Tag Archives: Aimee Lowther

Oscar Wilde & Ellen Terry

This is the script of a talk I gave to the Oscar Wilde Society on a visit to Smallhythe Place, once home to Ellen Terry, in September 2016. Do join the society. Such warm and wonderful people keeping the memory of Wilde alive!

Although he would surely have been aware of an actress with a reputation as stellar as Ellen Terry’s, it’s believed that the first time Oscar Wilde saw her perform was when he went with David Hunter Blair, a friend from Oxford University, to see her in Tom Taylor’s comedy New Men and Old Acres at the Court Theatre, London in December 1878. Fellow Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, fell in love with Terry on the strength of her performance in that play.

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Six months later, on 27 June 1879, Wilde watched Terry play Queen Henrietta Maria in Charles I by W. G. Wills at the Lyceum Theatre. He was 24 years old and had just come down from Oxford University with a double first. She was 8 years older at 32, had been married to and separated from artist G. F. Watts, and had two children with Edward Godwin, from whom she had recently split. In 1878, she had left the Court Theatre to become leading lady with Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum Theatre.

Wilde was mesmerised by Terry’s performance and wrote a sonnet in her honour, as was his habit. He sent it to her along with a letter expressing his ‘loyal admiration’ for her talent. He declared:

 ‘No actress has ever affected me as you have. I do not think you will ever have a more sincere an impassioned admirer than I am’.

Three weeks later, his sonnet, now titled ‘Queen Henrietta Maria’ was published in society periodical The World. It began:

In the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain;

Terry was very taken with Wilde’s poetic tribute. In her autobiography The Story of my Life, she wrote:

 ‘That phrase ‘wan lily’ represented perfectly what I had tried to convey, not only in this part, but in Ophelia. I hope I thanked Oscar enough at the time. Now he is dead and I cannot thank him any more…I had so much bad poetry written to me that these lovely sonnets from a real poet should have given me the greater pleasure.’

portia

When Terry appeared in The Merchant of Venice in 1879, Wilde wrote a new sonnet, ‘Portia’, as a tribute to her beauty:

‘For in that gorgeous dress of beaten gold,
Which is more golden than the golden sun,
No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.’

This ‘gorgeous dress of beaten gold’ is on display in Smallhythe Place.

Terry’s performance as Camma, Tennyson’s Priestess of Artemis in The Cup in January 1881, prompted Wilde to compose a third sonnet, ‘Camma’, in which he expressed a desire to see her play Shakespeare’s Cleopatra. She never did.

NPG Ax131304; Ellen Terry as Camma in 'The Cup' by William Henry Grove, printed and published by  Window & Grove

Wilde included all three of the sonnets he had written for Terry in his collection Poems, published by David Bogue in 1881 at Wilde’s own expense. Although it garnered a mixed critical response and many of the poems were considered derivative, it is worthy of perusal.

So was it simply Wilde’s admiration for Terry’s beauty and talent that prompted these tributes? Since he was a very ambitious young man, it seems certain that they were intended to foster a close association with one of the most famous women in London. Certainly, he would have loved to have persuaded Terry interpret his work.

In  1880, Wilde sent Terry a copy of his first play, Vera, beautifully bound in dark red leather with her name embossed in gold on the binding and inscribed ‘from her sincere admirer the author’. The letter that accompanied it contained the line:

‘Perhaps someday I shall be fortunate enough to write something worthy of your playing’.

Terry was flattered but turned Vera down.

Wilde and Terry moved in the same bohemian circles and had become friends by then. She was a regular visitor to 13 Salisbury Street, the home he shared with artist Frank Miles. Early in 1880, Terry persuaded Wilde to share her box at the Criterion Theatre to watch an adaptation of James Albery’s Where’s The Cat, a satire on Aestheticism, in which Wilde was apparently parodied by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Little wonder he declared the play to be ‘poor’.

One incident that illustrates how close Wilde and Terry had become occurred when Terry was about to take to the stage in the Lyceum to play Camma in The Cup. Another member of the cast that night was Florence Balcombe, Wilde’s former girlfriend and now Mrs. Bram Stoker. Stoker husband was the business manager of the Lyceum and Irving’s right-hand man. The very beautiful Florence, who did not pursue an acting career, had a tiny part as a vestal virgin.

It seems that Wilde still harboured feelings for lovely Florence, since he sent two crowns of flowers to Terry, accompanied by this revealing note:

Will you accept one of them, whichever you think will suit you best. The other – don’t think me treacherous, Nellie – but the other please give to Florrie from yourself. I should like to think that she was wearing something of mine the first night she comes on the stage, that anything of mine should touch her. Of course if you think – but you won’t think she will suspect? How could she? She thinks I never loved her, thinks I forget. My God how could I!

The admiration between Wilde and Terry was mutual. He christened her ‘Our Lady of the Lyceum’ and called her ‘the kindest-hearted, sweetest, loveliest of women’. He also sent her a photograph inscribed ‘for dear wonderful Ellen’.

She declared of him:

‘The most remarkable men I have known were, without a doubt, Whistler and Oscar Wilde…there was something about both of them more instantaneously individual and audacious than it is possible to describe’.

When Terry embarked on her first tour of America with the Lyceum company in October 1883, she recalled seeing Wilde, accompanied by Lillie Langtry, standing on the quayside in Liverpool, waiting to see them off. She noticed that he held his hand to his mouth to hide his ‘ugly teeth’ but she remarked on his ‘beautiful eyes’. Wilde had toured America the previous year and Langtry had arrived for her first tour towards the end of his.

Terry’s encouragement of Langtry’s ambitions to become an actress, a path she had embarked on at Wilde’s suggestion, and her open admiration for her potential rival’s beauty, endeared her further to Wilde. When Langtry played Rosalind in As You Like It in 1882, Terry sent her a letter of encouragement, followed by a telegram.

Dear Nellie,

I bundled through my part somehow last night, a disgraceful performance, and no waist-padding! Oh what an impudent wretch you must think me to attempt such a part! I pinched my arm once or twice last night to see if it were really me. It was so sweet of you to write me such a nice letter, and then a telegram, too!

Yours ever, dear Nell

Lillie

This was a particularly unselfish act since Terry never got to play this coveted part.

Lillie Langtry as Rosalind in 'As You Like It', by Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), 1890 - NPG x46489 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Lillie Langtry as Rosalind

When Wilde was courting Constance Lloyd in 1883, he took her to see Othello at the Lyceum, with Terry as Desdemona. Afterwards, Constance became a regular at the theatre and frequently dined with Terry and Irving after shows. Another connection was established when Edward Godwin, Terry’s former partner and the father of her children, decorated the Wilde’s home in Tite Street in 1884.

Wilde loved Terry’s interpretations of Shakespeare’s women. His review of the Lyceum’s Hamlet for the Dramatic Review on 9 May 1885, was full of praise for her:

And of all the parts which Miss Terry has acted in her brilliant career, there is none in which her infinite powers of pathos and her imaginative and creative facility are more shown than in her Ophelia. Miss Terry is one of those rare artists who needs for her dramatic effect no elaborate dialogue, and for whom the simplest words are sufficient.

His review of The Lyceum’s production of an adaptation of Olivia by W.G. Wills, written for the Dramatic Review on 30 May 1885, included the observation that:

To whatever character Miss Terry plays she brings the infinite charm of her beauty and the marvellous grace of her movements and gestures. It is impossible to escape from the sweet tyranny of her personality. She dominates the audience by the secret of Cleopatra.

In that same review, having praised her interpretation of Olivia, he observed:

There was, I think, no one in the theatre who did not recognise that in Miss Terry our stage possesses a really great artist, who can thrill an audience without harrowing it, and by means that seem simple and easy can produce the finest dramatic effects.

In May 1888, Wilde sent a copy of The Happy Prince and Other Tales to Terry. In response, she wrote:

They are quite beautiful, dear Oscar, and I thank you for them from the best bit of my heart…I should like to read one of them someday to NICE people – or even NOT nice people, and MAKE ‘em nice.

Unfortunately, his plans for her to undertake a series of public readings never came to fruition.

In 1889, when Terry’s carriage passed the window of Wilde’s Tite Street home and he noticed that she was wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, an emerald gown shimmering with the iridescent wings of a thousand jewel beetles, he remarked:

‘The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.’

He included an image of the finished painting as the frontispiece to the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, which he edited at the time.

Terry too loved the dress and wrote:

‘One of Mrs. Nettle’s greatest triumphs was my Lady Macbeth dress, which she carried out from Mrs Comyns Carr.  I am glad to think it is immortalised in Sargent’s picture. From the first I knew that picture was going to be splendid.’

In 1892, Ellen’s sister Marion Terry played Mrs. Erlynne in the very first production of Lady Windermere’s Fan. Although the part was intended for Lillie Langtry, it was to be her most significant role.

The truest test of Terry’s friendship for Wilde came in the wake of his arrest for gross indecency in 1895. While many of his friends abandoned him, one closely-veiled woman called to his mother’s house, where he was staying, bringing a bouquet of violets, the symbol of faithfulness, and a horseshoe for luck. She was identified by Henry Irving’s son Lawrence as Ellen Terry. She also wrote to Constance at that time offering her help and support.

In 1900, when Wilde was living in Paris, Terry visited the city with Amy Lowther. They spotted their friend, much diminished, gazing longingly through the window of a patisserie and biting his fingers with hunger. When they invited him to eat with them, they were much relieved when he ‘sparkled just as of old’. Neither ever saw him again.

After learning of Wilde’s death, Terry stopped his friend Robert Sherard

‘to talk of Wilde and to say many beautiful and kind things about him.’

When she spoke at a dinner held in her honour by the Gallery First-Nighters’ Club in 1905, she included ‘the late Oscar Wilde’ in a list of people seen regularly ‘in the gallery and pit at the dear old Lyceum’.This was a brave statement at the time.

Yet, when writer and poet Richard Le Gallienne asked her to write a foreword to a memorial edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, it seems she never responded.

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One final echo of Wilde and his relationship with Terry appeared twelve years after his death in ‘The Mask’ magazine in July 1912. A story called ‘The Actress’, which Wilde told to Aimee Lowther when she was a child but never wrote down, was published by the magazine’s editor, Edward Craig, Terry’s son. This lovely story of an actress who leaves the stage to devote herself to a lover but is forced to choose between them when love is waning is thought to have been inspired by Terry. Naturally, she chooses the stage.

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Terry with her children Edith & Edward

For more on Oscar, Ellen & all the other women in his life (with full references) read Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

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Wilde Tales: What of the Stories We Will Never Hear?

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When Aimée Lowther was a girl, she would rush home to write down the wonderful stories that her friend Oscar told her. Years later, in 1912, four of these stories were published in The Mask: A Quarterly Journal of the Art of the Theatre. They were ‘The Poet’, ‘The Actress’, ‘Simon of Cyrene’ and ‘Jezebel’. Each was captioned, ‘An unpublished story by Oscar Wilde’, and prefaced with the words:

This story was told by Wilde to Miss Aimée Lowther when a child and written out by her. A few copies were privately printed but this is the first time it has been given to the public.

Lowther was in her forties by then, and had enjoyed some success as a playwright and amateur actress. As Wilde’s life had ended twelve years earlier, in room sixteen of the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, he was unable to verify her claims. However, one of these stories, ‘The Actress’, was believed to have been inspired by his great friend Ellen Terry. Edward Gordon Craig, editor of The Mask, was Terry’s son and Aimée Lowther was her close confidante.

Wilde loved Lowther. It is recorded in Richard Ellmann’s biography on Wilde that, when she was just fifteen, he declared: “Aimée, if you were only a boy I could adore you.” In return, she remained loyal to him to the end, and a visit from her could lift his spirits even when he was at his lowest ebb: ‘…your friendship is a blossom on the crown of thorns that my life has become’, he told her in a letter, now collected in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. In A Pride of Terrys, Marguerite Steen wrote that, in 1900, Lowther and Ellen Terry spotted a much diminished Oscar Wilde gazing longingly through the window of a Parisian patisserie and biting his fingers with hunger. They invited him to dine, and were greatly relieved when he ‘sparkled just as of old’, but they never saw him again.

The veracity of Lowther’s claim that Wilde told these four stories to her is borne out by a letter he sent her in August 1899, asking that she not allow the publication of ‘the little poem in prose I call ‘The Poet’’, as it was due to ‘appear next week in a Paris magazine above my own signature’. No such magazine has ever been identified. However,
confusion arose when Gabrielle Enthoven, a passionate collector of theatrical memorabilia, claimed that Wilde had told these stories to her. In 1890, she commissioned the private printing of Echoes, a limited edition, twelve-page pamphlet containing the four stories in question. Aimée Lowther owned a copy of Echoes, which she later gave to Oscar’s younger son, Vyvyan, and the stories reproduced in both Echoes and The Mask are almost word for word the same.

Of course it is entirely possible that Wilde told the same stories to both women. He was a born storyteller and could harness the power of the spoken word in a way that was reminiscent of the seanchaí (a figure familiar to him from his father’s careful documenting of the oral tradition that thrived in his native Ireland).

In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde has his Lord Illingworth say, ‘A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world’. His own popularity was assured by his eagerness to entertain, to the extent that society hostesses took to including the words ‘to meet Oscar Wilde’ on invitations, in a bid to boost attendance at their gatherings.

Wilde’s popularity as a storyteller was enhanced by the fact that he possessed an exceptionally melodious voice, which Lord Alfred Douglas described as ‘golden’. Frank Dyall, the actor who played Merriman in the first production of The Importance of Being Ernest, recalled Wilde’s voice as being:

…of the brown velvet order – mellifluous, rounded, in a sense giving it a plummy quality, rather on the adenotic side, but practically pure cello, and very pleasing.
~ from Hesketh Pearson’s The Life of Oscar Wilde

To add drama to a narrative, Wilde would modulate his voice from a whisper to a cry of triumph, losing himself in his stories to the extent that those present described him as seeming dazed by the effort of telling them. Yet his true power was in the words. In his autobiography, William Butler Yeats, Wilde’s contemporary and compatriot, said of him: ‘I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous.’

One guest fortunate enough to be present at a lunch hosted by publisher and bon vivant Frank Harris described how Wilde’s musical voice and infectious laughter cut through the lively chatter, causing everyone present to fall silent in order to listen exclusively to him. In response, Wilde filled the hours that followed with humorous anecdotes, embryonic plotlines for plays he was contemplating, macabre tales told in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, and his distinctive take on instructive Bible stories. Frank Harris published several of these spontaneous stories under the heading ‘Poems in Prose’, in The Fortnightly Review, but it is probable that they lost something in the transcribing. In his introduction to Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde,Robert Ross, a great friend and literary executor to Wilde, claimed:

To those who remember hearing them from Wilde’s lips, there must always be a feeling of disappointment on reading them. He overloaded their ornament when he came to transcribe them, and some of his friends did not hesitate to make that criticism personally.

Although he made no attempt to alter his accent, Wilde spoke excellent, ponderous French and, in Paris, earned a reputation as ‘the poet who tells fantastic tales’. His visit to that city in 1891 was described by L’Echo de Paris as, ‘le “great event” des salons littéraires parisiens’. Young André Gide, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature towards the end of his long life, found Wilde utterly captivating and met with him every day for three weeks. After parting from Wilde, Gide felt unable to put pen to paper for several days. In correspondence published by the University of Chicago Press, it is noted that, when he finally made contact with poet Paul Valéry on Christmas Eve, 1891, Gide asked him to ‘please forgive my silence: since Wilde, I hardly exist anymore’.Once, as Gide and Wilde were dining at the home of Princess Ouroussoff, wife of the Russian ambassador to France, the princess swore that a halo appeared around Wilde’s head as he talked.

Princess Ouroussoff was not alone in attributing otherworldly properties to Wilde’s flights of fancy. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that Wilde could cure depression or disease simply by speaking to an afflicted person for just five minutes. The artist W. Graham Robertson, who described Wilde as ‘a born raconteur’ in his auto-biography Time Was, was certain that Wilde had cured him of a ‘violent toothache’ by telling his stories ‘so brilliantly that for an hour and a half I laughed without ceasing’. Some were moved despite themselves. The poet Ernest Dowson attested that Wilde ‘had such a wonderful vitality and joie de vivre that after some hours of his society even a pessimist like myself is infected by it’.

Although he was a very public raconteur, Wilde saved some of his best stories for home, remarking that it was the duty of every father to invent fairytales for his children. In his memoir, Son of Oscar Wilde, Vyvyan Holland wrote of a ‘never-ending-supply’ of fairy stories and tales of adventure, many of them inspired by the imaginings of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling; Wilde always was a literary magpie. Holland recalled one particular bedtime story, reminiscent of ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, which described the helpful fairies who lived in the great bottles of coloured water found in the windows of chemist shops. They would dance about at night before making the pills that the chemist would dispense the next day.

Many of Wilde’s bedtime stories were rooted in the misty mythology of the West of Ireland, where his father had once kept a holiday cottage at Moytura. He kept his boys rapt with his description of the ‘great melancholy carp’ that lived in the deep waters of Lough Corrib, refusing to move off the bottom of the lake unless Wilde himself called them up with the ancient Irish songs that his father had taught him. At times, Wilde was moved to tears by his own ingenuity. His eyes glistened as he told his boys the story of ‘The Selfish Giant’ and when his elder son, Cyril, wondered why, Wilde replied that really beautiful things always made him cry.

Several of Wilde’s stories started life in the nursery of his Tite Street home, but in a letter to Amelie Rives Chanler, from 1889, he was adamant that they were intended ‘not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty’. His great friend Helena Swanwick recognised that the only stimulus he needed to tell a story was to be in the company of good listeners. In her memoir, I Have Been Young, she describes Wilde:

…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, after 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.’

Such was Wilde’s prolificacy that only a tiny fraction of the stories he told ever made it into print, and he would commit a story to paper only if the reaction of his audience merited it. If one of his stories was published, Wilde would often dedicate it to a society hostess whose largesse he had enjoyed. The stories in his collection A House of Pomegranates, which is dedicated to his wife, Constance, pay tribute to four such women: ‘The Young King’ is dedicated to Margaret, Lady Brooke, who would one day lend great support to Constance; ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ was chosen for Princess Alice of Monaco — Wilde told her it was the best of the four; ‘The Star-Child’ was saved for the socialite Margot Tennant, who had recently become Mrs. Asquith, and would later disown Wilde when he most needed her support; and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ was dedicated to Lady Desborough, ‘as a slight return for the entrancing day at Taplow’. Later, Lady Desborough received a ‘little book that contains a story, two stories in fact that I told you at Taplow’. This ‘little book’ was Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

After Wilde was imprisoned, Adela Schuster, whom he christened ‘Miss Tiny’ on account of her size, believed that his stories might save him. She wrote to his friend More Adey:

Could not Mr. Wilde now write down some of the lovely tales he used to tell me? […] I think the mere re­minder of some of his tales may set his mind in that direction and stir the impulse to write.

In her letter, Schuster recalled, in particular, two stories that Wilde had told her: one concerning ‘a nursing sister who killed the man whom she was nursing’; and a second that was about ‘two souls on the banks of the Nile’. To these Adey added, ‘the moving sphere story and the one about the Problem and the Lunatic’.

Sadly these, and many others, never found their way into print. In a letter to Robert Ross, dated May 1898, Wilde wrote: ‘I really must begin The Sphere.’ He never did, although Frank Harris did publish a version of it as ‘The Irony of Chance (after O.W.)’. Ross sheds light on the inspiration for many of the stories that ‘unfortunately exist only in the memories of friends’, confirming that they were:

Invented on the spur of the moment, or inspired by the chance observation of someone who managed to get the traditional word in edgeways; or they were developed from some phrase in a book Wilde might have read during the day.

How disappointing it is that we will never hear them. How I envy those who enjoyed that great pleasure.

Note: This essay was first published in Thresholds as The Unrecorded Stories of Oscar Wilde and is an edited version of Chapter 13 of Wilde’s Women.

Hear the stories from The Happy Prince and Other Tales read beautifully & analysed by experts here: http://www.wildestories.ie/

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