ von Kraemer

Lotten von Kraemer

As Lotten suffered from a painful and debilitating ailment of the ear, triggered by a bout of scarlet fever in adolescence, she had been advised to consult Dr. William Wilde, one of Europe’s leading aural specialists. She and her father, Baron Robert Fredrik von Kraemer, Governor of Uppsala, arrived at lunchtime one Sunday in July 1857. They were surprised to learn, by means of a wink and a nod that the lady of the house was not yet up. Instead, they were shown into William’s study. He arrived, holding one ‘unruly little boy’ by the hand and carrying a smaller boy in his arms. This was Oscar, not yet three, with ‘curly brown hair and large dreamy eyes’. Lotten was moved by the warm affection William showed towards his sons.1

Hospitable as ever, William invited these visitors to return for dinner. In the meantime, he volunteered his wife to take them on a tour of Dublin, which she did with great good humour. Willie and Oscar were present that evening, a highly unusual practice in a Victorian household and one that was to continue when Oscar had sons of his own. William stroked little Oscar’s cheek and sent him to fetch a book, while Jane prevailed upon Baron von Kraemer to teach her the rudiments of Swedish. Lotten admired her, ‘soulful and captivating vivacity’, recognising that the fire in her glance betrayed her past as a revolutionary poet. She was struck by the affability of the occasion and the exceptionally congenial bond that existed between husband and wife.

Lotten and Jane had much in common. During her lifetime, Lotten was a published poet, essayist, and editor of Var Tid (Our Time), a magazine of modern culture. She also endowed a scholarship enabling female medical students to attend Uppsala University; she founded Samfundet De Nio (the Nine Society), a prestigious and progressive Swedish literary society; and she provided vital finance to the Country Association for Women’s Suffrage. Although early correspondence was taken up with medical advice passed on by William, much of it involving the application of leeches, Lotten and Jane were soon discussing topics of mutual interest: literature, culture and the position of women in society. It impressed Jane that:

Clever and intellectual women, also, in Sweden hold a much higher position in society than their literary sisters in England. They are honoured and made much of, and treated with considerable distinction, solely from belonging to the peerage of intellect. Whereas in England wealth, with the ponderous routine of life that wealth entails, seems to be the chief measure of merit and the highest standard of perfection in social circles.2

Ever the linguist, Jane attempted to master Swedish, but the lack of a tutor obliged her to struggle alone with the aid of a dictionary. Although she did manage to write a few letters, she never mastered the language: ‘Even this endeavour [learning Swedish] I have given up with all other literary employment since the cares of a household have come on me’, she told Lotten.3 One ambition she did not abandon was that of instilling a love for literature in her children, and she was successful in this. While Willie enjoyed Tennyson’s epic ballad, Lady Clare and Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Oscar remembered his mother reading Walt Whitman’s recently published collection, Leaves of Grass (1855) to him. He mentioned this when he met the poet in New Jersey in 1882.

Image result for Leaves of Grass

Once Willie turned six, Jane hired an English governess, an arrangement that allowed her to travel with her husband, William: ‘without this, we’re apt to fossilize in married state’ she declared’.4 They toured Scandinavia during the autumn of 1859, and Jane said of Stockholm, ‘I will never enjoy any place again so much’.5 She was less taken with Germany, concluding, erroneously as it happened, that people, ‘who live on beer and cheese, are not, and never can be, politically dangerous’.6

Years later, Jane organised her journals into Driftwood from Scandinavia, a moderately successful travel book in which she expressed her admiration for the elevated status of women in Swedish society. Through Lotten, Jane met Rosalie Olivecrona, a pioneer of the Swedish women’s rights movement and co-founder of Tidskriftför Hemmet (Journal for the Home), a campaigning feminist publication ‘devoted to general literature and the advancement of women politically and intellectually’. What impressed Jane about Rosalie was that, although she held ‘a very important place in the highest circles of Stockholm society’, she remained ‘with all her learning, a most attractive and elegant woman in style, look, and manner’.7

Jane admitted to Lotten that she had ‘little time for writing or even for thought,’ yet she managed to complete all three volumes – 1,446 pages – of The First Temptation; Or, “Eritis Sicut Deus”: A Philosophical Romance [by W. Canz]. Translated from the German by Mrs. W.R. Wilde.8 Although her skills as a translator were lauded, this odd and controversial book received mixed reviews; one damning assessment was motivated by revenge, as would later become apparent.

Jane Wilde enjoyed her status as a public figure. She began one very revealing letter to Lotten by writing: ‘When my correspondence is collected and published after my death…’ Yet, the incompatibility of literary and family life concerned her. ‘After all writing is a fatal gift for a woman,’ she told Lotten, who was childless, ‘I would be a much better wife, mother, & head of a household if I never touched a pen. I feel this so strongly that I shall never encourage my daughter to authorship.9 Such misplaced guilt remains familiar to her contemporary counterparts.

Image result for lady Jane Wilde

Lady Jane Wilde

When Jane learned that her Swedish friends were in the habit of hosting regular literary receptions, she decided to establish ‘weekly conversazione’ of her own  in order to ‘agglomerate together all the thinking minds of Dublin’.10 The Athenaeum described 1 Merrion Square as, ‘the first, and for a long time the only, bohemian house in Dublin,’ but expressed concern that Jane had gathered together all those, ‘whom prudish Dublin had hitherto kept carefully apart’.11 The Irish Times attributed her success to an absence of snobbery, ‘so fatal to social gatherings in Ireland’.12 Delighted with her initiative, Jane grew determined to live up to her maxim; one Oscar adapted and made his own. It is monotony that kills, not excitement,’ she wrote:

Dull people fail in the will to live, and so they soon lose their hold on life. Excellent good women, who give up society and devote themselves exclusively to home and homely duties, grow old so soon.13

As was her wont, she invited mostly men and those few women she admired: novelist Rosa Mulholland Gilbert, and literary sisters Alice and Henriette Corkran. Gilbert remembered Jane

‘dressed in long flowing robes of Irish poplin and Limerick lace…adorned with gold chains and brooches modelled on the ancient ornaments of Erin’s early queens’.

She considered Jane to be ‘of a kindly nature, and warm and sincere in her friendships,’ adding,

‘she had a commendable desire to make her house a social centre for all who were engaged in intellectual pursuits, or interested in literature or the arts’.14

Henriette Corkran thought Jane‘an odd mixture of nonsense, with a sprinkling of genius’, and declared that ‘her talk was like fireworks – brilliant, whimsical and flashy’.15 In time, Oscar’s conversation would be likened to fireworks too.

1 Lotten von Kraemer, ‘Författaren Oscar Wilde’s Föräldrahem i Irlands Hufvudstad’ Ord och Bild Illustrerad Månadsskrift, Volume 11, 1902, pp.429-435, http://runeberg.org/ordochbild/1902/0473.html accessed on 10 January 2015

2 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia (London, R. Bentley and son, 1884), p.201

3 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 20 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

4 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 21 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

5 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 3 Dec 1859, National Library of Sweden; Later, Jane returned to Sweden with William, who was to receive the prestigious Nordstjärneorden (Order of the North Star) from King Karl XV.

6 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.275; Oscar appears to have inherited her low opinion of Germans (see Complete Letters, p.409)

7 Lady Jane Wilde Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.196

8 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer (fragment), 1860, National Library of Sweden

9 Letters to Lotten von Kraemer, 19 March 1862 & 22 April 1862, National Library of Sweden

10 Letter to John Hilson, 10 February 1859, University of Reading, Special Collections, MS 559

11 The Athenaeum Magazine, quoted in Victoria Glendinning ‘Speranza’ in Peter Quennell Genius in the Drawing-Room (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980), p.103

12 ‘The Literati of Dublin’, Irish Times, March 1878

13 Lady Wilde, Social Science, p.74

14 Mulholland Gilbert, Life of Sir John Gilbert, p.78

15 Corkran, Celebrities & I, p.141

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