Tag Archives: Ada Leverson

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.

Image result for Mrs Aria

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.

adding,

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’.

Image result for Eliza Davis Aria

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’.

Image result for The Sphinx's lawyer

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)

Sources:

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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The Funeral of Oscar Wilde 3 December 1900

Oscar Wilde was buried at Bagneux cemetery at 9am on 3 December 1900. His funeral mass was read by Fr. Cuthbert Dunne at the church of Saint-Germain-des- Prés in the presence of fifty-six people, among them ‘five ladies in deep mourning’.

Image result for deep mourning 1900

Robbie Ross identified four of these women*: American journalist, novelist, poet and singer Anna de Brémont and her maid; Mme Stuart Merrill, wife of the American symbolist poet who had raised a petition for Oscar’s release; and ‘an old servant girl of Oscar Wilde’s wife’. Richard Ellmann identified the fifth as a Miriam Aldrich, although Horst Schroeder disputes this (the woman was Mildred Aldrich – see update below).** At the head of Oscar’s coffin, Ross placed a wreath of laurels inscribed

‘A tribute to his literary achievements and distinction’

It bore the names of

‘those who had shown kindness to him during or after his imprisonment’

among them Ada Leverson and Adela Schuster. Lord Alfred Douglas interrupted a shooting holiday in Scotland to turn up as chief mourner. According to Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellmann there was an ‘unpleasant scene’ at the graveside  that he speculates may have been ‘some jockeying for the role of principal mourner’. He writes that while Wilde’s coffin was being lowered, Douglas almost fell into the grave.

Wilde’s remains were transferred to Père Lachaise in July 1909.

owgrave

Update:

I am indebted to Simon Phillips (see his comment below) for clarifying that Mildred Aldrich was the fifth veiled woman in attendance. She wrote about her encounters with Wilde in ‘The burial of a fallen poet,’ an excerpt from her autobiographical Confessions of a Breadwinner. You can read a profile of Aldrich and an excerpt by following this link or for more information follow the link that Simon has provided below.

SOURCE:

Wilde’s Women

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*From ‘Robert Ross Gives a New Version of the Last Days of Oscar Wilde’, New York Times, 13 March 1910. Also, Anna de Brémont confirms her presence in Oscar Wilde and his Mother.

**Horst Schroeder, Additions and corrections to Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde (Braunschweig Selbstverl, 2002), p.216

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Oscar Wilde: October 16 1854 – November 30 1900

As his life drew to a close, Oscar’s general health was poor. For much of his adult life, he had suffered from intermittent deafness and infections in his right ear, a condition that had flared up in prison but was inadequately treated. In September 1900, he fell ill once again, to the extent that it was necessary for his right ear was operated on in his hotel room. Although the procedure appeared to have been effective, by mid-November he had suffered a relapse and was confined to bed.

During the final weeks of his life, Oscar was nursed lovingly by his great friends Robbie Ross and Reggie Turner. On 29 November, Ross, a convert to Catholicism since 1894, sent for Father Cuthbert Dunne, a priest attached to the Passionist Church of St. Joseph’s in Paris. Although incapable of speech at that point, Oscar was conditionally baptised into the Catholic faith; Ross assured Ada Leverson that was in accordance with her friend’s long-held wishes.

Early on the morning of 30 November, a change came over Oscar and his breathing became laboured. Shortly before two o’clock in the afternoon, he heaved a great sigh and breathed his last. Ross laid out his friend’s body and found two Franciscan nuns to watch over him while he informed the authorities of the death of Oscar Wilde.

Wilde’s first grave in Bagneux

NOTE:

In their paper ‘Oscar Wilde’s terminal illness: reappraisal after a century’, Ashley H Robins and Sean L Sellars concluded, based on medical evidence, that Oscar Wilde died of meningoencephalitis secondary to chronic right middle-ear disease. (The Lancet, Vol 356, November 25, 2000, pp.1841-1843)

Excerpt taken from Wilde’s Women

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Ada Leverson: Wilde’s Wonderful Sphinx

One of the more significant women in Wilde’s Women is Oscar Wilde’s great friend and confidante Ada Leverson. I wrote a profile of her for the Bluestocking Bulletin, which I have reposted here:

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BLUESTOCKING PROFILE

Ada Leverson (1862-1933)

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Ada Leverson (née Beddington) was a friend and disciple of Oscar Wilde’s who became a widely respected satirist and novelist in her own right. Born in London, England, on 10 October 1862, she was the eldest of nine children born to Samuel Beddington, an affluent Jewish wool merchant, and his wife Zillah, who was an exceptionally talented pianist. From an early age, Ada demonstrated a passion for literature and a particular enthusiasm for the poetry of John Keats. Since her enlightened but authoritarian father arranged for her to be instructed in Latin and Greek as well as the more commonplace French and German, she was also an accomplished linguist with a deep understanding of the origins of language.

Although the Beddingtons encouraged their daughters to become educated, they were also strict disciplinarians and Ada found family life stifling. At nineteen, in a bid to find some measure of independence, she married Ernest Leverson, the son of a prosperous diamond merchant. Her father opposed the match, and with good reason; Leverson, aged thirty-one, was a compulsive gambler and philanderer who had neglected to mention that he had a daughter, Ruth, who was being raised in a convent in Paris while he courted Ada.

Ada and Ernest had little in common and theirs was not a particularly successful marriage. Yet she embraced her fate with good humour, declaring that it was: ‘better to have a ‘trying’ husband than none’. She had an exceptionally clear-eyed view of Victorian marriage and understood that, while it was imperative for a woman, marriage offered no real advantage to a man: ‘Marriage is not his profession, as it is his wife’s,’ she declared. ‘He is free in every way before marriage, tied in every way afterwards – just the reverse with her’. The Leverson’s marriage was blighted by tragedy in 1888 when their infant son George died of meningitis. A daughter, Violet, was born eighteen months later.

Although Ada was witty and exceptionally clever, she lacked confidence in her ability as a writer. For years she seemed content to contribute anonymously to publications like Black & White, The Yellow Book and Punch, while acting as a muse to more prominent, and generally male, writers. In his Memories of a Misspent Youth 1872-1896 (1933), English publisher and writer Grant Richards, who would publish the novels Ada wrote from 1907 onwards, saluted her as:

…the woman whose wit provoked wit in others, whose intelligence helped so much to leaven the dullness of her period, the woman to whom Oscar Wilde was so greatly indebted.

Ada’s friendship with Oscar Wilde was valued greatly by both. While Wilde, who nicknamed her Sphinx, praised her wit and encouraged her to write, she inspired dialogue found in some of his best loved plays: ‘Your dialogue is brilliant and delightful and dangerous,’ he declared. ‘No one admires your clever witty subtle style more than I do’. Celebrating their matched temperaments, he quipped: ‘Everyone should keep someone else’s diary; I sometimes suspect you of keeping mine’. Although she was fond of Wilde’s wife, Constance, Ada encouraged him to bring his young lovers to dinner at her home. She always enjoyed the company of witty and exuberant gay men.

Through her writing Ada helped publicise Wilde’s work. Although she detested the ‘plethora of half-witted epigrams and feeble paradoxes by the mimics of his manner’, both she and he regarded skilful parody as a form of homage: ‘One’s disciples can parody one,’ Wilde insisted, ‘nobody else’. In a letter to writer Walter Hamilton, he listed the ingredients for a worthy parody: ‘a light touch, and a fanciful treatment and, oddly enough, a love of the poet whom it caricatures’. Ada had each in abundance. She delighted in parodying her friend’s work in Punch magazine, and she displayed an uncanny talent for sending up any hint of pomposity. Her parodies can be read in the Punch archives.

In 1905, Ernest Leverson, who had lost most of his fortune, moved to Canada and invested in the lumber trade. He was joined there by his daughter Ruth, but Ada and Violet stayed in London and Ada reinvented herself as a columnist, writing the women’s column ‘White and Gold’ for The Referee magazine under the name ‘Elaine’. Apparently, she wrote propped up in bed, surrounded by a disorder of newspapers, cigarettes and oranges. Her first novel, The Twelfth Hour, was published in 1907. A trilogy,Love’s Shadow (1908), Tenterhooks (1912) and Love at Second Sight (1916), was reprinted as The Little Ottleys, in 1962, and again in 1982, when interest in her work was revived. She wrote two further novels: The Limit (1911) and Bird of Paradise (1914).

Retaining the sharp characterisation and keen ear for dialogue that she had exhibited when parodying Wilde’s work, Ada was hailed as a witty social satirist and documenter of English society who demonstrated a healthy disregard for societal conventions. She was well respected in the literary and artistic circles of 1920s London and befriended T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Ronald Firbank, and Percy Wyndham Lewis among others. When Ernest Leverson died in Canada in 1922, Ada sold her London home and divided her time between London and Florence. In 1930 Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde, with Reminiscences of the Author, which she had compiled and written shortly after Wilde’s death, was published by Gerald Duckworth and Co. Ada Leverson died in London on August 30, 1933. Her work is all but forgotten today. For more on Ada Leverson and her work read Wonderful Sphinx by Julie Speedie.

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The Sacking of Tite Street

Illustrated Police Budget, May 4, 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor opened on 26 April 1895, in a gloomy courtroom at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, which was housed at the time in a dispiriting building adjacent to Newgate Gaol. Both men faced counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to procure the commission of acts of gross indecency, although the conspiracy charges were later withdrawn.

Wilde and Taylor had been charged in accordance with Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, commonly referred to as the Labouchère Amendment, which contained no definition of gross indecency and, as a result, outlawed a broad spectrum of homosexual behaviour that was considered less serious than sodomy but was easier to prove. As a consequence, it was regularly exploited by blackmailers.

The ‘Old Bailey’

A bankruptcy sale of the Wilde family’s possessions had been held at their Tite Street home two days earlier. Many items were pilfered during the ensuing melee, including several irreplaceable manuscripts and Wilde’s poignant letters to Constance, which she had kept in a blue leather case. The items that were sold achieved far less than their true value.

An Irish-born publisher gave an account of proceedings to Wilde’s friend and biographer Robert Sherard:

‘I went upstairs and found several people in an empty room, the floor of which was strewn, thickly strewn, with letters addressed to Oscar mostly in their envelopes and with much of Oscar’s easily recognisable manuscript. This looked as though the various pieces of furniture which had been carried downstairs to be sold had been emptied of their contents on to the floor.'[1]

The sacking of the Wildes’ Tite Street home was a terrible humiliation. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s Women, believed many of those in attendance that day delighted in Oscar’s downfall and wrote:

‘It was already well known that Oscar had bitter enemies as well as a large crowd of friends. And if his chief enemy [Queensberry] was eccentric, many of his jealous rivals were quite unscrupulous.'[2]

Wilde’s prized books, numbering around two thousand volumes, were bundled together and offered at knockdown prices, making just £130 in total.[3] Artist James McNeill Whistler sent representatives to buy back a number of his works for less than £40.

Ernest Leverson was present that day and managed to acquire a full-length portrait of Oscar by Harper Pennington, which had hung above the fireplace of the Wildes’ Chelsea home, for £17. Oscar joked about the corrupting influence this work might have on visitors to the Leversons’ home, writing to Frank Harris in June 1897:

I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views.

The nursery was raided and toys belonging to Cyril and Vyvyan were sold, a loss that caused them great distress. In all, the sale raised just £230.

SOURCES:

[1] Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.359-60

[2] Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, p.35

[3] Donald Mead, ‘Heading for Disaster: Oscar’s Finances’, The Wildean, No. 46, January 2015, p.89

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John Lane, Oscar Wilde & The Yellow Book

March 14 marks the anniversary of the birth of publisher John Lane (1854-1925), co-founder with Elkin Mathews, of The Bodley Head publishing house. In 1894, The Bodley Head began publishing The Yellow Book, a Decadent hardback quarterly literary periodical that boasted an illustrious list of contributors and promoted New Woman writers.

Not everyone was a fan. Shortly after the first issue appeared, Oscar Wilde sent a letter to Bosie: ‘The Yellow Book has appeared,’ he wrote. ‘It is dull and loathsome, a great failure. I am so glad’. Later, he expressed his displeasure to Ada Leverson: ‘Have you seen The Yellow Book?’ he inquired. ‘It is horrid and not yellow at all’. Leverson was surely more enthusiastic, since she contributed several short stories, one of which, ‘Suggestion’ is reminiscent of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Ironically, although he detested The Yellow Book and was never invited to contribute to it, a misinterpreted line from Dorian Gray led to a spurious link between Wilde and The Yellow Book. The line in question is: ‘His eyes fell on the Yellow Book that Lord Henry had sent him’. In fact, the book in Dorian Gray is fictitious and resembles Joris-Karl Huysman’s À rebours, a favourite of Wilde’s, more than any other.

When Lane arrived in New York in April 1895, he was confronted with newspaper headlines announcing: ‘Arrest of Oscar Wilde, Yellow Book under his arm’. Although the book Wilde was carrying has been identified by Margaret D. Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner as a yellow-bound copy of Aphrodite by Pierre Louÿs, Lane realised the implications and despaired: ‘It killed The Yellow Book and it nearly killed me’, he claimed.

Without delay, Lane telegraphed his office manager and instructed him to remove Wilde’s books from sale. By then, several authors were threatening to boycott The Bodley Head, which employed Edward Shelley, a young clerk who had testified to being involved in a sexual relationship with Oscar. On 5 April 1895, The Bodley Head premises at Vigo Street were attacked by a stone-wielding mob.

When Lane removed Aubrey Beardsley, who was associated with Wilde, from his position as Art Editor of The Yellow Book, W.B. Yeats claimed this was done at the insistence of ‘a popular novelist, a woman who had great influence among the most conventional part of the British public’. This was surely Mrs. Humphry Ward, who had encouraged poet William Watson to write to Lane and threaten to change publisher unless The Yellow Book was discontinued. When poet Alice Meynell’s husband, Wilfred, applied similar pressure,Volume 5 was halted mid-production, although it did appear a fortnight later, and the publication limped along for another two years.

Lane, a pioneer of New Women’s writing, also published the contentious Keynotes, which took its name from the first in the series, a collection of short stories by Mary Chavelita Dunne, who wrote as George Egerton. Dunne, a contributor to The Yellow Book, was closely associated with the Decadent movement. Her Keynotes (1893) caused a sensation by tackling controversial themes including female sexuality, sexual freedom, alcoholism and suicide.

‘George Egerton’

The daughter of an Irish army officer, Dunne described herself as ‘intensely Irish’. By echoing Wilde’s style and quoting him in an epigram to her story ‘A Little Gray Glove’, she reinforced his association with New Women’s writing. Several passages in her story ‘A Cross Line’ imagine a dance in a ‘dream of motion’, and take much from Salomé:

She can see herself with parted lips and panting, rounded breasts, and a dancing devil in each glowing eye, sway voluptuously to the wild music that rises, now slow, now fast, now deliriously wild, seductive, intoxicating, with a human note of passion in its strain.

Dunne loathed the duplicity of Victorian society, which she summed up sardonically in a letter to her father: ‘sin as you please but don’t be found out it’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know’. Her writing was parodied in Punch as ‘She-notes’ by Borgia Smudgiton, and she was rechristened ‘Dona Quixote’, a sure indication of the anxiety she provoked with her challenging themes.

Although Dunne wrote four more short story collections: Discords (1894), Symphonies (1897), Fantasias (1898), and Flies in Amber (1905); one epistolary collection: Rosa Amorosa (1901); one novel: The Wheel of God (1898); and several plays, most notably His Wife’s Family (1907), Backsliders (1910) and Camilla States Her Case (1925); she never replicated the success of Keynotes. As a supporter of Wilde’s and a writer who emulated his style, she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.

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My profile of her was long listed for the Thresholds International Feature Writing Competition and can be read here.

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THE ADVISABILITY OF NOT BEING BROUGHT UP IN A HANDBAG.

On 2 March 1895, Punch magazine published a satirical parody of Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which had opened to huge acclaim at the St. James’s Theatre a fortnight earlier.  Ada Leverson was the author of THE ADVISABILITY OF NOT BEING BROUGHT UP IN A HANDBAG, which she subtitled ‘A Trivial Tragedy for Wonderful People’. A close friend to Wilde, she had recorded her impressions of opening night. Her pitch-perfect parodies of his work are affectionate yet hilarious and this was to be the last of them.

Ada Leverson

THE ADVISABILITY OF NOT BEING BROUGHT UP IN A HANDBAG: A Trivial Tragedy for Wonderful People

(Fragment found between the St. James’s and Haymarket Theatres).

Aunt Augusta (an Aunt).
Cousin Cicely (a Ward).
Algy (a Flutterpate).
Dorian (a Button-hole).
The Duke of Berwick.

TimeThe other day. The Scene is in a garden, and begins and ends with relations.

Algy (eating cucumber-sandwiches). Do you know, Aunt Augusta, I am afraid I shall not be able to come to your dinner to-night, after all. My friend Bunbury has had a relapse, and my place is by his side.

Aunt Augusta (drinking tea). Really, Algy! It will put my table out dreadfully. And who will arrange my music?

Dorian. I will arrange your music, Aunt Augusta. I know all about music. I have an extraordinary collection of musical instruments. I give curious concerts every Wednesday in a long latticed room, where wild gipsies tear mad music from little zithers, and I have brown Algerians who beat monotonously upon copper drums. Besides, I have set myself to music. And it has not marred me. I am still the same. More so, if anything.

Cicely. Shall you like dining at Willis’s with Mr. Dorian to-night, Cousin Algy?

Algy (evasively). It’s much nicer being here with you, Cousin Cicely.

Aunt Augusta. Sweet child! I see distinct social probabilities in her profile. Mr. Dorian has a beautiful nature. And it is such a blessing to think that he was not brought up in a handbag, like so many young men of the present day.

Algy. It is such a blessing, Aunt Augusta, that a woman always grows exactly like her aunt. It is such a curse that a man never grows exactly like his uncle. It is the greatest tragedy of modern life.

Dorian. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really mediæval one should have no cigarettes. To be really Greek——

[The Duke of Berwick rises in a marked manner, and leaves the garden.

Cicely (writes in her diary, and then reads aloud dreamily). “The Duke of Berwick rose in a marked manner, and left the garden. The weather continues charming.” …

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Opening Night of The Importance of Being Earnest – 14 February 1895

earnest

Original cast: Allan Aynesworth, Evelyn Millard, Irene Vanbrugh & George Alexander

The opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest took place at the St. James’s Theatre on 14 February 1895. Oscar Wilde’s great friend Ada Leverson was among the ‘distinguished audience’ that attended. Her lovely tribute to that brilliant occasion, contained in her memoir Letters to the Sphinx, shows that she saw no reason to believe that:

‘the gaiety was not to last, that his life was to become dark, cold, sinister as the atmosphere outside’.

There had been a ferocious snowstorm that day and the street was blocked with carriages depositing patrons who stepped down into a bitterly cold wind. Yet, such inclement conditions did nothing to deter the ‘Wilde fanatics’ who treated the arrival of his audience as an essential part of any performance. Describing how they ‘shouted and cheered the best known people,’ Leverson recalled that:

‘the loudest cheers were for the author who was as well-known as the Bank of England’.

Oscar, recently returned from Algiers where he had holidayed with Lord Alfred Douglas, appeared suntanned and prosperous, and had dressed with what Leverson described as ‘elaborate dandyism and a sort of florid sobriety’. He wore: a coat with a black velvet collar, a green carnation blooming at the buttonhole; a white waistcoat, from which he had hung a large bunch of seals on a black moiré ribbon watch-chain; and white gloves, which he held in his hand, leaving his beloved large green scarab ring visible to all. On any other man, Leverson admitted, this ensemble might be taken for fancy dress, but Oscar, she thought:

‘seemed at ease and to have the look of the last gentleman in Europe’.

Flamboyant as ever, Oscar had declared lily-of-the-valley to be the flower of the evening ‘as a souvenir of an absent friend’ – Lord Alfred Douglas that was and not his wife Constance, also absent – and those gathered sported delicate sprays of that lovely flower: ‘What a rippling, glittering, chattering crowd was that!’ Ada declared, adding:

‘They were certain of some amusement, for if, by exception they did not care for the play, was not Oscar himself sure to do something to amuse them?’

The play did not disappoint. Irene Vanbrugh, who played Gwendolen Fairfax, wrote in To Tell My Story that it ‘went with a delightful ripple of laughter from start to finish’. During the short time she knew Oscar she admired his ‘charm of manner and his elegance’ and the fact that ‘no one was too insignificant for him to take trouble to please’. Years later, she recalled how she:

‘felt tremendously flattered when he congratulated me at one of the rehearsals’.

irene-vanbrugh

As the curtain fell at the end of the performance that night, Oscar stepped forward and was greeted with an ovation. He stood smoking while he waited for the applause to subside; the evening was a triumph. Yet, a dangerous drama was unfolding in the vicinity of the theatre that night. The Marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, had grown increasingly frantic in his efforts to stop his son seeing Oscar and had planned to make a public protest by throwing a grotesque tribute, a bouquet of rotting vegetables, onstage.

Oscar was tipped off and foiled his nemesis by persuading the theatre manager, George Alexander, to revoke Queensberry’s ticket and to organise for a cordon of policemen to surround the building. Thwarted, Queensberry hung around outside for hours, muttering with fury, before delivering his monstrous bouquet to the stage door. This was the beginning of the end for Oscar.

For what happens next you could do worse than read my book Wilde’s Women. More information about it here.

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