Marion Terry as Oscar Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne


Marion Bessie Terry (13 October 1853 – 21 August 1930), born Mary Ann Bessy Terry but known affectionately as “Polly”, was the fifth surviving child of actors Benjamin Terry (1818-1896) and Sarah Ballard (1819-1892).

While undoubtedly overshadowed by her older and more famous sister Ellen, Marion enjoyed considerable success throughout her career. Unlike Ellen, she rarely played any of Shakespeare’s women, and appeared in only a handful of his plays, although her first professional role was as Ophelia in Hamlet when she was nineteen.

After enjoying a successful and varied career for two decades, Marion, aged thirty-nine, was offered the role that was to become her most celebrated, as Mrs. Erlynne in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. Although she was third choice for the role behind Lillie Langtry and Ada Rehan, she acquitted herself admirably. Theatre critic Clement Scott declared that she played the part ‘to perfection’.

In his memoir Yesterday, English writer Robert Hichens described how Marion had confided in him that:

the management had grave doubts about her during  the rehearsals, but that she felt certain she could “get away with it”.

His verdict was that she ‘scored a complete triumph in it’.

Offstage, Marion Terry was reserved and protective of her private life. She never married and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home in London, aged seventy-three, after a career that spanned five decades.

For more on the original production of Lady Windermere’s fan read Wilde’s Women:


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Salomé in Paris: ‘a protest against English morality’.

Tragically, although Ada Leverson, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends, insisted that he cared little for any of his plays except Salomé since it most fully ‘expressed himself,’ Wilde never saw Salomé performed. Refused a licence by the English Examiner of Plays, it was staged during Wilde’s lifetime by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, founder of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, but its author was in prison at the time.

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When Lugné-Poe visited London after Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labour, he was shocked at how apathetic and powerless the playwright’s supporters appeared to have become. In an act of solidarity, he staged the world premiere of Salomé in his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris on 11 February 1896, performing the role of Herod himself and casting Lina Munte, a trained dancer, as Salomé.

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Lina Munte

Several French newspapers reported on the performance and critics were unanimous in their praise for Munte; La Matin reported that she ‘was absolutely remarkable with her ferocious sensuality,’ while Francisque Sarcey of Le Temps noted that she imitated the diction of Sarah Bernhardt, the actress Wilde had originally intended for the part.

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Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, Paris

A number of critics noted the sympathy expressed for Wilde by the French public. L’Événement described the staging of Salomé as ‘a protest against English morality’. The Journal des Débats reported that:

When the curtain fell, the audience responded to the name of the playwright with rapturous applause.

Wilde, who received no payment for the performance, assured his lover Lord Alfred Douglas:

‘All I want is to have my artistic reappearance, and my own rehabilitation through art, in Paris, not in London. It is a homage and a debt I owe to that great city of art’.


The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe by Stefano Evangelista, Bloomsbury Publishing

Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, Duckworth Overlook


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Stories for Children by Wilde, Constance Wilde

On 2 February 1889, a joint review of two collections of ‘fairytales’, one from Oscar Wilde and the other from his wife, Constance, was published in the Irish Times. 

Mr and Mrs Wilde possess charming children of their own and they have utilised their acquaintance with the infant world in giving to it some delightful fairytales, which even the elders must appreciate. “The Happy Prince and Other Tales,” illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacomb Hood, and published by David Nutt is one of the happiest works which Mr. Oscar Wilde has ever produced; whilst Mrs. Wilde’s fairytales, also published recently and entitled “There Was Once,” are a charming reproduction of the old stories, familiar to our childish days, which Nisbet [sic] has brought out.

The death of her beloved grandmother, ‘Mama Mary’ had prompted Constance to compile There Was Once – Grandma’s Stories, a beautifully illustrated collection of five traditional tales and four familiar rhymes. You can still buy this book by following the link. Mama Mary was Mary Atkinson, widow of Captain John Atkinson, who had been Receiver General of the Post Office. She had lived at 1 Ely Place in Dublin, close to the Wilde’s home on Merrion Square .

The Dandy Chair, with three children playing in the long grass, with two older boys holding the younger child. Published in Nister's Holiday Annual for 1899, edited and arranged by Alfred J Fuller; published by Ernest Nister, 1899.

This was not Constance’s only foray into writing for children; The Bairn’s Annual of Old Fashioned Fairy Tales in 1887 featured a story called ‘Was It a Dream’ by Constance Wilde. In 1892, Ernest Nister, publisher of There Was Once, brought out A Long Time Ago, favorite stories retold by Mrs. Oscar Wilde & others. Nister also published A Cosy Corner and Other Stories, which included Constance’s story ‘For Japan’, featuring a little girl named Isola, probably after Oscar’s sister who had died in childhood.

In 1893, Nister brought out A Dandy Chair and Other Stories, an illustrated collection of children’s stories by Constance Wilde, Edith Nesbit and Mary Louisa Molesworth.  One story contributed by Constance was called ‘The Little Swallow’. Although her stories are mostly lost to us now, Constance Wilde’s literary career is covered comprehensively by Franny Moyle in Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. You can also read about her life in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped By The Woman He Knew.


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Jane Elgee: ‘the most extraordinary prodigy’

Novelist William Carleton died at his home in Rathmines, Dublin on 30 January 1869. You can find an excellent profile of his life and work here.

In December 1850, Carleton sent a copy of the Nation newspaper to engraver and magazine proprietor Ebenezer Landells. The accompanying letter drew his friend’s attention to ‘the critique in the 202nd page’, which ‘was written by Miss Elgee’. In his letter Carleton declared:

She is the most extraordinary prodigy of a female that this country, or perhaps any other, has ever produced. She is acquainted with all literatures and all languages, and all history, ancient and modern.

This extract from David O’Donoghue’s Life of William Carleton, drawing on testimony from one of Carleton’s daughters, makes clear the esteem in which he held the woman who had later married his friend and physician Dr. William Wilde.

Lady Wilde, for whose genius he had the strongest admiration, came to see him. Indeed, nothing could exceed the kindness and sympathy shown to us by both Sir William and Lady Wilde at this time of suffering and sorrow.

Carleton was eulogised in the Irish papers. On 6 February 1869 a poem written in his honour by Lady Wilde was published in the Nation. Here’s an extract:



Little wonder Carleton had expressed admiration for the ‘great ocean of her soul’.

Source: David O’Donoghue, Life of William Carleton Volume II (London, Downey & Co., 1896)

For much more on Lady Jane Wilde, read Wilde’s Women


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Why Did She Marry Him?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of English writer and poet Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), who was born Richard Thomas Gallienne (the “Le” was a later addition) in Liverpool on January 20, 1866. Although his father, a brewery worker, ensured that Richard, one of his ten children, received a good education and was articled to a firm of accountants, Le Gallienne took no interest in pursuing this career.

Richard Le Gallienne by Alfred Ellis

In 1887, he published his first literary work, My Ladies’ Sonnets. By then, he was also reviewing books for The Academy. The direction his life was to take was determined by the fact that he failed his final accountancy exams in December 1888. He moved to London and began a professional relationship with publisher John Lane that was to continue until 1924. You can read far more about him here.

My interest in Le Gallienne relates to a passionate love affair he had with writer Edith Nesbit, the subject of my next biography, who was married to Hubert Bland at the time. Although married himself, Le Gallienne wrote and published several love poems to Nesbit. One of them, ‘Why Did She Marry Him?,’ interests me particularly.


Edith Nesbit

Le Gallienne speculates as to why Edith chose to marry the undeserving Hubert Bland (and undeserving he was in many respects, although she did love him in her own fashion). Perhaps he was unaware that Edith, aged twenty-one at the time, was seven months pregnant on her wedding day, 22 April 1880. A certain pragmatism was involved on her part one has to assume.

Why Did She Marry Him?

Why did she marry him? Ah, say why!
How was her fancy caught?
What was the dream that he drew her by,
Or was she only bought?
Gave she her gold for a girlish whim,
A freak of a foolish mood?
Or was it some will, like a snake in him,
Lay a charm upon her blood?Love of his limbs, was it that, think you?
Body of bullock build,
Sap in the bones, and spring in the thew,
A lusty youth unspilled?
But is it so that a maid is won,
Such a maiden maid as she?
Her face like a lily all white in the sun,
For such mere male as he!
Ah, why do the fields with their white and gold
To Farmer Clod belong,
Who though he hath reaped and stacked and sold
Hath never heard their song?
Nay, seek not an answer, comfort ye,
The poet heard their call,
And so, dear Love, will I comfort me—
He hath thy lease, that’s all.
Although Bland family legend has it that Edith and Richard were passionately in love for a time, and that she threatened to leave Hubert for him on at least one occasion, their affair came to an end. Le Gallienne married three times and died in Menton on the French Riviera in 1947.
Le Gallienne also makes a very brief appearance in my first book, Wilde’s Women:

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Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.


In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.


Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Oscar Wilde & The Davis Sisters

The Wilde family was prominent in the Dublin social scene, and well connected with other wealthy Dublin families. One such was the Davis family. Although both Hyman Davis, a dentist, and his wife, Isabella, were Londoners, they spent many years in Dublin and several of their eight children were born there. In the late 1870s, both Willie and Oscar were friendly with Dublin-born James ‘Jimmy’ Davis who, in a chequered career, was alternately a theatre writer, racing correspondent, theatre critic and solicitor.

Jimmy’s younger sister Eliza, who made her name as fashion columnist ‘Mrs Aria’, recorded her recollections of Oscar and Willie in her memoir, My Sentimental Self  (1922).

Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.

Their connection did not end there. Eliza made her name as a journalist, editor of fashion magazine The World of Dress, and author of books on fashion and motoring. When she became involved in a long-term affair with Henry Irving, she suggested, to no avail, that he stage Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua.

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Her intervention on Oscar’s behalf may be attributable to their youthful friendship but may also have been rooted in the fact that her older sister Julia, also a participant in their tennis parties, was given her first break in journalism as a result of an attempt to parody Oscar’s work. Eliza wrote:

Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.


It is a coincidence that her first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde.

Eliza Davis Aria gazes at a photo of her sister Julia

In 1906, six years after Oscar’s death, Julia, writing as Frank Danby, published a novel, The Sphinx’s Lawyer. In My Sentimental Self, Eliza described this book as Julia’s attempt ‘to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde’.

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In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyeraddressed to her brother Jimmy, who wrote under the name Owen Hall, and who had fallen out spectacularly with Oscar, Julia declared:

‘Because you “hate and loathe” my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you’.  For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’

In the pages that follow, Oscar appears in the guise of Algernon Heseltine, a man treated unjustly by society because he ‘was not as others’ on account of his genius; ‘the applause changed to low suspicious muttering’, Julia observed. It seems certain, given the title of her novel, that Julia’s qualified defence of Oscar was also connected to her great friendship with Ada Leverson, Wilde’s ‘Wonderful Sphinx’.

Yet, although Julia lauded Oscar’s genius and characterised him as a martyr, The Sphinx’s Lawyer was no vindication since she suggested that Heseltine was mad and should ‘have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’.

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Her descriptions of Oscar, as ‘Heseltine’, facing his accusers, are worth reading:

The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth.  The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men.  He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost.  He was not as others.  He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded.  When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.

The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew.  He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible.  Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end.  He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.

For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic].  When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes.  It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it.  The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew.  (104–05)


Mrs. Aria London, My Sentimental Self (London, Chapman & Hall, 1922)

Frank Danby, The Sphinx’s Lawyer (New York, F.A. Stokes Company, 1906)

Margaret D. Stetz, ‘To defend the undefendable’: Oscar Wilde and the Davis Family, Oscholars Special Issue: Oscar Wilde, Jews & the Fin-de-Siècle, Summer 2010.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, Wilde’s Women (London, Duckworth & Co., 2015)


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‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’

An excerpt from Wilde’s Women:


In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’ column in the January 1888 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887 to 1889, Oscar Wilde praised Women and Work, an essay from poet and philanthropist Emily Jane Pfeiffer. He described Pfeiffer’s work, which was subtitled ‘An Essay Treating on the Relation to Health and Physical Development, of the Higher Education of Girls, and the Intellectual or More Systematised Effort of Women,’ as:

‘a most important contribution to the discussion of one of the great social problems of our day’.

Wilde welcomed in particular Pfeiffer’s refutation of Professor George Romane’s preposterous assertion that men and women should be ‘mentally differentiated,’ as outlined in his essay ‘Mental Differences Between Men and Women’.

In order to illustrate his opposition to Romane, Wilde quoted Daniel Defoe:

‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’



Oscar Wilde, ‘Literary and Other Notes’, The Woman’s World, Volume I, January 1888, pp.135-6

Defoe’s ‘The Education of Women’ is included in English essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (1910) F. Collier & Son, p.159

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‘Nellie Sickert, from her friend Oscar Wilde

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On 2 October 1879, Oscar Wilde sent a gift to his young friend Helena Sickert, aged sixteen. It was a copy of Selected Poems of Matthew Arnold, inscribed to ‘Nellie Sickert, from her friend Oscar Wilde’; he described it in the letter he enclosed with the package:

Dear Miss Nellie,

Though you are determined to go to Cambridge, I hope you will accept this volume of poems by a purely Oxford poet. I am sure you know Matthew Arnold already but still I have marked just a few of the things I like best in the collection, in the hope that we may agree about them. ‘Sohrab and Rustom’ is a wonderfully stately epic, full of the spirit of Homer, and ‘Thyrsis’ and ‘The Scholar Gypsy’ are exquisite idylls, as artistic as ‘Lycidas’ or ‘Adonais’: but indeed I think all is good in it.”

Oscar encouraged Helena’s love of poetry and had recited his poem ‘Ravenna’ to her as they sat beneath the gnarled and fragrant apple trees at her home in Neuville near Dieppe in the summer of 1878.

During that holiday, he also invented, ‘poetical nonsense of exactly the right blend’ for her little brothers, Oswald aged seven and Leo, aged five, before joining in with the rough and tumble of their games, as he would one day with his own two sons.

Struck by his unfailing ‘joyousness’, Helena would later recall:

 I have never known any grown person who laughed so wholeheartedly and who made such mellow music of it.

When the Sickerts moved to London, Oscar became a welcome visitor who ‘poured out the riches of his talk’ for hours at a time. In her memoir, I Have Been Young, Helena  conjured up those delightful days, writing:

When I try to recapture the enchantment I see the big indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions whose extravagance piled up and up till they toppled over in a wave of laughter….I can’t remember any of his countless witty sayings, but his laughter I shall hear till I die. His extravaganzas had no end, his invention was inexhaustible, and everything he said was full of joy and energy.

She recognised that the only stimulus Oscar needed to tell a story was to be in the company of good listeners, and she describes him:

…his indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions, whose extravagance piled up and up.

Once, when she allowed her scepticism to show, he enquired playfully: ‘You don’t believe me, Miss Nelly? I assure you… well, it’s as good as true.’

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Helena Sickert, later Swanwick, went on to have a long and very remarkable life…but that’s another story.


H. M. Swanwick, I Have Been Young (London: Victor Gollancz, 1935), p.65

The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds: Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis, p.83

Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was shaped by the women he knew by Eleanor Fitzsimons



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Sarah & Maurice Bernhardt

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

On 22 December 1864, Sarah Bernhardt gave birth to Maurice, her only child. She named him after her maternal grandfather Moritz Bernardt (the original spelling), although it is entirely possible that she never once met that unreliable vagabond.

Maurice’s father was generally assumed to be Belgian nobleman Charles Joseph Eugène Henri Georges Lamoral, Prince de Ligne, but Sarah refused to be drawn on this and joined in with humorous speculation as to her son’s paternity.

She seemed refreshingly unabashed by her status as a single mother; she gave Maurice her last name and never attempted to conceal his relationship to her, although many women of her time bowed to societal pressure and concealed their children from disapproving eyes.

For more on Sarah and her son Maurice, read any of the following:

Elaine Aston. Sarah Bernhardt: A French Actress on the English Stage.Oxford: 1989

Ruth Brandon. Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt. London: 1991

Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale. The Divine Sarah: A Life of Sarah Bernhardt. New York: 1991

Or Wilde’s Women.


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