Category Archives: Essay

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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Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit!

enesbit

Happy Birthday Edith Nesbit, born on 15 August 1858! Four decades later, she described her fortieth birthday party in a letter to her mother:

I had a very nice birthday. Fabian [her son] made a bonfire in the evening and decorated the garden with Chinese lanterns. I had some pretty presents – a moss agate brooch, a gold ring (fifteenth century), gloves, table centres, a silver watch chain, a book, a pair of little old flint-lock pistols and some beautiful flowers.

A youthful, vivacious woman, she included a comment on this milestone birthday:

I am forty, as you say: but I never feel forty. When I am ill I feel ninety – and when I am happy I feel nineteen!

Although she had been writing stories and verse for years by then, motivated by the necessity of earning money, the first of her classic books for children, The Story of the Treasure Seekers*, would not be published in book form until the following year, when it was brought out by T. Unwin Fisher.

450px-P293_(Treasure_Seekers)

Source:

Briggs, Julia. A Woman of Passion: the life of E. Nesbit 1858-1924. London, The Penguin Group, 1987. p.196

For far more on E. Nesbit look out for my new biography!

* Stories featuring the Bastable children had appeared in magazines as early as 1894 but it was not until 1898 that they were serialised, primarily in The Pall Mall Gazette, in recognisable form.

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“On the Medway Life is Real” – E. Nesbit

I’ve been neglecting my blog recently as I transition from Wilde to Nesbit but I’m keen to keep posting when I can. We’re planning our holidays in England this year and our odyssey will take us from Keswick in the Lake District (where the husband is running a race), then diagonally down through England to Canterbury (I’m speaking at a conference) via Cambridge. We’ll stay a night in Whitstable, as featured in Sarah Water’s brilliant novel Tipping the Velvet, before heading on to Salisbury (where we’ll see Stonehenge), then to Cornwall to stay with friends and reacquaint ourselves with the lovely seaside town of St. Ives. We travel home via Stratford-Upon-Avon.

I cannot wait. I love England (I lived there for years and my eldest son was born there) but lately it’s just been Brexit Brexit Brexit and I need to fall back in love with that magnificent, historic country. As part of my research for my new biography I’ve been reading E. Nesbit’s beautiful descriptions of her beloved Kent countryside, in particular the River Medway, where she loved to go boating. She recognised an authenticity in river life. In The Incredible Honeymoon, she wrote:

On the Medway life is real, life is earnest. You mostly pull a hundred yards, anchor and fish; or if you do go farther from harbor you open your own locks, with your own crowbar.

Medway

River Medway, Kent

Here’s a lovely piece of descriptive writing from her novel Salome and the Head:

The Medway just above The Anchor (at Yalding, Kent) is a river of dreams. The grey and green of willows and alders mirror themselves in the still water in images hardly less solid-seeming than their living realities. There is pink loosestrife there, and meadow-sweet creamy and fragrant, forget-me-nots wet and blue, and a tangle of green weeds and leaves and stems that only botanists know the names of.

Particularly calming is this tranquil, languid excerpt from The Incredible Honeymoon:

The quiet river, wandering by wood and meadow, bordered by its fringe of blossoms and flowering grasses, the smooth backwaters where leaning trees touched hands across the glassy mirror, and water-lilies gleamed white and starry, the dappled shadows, the arch of blue sky, the gay sunshine, and the peace of the summer noon all wrought in one fine spell to banish from their thoughts all fear and dismay, all doubts and hesitations.

We won’t be boating on the Medway this time round but Edith Nesbit has inspired me to make plans for the future. I hope we’ll always have the opportunity to visit the beautiful home of our British neighbours, just as I hope they/you will continue to visit us.

For more on holidays in Kent visit: http://www.visitkent.co.uk

If you’re looking for a holiday read try Wilde’s Women

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IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

portrait

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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May 1883: Oscar Wilde Returns to London

To mark 1 May, here’s a tiny May-related excerpt from Wilde’s Women. Oscar, aged 28, returns from Paris to London. He has not been there for some time since he spent 1882 touring America before heading to Paris, where he wrote The Duchess of Padua for Mary Anderson:

an-Portrait-20of-20author-playwright-20Oscar-20Wilde-2C-201885-20120713120618500383-300x0

Oscar with curls. Not a great look tbh.

In May 1883, Oscar returned to London with a head full of curls and an empty wallet. He stayed with Jane before taking furnished rooms, ‘for single men of distinction’ on nearby Charles Street in Mayfair. Frank Harris claimed that Jane had suggested Charles Street. She felt he should live at a suitably impressive address since she ‘never doubted his ultimate triumph’ and ‘knew all his poems by heart’.* These lodgings were managed by a retired butler, and his wife, an excellent cook, both of whom were devoted to their brilliant young tenant; they ‘could not speak too highly of his cleverness, kindness and consideration’ and overlooked his tardiness in settling his account.**

Sherard, who shared these lodgings for a time, tells us that ‘the rooms on the third floor that Oscar Wilde occupied were panelled in oak and there were old engravings in heavy black frames on the walls’. he adds: ‘The fact was that, in despite of an address which implied opulence, we were both very poor. It was while they were both staying in this house on Charles Street that Oscar woke Shepard early one morning to tell him that he had become engaged to Constance Lloyd; ‘At breakfast, he spoke of his bride and seemed much in love and very joyous,’ Sherard wrote.

As for the curls, they put Violet Hunt right off him for one.

For more, read Wilde’s Women:

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*Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde; his Life and Confessions, Vol. I, p.82

**Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde, pp.282-3

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Henry James versus Oscar Wilde

Today marks the anniversary of the birth of Henry James, who is regarded as one of the key figures of nineteenth century literature; his most famous works including Portrait Of A Lady, The Bostonians, The American and Washington Square.

Although born in New York City on 15 April 1843, James spent much of his life in London and became a British citizen. His grandfather, William James, was from Bailieborough in County Cavan, Ireland. Best remembered as a novelist, James was also a playwright and rival of a certain Oscar Wilde. The two clashed on several occasions and James actively campaigned to lessen Wilde’s success during his tour of America in 1882. In honour of his birthday I am posting two excerpts from Wilde’s Women that illustrate the professional rivalry between Henry James and Oscar Wilde:

FROM CHAPTER 1: THE REAL MRS. ERLYNNE

Also present [at the first performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan] was Henry James, another would-be playwright but someone who rarely had a kind word for Oscar. He deemed the play ‘infantine’ and of a ‘primitive simplicity’, a pronouncement that had all the characteristics of a fit of professional pique. Yet, even he could not ignore the obvious enjoyment of those seated around him, and he was forced to admit, albeit grudgingly:

There is so much drollery – that is, “cheeky” paradoxical wit of dialogue, and the pit and gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to “catch on” to four or five of the ingenious – too ingenious – mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite “décadent” … and they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy.*

Interior_of_St._James_Theatre,_London_(watercolour)_by_John_Gregory_Crace

The interior of the St. James’s Theatre by John Gregory Crace

FROM CHAPTER 17: A LESS THAN IDEAL HUSBAND

Given the delight with which The Importance of Being Earnest was received, it is extraordinary to think that George Alexander [Actor-Manager at the St. James’s Theatre] passed it on to Charles Wyndham at the Criterion. He asked for it back once he realised that Henry James’s Guy Domville was failing to attract an audience.

For more on their rivalry, professional and personal, read Wilde’s Women:

*Source: Letter from Henry James to a friend written on 23 February 1892, quoted in Daniel Karlin, ‘Our precious quand même’: French in the Letters of Henry James », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2013, accessed on 2 March 2015. http://cve.revues.org/945

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A Glimpse of Oscar & his Mother

My research requires the reading of firsthand accounts of life during the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a result, although I’m not specifically looking for information on Oscar Wilde at the moment, I often stumble across little anecdotes. The latest comes from Here and There Memories, published in 1896 under the pseudonym Hi Regan. The author of this book was Captain John Joseph Dunne, a colourful character and father to George Egerton, who is the subject of my current research. Here’s what he wrote:

‘A tall, elderly lady, dressed with a certain not unbecoming bizarrerie in yellow silk and black lace, came to sign the roll*. She was accompanied by a puppy-faced young man with a lackadaisical air and drab boots. Till then, though I knew her husband well, I had never seen her, and was rather astonished when she signed ‘Francesca Wilde (“Speranza”).’ Her long-haired escort, a la Buckstone’s ‘stricken one,’ was Oscar, not yet above the horizon of self-assertion, nor perhaps dreaming of future effulgence.’ (380)

*‘Butt started the National Roll as a means to get together funds for the Home Rule League’s operations’ (380).

Young Oscar

Oscar Wilde as a Young Man

We can date this incident to 1874. Oscar would have been nineteen and coming to the end of his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin. That autumn he would continue his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lady Jane Wilde was fifty-two – hardly ‘elderly’ – and would reinvent herself in London shortly afterwards.

My thanks to Michael Seeney for prompting me to point out that Oscar’s hair was short at the time, as the photograph shows. Dunne is writing with hindsight. He was also notoriously unreliable! In A Leaf From the Yellow Book, his relation Terence de Vere White wrote of him that he was ‘a born liar if his reminiscences are to be judged’. Also, he wasn’t particularly well disposed towards Oscar since his beloved elder daughter’s career had suffered greatly in 1895 due to Wilde’s perceived association with John Lane and The Yellow Book.

For far more on Oscar and his mother read Wilde’s Women.

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In Honour of Millicent Fawcett

Here’s a tiny excerpt from Wilde’s Women to mark the announcement that a statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square in London, the first of a woman to be commissioned. I love how forthright she was in expressing her opinion.

Millicent Fawcett

Oscar invited Millicent Garrett Fawcett, prominent suffragist and co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, to address the issue of women’s suffrage [in The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited]. In Fawcett’s opinion, the exclusion of women was, quite simply, morally reprehensible: ‘Even felons were not excluded when once their term of imprisonment was over; lunatics were joyfully admitted’, she argued. It was her bold contention that by enfranchising women, a nation could put an end to war.[i]

[i] Millicent Garrett Fawcett, ‘Women’s Suffrage’, The Women’s World, Volume II, pp.9-12

Read more in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew

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Marie Corelli: ‘the idol of suburbia’

As Women’s History Month comes to a close I’m posting an excerpt from Wilde’s Women that describes the remarkable and hugely successful Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. It is difficult for us to imagine how significant she was nowadays, since she has fallen out of fashion, but at the height of her popularity, she was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. There is a website dedicated to her with a great deal more information. Here is my short profile from Wilde’s Women:

Marie Corelli as ‘Lily’ – Shakespeare Homeplace Trust

Marie Corelli’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Born in London on or around 1 May 1855, a date she rarely admitted to, she was almost certainly the daughter of Elizabeth Mills, lover and later second wife of the journalist Charles Mackay, who was believed to be Corelli’s father. Known affectionately as Minnie, she reinvented herself as Marie di Corelli in order to earn a paltry living giving piano recitals in private homes.

Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, was published in February 1886. It struck a chord and, as a result, a second novel, Vendetta, appeared later that year. By June 1887, Corelli had published a third, Thelma, to great acclaim. Ellen Terry, who lived six doors down from her on Longridge Road, Kensington, adored her books. Lillie Langtry asked if she might dramatise them. Oscar Wilde would have sympathised to hear that she had been snubbed by Rhoda Broughton, who she had been particularly keen to meet.

At the height of her popularity, Marie Corelli was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. According to novelist and poet Arthur St. John Adcock, ‘many of her most enthusiastic admirers are men of the professional classes – doctors, barristers, lawyers, writers, men of education and intelligence’.[i] Her mystical, melodramatic novels were admired by Gladstone and Tennyson, and Queen Victoria had them sent to Balmoral as soon as they appeared.

Yet,Corelli attracted the scorn of critics; Grant Allen in the Spectator called her:

…a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, & was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities & prejudices she gave a glamorous setting.

This didn’t dampen her popularity and she was described with great accuracy as ‘the idol of suburbia – the favorite of the common multitude’.[ii]

Wilde started out as a fan.On one occasion, heassured Corelli that he had ‘read the book [A Romance of Two Worlds] over again,’ adding, ‘you certainly tell of marvelous things in marvelous ways’. He advised her to ignore her detractors, writing: ‘Such a lot of talking-about-you does more good than an infinite number of reviews’.[iii]She appears to have heeded his counsel since, in the foreword to The Sorrows of Satan, she wrote:

No copies of this book are sent out for review. Members of the Press will therefore obtain it (should they wish to do so) in the usual way with the rest of the reading public – i.e. through the Booksellers and Libraries.[iv]

Although she was so pioneering and resourceful herself, Corelli was not a feminist. In her novels, she celebrated the frailty of women, and she opposed the extension of voting rights. Yet Wilde persuaded her to write a speculative article on ‘Shakespeare’s Mother’ for The Woman’s World. He admired her success, but would hardly have wished to emulate her style, which he grew to dislike. Years later, when a prison warder in Reading Jail asked him his opinion of Corelli, he replied: ‘Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here’.[v]

They had fallen out by then and she lampooned him mercilessly in The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary, which was published anonymously in 1892, characterizing him as a lumbering elephant who was guided through life by a dainty fairy, a thinly disguised Constance Wilde. Corelli dismissed Constance as ‘a charming little Radical,’ but she found her compelling; she considered her ‘one of the prettiest things alive’ and ‘infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself’.

Marie Corelli never married. She never discussed her sexuality but would appear to have been attracted to women; she wrote ambiguous love poems and co-habited happily for decades with her companion Bertha Vyver, who referred to her as ‘beloved wee pet’. When she died, on 21 April 1924, crowds gathered outside her home.

[i] Arthur St. John Adcock ‘Marie Corelli: A Record and an Appreciation’, TheBookman, 36, no. 212, 1909, pp.59-60

[ii] In a flattering profile included in ‘Chronicle & Comment’, The Bookman, July 1909, reproduced in The Bookman Volume XXIX, March 1909 – August 1909 (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909), p.461

[iii] Brian Masters, Now Barabbas was a Rotter (London, H. Hamilton, 1978), p.74

[iv] Reproduced in The Bookman, Volume XXIX, p.465

[v]Complete Letters, p.905n2

Read more about remarkable Victorian women in Wilde’s Women:

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

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

Lays&Legends

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

The Husband of Today

Eyes caught by beauty, fancy by eyes caught;

Sweet possibilities, question, and wonder –

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

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

Flutter in meeting – in absense dreaming;

Tremor in greeting – for meeting scheming;

Caught by the senses, and yet all through

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

Only the brute in me yields to the pressure

Of longings inherent – of vices acquired;

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

Only my fancy – not soul – has been fired.

Sense thrills exalted, thrills to love-madness;

Fancy grown sad becomes almost love-sadness;

And yet love has with it nothing to do,

Love is fast fettered, sweetheart, to you.

Lacking fresh fancies, time flags – grows wingless;

Life without folly would fail – fall flat;

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

You, and you only, have wakened that.

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

After each fancy has sprung, grown, and died,

Back I come ever, dear, to your side.

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

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

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

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

The Wife of All Ages

I DO not catch these subtle shades of feeling,

Your fine distinctions are too fine for me;

This meeting, scheming, longing, trembling, dreaming,

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

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

And you the only man who wakens it.

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

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

Why should one rule be fit for me to follow,

While there exists a different law for you?

If all these fires and fancies came my way,

Would you believe love was so far away?

On all these other women—never doubt it—

‘Tis love you lavish, love you promised me!

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

It is the only one I care to be.

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

Not the most radiant wonder of a star.

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

You will not miss the flower I take from you;

Amid the music of so many voices

You will forget the little songs I knew—

The foolish tender words I used to say,

The little common sweets of every day.

The world, no doubt, has fairest fruits and blossoms

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

Nay, after all I am your slave and bondmaid,

And all my world is in my slavery.

So, as before, I welcome any part

Which you may choose to give me of your heart.

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