Tag Archives: Ellen Terry

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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Marion Terry as Oscar Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne

marion_terry

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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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.

queen-hm

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.

ellenterrywithkids

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.

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‘The subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska’

Helena Modjeska by Tadeusz Ajdukiewicz, 1880 held in the       Muzeum Narodowego w Krakowie

In 1880, when Polish actress, and one of Wilde’s Women, Helena Modjeska arrived in London to star in Heartsease, the English title chosen for Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelia, at the Court Theatre, she asked of Oscar Wilde:

‘What has he done, this young man that one meets him everywhere? Oh yes he talks well, but what has he done? He has written nothing, he does not sing or paint or act – he does nothing but talk. I do not understand.’ 1

Born to Józefa  Benda, the widow of a wealthy merchant in Kraków in 1840, Modjeska was a veteran of the stage by the time she arrived in London. At twenty, she had joined a company of strolling players managed by Gustav Modrzejewski, who she married and had two children by before discovering that he already had a wife who was very much alive.

Modjeska left Modrzejewski after their daughter, Marylka, died in infancy in 1865. She took their son Rudolf, later renamed Ralph Modjeska, to Krakow with her. There, she accepted a four-year theatrical engagement before moving to Warsaw in 1868, where she forged a reputation as a talented theatrical actress. Her two brothers, Józef and Feliks Benda, were also well regarded actors.

Image result for Karol Bozenta Chlapowski

On 12 September 1868, Modjeska married Polish nobleman Karol Bozenta Chlapowski, who was editor of the liberal nationalist newspaper Kraj. Their home became the focus of Krakow’s dissident, artistic and literary milieu. The couple’s political activities attracted the attention of authorities and in 1876 they felt obliged to flee to California, where Chlapowski established an experimental and idealistic colony of Polish expatriates on a remote ranch in California. A good account of daily life on the ranch is included in Theodore Payne’s memoir, Life on the Modjeska Ranch in the Gay Nineties.

When this experiment failed spectacularly, leaving them penniless, Modjeska was obliged to resume her career. Although she had been principal actress at the Polish National Theatre, she needed to learn English to secure major roles. She accomplished this in a matter of months by practising the language between performances for six or seven hours every day.

Modjeska was fêted in London and reported with delight:

‘My success surpassed all my expectations; everyone here seems to think it quite extraordinary, and my manager has already numerous projects concerning my future.’2

The Prince of Wales visited her in her dressing room and she shared a stage with the great Genevieve Ward at a party given his honour; the two women got on famously. Lillie Langtry came backstage to meet her during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Sarah Bernhardt, who Modjeska described as ‘the wonderful creature’, sent her a bouquet of white camellias and assured her that she was moved to tears by her performance. When Ellen Terry came to her dressing room, Modjeska declared:

‘Whoever has met Ellen Terry knows that she is irresistible, and I liked her from the first.’ 3

Offstage, Modjeska was embraced by fashionable society. She received an invitation to leading society hostess Lady Jeune’s unmissable ‘five o’clocks’. Wilde had once quipped:

‘There were three inevitables – death, quarter-day and Lady Jeune’s parties.’ (Quarter-days were the four days each year on which servants were hired, school terms started, and rents were due).

Keen to befriend this newfound star, Wilde invited Modjeska to tea. Her instinct was to refuse, since she thought it unwise to visit a young man unaccompanied, but she relented when he assured her that Lillie Langtry and artist Louise Jopling would be there too.

Before long, Wilde and Modjeska had become good friends. They collaborated on a poem, ‘Sen Artysty; or the Artist’s Dream. When it appeared in the Christmas 1880 edition of The Green Room, it was attributed to ‘Madame Helena Modjeska (translated from the Polish by Oscar Wilde)’. 4

Afterwards, Wilde enthused:

‘If there is any beauty in this poem it is the work of the subtle imagination and passionate artistic nature of Mme Modjeska. I myself am but a pipe through which her tones full of sweetness have flown.’

Wilde and Modjeska also considered adapting Verdi’s opera, Luisa Miller, but this project came to nothing and Modjeska left London to tour in the US and further afield

Helena Modjeska died at Newport Beach, California on April 8, 1909. She was 68 and had been suffering from Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Her remains were returned to Kraków where they were buried in the family plot at the Rakowicki Cemetery. Her autobiography, Memories and Impressions of Helena Modjeska, was published posthumously in 1910.

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING:

1. As reported by G.K. Atkinson in The Cornhill Magazine 1925, Part 395, p.564

2. Helena Modjeska, ‘Modjeska’s Memoirs: The Record of a Romantic Career Part V, Success in London’, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.879

3. Modjeska, The Century Magazine, Volume 79, p.883

4. ‘Sen Artysty; or, The Artist’s Dream’ was published in Clement Scott (Ed.), The Green Room: Stories by Those Who Frequent It (London, Routledge, 1880), pp.66-8; http://www.helenamodjeskasociety.com/activity.html accessed on 12 January 2015

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Violet Hunt: The Sweetest Violet in England

Violet Hunt, born in 1862 in Durham in the north of England,was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter Alfred William Hunt and his wife, Margaret Raine Hunt, bestselling novelist and translator of the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Her parents took her to live in London when she was just three-years old and she grew up in Pre-Raphaelite circles. Violet was bright, vivacious and very beautiful. At thirteen, she was writing poetry for Century Magazine. Ellen Terry described her as ‘out of Botticelli by Burne-Jones’.

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Violet Hunt from The Flurried Years (1926)

On one occasion, when Letitia Scott, wife of Margaret’s art tutor, William Bell Scott, invited Margaret, to come and meet ‘a wonderful young Irishman just up from Oxford’, she brought seventeen-year-old Violet along. Oscar Wilde, for it was he, flirted outrageously with Violet:

Beautiful women like you hold the fortunes of the world in your hands to make or mar,

he told her, adding conspiratorially:

We will rule the world – you and I – you with your looks and I with my wits.

Little wonder she thought herself ‘a little in love’ with him.

In her memoir, The Flurried Years (1926), Violet insisted that she had ‘as nearly as possible escaped the honour of being Mrs. Wilde’, adding:

I believe that Oscar was really in love with me – for the moment and perhaps more than a moment for Alice Corkran told me quite seriously that he had said to her quite seriously, “Now, shall I go to Mr. Hunt and ask him to give me little Violet?”

Oscar, who considered her, ‘the sweetest Violet in England’, called on the Hunts almost every Sunday for two years. When he went to America, Violet sought his mother out, hoping for news of her son:

Lady Wilde sits there in an old white ball dress, in which she must have graced the soirees of Dublin a great many years ago,

she wrote; she was not quite as sweet as she looked.

When Oscar returned from America with his hair freshly coiffed and curled, Violet decided he was, ‘not nearly so nice’ after all.

Although she adored the company of men, and described her life as ‘a succession of affairs,’ Violet Hunt never married. She would ‘snub eligibles on principle’, preferring married men since ‘no one could imagine that I wanted to catch them’. She could be terrifying: ‘I rather liked her,’ D.H. Lawrence admitted, adding: ‘She’s such a real assassin’.

Her many conquests included H.G. Wells, with whom she had an affair lasting a year when she was forty-four, and Somerset Maugham, but her most enduring love was for Ford Madox Ford; at thirty-six, he was eleven years her junior when they embarked on their lengthy affair. Violet’s once good opinion of Oscar may have been tainted by Ford’s dismissal of his writing as ‘derivative and of no importance’, although he did acknowledge ‘as a scholar he was worthy of the greatest respect’.

Violet Hunt & Ford Madox Ford

In later years, Violet remembered Oscar as:

…a slightly stuttering, slightly lisping, long-limbed boy, sitting in the big armchair at Tor Villa, where we lived then, tossing the long black lock on his forehead that America swept away, and talking – talking…

Oscar had always encouraged Violet to write. In time, she enjoyed an enviable reputation as a novelist, biographer and hostess of a thriving literary salon. Among her guests were Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry James. Her interest in furthering the cause of women is reflected in the themes of her novels, the first of which, The Maiden’s Progress, was published in 1894. She joined the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in 1908, the year she helped Ford establish the English Review. Although she never published her memoir My Oscar, she did fictionalise him as fickle suitor Philip Wynyard in her semi-autobiographical novel Their Lives (1916).

When she died of pneumonia, aged seventy-nine, she left behind collections of poetry and short stories, seventeen novels, her memoirs of her time with Ford, a biography of Lizzie Siddal, six collaborations, two book translations, and numerous critical articles that were published in London newspapers and magazines.

Unlike that of many of her literary conquests, none of her work remains in print, although some of it is available to read online. Truly, she is one of Wilde’s Women.

Further Reading:

Violet: the story of the irrepressible Violet Hunt and her circle of lovers and friends – Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James by Barbara Belford (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990)

‘Aesthetes and pre-Raphaelites: Oscar Wilde and the Sweetest Violet in England’ by Robert Secor, Texas Studies in Language and Literature,  Volume XXI, number 3 (Fall 1979)

The Flurried Years by Violet Hunt ( London, Hurst & Blackett, 1926), p.173

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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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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

English actress Ellen Terry is immortalised in an iconic painting by Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was considered the leading portrait painter of his day. In this portrait, which I was privileged to be allowed to include in my book Wilde’s Women,Terry is wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, a remarkable emerald gown that shimmered with the iridescent wings of the one thousand jewel beetles that had been sewn into it.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

One of my favourite passages in Wilde’s Women describes Oscar Wilde glancing out of the window of his Tite Street home and seeing Terry, a great friend of his, arriving at John Singer Sargent’s Chelsea studio for a sitting. This extraordinary sight prompted him to remark:

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.[i]

Later, Wilde chose Singer Sargent’s iconic painting for the frontispiece of the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887-1889.

To his great credit, Sargent suggested that Alice Comyns Carr, a vocal advocate of aesthetic dress who had worked on the design for Terry’s magnificent costume, should co-sign his painting since he considered her as much its creator as he. The woman who made Comyns Carr’s design a reality was dressmaker Ada Nettleship who, along with her team of thirty seamstresses, also made Constance Wilde’s beautiful aesthetic wedding gown. Constance’s gown, the subject of intense public scrutiny, went on public display in March 1884, and was described in society magazine Queen:

…rich creamy satin dress…of a delicate cowslip tint; the bodice, cut square and somewhat low in front, was finished with a high Medici collar; the ample sleeves were puffed; the skirt, made plain, was gathered by a silver girdle of beautiful workmanship, the gift of Mr. Oscar Wilde; the veil of saffron-coloured Indian silk gauze was embroidered with pearls and worn in Marie Stuart fashion; a thick wreath of myrtle leaves crowned her frizzed hair; the dress was ornamented with clusters of myrtle leaves; the large bouquet had as much green in it as white [ii].

Terry loved her Lady Macbeth costume and wrote about it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life:

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 my diary for 1888 I was always writing about it:

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“The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent.  The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful . . .”

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“Sargent’s picture is almost finished, and it really is splendid. Burne-Jones yesterday suggested two or three alterations about the colour which Sargent immediately adopted, but Burne-Jones raves about the picture . . .”

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“Sargent’s picture is talked of everywhere and quarrelled about as much as my way of playing the part . . .”

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“Sargent’s Lady Macbeth in the New Gallery is a great success.  The picture is the sensation of the year.  Of course, opinions differ about it, but there are dense crowds round it day after day.”

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Since then it has gone nearly over the whole of Europe and is now resting for life in the Tate Gallery.  Sargent suggested by this picture all that I should have liked to be able to convey in my acting as Lady Macbeth.

She looks both wonderful and terrible it it.

The dress, which is exhibited at Smallhyde Place, Terry’s former home, was painstakingly restored in 2011. I am very much looking forward to visiting Terry’s former home with the Oscar Wilde Society. I delivered a talk on the close connections between Terry and Wilde in the barn theatre in September 2016 and you can read the transcript here.

References:

[i] W. Graham Robertson, Time Was (London, H. Hamilton ltd., 1933, reprinted by Quartet Books, 1981), p.233

[ii] From Queen, reprinted in Freeborn County Standard from Albert Lea, Minnesota, 23 July 1884, p.7; also described in Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.258

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