Tag Archives: Constance Wilde

Marie Corelli: ‘the idol of suburbia’

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

Marie Corelli as ‘Lily’ – Shakespeare Homeplace Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[v]Complete Letters, p.905n2

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

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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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The Birth of Cyril Wilde

Constance Wilde (later Holland) with her son Cyril

Baby Cyril Wilde arrived into the world at ten forty-five on the morning of 5 June 1885. That same day, his father, Oscar, insisted in a letter that his ‘amazing boy’ knew him quite well already.[i] He told a friend, actor Norman Forbes Robertson, that Cyril was ‘wonderful’.[ii]

By all accounts, Cyril, and his younger brother Vyvyan, who arrived eighteen-months later, were lovely, boisterous lads who enjoyed more freedom than many of their Victorian contemporaries. Eyewitness accounts confirm that their parents were indulgent and very fond of them.

Vyvyan & Cyril Wilde (later Holland)

Both boys adored their father, who was kind-hearted and playful and perfectly happy to join in with nursery games, even if they involved getting down on all fours in order to play the part of a bear, a lion, a horse or whatever was required of him. He once spent an entire afternoon repairing a beloved wooden fort.

Boisterous games often spilled out into the beautiful dining-room of their Tite Street home, where all three would dodge between the legs of the spindly white chairs before tumbling together in a tangle on the floor. When they grew tired, Oscar would tell them the most wonderful stories.

Further Reading:

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland is a remarkable account of a fractured childhood, and gives unparalleled insights into a life that is perhaps more speculated about than any other. It contains a warm account of the time he and his brother had with their father, which lends added poignancy to the tragedy that they never saw him again after 1895.

Wilde’s Women also contains an account of Cyril’s life.

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Cyril died young and his tragic final years are described here.

[i] Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (Robinson, Revised edition, 1999), p.53

[i] Letter to Nellie Lloyd, 5 June 1885, Complete Letters, p.261

 

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Beatrix Potter: Teenage Celebrity Spotter

I love stumbling across little anecdotes and insights into the life of Oscar Wilde. Sometimes their source is extraordinary. Take for instance two entries in the journal of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), author, illustrator, natural scientist, and conservationist. I included them in Wilde’s Women.

Beatrix Potter

Young Beatrix Potter (Hulton Archive, Getty Images)

Potter’s father, Rupert Potter, a lawyer and a keen amateur photographer, was a close friend of the painter Sir John Everett Millais. Beatrix was just seventeen-years-old when she recorded the following in her journal of 1884. Oscar and Constance had been married for less than two months by then:

Saturday, July 12th. Papa and mama went to a ball at the Millais’ a week or two since. There was an extraordinary mixture of actors, rich Jews, nobility, literary, etc. [Cartoonist George] Du Maurier had been to the ball the week before, and Carrie Millais said they thought they had seen him taking sketches on the sly. Oscar Wilde was there. I thought he was a long, lanky melancholy man, but he is fat and merry. His only peculiarity was a black choker instead of a shirt-collar, and his hair in a mop. He was not wearing a lily in his buttonhole, but, to make up for it, his wife had her front covered with great water-lilies

Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt, by Rupert Potter, July 1886 - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir John Everett Millais by Rupert Potter

In 1885, when Beatrix recorded the following, Constance would have been six months pregnant with Cyril:

Sunday March 15th. Saw Oscar Wilde and his wife just going into the Fine Arts to see the Holman Hunt. He is not peculiar as far as I noticed, rather a fine looking gentleman, but inclined to stoutness. The lady was strangely dressed, but I did not know her in time to see well.

Source: Beatrix Potter & Glen Cavaliero (Ed.), Beatrix Potter’s Journal (Harmondsworth, Warne, 1986). A fascinating book full of remarkable observations!

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