Tag Archives: Feminism

Did Oscar Wilde Steal the Baby from the Cradle?

I’ve been immersing myself in the work of George Egerton for weeks now. She’s one of Wilde’s Women and I’ve written about her before but this weekend I’m presenting a paper at a conference on Nietzsche, Psychoanalysis and Feminism at Kingston University (it’s a big deal, Luce Irigaray is speaking & I’m quite scared). Although Egerton was often categorized as a New Woman writer, she doesn’t fit neatly with this group for various reasons. Her stories were influenced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, which she read in the original German ten years before he was translated into English. She was also interested in Wilde’s work and his commitment to individualism.

For this reason I was not at all surprised when I read of how a book replaces a baby in her intriguing story ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, which is included in her hugely popular collection Keynotes.

and then a valuable book – indeed, it is really a case of Mss., and almost unique – I had borrowed for reference, with some trouble, could not be found, and my husband roared with laughter when it turned up in the cradle.

It struck me that she must have been influenced by Wilde’s hugely significant reversal in The Importance of being Earnest, when Miss Prism admits:

In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the bassinette, and placed the baby in the hand-bag.

And then I remembered that Keynotes was published in 1893, while Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest during the summer of 1894, and it was first performed on 14 February 1895.

Oh Oscar!

PBCover

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Willie Wilde & Mrs Frank Leslie: An Unhappy Alliance

On the evening of 4 October 1891, Willie Wilde, aged thirty-nine, became the fourth husband of the formidable Mrs. Frank Leslie, a newspaper magnate who was sixteen years his senior. They hardly knew each other and were married at the aptly named Church of the Strangers in New York.

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Mrs Frank Leslie

The New York Herald referred to the bride as ‘the well known publisher of this city’ and described the groom as ‘one of the editors of the London Telegraph and brother of Oscar’. Since Willie’s best man was humorist Marshall P. Wilder, Town Topics magazine took the opportunity to quip:

‘The groom was wild, the best man wilder, but the bride wildest of all.’

The quiet Sunday evening ceremony was followed by supper in Delmonico’s and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls, an apt choice in the light of Oscar’s quip:

‘Every American bride is taken there, and the sight of the stupendous waterfall must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life’.(1)

Mrs. Frank Leslie had been born Miriam Florence Folline in New Orleans on 5 June 1836. At seventeen, and under duress, she married jewellery shop clerk David Charles Peacock. Since they vowed to live apart for the remainder of their lives, it was perhaps inevitable that their marriage was annulled within the year.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known by her stagename Lola Montez. Known for her risque "spider dance". While performing in St. Louis at The Varieties Theatre in March 1853, she got into an argument with the manager, breaking his nose with a candlestick.Photo from the S F City Guides, Bruce Seymor:

Lola Montez

Afterwards, Miriam toured with the notorious Lola Montez, making up one half of the Montez sisters. During that time, she met husband number two, archaeologist E. G. Squier. When Frank Leslie hired Squier to edit his Illustrated Newspaper, he asked Miriam to fill in as editor of his Lady’s Magazine. She made a great success of it.

When he separated from his wife, Frank Leslie moved in with the Squiers and stayed for more than a decade before easing Squier aside to become Miriam’s third husband. When he died of throat cancer in 1880, Frank left Miriam a widow at forty-three and facing seemingly insurmountable debts.

She rose to the challenge, taking on and turning around her late husband’s ailing publishing company. She stamped her authority on the enterprise by changing her name by deed poll to ‘Frank Leslie’, the name he had assumed when he had established the business (he was born Henry Carter in Ipswich, England).

Yet, her creditors were circling and the whole enterprise would have foundered were it not for the intervention of Eliza Jane Smith, a wealthy widow and former housemaid who advanced Miriam a loan of $50,000 to be repaid over five years; it was returned within five months.

Image result for Frank Leslie

An accomplished linguist and frequent visitor to London for the season, Miriam attended Jane Wilde’s Saturday salons and attempted to emulate them with ‘Thursdays’ of her own. She was described by Jane as ‘the most important and successful journalist in the States’. In Social Studies, Jane elaborated:

‘She owns and edits many journals, and writes with bright vivacity on the social subjects of the day, yet always evinces a high and good purpose; and, with her many gifts, her brilliant powers of conversation in all the leading tongues of Europe, her splendid residence and immense income, nobly earned and nobly spent, Mrs. Frank Leslie may be considered the leader and head of the intellectual circles of New York.’

Jane and Miriam had much in common. Well schooled in literature and the classics, Miriam spoke French, Spanish, Italian, German and Latin. She, like Jane, had translated the work of Alexandre Dumas fils. In a gushing account of this transatlantic alliance, the New York Times described Jane as a ‘close and respected friend’ of Mrs. Leslie’s. The Los Angeles Herald reported that Miriam attributed her decision to marry Willie in no small measure to her ‘devotion to Lady Wilde’, while the Topeka State Journal quoted her as saying:

‘Lady Wilde is so charming that it had a great deal to do with my marrying her son, I think. I have tried to profit by her acquaintance, and hope some day to be in New York what she is in London.’

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Members of the Lotos Club by Pierre Brissaud Country Life, February 1937

 

Miriam had high hopes for Willie, but her plans to install him as a charming companion and lynchpin in her publishing empire came to nothing when it became clear that his preferred haunt was New York’s fashionable Lotos Club, frequented by Mark Twain amongst others. While his new wife worked tirelessly at the helm of her business, Willie could be found drinking, gossiping and reciting parodies of Oscar’s poems. One fellow Lotos Club member recalled:

‘You know, Oscar had a fat, potato-choked sort of voice,’ , ‘and to hear Willie counterfeit that voice and recite parodies of his brother’s poetry was a rare treat.’(2)

Another member remembered him as ‘the most thoroughgoing night owl that ever lived,’ and confirmed that he ‘positively hated daylight’.

The alliance was doomed. During a visit to London, Miriam hired a private investigator to report on Willie’s activities. Confronted with evidence of his boorish behaviour, she started divorce proceedings, charging him with drunkenness and adultery. When their marriage was dissolved on 10 June 1893, Judge C.F. Brown declared that Willie was:

‘addicted to habits of gross and vulgar intemperance, and to violent and profane abuse of and cruel conduct to the plaintiff’.(3)

Describing it as ‘a funny sort of match from the start,’ the Morning Call decided that their relationship would make a delightful social comedy and revealed that the bride had never altered her name, although ‘at times she would let “Wilde” be tacked on with a hyphen’.

Willie claimed, rather disingenuously:

‘The man who marries for money jolly well earns it’.(4)

When asked why he had married Miriam, his supposed reply was:

‘’Pon my soul. I don’t know. Do you? I really ought to have married Mrs. Langtry, I suppose’.(4)

Ironically, Miriam was said to have declared:

‘I really should have married Oscar’.(5)

Yet, after their divorce, she told a reporter from the Evening World:

‘I have only feelings of pity and sorrow for Mr. Wilde,’

adding,

‘I cherish no resentment towards him. He is a remarkably brilliant man of culture, but intemperance has demoralised him’.

She was even kinder about Jane, insisting:

‘Lady Wilde is one of the loveliest of women and extraordinarily intelligent, and there is still the best of feeling existing between us.'(6)

Wilde’s biographer and friend Robert Sherard believed that the marriage had been disastrous for Willie:

‘He went out to America a fine, brilliantly clever man, quite one of the ablest writers on the Press,’

he noted before observing that he came back to England

‘a nervous wreck, with an exhausted brain and a debilitated frame’.(7)

While she was married to Willie, Miriam felt a duty of care to her impoverished mother-in-law, and offered her an allowance of £400 a year. Jane, who was perhaps a little embarrassed at being financially dependent on another woman, would accept only £100, which she justified as the cost of maintaining a London home for the couple. Once the divorce was finalised, Miriam stopped Willie’s allowance, leaving him with no option but to join his mother in genteel poverty in her Oakley Street home. Poor Jane lived in constant fear of bailiffs arriving at her door to collect on Willie’s debts. When she cabled Miriam for help, her friend paid up grudgingly but broke with the family as a result.

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Lady Jane Wilde in old age

In January 1894, six months after his divorce was finalised, Willie Wilde married Dublin-born Sophia Lily Lees. Although she had plenty of suitors, Miriam never married again. When she died in 1914, she left the bulk of her fortune to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in order that it be used for the promotion of the cause of women’s suffrage. A staunch champion of women’s rights, she once declared:

‘The old order is changing and the new coming. Woman must open her eyes to it and adapt herself to it, she must free herself from her swaddling clothes and go out into the world with courage and self-reliance. Oh, what a noble woman the woman of the future may become!’ (8)

She is undoubtedly one of Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

 

REFERENCES & FURTHER READING:

1. Oscar Wilde and Stuart Mason (Ed), Impressions of America (Sunderland, Keystone Press, 1906), p.25

2. From ‘Wilde and Willie’ by Nancy Johnson (archivist) in News and Notes from the Lotos Club, January 2011

3. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

4. Reported in The Nineteen-Hundreds by Horace Wyndham, p.76

5. Madeleine B. Stern, Purple Passage: the life of Mrs. Frank Leslie (Norman, Okla. Univ. of Oklahoma Press 1953 ), p.162

6. ‘Mrs Leslie is Free’, The Evening World, 10 June 1893, p.3

7. Sherard, Real Oscar Wilde, p.323

8. Included in Anne Commire, Deborah Klezmer, Women in World History Volume 9 (Waterford CT., Yorkin Publications, 1999), p.413

 

 

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Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner

I’ve written a post on the pioneering South African feminist writer Olive Schreiner for the Sheroes of History Blog. Here’s a link:

South African writer Olive Schreiner was born in what is now Lesotho on 24 March 1855. The ninth of twelve children born to Rebecca Lyndall and her husband, Gottlob Schreiner (1814–1876), a German-born missionary, she and just six of her siblings survived childhood. In adulthood, she suffered debilitating ill-health, exacerbated for a time by grinding poverty.

For a time, Schreiner earned a living as a governess and teacher, but she devoted her free time to writing The Story of an African Farm, a radical feminist novel informed by her experience of growing up in Africa. As soon as she could afford to, she sailed for Britain where she hoped to train as a doctor. Unfortunately, although she attended lectures at the London School of Medicine for Women, established in 1874 by an association of pioneering women physicians, ill-health prevented her from completing her training.

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Was Oscar Wilde a Feminist?

On the eve of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d address a question I am asked frequently: ‘was Oscar Wilde a feminist?’ I could write far more but this is just a short look at his views on puritanical women and their opposition to the sexual double standard. You’ll have to read my book Wilde’s Women to learn more.

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Although Wilde believed in equality of opportunity for everyone, men and women alike, a sentiment that resonates with feminist thinking today, he was, first and foremost, an individualist who embraced self-determination. Certainly, he supported the efforts of many women of his acquaintance in their efforts to access the opportunities afforded to men, and he campaigned in The Women’s World for voting rights, education, and the opening of the professions to women. Yet, he disagreed fundamentally with those first wave feminists who believed that the eradication of the sexual double standard could best be achieved by holding men to the same strict moral code that had traditionally been imposed upon women.

Wilde’s opposition to this approach is best exemplified perhaps in the character of Hester Worsley, a puritanical young American who appears in his play A Woman of No Importance. Hester sees herself as a defender of women: ‘you are unjust to women in England,’ she declares, ‘and till you count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust’. By condemning the system of ‘one law for men and another for women,’ she is echoing feminist reformer Josephine Butler.

Josephine Butler

Hester’s declaration that ‘immoral men are welcomed in the highest society and the best company’ parodies Butler’s assertion that dissolute men were ‘received in society and entrusted with moral and social responsibilities, while the lapse of a woman of the humbler class…is made the portal for her of a life of misery and shame’.[i] Laudable as this seems, Oscar was utterly opposed to such thinking. When interviewed about A Woman of No Importance, he contended:

Several plays have been written lately that deal with the monstrous injustice of the social code of morality at the present time. It is indeed a burning shame that there should be one law for men and another law for women. I think…I think there should be no law for anybody.[ii]

This was not new thinking on Oscar’s part. Describing the doctrine of ‘sheer individualism’ in a speech he gave to the Royal General Theatrical Fund on 26 May 1892, he insisted: ‘It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses’.[iii]

He certainly followed his own advice.

[i] Quoted in Joseph Bristow, Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions (Toronto; Buffalo: Published by the University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 2003), p.135

[ii] Gilbert Burgess, ‘A Talk with Mr. Oscar Wilde’, The Sketch, 9 January 1895, quoted in Mason, Bibliography, p.440

[iii] Richard Ellmann. Oscar Wilde. p.348

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