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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]


[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 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] 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,

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!


[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!


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.



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.


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:

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


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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.


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 & 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:


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:


*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:


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.*


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


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.

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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.

Her full article can be read here: 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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