Category Archives: Essay

Wilde and his Irish Connections in London, National Liberal Club, 28 March 2022

By Eleanor Fitzsimons

Good evening everybody and thank you for attending my talk on Oscar Wilde and the Irish community in London. It’s always a challenge to speak to an expert audience, but I hope you will find what I’m about to share with you to be of interest, and I invite you all to ask questions or add your observations at the end of this session. 

Firstly, and stating the obvious here, Oscar Wilde was thoroughly Irish, as Irish as I am in fact. He was born on 16 October 1854, .to Irish parents, William and Jane Wilde, in a well situated but relatively modest terraced house at 21 Westland Row in Dublin, close to Trinity College. It’s now part of the university. As a child, he moved with his family to 1 Merrion Square, an imposing and prestigious house that many of you will have visited, I’m sure. 

Aged nine, Oscar joined his brother, Willie, at Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, which he attended from 1864 to 1871. Aged sixteen, he left Portora with a royal scholarship to read classics at Trinity CollegeDublin, where he was a student from 1871 to 1874. Weeks short of his twentieth birthday, he was awarded a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he read Greats from 1874 to 1878. That was when he left Ireland. Oscar visited Ireland from time to time during his time at Oscar and after 1878, but he never lived there again. He had few ties to Ireland afterhis mother and brother left Dublin in 1879.

A brief note on the status of Ireland at the time. From 1801, and the Act of Union, until 1922, when she won her independence, Ireland was governed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in London through their administrative headquarters at Dublin Castle. Many Irish people travelled to live and work in England, as they still do. The Common Travel Area remains in place affording rights to all of us to live and work throughout these Islands.

Like many Irish people, myself among them, Wilde was attracted to London by the opportunities available here. He was ambitious and determined to get on, and he made it his business to cultivate the good favour of the English public, particularly the upper echelons. He modified his dress and behaviour to do so. At least one Oxford classmate, John Edward Courtenay Bodley, remarked on Wilde’s Irishness, although he did not mention his accent: 

A good-natured, though unsophisticated young Irishman…an unaffected youth, the cut of whose garments, though doubtless counted unexceptionable in Dame-street or College Green had a quaint look for “doing the high”. “Oscar Wilde at Oxford,” New York Times, 4 Feb 1882) 

Wilde’s Irishness was remarked upon, often favourably. An excerpt from his entry in The Biograph and Review, Volume IV, 1880 (London, E.W. Allen, pp.130-131), reads: 

 “He [Wilde] is the offspring of a fervid and emotional race, and the child of two persons of unusual character. In him the strong emotional tendency of the Irish nature which with most of the race feeds personal feeling alone becomes, through intellectual development, an ardour for art and its glories.” 

Wilde’s contemporary and compatriot George Bernard Shaw described him as “at root a very Irish Irishman, and, as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.” (cited by Hyde, Oscar Wilde, 37). Grant Allen called him “an Irishman to the core”.

It’s often suggested that Wilde modified his accent deliberately. I believe this may have been overstated. The Wildes would not have spoked with a very pronounced accent, certainly not a provincial accent such as the one Oscar’s mother mocked in a letter to him in June 1875, after a visit to Mayo: “The Irish accent is dreadful – I shudder – Maurnin Paaa-purrrrrs! How refined we are. Willie’s is the only refreshing accent I hear…”. Lecturing in America in 1882, Oscar said: “I wish I had a good Irish accent to read…to you in, but my Irish accent was one of the many things I forgot at Oxford.” Although playing to his audience, as ever, this suggests some regret at the loss of his accent, challenging the suggestion that this was deliberate. Frank Harris, an Irishman, observed that Wilde spoke French with an Irish accent. French poet Andre Raffalovich, a close associate of John Gray, when referring to the way in which Wilde spoke, described him as “very Irish”. 

Wilde may have been obviously Irish in manner and appearance, but what is perhaps less easily discerned is his view on the fraught politics of the time, and his sympathy for the campaign of some measure of autonomy for Ireland. Commentators, among them Jerusha McCormack and Richard Pine, suggest Wilde was acutely aware of the horror of the Irish famine and that it informed his writing, thinking, and attitude to English politicians. Lecturing on Irish poetry in San Francisco in April 1882, to an audience sympathetic to the plight of post-famine Ireland, Wilde spoke of his “peculiar reverence and love” for the men of ’48 (a reference to the failed uprising of 1848), announcing that he was “trained by my mother to love and reverence them, as a Catholic child is the Saints of the Calendar”. 

Yet, Wilde was his own man. In “The Irish Oscar Wilde: Appropriations of the artist,” (Irish Studies Review, December 1999) Máire Ní Fhlathúin cautioned that readers cannot view Speranza’s ambitions for her son as “a vital element of the picture of Wilde himself”. She disputes postcolonial attempts to define Wilde in terms of his politics, and postulates that he was an opportunist who changed his persona, often contradictorily, to suit his audience and purpose. On politics, perhaps the subtle opinion Wilde offered in 1882, in an interview with an American Newspaper best expresses his wishes for his nation:

Undoubtedly, in America, Wilde felt free to speak out against the British establishment and its treatment of Ireland. Of course, this often reflected the sentiment of his audiences. While in England, he wrote of “our English land”. In his poem “Ave Imperatrix” his narrator eulogizes “our English chivalry” and “quiet English fields,” Yet this poem also laments the price paid by the colonizer: “And thou whose wounds are never healed/Whose weary race is never won/Cromwell’s England! must thou yield/For every inch of ground a son?” 

Wilde was a chameleon, a wearer of masks. In Inventing Ireland, Declan Kiberd suggests that: “Wearing the mask of the English Oxonian, Wilde was paradoxically freed to become more ‘Irish’ than he could ever have been back in Ireland”. Richard Pine considers Wilde as an outsider of both Irish and English culture. In anonymous criticism, he was prepared to criticize England’s treatment of Ireland. In A Chinese Sage” (The Speaker, 8 February 1890), he wrote: “Were he [Chuang Tzu] to come back to earth and visit us, he might have something to say to Mr. Balfour about his coercion and active misgovernment in Ireland”. Yet in a letter to James Nicol Dunn, Managing Editor of Henley’s Scots Observer, an anti-Home Rule newspaper, Wilde made it clear that he did not wish for his name to appear. 

When it came to politics, Wilde took a keen interest in that fate of Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, which held the balance of power during the Home Rule debates of 1885–1886. Wilde attended sessions of the Parnell Commission, and his library contained 13 volumes of proceedings. Yet, it may be that his sympathies lay with a man whose private life was being used to depose him. In “The Soul of Man” (1891) Wilde criticised the media in a way that appears supportive of Parnell:

The harm is done by the serious, thoughtful, earnest journalists, who solemnly, as they are doing at present, will drag before the eyes of the public some incident in the private life of a great statesman, of a man who is a leader of political thought as he is a creator of political force, and invite the public to discuss the incident, to exercise authority in the matter, to give their views . . . in fact, to make themselves ridiculous, offensive, and harmful. The private lives of men and women should not be told to the public. The public have nothing to do with them at all.

He invoked his Irishness on occasion when he felt rejected by the British establishment, such as when his play Salomé was refused a licence, or when in “de Profundis,” he extended his personal grief into a reflection of the historical when he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas of “the ruin your race has brought on mine”. In The Importance of Being Paradoxical, Patrick M. Horan writes: “being in the Irish minority strengthened Wilde’s notion that most artists were alienated and unappreciated by the populace”.

Wilde often spoke of the kinship between people from the Celtic nations. In a letter to Grant Allen, whose father was Irish, he suggested “all of us who are Celts, Welsh, Scotch, and Irish, should inaugurate a Celtic Dinner, and assert ourselves, and show these tedious Angles or Teutons what a race we are, and how proud we are to belong to that race”. In The Woman’s World, which he edited for two years, he lent practical support to Irish cottage industries, publishing articles on activities like lacemaking and weaving. What of his compatriots, fellow Irish people in London, among them his mother and his brother? As Roy Foster puts it in Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian London: “London was the magnet for generations of middle-class Irish arrivistes determined to make their mark”. In his fascinating A survey of the Irish in England (1872) Hugh Heinrick reported:

There is not a newspaper in London without its one, two, three and four Irish writers and Irish reporters on the staff – indeed, Irish reporters are not alone numerous, but are the best and ablest who supply the daily papers with the Court and Parliamentary records of the day.

Politics too was dominated by debate on Home Rule and “the Irish question”. Irish literary groupings and societies were springing up throughout the city. Key Irish figures who interacted with Wilde were operating in London, in the spheres of politics and media, carving out positions of considerable power and influence. Among them was Justin McCarthy (1830-1912), editor of the Morning Star, leader writer for the Daily News and a nationalist MP (1879-1900). He was also a close friend to Bram Stoker. In his biography of Wilde, Matthew Sturgis describes how McCarthy dominated London’s “ex-patriot ‘Irish brigade,’ a heterodox group composed mainly of literary and political types,” a group that Wilde cultivated. Wilde also admired McCarthy’s son, although the younger McCarthy was to write a scathing and very personal review of Lady Windemere’s Fan for Gentleman’s Magazine:

McCarthy senior was more supportive. They moved in the same literary circles. When McCarthy read a paper on “The Literature of ‘48” at the Southwark Irish Literary Club in January 1883, Wilde was in the audience. In an interview he gave to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in February 1882, Wilde described McCarthy senior as “a writer of brilliancy”. When McCarthy edited Irish Literature (published in 1904), he devoted 19 pages to Wilde’s writings, including “The Selfish Giant”, an extract from “The Decay of Lying”, and six poems. The accompanying biographical note was wholly laudatory, and dealt particularly sensitively with Wilde’s tragedy, ending:

Far less sympathetic to Wilde was Thomas Power (T.P.) O’Connor (1848-1929), a powerful man with a similar profile to McCarthy. O’Connor moved to London as sub-editor of the Daily Telegraph. He was elected as an MP in 1880, and he contributed a nightly sketch of proceedings to the Pall Mall Gazette during this time. He also founded, and was first editor of, The Star (1887), the Weekly Sun (1891), the Sun (1893), M.A.P. and T.P.’s Weekly (1902). O’Connor’s Weekly Sunfollowed Wilde’s career with insinuation, curiosity and lack of sympathy. He almost certainly wrote that paper’s assessment of Salomé: “Anything more loathsome and revolting than the atmosphere Mr. Wilde has created in this drama it would be difficult to imagine.” Wilde was aware of his hostility and declared “for some years past all kinds of scurrilous personal attacks have been made upon me in Mr. O’Connor’s newspapers”. Most bizarre of all was this accusation of plagiarism: 

In “Oscar and The Irish” (Dublin Review of Books, January 2013), Brian Earls speculates that O’Connor’s dislike of Wilde’s persona was related to elements in his own personality with which he was ill at ease and wished to conceal. 

There were influential Irish men who supported Wilde even though not personally acquainted with him. Timothy Michael (T.M.) Healy (1855-1931) was a politician, journalist, author, barrister and somewhat controversial Irish MP. His “Healy Clause” in the Land Law (Ireland) Act 1881, provided that no further rent should be charged on tenant’s improvements. He would become first Governor-General of the Irish Free State in the 1920s. Healy was a brilliant debater with a keen intellect. For several years, he operated as Parliamentary correspondent for The Nation, Speranza’s old paper, which was owned by his uncle. He wrote numerous articles in support of Parnell, but he turned against him later, on account of his scandalous private life. Parnell: “Who is the master of the party?” Healy: “Aye, but who is the mistress of the party?” Although Healy didn’t know Wilde personally, he greatly admired his parents. In 1895, he “begged” FrankLockwood, the solicitor general in Lord Rosebery’s Liberal administration, not to proceed with charges against Wilde for a second time, as he “wished the mother should be spared further agony”.

In Wilde’s time, the Irish literary and political community in London was riven in two. Earlier Irish literary migrants, who had relocated for social, economic and cultural reasons, took a keen interest in politics too. They identified as Irish nationalists, but they were eager participants in British political and cultural life. Their hybrid identity was carefully crafted. By the 1880s, these Irish writers were well established in Liberal London. Many, among them T.P. O’Connor and Justin McCarthy, played a prominent role in the Liberal Home Rule campaign of 1886-92. They wrote for an English readership, even when they were writing about Ireland. Lady Wilde fits quite neatly into this category.

A new generation of Irish literary emigrants arrived during the 1880s and 1890s. Their passion was for an Irish cultural revival. They established the Southwark Irish Literary Club, the Irish Literary Society that followed, and the London Gaelic League. These cultural revivalists were suspicious of the earlier arrivals, certain that they had diluted their Irish identity. These cultural nationalists wanted to explore and assert their separate Irish cultural identity. Many, prominent among them W.B. Yeats, would return to Ireland to help bring about a Gaelic revival. Although Wilde did not fit into either category, he engaged with both.

The Irish Literary Society founded in 1892 and in existence to this day, has its roots in the Southwark Irish Literary Club, founded in 1883, with Francis Fahy (1854-1935) as its President. Fahy was a guiding light in the first wave of Irish cultural revivalism in London, which he described as: “The world-city of my reading and my dreams”. Yeats left us a colourful description of the Southwark Irish Literary Club:

Fahy mentions Wilde:

Wilde’s presence at the Southwark Irish Literary Club was greeted with some scepticism by members. As W.P. Ryan observed in The Irish Literary Revival (1894):

Some members of the club saw irony in this as they viewed Wilde as ‘the representative of a movement with which Young Ireland could have no sympathy; – the very head centre of aestheticism himself – more curious still, that this same representative should be the son of “Speranza’.

Another literary organization with a high Irish participation that Wilde engaged with was the Rhymers’ Club, active from 1890 to 1895. Poet Arthur Lynch described them as, “a small assemblage of poetically pious young men”. Members met to read aloud and criticize each other’s work. Early meetings took place at 20 Fitzroy Street, where Lionel Johnson, who introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, lived. Wilde attended the first meeting there, but he stopped attending when the rhymers took to meeting monthly at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, off Fleet Street, where they drank beer and smoke long, clay churchwarden pipes. As Yeats put it in Four Years: “If we met in a private house, which we did occasionally, Oscar Wilde came. It had been useless to invite him to the ‘Cheshire Cheese’ for he hated Bohemia.” 

In a letter to Ernest Rhys, dated February 9, I890, Herbert Home wrote:

I asked the rhymers here the other evening: Oscar came in at the end, after the rhymes were all over, and smiled like a Neronian Apollo upon us all. A kind of enthusiasm or inspiration followed.

Needing more than the Rhymers, Yeats was key to the founding of the Irish Literary Society, built on the circle of Irish writers connected with Tinsley’s magazine and its editor Edmund Downey, whose partnership Ward and Downey published Lady Wilde’s books. Wilde was a charter member, as were his mother and his brother. According to W.P. Ryan:

“When it was suggested that Oscar Wilde should be invited to join the Society, one who knew him said that he would certainly put off the matter with a quip or a paradox, which, however, would be a good one, and worthy of being entered in the minute book. This friend was a false prophet, for Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde was soon an honoured name on our register. His brother, William Wilde, an old contributor to Kottabus, came also.” 

Wilde had his supporters in the society of course. Stephen Lucius Gwynn, secretary of the Irish Literary Society and member of Irish Parliamentary Party declared: “There is no doubt at all about the gifts from Oscar Wilde”. He had his detractors too. According to Yeats, Downey was to become the only Irish man of letters to turn down his request for a letter of support addressed to Wilde at the time of his trials in 1895. Yeats regarded Dowden’s grounds for refusal, that he did not care for Wilde’s writings, as spurious. Another detractor was Australian-born poet Arthur Lynch. His extreme action prompted the following from John Yeats in a letter to his daughter Lily, which he wrote in June 1894:

An ambitious young writer, Yeats was also a shy man who found Wilde to be a kind and encouraging role model. He was astonished by the brilliancy of his talk. They met in London in 1888 and developed a friendship. Yeats even spent Christmas day 1888 with the Wilde family, although he did detect something “too perfect” about it all. In Four Years, Yeats recalled Wilde saying to him of the Irish, “we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks”. He recognised Wilde as a radical critic of English society, which chimed with his own cultural nationalism. In a review of Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, he described Wilde’s works as “an extravagant Celtic crusade against Anglo-Saxon stupidity”. In United Ireland (26 September 1891), Yeats wrote: 

Beer, bible, and the seven deadly virtues have made England what she is,” wrote Mr. Wilde once; and a part of the Nemesis that has fallen upon her is a complete inability to understand anything he says. We should not find him so unintelligible—for much about him is Irish of the Irish. 

In Wilde’s time of greatest need, Yeats supported him publicly, collecting letters of support from fellow Irish writers. In Memoirs, Yeats disclosed that his father, John B. Yeats, had encouraged him to see if he “could be of any help”, adding: “He [Wilde] was very kind to you, perhaps he may wish to call you as a witness to something or other”.

Another prominent Irish writer in London at that time was George Bernard Shaw. Wilde and he were recognised as the first Irish playwrights in decades to make an impact on the London stage. Each admired and was influenced by the other. Wilde wrote to Shaw: “we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends”. He alone in literary London signed Shaw’s petition in support of Irish-American anarchists involved in Chicago’s Haymarket Riots. Shaw wrote: “It was a completely disinterested act on his part; and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.” Yet, wildly different in temperament and inclination, they developed an uneasy friendship, and met mostly by chance. Shaw first met Wilde at one of Lady Wilde’s gatherings, and described how Wilde:

After Wilde was imprisoned, Shaw drafted a petition for his release to the Home Secretary and discussed its circulation with Wilde’s estranged brother. Disheartened, by his lack of support, Shaw concluded that, since only he and Reverend Stuart Headlam had signed it, it would do no good, ‘as we were two notorious cranks, and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good’.

Less supportive was influential Irish novelist, short-story writer, poet, art critic, memoirist and dramatist George Moore, who moved to London in 1869. Moore grew up in the West of Ireland and became friendly with young Willie and Oscar, who spent summer holidays at nearby Moytura. He refused to acknowledge Wilde as an artist. In a letter to Frank Harris, a colourful, opportunistic Irish newspaper editor in London, who knew Wilde well, Moore wrote at length about his low regard for Wilde as a writer. 

Wilde found Harris brash and combative, but they maintained an association for years. It was Harris who tried to talk Wilde out of the libel trial shortly before it began. Shaw wrote:

Perhaps the most extraordinary association Wilde had with a compatriot was with Edward Carson. Both were born in 1854. Both grew up in upper-middle-class Dublin, Wilde in Merrion Square and Carson in nearby Harcourt Street. It’s likely that they played together as five-year-old children, while on holiday in Dungarvan, Co Waterford in 1859. They were in Trinity College Dublin around the same time and were said to be friendly there. Yet, when Wilde learnt Carson was defending Queensberry, he is said to have quipped about “Ned” Carson: “No doubt he will perform his task with all the added bitterness of an old friend.” 

Carson was politically ambitious. A Unionist MP for Dublin University, he would go on to play an astonishing role in the partition of Ireland. He had his political reasons for defending Queensberry. He never accepted Wilde’s literary genius and described him as a “charlatan”. Yet, after the libel trial Carson also was reported to have said to his wife, “I have ruined the most brilliant man in London.” Ahead of the second criminal trial against Wilde, Merlin Holland notes, Carson is believed to have interceded on his behalf, saying to the British solicitor general: “Can you not let up on the fellow now, he has suffered a great deal?” 

My talk thus far has been dominated by men, and as author of Wilde’s Women, I must give the women their say. One Dubliner who disliked Wilde intensely, and he her, was Lady Colin Campbell. Born in Dublin in 1857, Gertrude Elizabeth Blood (1857-1911) was intelligent, cultured and beautiful. In 1881, she married Lord Colin Campbell, but their marriage failed. In 1884, she obtained a separation on the grounds of cruelty. Their very public divorce, with sordid accusations of adultery, made her a household name. After reading her novel, Darell Blake, Wilde concluded that she had “exhausted all her powers of imagination in the witness box”. She called him “the great white slug” (or perhaps caterpillar, accounts vary). 

Another Irish woman writer who fell out with Oscar Wilde was Edith Somerville, one half of Sommerville and Ross (her cousin Violet Martin, who wrote as “Martin Ross”), authors of The Irish R.M. In April 1888she visited Oscar Wilde at the offices of The Woman’s World. She gave an account of their encounter in a letter to Martin:

Wilde’s plight in 1895 caused a split between Dublin-born sisters Julia and Eliza Davis, who he had played tennis with in his youth. In My Sentimental Self, fashion columnist Eliza described: “Oscar [playing tennis] in a high hat with his frockcoat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze”. During a long affair with Henry Irving, Eliza attempted to persuade him, unsuccessfully, to stage Wilde’s play The Duchess of Padua. Yet, in 1906, when her sister Julia, writing as Frank Danby, released a novel titled The Sphinx’s Lawyer, accused her of attempting “to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde.” 

Finally, to an encounter Wilde had with an Irish woman of no literary significance, that perhaps highlights his true nature. Here’s an excerpt from Wilde’s Women:

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“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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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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The Reviews Are Coming In…

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  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons’ painstaking research gives us a new insight into the bizarre Bohemian life of the ground-breaking children’s author E. Nesbit. It’s a fantastic read.”
    Jacqueline Wilson
  • “Absolutely superb!”
    Hilary McKay (children’s author of The Skylarks War, shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards)
  • “What a stirring and unexpected story Eleanor Fitzsimons tells and what a subject she has found. I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t owe something to Edith Nesbit’s glorious books for children. The extraordinary woman who wrote them proves to be every bit as brave, funny and imaginative as her own intrepid characters.”
    Miranda Seymour
  • “Nesbit was the mother of modern children’s fiction and this  intelligent, sensitive and minutely researched biography gives the truest picture yet of the woman herself, and the influences that shaped her brilliant imagination.”
    Kate Saunders, Costa Children’s Book Award winner for Five Children on the Western Front
  • “In this long-overdue new biography, Eleanor Fitzsimons gives us a nuanced yet compelling portrait of E. Nesbit’s many-faceted personality, life and works, as well as of the politically and culturally vibrant milieu in which she lived.”
    Fiona Sampson
  • “I’ve always loved the work of E. Nesbit—The Railway Children and Five Children and It are my favorites—but I knew nothing about the extraordinary, surprising life of this great figure in children’s literature. Eleanor Fitzsimons’s account is so gripping that I read this biography in two days. “
    Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author
  • “Eleanor Fitzsimons paints a detailed picture of the radical politics and unconventional personal life of the author of The Railway Children, and makes a strong case for how these elements informed E. Nesbit’s most famous works – a fascinating biography.”
    Emily Midorika, author of A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf
  • “E Nesbit was one of the greatest writers from the golden age of children’s literature. She was also a brilliant, complicated woman, who lived a life filled with emotional entanglements and intellectual dispute. It is a life told with panache and elegance by Eleanor Fitzsimons. A must-read not just for those interested in the early years of feminism, or in children’s literature, but for anyone who cares about the complexities of the human soul.” 
    Anthony McGowan, winner of the Booktrust Teenage Prize
  • “A fascinating insight into late 19th century/ early 20th century bohemian literary life, and a rare glimpse into the world of an unconventional, enigmatic and staunchly socialist children’s author. I loved it.” 
    Cathy Cassidy, winner of the Queen of Teen Award
  • ‘An exceptional biography about an absolutely fascinating individual.’ Adam Roberts, Vice-President of the H.G. Wells Society

Here’s the verdict from Publishers Weekly – “Fitzsimons delivers a sprightly and highly readable life of a writer who deserves even wider recognition.”

Kirkus Reviews in their review described it as: “A fascinating, thoughtfully organized, thoroughly researched, often surprising biography of the enigmatic author of The Railway Children.”

In a starred review, Booklist decides that I make “a compelling case for her [Nesbit’s] stature as an important writer,” adding: “This biography is long overdue.”

Highlights from a lovely review in the Wall Street Journal include “meticulous and invaluable”, “author of the fascinating Wilde’s Women”, “brings to light many previously hidden biographical watermarks”, “fine biography”.

The critic at the New York Times wrote “In her biography, Fitzsimons handily reassembles the hundreds of intricate, idiosyncratic parts of the miraculous E. Nesbit machine”

In an absolutely lovely review in the Washington Post regular critic Michael Dirda, who has a Pulitzer Prize for literary criticism, calls The Life & Loves of E. Nesbit a “fine new biography” and “informative and entertaining”.

The amazing Kate Atkinson told the Daily Mail that she is reading it at the moment and described it as “very well-researched,” while on Twitter the absolutely marvellous Marian Keyes (@MarianKeyes) included The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit in a photo of the books she is “REALLY DYING to read.”

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit has a huge spread in the Daily Mail with a limited opportunity for readers to buy my book at a discounted price of £16. It is also available to  buy in many bookshop chains and independent bookshops and you can buy on Amazon.

‘Fitzsimons makes extensive and excellent use of Nesbit’s fiction and poetry, and in doing so she illuminates both Nesbit’s work and her life… highly readable.’ The Irish Times

‘Areadable and thorough biography.‘ Review in the Guardian

‘What a great book… it’s wonderful!’ BBC Radio, Jo Good Show

‘An affectionate and detailednew life of Nesbit.’ Spectator

The first major biography of E Nesbit in 30 years…  She has used Nesbit’s letters and deep archival research to reveal an extraordinary life story, bringing new light to the life and works of this famous literary icon.’ Dorset Echo

RTE Culture: ‘Meticulously researched… a very worthwhile addition to the body of work which surrounds this fascinating woman, mother, author and friend.’

Fantastic review in The Irish Times: ‘Eleanor Fitzsimons paints an insightful and lively picture of children’s author E. Nesbit… Fitzsimons makes extensive and excellent use of Nesbit’s fiction and poetry, and in doing so illuminates both Nesbit’s work and her life… like all the best literary biographies, this highly readable book will send readers back to that writing.’

The Life & Loves of E. Nesbit is also included in the Washington Post Top 50 Non-Fiction Books of 2019 and in the Dallas Morning News Top 100 Books of 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.

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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_George_Bernard_Shaw,_Beatrice_and_Sidney_Webb,_1932

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.

References:

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.

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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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THOMAS KINGSBURY (1688 – 1747): PHYSICIAN AND FRIEND TO JONATHAN SWIFT AND GREAT, GREAT GRANDFATHER TO OSCAR WILDE

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Dean Jonathan Swift

An anecdote concerning Jonathan Swift as he approaches the end of his life appears in many early biographies. The first instance I have come across is in Volume 3 of A supplement to Dr. Swift’s works, being the fourteenth in the collection: containing miscellanies in prose and verse by the Dean; Dr. Delany, Dr. Sheridan, Mrs. Johnson, and others, his intimate friends.This volume, one of a twenty-seven-volume set, was published in London in 1779by John Nichols, adistinguished printer, antiquarian and editor who was familiar with Swift’s writing.

The anecdote in question appears on page 326 under the heading ‘Epigram’ and goes as follows:

The Dean in his lunacy had some intervals of sense; at which his guardians, or physicians took him out for the air. On one of these days, when they came to the [Phoenix] Park, Swiftremarked a new building, which he had never seen, and asked what it was designed for. To which Dr. Kingsburyanswered, “That, Mr. Dean, is the magazine for arms and powder, for the security of the city.”  “Oh! Oh!” says the Dean, pulling out his pocket-book, “let me take an itemof that. This is worth remarking: – my tablets, as Hamlet says, my tablets – memory, put down that!” Which produced these lines, said to be the last he ever wrote:

Behold! A proof of Irishsense!

Here Irish wit is seen!

When nothing’s left, that’s worth defence,

We build a magazine.

This anecdote is repeated in volume 8 of The Works of the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. Arranged, revised, and corrected, with notes, By Thomas Sheridan, a.m. (1784). It also appears in various volumes of The Works, arranged by Sheridan and corrected and revised by John Nichols F.S.A, all published between 1801 and 1808. There are dozens of further examples. Notable for my purposes is its reproduction on page 376 of Volume 14 of The Works of Jonathan Swift D.D. with a Life of the Author, which was compiled bySir Walter Scott and brought out by Archibald Constable & Co. in Edinburgh in 1814.

Swift’s anecdote became topical after flooding in the crypt of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin led to the exhumation of Swift’s skull in 1835, ninety years after his death. This event gave doctors and phrenologists an opportunity to assess the Dean’s state of health. In 1847, May and August issues of the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science featured a lengthy essay by Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, titled ‘Some Particulars Respecting Swift and Stella, with Engravings of their Crania; together with some notice of St. Patrick’s Hospital’. Wilde used his considerable medical expertise to interrogate a suggestion, put forward by Dr. William Mackenzie of Glasgow, that the Dean had ended his life ‘furiously insane and ultimately fatuous’.[1]

Wilde countered:

That the poor Dean had not even then lost his powers either of sarcasm or rhyming may be gathered from the following quotation, which we extract from Scott’s edition of his works. The precise date of the circumstance has not been recorded, but it was certainly subsequent to the appointment of guardians to his person.[2]

He then reproduced the Phoenix Park anecdote and beneath it made the statement: ‘How far this proves the insanity or imbecility of its author the reader is to judge’. Dr. Wilde, to quote his own words, regarded this anecdote as evidence that ‘Swift was not, at any period of his life, not even in his last illness, what is usually termed and understood as mad’.[3]

When Hodges and Smith published Wilde’s essay in book form under the amended title: The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with remarks on Stella, and on some of his writings hitherto unnoticed, Wilde included what he described as ‘many curious and hitherto unnoticed facts’. His intention, he insisted, was to assist future biographers. He also wrote ‘in the hope of rescuing his [Swift’s] character from some of the aspersions which have been cast upon it’. [4]

On 1 July 1849, an analytical review of Wilde’s book was published in The Journal of Psychological Medicine and Mental Pathologyunder the title ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’. The reviewers declared that Wilde’s conclusion was ‘altogether an erroneous inference,’ since, in their view, ‘incoherence’ was ‘no more a constant symptom of insanity than shouting and violence’. Wilde’s citing of the Phoenix Park anecdote was refuted in the strongest terms as ‘very sorry evidence of sanity’. [5] The suggestion was made that Wilde had championed Swift out of a sense of compatriotism. This may have been the case. Perhaps too he felt a connection with Swift through his enrollment, aged seventeen, as a student in Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, where Swift was once a Governor. By coincidence, Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, the physician mentioned in the anecdote he had cited, was great-grandfather to Jane Elgee, the woman he would marry in November 1851.

As Robert Harborough Sherard, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends and an early biographer, puts it:

Her [Lady Jane Wilde’s] mother was a Miss Kingsbury who was the grand-daughter of Dr Kingsbury, who in his day was president of the Irish College of Physicians, and the intimate friend of Dean Swift. [6]

Jane’s mother was Sarah Kingsbury, and Sarah’s father was Thomas Kingsbury, Vicar of Kildare and Commissioner of Bankruptcy. His entry in Alumni Dublinenses confirms that he was the ‘s[on] and h[eir] of Thomas, of Dublin, Doctor of Physic’. [7]

This same Dr. Thomas Kingsbury is includedin Gilbert’s History of Dublin(1861) as:

Thomas Kingsbury, M.D., President of the Irish College of Physicians in 1744, resided in Anglesey-Street. Dr. Kingsbury was one of the medical attendants of Dean Swift, who, while in his company in the Phoenix Park, produced impromptu his last well-known lines on the erection of the Powder Magazine in that locality. [8]

In fact, Kingsbury was twice elected president of what was then known as the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland:in 1736 and again in 1744. Records held in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland (RCPI) show that he was admitted as a candidate on 6 November 1721, and elected as a fellow on 29 April 1734. [9]

Genealogical studies of the Kingsbury family tell us that Dr. Kingsbury was ‘son of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. descended from County Dorset’. [10]The Arms Entry of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, Fellow of the College of Physicians of Ireland, Aug. 7, 1742, which is held in the National Library of Ireland, confirms this and describes him as ‘Son of ThoKingsbury of an Antient family of Dorsetshire In Great Britain’. [11]

Records in the RCPI archive, along with a family tree set out in Volume Nine of the Swanzy Notebooks, held in the Library of the Representative Church Body in Dublin, suggest that Dr. Kingsbury was born in 1688 ‘near Armagh’. He appears on page 266 of the Entrance Book for Trinity College Dublin as Thomas ‘KINGSBERRY,’ and is recorded as entering the university, aged twenty, on 1 June 1708. [12]

Previously, he had attended school in Armagh in the North of Ireland where his tutor was listed as ‘Mr. Martin;’ this may have been Richard Martin, Schoolmaster of the Free School of Armagh. As to his time in Trinity College Dublin, Alumni Dublinensesinforms us that Kingsbury was granted a scholarship in 1711, attained a B.A. in 1712, an M.B. in 1719, and an M.D. in 1721. [13]

On 21 October 1725, Kingsbury married Esther Punter in St. Andrew’s Church. They had four children: Mary (b.1726), Thomas (b.1730), Elizabeth (b.1733) and Hester (b.1736).[14]The Kingsbury’s were a well-to-do family. Dr. Kingsbury appears in the Dublin Directory of 1738 as ‘Physician, Censor living on Anglesey Street’. Under the terms of his will, his widow assigned‘4 houses in College Green 70ft frontage, great house in Anglesey St backing it as payment of £1,300’ on Edward Croaker, apothecary and ‘Chemist to the University of Dublin’. This property represented the ‘personal fortune’ of his daughter Mary Kingsbury. [15]

In A New Anatomy of Ireland, Toby Barnard records that:

Kingsbury, practising in George II’s Dublin, typified the style and habits of a prosperous practitioner. He assembled a library, ran a spanking new equipage, and adopted the latest in dress, wigs, books and furnishings.

Barnard also confirms that Kingsbury ‘kept a coach and a carriage and was a discerning judge of what was modish in architecture and interior design’. [16] All this was possible because he charged well for his ministering; Barnard tells us he received ‘a fee of £120 and all his expenses for attending Lord Charlemont at Kilkenny over twelve days in 1743’. [17] Reverend Edward Murphy mentions Kingsbury in a letter to Charlemont, dated 4 April 1747. [18] He also attended the Edgeworth family in Edgeworthstown, County Longford, where, many decades later, Isola Wilde, Oscar’s sister, lost her life.

Dr. Kingsbury supplemented his income by acting as an agent for overseas property owners, one of whom wasFrank Price, afriend who lived in Wales but had property interests in Ireland. Letters to Price, copies of which are held in the National Library of Ireland, demonstrate that the Kingsbury family acted as if, as Barnard puts it, ‘they thought they conferred a favour rather than gained an employment by supervising the Prices’ Irish properties’. [19] Kingsbury’s letters to Price provide fascinating insights into Swift’s Dublin. [20]

On 1 March 1739, he writes:

There is great sickness and death among man and beast, wars or rather rumours of wars and invasions engross all conversation. We do not know what to think or expect but it is agreed on all sides that the Spaniard is at war with us and we at peace with them’.

On 31 May 1740:

Everything is scarce and dear the mobs have risen and broken open the bakers and meal shops, and disposed of what they found; the army was obliged to quell them. Several were killed and the city is not yet settled.

He offered medical advice too. On 29 April 1736, he writes: ‘Your spitting of blood gives me great concern’.

On 14 April 1747, Dublin newspaper Pue’s Occurrencesreported the death of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury:

Friday last [10 April 1747] died of the gout in his stomach Thomas KINGSBURY Esq. a very eminent physician whose great compassion for the poor makes his death justly lamented. [21]

Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, published by Swift’s printer George Faulkner, reported:

Yesterday morning died Dr. Kingsbury a very eminent Physician, a gentleman, as eminent for his many great virtues and good qualities as this city hath seen herewith. [22]

Kingsbury had been ill for some time. In February 1741, he informed Price that he had suffered with gout for a fortnight. In November 1743, he admitted to having suffered ‘a severe fit of the gout’. [23] Ironically, it was reported that he refused to take the advice of his own doctors, which was understandable really considering that on one occasion, he was ‘blistered from head to foot’ in an attempt to save his life. [24] After his death, Kingsbury’s impressive library was sold in Dick’s Coffeehouse in Skinner’s-row’ to‘pay pressing expenses’. [25] Shortly afterwards, Esther, his widow, was hit by the Dublin bank failures of the mid-1750s. This made her less forgiving in her financial dealings with the Price family, whose portfolio of business she inherited on her husband’s death. [26]

Biographers of Oscar Wilde and his family have long asserted that Kingsbury was both physician and friend to Swift. Richard Ellmann included this information in the first chapter of his biography,Oscar Wilde; in Mother of Oscar, Joy Melville described Dr. Kingsbury as ‘an intimate friend of Dean Swift;’ while Emer O’Sullivan, in her recently published biography The Fall of the House of Wilde, describes him as ‘a friend of writer Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin for over thirty years’. [27] There are many further examples. So, what evidence is there of this? In his anthology of Swift’s Work, Scott, when introducing Swift’s essay ‘The Present Miserable State of Ireland’, explained:

The following Tract is taken from a little miscellaneous 12mo volume of pamphlets, communicated by Mr Hartstonge, relating chiefly to Irish affairs, the property at one time of Thomas Kingsbury, Esq. son of Dr Kingsbury, who attended Swift in his last illness. [28]

Aside from this, it is difficult to find specific mention of Kingsbury attending Swift. Yet, it is certain that he knew the coterie of doctors who were well known to Swift. Dr. Richard Helsham (1683-1738), who was appointed personal physician to Swift in 1714, was President of the RCPI for nine years from 1716 to 1725. Prominent Dublin obstetricianJohn Van Lewen, who was elected President of the RCPI in 1734,was father of Laetitia Pilkington, a close friend of Swift’s.Henry Cope, twice President of the RCPI (1728 and 1740), State Physician, and Governor and Physician of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital, was well known to both Kingsbury and Swift.

Swift described Dr. James Grattan as ‘a doctor who kills or cures half the city;’ he named Grattan’s brothers, Robert and John, among his executors. [29]He even mentioned James in his will, since he left Robert Grattan his strong box, on condition of his giving the sole use of the said box to his brother Dr. James Grattan, during the life of the said doctor, who hath more occasion for it’. [30]

Grattan too was a Fellow of the RCPI alongside Kingsbury. Dr. William Stephens, who was a Governor of Dr. Steevens’ Hospital andMercer’s Hospital, as was Swift, was President of the RCPI in 1733, 1742 and 1759. In 1734, he was one of four men who presented a plan for the establishment of a hospital in recognition that ‘the city had no public provision to care for lunatics’. He also worked with Kingsbury’s son-in-law-to-be, apothecary Edward Croker, at Dr. Steevens’ Hospital and at the chemical laboratory at Trinity College Dublin. TobyBarnard reports that Kingsbury studied medicine under Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738) at his pioneering teaching hospital in Leiden; it is known that Stephens, Cope, Grattan and Van Lewendid likewise. [31]

Another friend common to Swift and Kingsbury was Dr. Claudius Gilbert, Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin from 1716 to 1735. In Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800, Gilbert is listed as a member of Swift’s intellectual circle. [32] He was also Kingsbury’s tutor at Trinity College Dublin. In 1742, Kingsbury was appointed executor on Gilbert’s estate. Under the terms of his will, he left a bequest for the purchase of busts of men ‘eminent for learning to adorn the library’ of Trinity College; one of these is of Swift. [33]

Kingsbury and Swift were also connected through their charitable works. Kingsbury, who was not indifferent to the plight of the poor of Dublin, was active in several voluntary associations. One was the Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland, responsible for the establishment of Charter Schools. Swift was a Charter member of that organisation at the same time. [34]Swift was also on the board of Governors of the Dublin Workhouse and Foundling Society, a cause the Kingsbury family supported. In 1816, Dr. Kingsbury’s son and his grandson, Rev. Thomas Kingsbury, Archdeacon of Killala in County Mayo, were listed as governors of the Foundling Hospital.

Although her nationalist politics put her at odds with her unionist family, Jane Wilde appears to have been proud of her Kingsbury connection; she named her first son William Charles Kingsbury Wilde. Given her great grandfather’s connection to Swift, it is perhaps significant that she alsotook a deep interest in Swift’s life. In her essay ‘Stella and Vanessa’, she included him among ‘the men of all time, destined to hold permanent rank in the grand federation of human intellect’. Naturally, she was quick to point out that most of these men were Irish. Lady Wilde wrote that she admired the way in which Swift ‘hurled his terrible pamphlets like thunderbolts upon his scared and startled opponents, crushing them as much by the bitterness of his sarcasm as by the remorseless logic of truth, fact and sound sense’. [35]

Lady Wilde too wrote of Swift’s final years:

His health declined, his intellect became clouded, the power of writing went from him, but the bitterest pang of all was his own consciousness that madness was approaching, and that all the fine chords of his brain were jangled and out of tune. For three years he never spoke though he still seemed conscious of passing events, even down to the time of his death, which took place in 1745, just fifteen years after Stella had been laid in her grave. [36]

One wonders if she obtained this information from family lore. Certainly, she must have spoken of it to some extent, since Sherard can only have obtained his information on the connection between Kingsbury and Swift from Oscar or his mother. By coincidence, Oscar died on 30 November 1900, the date of Swift’s birth in 1667.

Jane Wilde was known to place great emphasis on illustrious family connections, no matter how tenuous the evidence. In one of her wilder flights of fancy, she claimed that Elgee, her maiden name, was a corruption of the sixteenth century Italian surname Algiati. By insisting that Algiati was a version of Alighieri, she argued an unconvincing connection to Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. In her correspondence with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, translator of Dante’s works, she signed herself ‘Francesca Speranza Wilde’, possibly to sustain this illusion of exotic, Italianate origins. [37]

Although she rarely spoke of her childhood, and never of her father, who left for India when she was an infant, Lady Wilde was well informed about her family history and keen to exploit any potentially useful connections. Several of her Elgee relatives were worthy of note. In her book Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, Lady Wilde recounted the tale of how rebels spared her Elgee grandfather, Archdeacon John Elgee, who was much admired and later elected Mayor of Wexford, during the rising of 1798.[38] She also asserted a tenuous and ultimately unsuccessful claim to a share in the estate of her first cousin on the Elgee side, Sir Robert John le Mesurier McClure, who discovered the Northwest Passage.

On the Kingsbury side, Lady Wilde made much of the fact that her aunt Henrietta Kingsbury was married to cleric, playwright and gothic novelist Charles Maturin. Although she can scarcely have known him, since she was a tiny child when he died in 1824, Jane admired Maturin enormously and displayed a bust of him in her home at 1 Merrion Square. She passed her admiration on to Oscar and traces of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer are evident in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar also adopted the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth towards the end of his life. It seems likely that she would have enjoyed and celebrated her connection, however tenuous, with Dean Swift, a man she admired greatly.

One final quirky fact about the epigram Dr. Kingston’s conversation with Swift is said to have prompted is that it is parodied by another celebrated Irish writer. In his challenging, unorthodox novel Finnegans Wake, James Joyce writes:

Behove this sound of Irish sense. Really?

Here English might be seen. Royally?

One sovereign punned to petery pence. Regally?

The silence speaks the scene. Fake! [39]

 NOTES AND REFERENCES

[1] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life: with an appendix, containing several of his poems hitherto unpublished, and some remarks on Stella. Dublin: Hodges & Smith, 1849, p.5

[2] Since guardians were appointed to Dean Swift in 1742, and the magazine fort was completed in 1736, this incident must have taken place between 1742 and 1745, when Swift died.

[3] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, p.8

[4] Wilde, W.R.The closing years of Dean Swift’s life, introduction (page not numbered)

[5] Analytical Reviews (Anonymous). ‘On the Insanity of Dean Swift’ in The Journal of Psychological Medicine & Mental Pathology,Volume 2, July 1, 1849, 366

[6] Sherard, Robert Harborough. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London:T. Werner Laurie, 1911, p.38

[7] Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[8]Gilbert, Sir John. History of Dublin.Dublin: Joseph Dollard, 1903, pp.266-7

[9]Belcher, T. W.Records of the King and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland: including a memoir of Sir P. Dunn, Dr. Stearne and other documents. Dublin: Hodges Smith & Co., 1866, p.116 & p.108

[10]Kingsbury,Frederick John. The genealogy of the descendants of Henry Kingsbury of Ipswich and Haverhill, Massby, Hartford Press, 1905, p.21

[11]Dublin: National Library of Ireland, Genealogical Office: Ms.103, p.50

[12]Admissions Records, 1637-1725, Entrance books, digitized http://digitalcollections.tcd.ieAccessed on 15 June 2017

[13]Alumni Dublinenses: a register of the students, graduates, professors and provosts of Trinity College in the University of Dublin (1593-1860). Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, Trinity College Dublin, IE TCD. MS 378.415C F8, p.470

[14]There is some evidence that Dr. Kingsbury contracted an earlier marriage, in 1719, to a Mary Graffan. Although this marriage is recorded in the Ireland Diocesan and Prerogative Marriage Licence Bonds Indexes 1623-1866, and there appears to be no other Thomas Kingsbury this could relate to, no further trace of Mary can be found.

[15]Wills relating to Dr. Thomas Kingsbury (listed as ‘Kingsbarry’ – 1747), Esther Kingsbury (1763) and Thomas Kingsbury, their son (1805) recorded in Vickers’ Index to the Prerogative wills of Ireland, 1536-1810.  Dublin: Edward Ponsonby, 1897, p.270   Swift’s will is listed on p.446.

[16]Barnard, Toby Christopher. A New Anatomy of Ireland: The Irish Protestants, 1649-1770. Yale University Press, 2004, p.133

[17]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.133

[18]The Manuscripts and Correspondence of James, First Earl of Charlemont: Lord Charlemont’s memoirs of his political life, 1755-1783. Correspondence, 1745-1783. H.M. Stationery Office, 1891, p.180

[19]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.210

[20]The National Library of Ireland holds a microfilm copy of Kingsbury’s letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[21]From Nick Reddan’s Newspaper Extracts — part 32 (various Irish newspapers from 1720 to 1865) at http://members.iinet.net.au/~nickred/newspaper/np_abst32.htmAccessed on 15 June 2017

[22]Faulkner’s Dublin Journal, 11 April 1747, available via19th Century British Library Newspapers Database at the British Library.

[23]The National Library of Ireland microfilm of Kingsbury letters to Price (n.3645, p.3263).

[24]Detail from letters to Price: Pearde to Price, 16 March 1740, 12 July, 30 August 1747 (NLW, Puleston papers, MS 3579 ff 27, 119, 121) reported in Cultures of Care in Irish Medical History, 1750-1970. Cox & Luddy (Eds),AIAA; 2010, p.23 & p.26

[25]Irish Builder & Engineer. Volume 38. Howard MacGarvey & Sons, 1896 p.70

[26]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.235

[27]Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin Books, 1987, p.6; Melville, Joy. Mother of Oscar. London: Allison & Busby Ltd., p.16; O’Sullivan, Emer. The Fall of the House of Wilde. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016, p.6

[28]Swift, Jonathan and Sir Walter Scott.The Drapier’s letters (cont.) Miscellaneous tracts upon Irish affairs: Sermons. Archibald Constable and Company, 1824, p.192 (Matthew Weld Hartstonge (1772-1825) was a well-connected Irish antiquarian who helped to gather materials for Scott’s 19-volume edition of Swift’s Works).

[29]Pilkington, Laetitia. Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, Volume 1. University of Georgia Press, 1997, p.698

[30]Scott, Sir Walter. Life of Jonathan Swift. London: Wells and Lilly, 1829, p. 356

[31]Barnard. A New Anatomy of Ireland. p.136

[32] Máire Kennedy (1999) ‘Readership in French: the Irish Experience’ in G. Gargett and G. Sheridan (Eds) Ireland and French Enlightenment, 1700-1800. Basingstoke, Hampshire [England]: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 12

[33]Maxwell, Constantia. A history of Trinity college, Dublin, 1591-1892. Dublin: The University press, Trinity college, 1946, p.92

[34]http://opac.oireachtas.ie/Data/Library3/Library3/DCT094007.pdfaccessed on 15 June 2017

[35]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.86

[36]Wilde, Lady. Men, Women, and Books. London: Ward & Downey, 1891, p.111

[37]Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. Ignatius Press, 2000, p.22

[38]Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland: Contributions to Irish Lore (London, Ward & Downey, 1890) pp.228-9n

[39]Joyce, James. Finnegans Wake. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2012, p.12-13

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An Update On My New Biography of E. Nesbit

On this the anniversary of the death of pioneering author Edith Nesbit here’s an early look at the cover of my new biography of her, which will be available from 20 September 2018:

It can be pre-ordered here from Amazon.

This is the blurb from my publisher:

Edith Nesbit is considered the first modern writer for children and the inventor of the children’s adventure story publishing over 40 books, influencing writers including C.S. Lewis, P. L. Travers, J.K. Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson.

Playful, contradictory and creative, Nesbit hosted legendary parties and was described by George Bernard Shaw – one of her several lovers – as ‘audaciously unconventional’. She was a founding member of the Fabian Society, and through Nesbit’s letters and deep archival research Fitzsimons reveals her to have been a prolific lecturer and writer on socialism. Nesbit railed against inequity, social injustice and state-sponsored oppression and incorporated her avant-garde ideas into her writing, influencing a generation of children – an aspect of her literary legacy examined here for the first time. Fitzsimons’ eye-opening biography brings new light to the life and works of this famed literary icon, in whom pragmatism and idealism, tradition and modernity worked side-byside to create a remarkable writer and woman.

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Oscar Wilde and the Mystery of the Scarab Ring

Here’s a guest post on Wilde’s beloved scarab ring, which I wrote for a fascinating website, www.irishegyptology.com

Oscar Wilde Memorial Sculpture is a collection of three statues in Merrion Square in Dublin, Ireland, commemorating Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne

Twitter is much maligned, often quite justifiably. Yet, it can be a wonderful tool for the gathering and dissemination of research. From time to time, it may even throw up something truly fascinating, a real gem in this case. During a recent Twitter exchange, I was fortunate enough to encounter a couple of Egyptologists with an interest in the ownership and display of Egyptian artifacts in the Victorian era. A conversation concerning one intriguing item of jewellery, a scarab ring that belonged to Irish poet, storyteller and playwright Oscar Wilde, prompted me to compile a list of contemporaneous references to that ring. A fellow Wildean provided details of an obscure letter that sheds some light on the possible whereabouts of this remarkable object decades after it went missing in Paris towards the end of Wilde’s life.

The first time I encountered Wilde’s ring was when I read Ada Leverson’s firsthand account of her friend’s arrival at the first night of his play The Importance of Being Earnest, on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 1895, weeks before he was arrested and charged with gross indecency:

That evening he was dressed with elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety. His coat had a black velvet collar. He held white gloves in his small pointed hands. On one finger he wore a large scarab ring. A green carnation – echo in colour of the ring – bloomed savagely in his buttonhole, and a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch chain hung from his white waistcoat. (1)

This ring is remarked upon again and again by people who knew Wilde well. Symbolist poet Henri de Regnier recalled how he would ‘idly tap the ash from his gold-tipped Egyptian cigarettes with a ringed finger. The setting of this ancient ring held the rounded back of a pharaoh’s scarab’ (2).  This is not the only instance of de Regnier mentioning the ring. In The Life of Oscar Wilde, Robert Harborough Sherard, Wilde’s great friend and biographer, quotes him twice: ‘the scaraboeus of his ring threw off its green lights’ on page 260, and ‘ornamented with a ring in which a beetle of green stone was set’ on page 303. (3)

In A Reminiscence of 1898, Wilfred Hugh Chesson recalls Wilde wearing ‘a scarab as big as sixpence’ (4). In Confessions of a Journalist, Chris Healy mentions that, when being interviewed by him, Wilde ‘gazed reflectively at the beautiful scarab ring on his finger’ (5). In Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900, Rothenstein writes disparagingly of Wilde: ‘His hands were fat and useless looking, and the more conspicuous from a large scarab ring he wore’ (6). Based on this wide-ranging selection of quotes, It would seem Wilde was rarely seen without his distinctive Egyptian ring.

As to the origins of this ring and how it came to be in his possession, I am certain I have read somewhere that it was given to him by his mother, Jane Wilde. Certainly, in The Real Oscar Wilde, Robert Sherard quoted Wilde when he wrote ‘on his fingers were noticeable rings, including a green scarab, the loss of which, in Paris, in those early days, “was the great grief of my life”’ (7). My memory is that Wilde confided in a friend that the reason he was so upset at losing the ring was because his mother had given it to him and she was dead by the time it went missing. It is possible that the ring was given to Jane Wilde by her husband, Wilde’s father, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and written about the history of the region. Reports suggest that the Wilde home, 1 Merrion Square, Dublin, was filled with artifacts he had collected.

As to the fate of Wilde’s ring, an intriguing theory is put forward by Kevin O’Brien in his article ‘Lily Wilde and Oscar’s Fur Coat’. O’Brien suggests that the ring may have been in the possession of Wilde’s sister-in-law Lily Wilde, second wife of his brother Willie. It seems she wrote a letter to Wilde’s friend More Adey in which she referred to an item she was sending him. Referencing this letter (“LW to MA, [21 May 1897], Clark, Finzi, 2411), O’Brien writes in the notes section of his article:

The mysterious enclosure could have been Wilde’s scarab ring that he loved so much and which he thought had been lost with so much else. A letter from Reggie Turner to Robert Sherard, 1 October 1934, Reading, MS 1047/1/1, suggests this possibility. (8)

The final mention I can find of Wilde’s lost ring, which was brought to my attention by Michael Seeney of the Oscar Wilde Society, and was uncovered by John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website, is included in a newspaper article in the Bolton Evening News on 5 April 1938:

Hugh Walpole possessed a rich collection of objets d’art: oils, etchings, expensive rugs and tapestries, Spanish chests, Epstein busts, T’ang horses, even a scarab ring which, he claimed, Oscar Wilde wore in the courtroom while on trial for sodomy. (9)

It seems Sir Hugh Seymour Walpole, CBE, celebrated novelist and art collector, had written to A. J. A. Symons on July 14, 1938, to inform him ‘I’d like to buy Oscar’s scarab if it isn’t too costly’ (10). At the time, Symons, a writer and bibliographer, was working on a biography of Wilde, which he left unfinished. Recently, his notes have been compiled in book form for publication by Callum James. There the trail goes cold. To the best of my knowledge the location of Wilde’s scarab ring is unknown. If anyone out there has something to add I’d be delighted to continue the Twitter conversation.

 

An update: John Cooper, who compiles the excellent Oscar Wilde in America website has sent me confirmation that Walpole did indeed buy Oscar’s ring, and it was in his possession in 1940. He also found a reference to a scarab ring in Walpole’s novel The Killer and the Slainpublished posthumously in 1942. John is of the opinion that the ring was in Walpole’s possession when he died and that it may have been given to a friend or relative. Unless it was lost or destroyed, someone out there must have a scarab ring in their possession that once belonged to Oscar Wilde, and they may have no idea of its significance. Perhaps we can find them!

Bibliography

[1] Ada Leverson in Letters to the Sphinx (Duckworth, 1930), reproduced in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections Vol II edited by E.H. Mikhail. London: The Macmillan Press, 1979, p.270

[2] Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II p.464

[3] Robert Sherard. The Life of Oscar Wilde. London, T.W. Laurie, 1906

[4] Reproduced in Mikhail, Interviews and Recollections Vol II, p.376

[5] Chris Healy. Confessions of a Journalist. London, Chatto & Windus, 1904, p.134

[6] William Rothenstein. Men and Memories: Recollections of William Rothenstein 1872-1900. New York, Coward-McCann, 1931, p.86

[7] Robert Sherard. The Real Oscar Wilde, London, T. W. Laurie, 1916, p.223

[8] Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society Thirtieth Anniversary Commemoration Special No. 21, 1994

[9] “Proteus” [Frank Singleton], “Remembering Hugh Walpole,” Bolton Evening News, Apr. 5, 1952.

[10] Original letter in Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.

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