Category Archives: Book Excerpt

“If William Morris was a Socialist, whatever else Socialism might be it would not be ugly.” Hubert Bland

William Morris, British textile designer, poet, novelist, translator, and socialist activist, died on this day in 1896. We know him best, perhaps, for his beautiful, intricate designs but he was passionate about social reform and this consumed much of his energy during his lifetime.


In 1882, disillusioned with the creeping commercialism that had gripped society, Morris joined the radical Social Democratic Federation (SDF), founded by Henry Mayers Hyndman, a devotee of Karl Marx. Hyndman realised that Morris could be relied upon to deliver a fiery sermon and welcomed him with enthusiasm. He left a wonderful description:

“His [Morris’s]imposing forehead and clear grey eyes, with the powerful nose and slightly florid cheeks, impressed upon you the truth and importance of what he was saying, every hair on his head and in his rough shaggy beard appearing to enter into the subject as a living part of himself.”

Morris addressed SDF meetings throughout the UK, insisting that beauty had a place in any workable model for a socialist future. By December 1884, he had decided that the SDF was not sufficiently revolutionary, and he left to help establish the Socialist League. He was co-author of its manifesto.

When Hubert Bland, a founder member of the Fabian Society and husband of writer Edith (E.) Nesbit, learned that “William Morris was calling himself a Socialist,” he decided

“If William Morris was a Socialist, whatever else Socialism might be it would not be ugly.”

It was then that Hubert

“turned to the Socialists, who just then were beginning to make a clamour.”

He might not have been so effusive had he overheard Morris tell trade unionist and Labour politician John Lincoln Mahon

 “The debate at the Fabian last night was a very absurd affair only enlivened by a flare up between me & that offensive snob Bland.”

Edith too admired Morris, who was a leading light in the vibrant Pre-Raphaelite movement. She was drawn to what Hubert described as the “simple, beautiful ideals of mediaeval England” that Morris incorporated into his painting and poetry. She saw these as an antidote to the “insistent sordidness and blatant ugliness” that had crept into society.


Edith and Hubert included a pen portrait of Morris in Something Wrong, a serial they wrote for the Weekly Dispatch. In The Story of the Amulet (1906), Edith’s fictional children travel forward in time to a verdant, utopian London where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone dresses in comfortable clothing. This episode is inspired by Morris’s novel News from Nowhere (1900) in which he envisaged a utopian society founded on common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.

You can read more about the Blands and their relationship with William Morris in The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, published on 17 October by Duckworth.




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Edith Nesbit’s Dogs

On #InternationalDogsDay here’s a short post about Edith Nesbit’s dogs and her unconditional love for them.

As a child, Edith was sent to boarding school in the picturesque town of Dinan in Brittany, northwest France. She missed her dog desperately and wrote to her mother to ask after “that queen of dogs that splendid lady that estimable that lovely loving lovable Trot”.

She always had dogs and often put them into her books. Prominent in several photographs she took at her home in Well Hall, Eltham is Martha, the bulldog immortalised in several Bastable stories. Martha also appears in ‘Fortunatus Rex & Co.’ from Nine Unlikely Tales. An old lady who wishes to protect her orchard demands that the king provide her with “a fierce bull-dog to fly at the throat of any one who should come over the wall”

So he got her a stout bull-dog whose name was Martha, and brought it himself in a jewelled leash. “Martha will fly at any one who is not of kingly blood,” said he. “Of course she wouldn’t dream of biting a royal person; but, then, on the other hand, royal people don’t rob orchards”.


Rosamund Bland with Martha and another dog (Edith Nesbit Archive, University of Tulsa)

Edith also adore her dachshunds, Max and Brenda, who make an appearance in The Magic CityFor some reason, Gerald Spencer Pryse, who illustrated The Magic City when it was serialised in The Strand Magazine, drew them as Dalmatians even though Edith had described them as “dachshunds, very long and low”. H.R. Miller did the same in the book version.



Max and Brenda were not universally loved. One friend described them as snappy, and Edith’s adopted daughter Rosamund admitted that they were terribly spoilt. At mealtimes they would rush around the table, then jump onto Edith’s lap. If she had attached their leashes to her chair, she would trip over them when she got up.

For more on Edith and her extraordinary life, look out for my new biography, THE LIFE AND LOVES OF E. NESBIT, which will be published in October 2019.


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E.M. Forster & E. Nesbit

British novelist, essayist, and social and literary critic Edward Morgan (E.M.) Forster died on 7 June 1970, which seems incredibly recent given that he was born in the Victorian era, in 1879.

BBC Hulton Picture Library

In 1909, Edith Nesbit read A Room with a View, Forster’s third novel, which had been published the year before. She loved it so much that she invited him to lunch at her flat to discuss his work. While he was there, Forster, who was two decades her junior and a shy and awkward man, knocked over a towering pile of plates while closing a window at her request. Nesbit responded kindly, assuring him that she had purchased these plates for practically nothing from a bric-a-brac stall at the Caledonian Market in Islington.

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E. Nesbit’s home at Well Hall

They became friends and Forster visited Nesbit at her home at Well Hall in Eltham. On one occasion, in 1911, she played the pianola for him and they strolled through her lovely orchard, discussing their shared passion for books. At sunset, Forster joined family and fellow guests in the garden to watch Nesbit burn a cardboard model depicting rows of factories and terraced housing. She detested the creeping urbanisation that was encroaching on her once-secluded home.


For more on Nesbit and her circle, look out for my new biography, which will be published by Duckworth/Prelude in October 2019.



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“I should never have married at all if I had not been dead at the time.” GBS


Charlotte and Bernard Shaw (centre) with Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb     Library of the LSE

On 1 June 1898, Irish playwright and thinker George Bernard Shaw married Charlotte Frances Payne-Townshend, a wealthy Irishwoman, fellow Fabian and champion of women’s rights. Shaw wrote of his new wife:

She, being also Irish, does not succumb to my arts as the unsuspecting and literal Englishwoman does; but we get on together all the better, repairing bicycles, talking philosophy and religion… or, when we are in a mischievous or sentimental humour, philandering shamelessly and outrageously.

As was his wont, he considered himself captured prey, pounced upon when at his most vulnerable. “I should never have married at all,” he told his friend Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, “if I had not been dead at the time.” The nature of this perceived entrapment was that he had fallen off his bicycle and agreed to recuperate in her home. In truth, they got on terribly well. According to fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb they were “constant companions, pedalling round the country all day, sitting up late at night talking.”

When it came to sex, they reached a mutually satisfactory understanding:

As man and wife we found a new relation in which sex had no part. It ended the old gallantries, flirtations, and philanderings for both of us. Even of those it was the ones that were never consummated that left the longest and kindliest memories.

They stayed together until Charlotte’s death in 1948. In 1950, when Shaw died, their ashes were mixed, then scattered along footpaths and around the statue of Saint Joan in their garden.

This is an extract from my new biography, The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit, which will be published on 17 October 2019. Further details here.


Michael Holroyd. Bernard Shaw: the search for love 1856-1898.Chatto & Windus, 1988

G.B. Shaw. Sixteen Self-SketchesDodd, Mead, 1949

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. My Diaries 1900-1914: The Coalition Against Germany. A.A. Knopf, 1923

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The Life And Loves Of Edith Nesbit

My new biography, The Life And Loves Of Edith Nesbit, will be published on 17 October 2019 and I love the cover my UK publisher (Duckworth/Prelude) has designed.


Edith Nesbit was a strikingly beautiful and unconventional woman. In May 1888, one-hundred-and-thirty-one years ago, a description of her bohemian household appeared in the Star under the heading ‘Gossip – Mostly About People’

Nesbit, the gifted poetess of Longman’s Magazineand the Weekly Dispatch, is known among her friends, literary and otherwise, as Mrs Edith Bland, wife of Hubert Bland. She is a tall woman of somewhat over 30, with dark hair and eyes. Although her features are not precisely regular, their expression is full of charm when they are lit up by a smile or animated by any absorbing topic. Mrs Bland has a soft, melodious voice, and her manner may best be described by the French term enlinerie [sic]. She dresses in Liberty’s fabrics. Mr Hubert Bland is a tall, broad, portly man, with a large head. He is dark, wears a moustache and imperial, and is a little under 40. The Blands used to live at Blackheath, but now reside at Lee, in Kent. They have two children [sic], a boy and girl, the former of whom now bears the familiar name of Fabian Bland.

Edith and Hubert had an older son, Paul, but he never seemed to make much of an impression. I’m going to be posting more regularly from now on about Nesbit’s extraordinary life (she knew EVERYONE). I do hope you enjoy learning more about the women who is arguably the most influential children’s author that ever lived. C.S. Lewis borrowed his wardrobe from a short story of hers and J.K. Rowling often acknowledges her debt to this most magical of storytellers.

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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.

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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.

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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, 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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When Nellie Melba met Oscar Wilde


Dame Nellie Melba by Henry Walter Barnett

Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861. As a young woman she was introduced to Oscar Wilde by their mutual friend Gladys, Countess de Gray, to whom he dedicated his play A Woman of No Importance. Although they never became close friends, and Nellie admitted that Oscar made her feel uneasy, she confessed to admiring his ‘brilliant fiery-coloured chain of words’. She qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


Nellie and Oscar met on several occasions and her description of his insatiable desire for cigarettes – she claimed that she knew he had called by the quantity of cigarette ends in her fireplace – suggests some intimacy. On one occasion, Nellie recalled Oscar producing six cigarette cases from about his person, although he may have intended to gift them to his disciples.

Certainly, she knew something of his lifestyle. In her memoir, Melodies and Memories, she relates an anecdote about Oscar speaking to his sons ‘of little boys who were naughty and made their mothers cry’; one wondered aloud ‘what punishment could be reserved for naughty papas who did not come home till the early morning and made mothers cry far more’.

In Melodies and Memories, Nellie also writes of walking through Paris one day when Oscar lurched around a corner with a ‘hunted look in his eyes’. Her account describes how she was about to walk past when he stopped her: ‘Madame Melba – you don’t know who I am? I’m Oscar Wilde’, he said, perhaps assuming she did not recognise him, before continuing ‘I am going to do a terrible thing. I’m going to ask you for money’. Hardly able to look at him, she emptied her purse and in response, she says, he almost snatched the money, muttered his thanks and was gone.

As jdellevsen of points out below, Wilde’s circumstances were desperate by then. It must have taken great courage to ask for help and he did so graciously. How unsettling it is to read this account of a great man brought so low.

Dame Nellie Melba (1861 -1931) celebrated operatic soprano and yet another fascinating example of one of Wilde’s Women.

My source for this article is: Nellie Melba. 1925. Melodies and Memories. Cambridge University Press


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The Great Famine: Speranza Responds

Speranza, Lady Jane Wilde

Jane Wilde

When she decided to send poetry to The Nation newspaper in response to a call for contributors, Jane Elgee, who would become Jane Wilde on marriage, chose the pseudonym Speranza, the Italian word for hope, which she described as her, ‘nom de guerre, or rather nom de vers,’ and which formed part of her motto ‘Fidanza, SperanzaCostanza’ (Faith, Hope, Constancy).

The first poem from the pen of ‘Speranza’ was ‘The Holy War’, translated from a German original and published The Nation on 21 February 1846. Jane signed the accompanying letter ‘John Fanshaw Ellis’, a pseudonym adopted to conceal her activities from her unsympathetic family; she may also have assumed, with good reason, that a male contributor would be looked upon more favourably.

In February 1847, the Great Famine in Ireland reached it’s height. The horror of this tragedy radicalised poet Jane Elgee, in her mid-twenties by then, prompting her to adopt the name ‘Speranza’ and write inflammatory poetry  in response. Later, she would marry William Wilde and become the mother of Oscar. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women describing her response to the famine:

In 1847, Jane found a catastrophe to write about: Ireland’s rich soil yielded an abundance of high quality grain, meat and dairy products, and landowners sold the bulk of their produce overseas. When the price of grain became artificially inflated during the campaigns against the French, it was designated a cash crop for export. At the same time, the Irish population was growing inexorably, from five million in 1800 to in excess of eight million by 1841. The teeming families that farmed thousands of sub-divided smallholdings, half of them covering less than five acres, were required to survive on the potato crop alone. When the blight that ravaged America in 1842, crossed the Atlantic in the years that followed, the subsistence farmers of Ireland were hardest hit. Harsh governance and the laissez-faire trading policies adopted in Westminster exacerbated the problem, leading to famine in one of the most fertile countries in the world.

Jane’s words had a galvanizing effect: ‘a nation is arising from her long and ghastly swoon’, she declared.* In ‘The Lament’, she gave voice to the Young Irelanders’ criticism of the increasingly ineffectual Daniel O’Connell: ‘gone from us…dead to us…he whom we worshipped’, she wrote. In ‘The Voice of the Poor’, she railed against the horrors of famine, writing, ‘before us die our brothers of starvation’; ‘The Famine Year’ condemned the arrival of, ‘stately ships to bear our food away’; ‘The Exodus’ lamented the ‘million a decade’ forced to flee their homeland. The most popular of Jane’s compositions was ‘The Brothers’, a rousing ballad eulogising Henry and John Sheares, one a lawyer, the other a barrister, both United Irishmen hanged for their part in the rising of 1798. In tone and theme it shares much with her son’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and it was taken up by the street balladeers of Dublin.

Snow lay deep when the famine reached its height in February 1847, and a typhus epidemic raged uncontrollably. The non-interventionist policies adopted by the newly installed Whig government were proving disastrous, and the soup kitchens and relief works set up to help the starving population were woefully inadequate. As the country headed inexorably towards insurrection, Jane’s contributions became increasingly provocative. Her poem, ‘The Enigma’ described how the living envied the dead as Ireland’s abundance was, ‘taken to pander a foreigner’s pride’. She lamented the loss of, ‘the young men, and strong men,’ who, ‘starve and die, for want of bread in their own rich land’.

When the offices of the Nation newspaper were raided in July 1848, editor, Charles Gavan Duffy was arrested and charged under the new Treason-Felony Act for publishing a newspaper article advocating the repeal of the Act of Union, a crime that carried the penalty of transportation. While he was in prison awaiting trial, he entrusted editorship of the Nation to his sister-in-law, Margaret Callan, aided by Jane. On 22 July the Nation carried Jane’s inflammatory poem, ‘The Challenge to Ireland’. The following week, she wrote an unattributed leader titled ‘Jacta Alea Est’(the die is cast); it was an unmistakable call-to-arms:

‘O! for a hundred thousand muskets, glittering brightly in the light of Heaven, and the monumental barricades stretching across each of our noble streets made desolate by England…’

As if this were not sufficiently treasonous, she beseeched:

‘Is there one man that thinks that Ireland has not been sufficiently insulted, has not been sufficiently degraded in her honour and her rights, to justify her now in fiercely turning on her oppressor?’

* From ‘Forward!’ by Jane Wilde, originally titled ‘To My Brothers’ in Poems by Speranza (Dublin, James Duffy, 1864), p.35

Source: Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons


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Wilde as Literary Magpie

The Public Domain Review has a great article On Oscar Wilde and Plagiarism, which he engaged in unashamedly. My favourite quote on the subject, which I include in Wilde’s Women, comes from bestselling Victorian novelist Ouida; Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was often compared to her work:

“I have written three comedies in one year,’ he [Wilde] said to a friend of mine, and my friend replied: ‘A great exercise of memory!”

Love her!!

I’ll write a post about her soon…


Bestselling Victorian Novelist Ouida

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The Remarkable Rhoda Broughton

Some of the more peripheral characters in Wilde’s Women are so colourful and pioneering that, although their links to Oscar Wilde were tenuous, I was determined to include them. One was the remarkable Rhoda Broughton, who never took to Wilde, nor he to her.


Although Rhoda Broughton was born in North Wales, her Irish roots stretched deep. Her late mother, Jane Bennett had grown up at 18 Merrion Square. In 1856, the Bennett parents let their home to Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and his wife, Susanna, Jane’s sister. Le Fanu was well acquainted with William and Jane Wilde, who lived a few doors up. After Suzanna fell into despair and died in mysterious circumstances that were never discussed, Rhoda remained close to her uncle, who encouraged her literary ambitions. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1867, as Rhoda struggled through a tedious novel, ‘the spirit moved her to write’. She tossed her dreary book aside and scribbled furiously for six weeks, producing Not Wisely but Too Well, the lurid tale of young Kate Chester, who stops just short of an adulterous affair with the self-regarding Dare Stamer; it was rumoured to be semi-autobiographical.

Le Fanu serialised it in the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited at the time, and persuaded Rhoda to send it to publisher George Bentley & Sons; Bentley turned it down after his editorial reader Geraldine Jewsbury declared it: ‘The most thoroughly sensual tale I have read in English for a long time’. This was exactly what readers wanted. When Not Wisely but Too Well was brought out by the more audacious Tinsley Brothers, it became the first in a string of hugely controversial bestsellers. Three years later, when the circulating libraries lifted their ban on her books, Rhoda’s popularity soared. Yet, she published anonymously until 1872, and most readers assumed she was a man. One unwitting reviewer for the Athenaeum declared:

That the author is not a young woman, but a man, who, in the present story, shows himself destitute of refinement of thought or feeling and ignorant of all that women either are or ought to be, is evident on every page.

Exuberant and ferociously independent, with a well-deserved reputation as a waspish wit, Rhoda divided opinion. Oscar’s friend James Rennell Rodd observed that she had ‘a great heart but acaustic tongue’.  Among her supporters were Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who shared her apparently irrational dislike of Oscar. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, known to us as Lewis Carroll, refused to attend a dinner with her as he ‘greatly disapproved’ of her novels. Anthony Trollope admired her, but despaired at how she ‘made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say’.

They throw themselves at men’s heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again. Miss Broughton is still so young that I hope she may live to overcome her fault in this direction.

Rhoda insisted she was merely responding to market forces: ‘since the public like it hot and strong, I am not the person to disoblige them’, she declared.

It’s difficult to fathom the animosity that crackled between Oscar and Rhoda as they had much in common: both were blessed with witty and persuasive personalities; both eschewed the narrowly proscribed gender roles imposed by a judgmental Victorian society; and both courted controversy by tackling taboos in their writing. Besides, Oscar was not easily intimidated by anyone. Whatever the reason, he stopped inviting Rhoda to tea and she took this exclusion to heart. Her good friend Ethel Arnold, niece of Matthew and a pioneering journalist in her own right, claimed Rhoda was referring to Oscar when she carped:

I can’t forget those early years of my life, when those from whom I had every right and reason to expect kindness and hospitality showed me nothing but cold incivility. I resent it still, and I shall resent it until my dying day.

Oscar was reportedly furious when Rhoda caricatured him in Second Thoughts as, ‘long pale poet’ Francis Chaloner, who carries a, ‘lotus lily in one pale hand’. Leaving no room for doubt, she furnished Chaloner’s room with a great white lily in a large blue vase that stood alongside easels supporting, ‘various pictures in different stages of finish’. It seems she barely knew him, since she made Chaloner egotistical and humourless. Oscar was understandably wary and novelist Margaret Woods, a mutual friend, recalled:

The last time I met Oscar Wilde was at a private view of the Royal Academy; he then said that he had lately come across Rhoda Broughton and found her tongue as bitter as ever.

He took his revenge by reviewing Broughton’s Betty’s Visions for the Pall Mall Gazette in October 1886: ‘No one can ever say of her that she has tried to separate flippancy from fiction’, he wrote, ‘whatever harsh criticisms may be passed on the construction of her sentences, she at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin’. He closed by declaring: ‘In Philistia lies Miss Broughton’s true sphere and to Philistia she should return’.

Of course, he may have simply disliked her novel, but his words give an insight into how, for all his apparent poise, Oscar was rattled by those who showed him disdain; he could certainly harbor a grudge.

A full description of Wilde’s Women can be found here and the most recent review from The Independent is here.

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