Tag Archives: Jane Wilde

IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

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Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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Lady Jane Wilde & Her Love for Sweden

I’m really pleased that Wilde’s Women is still being reviewed 18 months after publication. I’m particularly delighted that a Wildean scholar of the calibre of Professor Peter Raby reviewed it for Women’s Studies, a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. ‘The author writes sympathetically & vividly about Lady Wilde, as she does about Wilde’s wife, Constance,’ Raby writes.PBCover

In response, here is an extract that describes the admiration Jane Wilde had for Scandinavian women and the freedoms they were afforded:

Shortly after [her daughter] Isola arrived, Jane formed an extremely significant friendship with a progressive young Swedish woman named Charlotte ‘Lotten’ von Kraemer. Then, as now, Scandinavians took a more enlightened approach to gender equality and Jane’s admiration demonstrates how far ahead of her time she was. It must be remembered that many Victorian women were complicit in their subjugation, propping up male-dominated institutions that kept them down and shunning women who objected.

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Lotten von Kraemer

As Lotten suffered from a painful and debilitating ailment of the ear, triggered by a bout of scarlet fever in adolescence, she had been advised to consult Dr. William Wilde, one of Europe’s leading aural specialists. She and her father, Baron Robert Fredrik von Kraemer, Governor of Uppsala, arrived at lunchtime one Sunday in July 1857. They were surprised to learn, by means of a wink and a nod that the lady of the house was not yet up. Instead, they were shown into William’s study. He arrived, holding one ‘unruly little boy’ by the hand and carrying a smaller boy in his arms. This was Oscar, not yet three, with ‘curly brown hair and large dreamy eyes’. Lotten was moved by the warm affection William showed towards his sons.1

Hospitable as ever, William invited these visitors to return for dinner. In the meantime, he volunteered his wife to take them on a tour of Dublin, which she did with great good humour. Willie and Oscar were present that evening, a highly unusual practice in a Victorian household and one that was to continue when Oscar had sons of his own. William stroked little Oscar’s cheek and sent him to fetch a book, while Jane prevailed upon Baron von Kraemer to teach her the rudiments of Swedish. Lotten admired her, ‘soulful and captivating vivacity’, recognising that the fire in her glance betrayed her past as a revolutionary poet. She was struck by the affability of the occasion and the exceptionally congenial bond that existed between husband and wife.

Lotten and Jane had much in common. During her lifetime, Lotten was a published poet, essayist, and editor of Var Tid (Our Time), a magazine of modern culture. She also endowed a scholarship enabling female medical students to attend Uppsala University; she founded Samfundet De Nio (the Nine Society), a prestigious and progressive Swedish literary society; and she provided vital finance to the Country Association for Women’s Suffrage. Although early correspondence was taken up with medical advice passed on by William, much of it involving the application of leeches, Lotten and Jane were soon discussing topics of mutual interest: literature, culture and the position of women in society. It impressed Jane that:

Clever and intellectual women, also, in Sweden hold a much higher position in society than their literary sisters in England. They are honoured and made much of, and treated with considerable distinction, solely from belonging to the peerage of intellect. Whereas in England wealth, with the ponderous routine of life that wealth entails, seems to be the chief measure of merit and the highest standard of perfection in social circles.2

Ever the linguist, Jane attempted to master Swedish, but the lack of a tutor obliged her to struggle alone with the aid of a dictionary. Although she did manage to write a few letters, she never mastered the language: ‘Even this endeavour [learning Swedish] I have given up with all other literary employment since the cares of a household have come on me’, she told Lotten.3 One ambition she did not abandon was that of instilling a love for literature in her children, and she was successful in this. While Willie enjoyed Tennyson’s epic ballad, Lady Clare and Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Oscar remembered his mother reading Walt Whitman’s recently published collection, Leaves of Grass (1855) to him. He mentioned this when he met the poet in New Jersey in 1882.

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Once Willie turned six, Jane hired an English governess, an arrangement that allowed her to travel with her husband, William: ‘without this, we’re apt to fossilize in married state’ she declared’.4 They toured Scandinavia during the autumn of 1859, and Jane said of Stockholm, ‘I will never enjoy any place again so much’.5 She was less taken with Germany, concluding, erroneously as it happened, that people, ‘who live on beer and cheese, are not, and never can be, politically dangerous’.6

Years later, Jane organised her journals into Driftwood from Scandinavia, a moderately successful travel book in which she expressed her admiration for the elevated status of women in Swedish society. Through Lotten, Jane met Rosalie Olivecrona, a pioneer of the Swedish women’s rights movement and co-founder of Tidskriftför Hemmet (Journal for the Home), a campaigning feminist publication ‘devoted to general literature and the advancement of women politically and intellectually’. What impressed Jane about Rosalie was that, although she held ‘a very important place in the highest circles of Stockholm society’, she remained ‘with all her learning, a most attractive and elegant woman in style, look, and manner’.7

Jane admitted to Lotten that she had ‘little time for writing or even for thought,’ yet she managed to complete all three volumes – 1,446 pages – of The First Temptation; Or, “Eritis Sicut Deus”: A Philosophical Romance [by W. Canz]. Translated from the German by Mrs. W.R. Wilde.8 Although her skills as a translator were lauded, this odd and controversial book received mixed reviews; one damning assessment was motivated by revenge, as would later become apparent.

Jane Wilde enjoyed her status as a public figure. She began one very revealing letter to Lotten by writing: ‘When my correspondence is collected and published after my death…’ Yet, the incompatibility of literary and family life concerned her. ‘After all writing is a fatal gift for a woman,’ she told Lotten, who was childless, ‘I would be a much better wife, mother, & head of a household if I never touched a pen. I feel this so strongly that I shall never encourage my daughter to authorship.9 Such misplaced guilt remains familiar to her contemporary counterparts.

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Lady Jane Wilde

When Jane learned that her Swedish friends were in the habit of hosting regular literary receptions, she decided to establish ‘weekly conversazione’ of her own  in order to ‘agglomerate together all the thinking minds of Dublin’.10 The Athenaeum described 1 Merrion Square as, ‘the first, and for a long time the only, bohemian house in Dublin,’ but expressed concern that Jane had gathered together all those, ‘whom prudish Dublin had hitherto kept carefully apart’.11 The Irish Times attributed her success to an absence of snobbery, ‘so fatal to social gatherings in Ireland’.12 Delighted with her initiative, Jane grew determined to live up to her maxim; one Oscar adapted and made his own. It is monotony that kills, not excitement,’ she wrote:

Dull people fail in the will to live, and so they soon lose their hold on life. Excellent good women, who give up society and devote themselves exclusively to home and homely duties, grow old so soon.13

As was her wont, she invited mostly men and those few women she admired: novelist Rosa Mulholland Gilbert, and literary sisters Alice and Henriette Corkran. Gilbert remembered Jane

‘dressed in long flowing robes of Irish poplin and Limerick lace…adorned with gold chains and brooches modelled on the ancient ornaments of Erin’s early queens’.

She considered Jane to be ‘of a kindly nature, and warm and sincere in her friendships,’ adding,

‘she had a commendable desire to make her house a social centre for all who were engaged in intellectual pursuits, or interested in literature or the arts’.14

Henriette Corkran thought Jane‘an odd mixture of nonsense, with a sprinkling of genius’, and declared that ‘her talk was like fireworks – brilliant, whimsical and flashy’.15 In time, Oscar’s conversation would be likened to fireworks too.

1 Lotten von Kraemer, ‘Författaren Oscar Wilde’s Föräldrahem i Irlands Hufvudstad’ Ord och Bild Illustrerad Månadsskrift, Volume 11, 1902, pp.429-435, http://runeberg.org/ordochbild/1902/0473.html accessed on 10 January 2015

2 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia (London, R. Bentley and son, 1884), p.201

3 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 20 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

4 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 21 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

5 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 3 Dec 1859, National Library of Sweden; Later, Jane returned to Sweden with William, who was to receive the prestigious Nordstjärneorden (Order of the North Star) from King Karl XV.

6 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.275; Oscar appears to have inherited her low opinion of Germans (see Complete Letters, p.409)

7 Lady Jane Wilde Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.196

8 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer (fragment), 1860, National Library of Sweden

9 Letters to Lotten von Kraemer, 19 March 1862 & 22 April 1862, National Library of Sweden

10 Letter to John Hilson, 10 February 1859, University of Reading, Special Collections, MS 559

11 The Athenaeum Magazine, quoted in Victoria Glendinning ‘Speranza’ in Peter Quennell Genius in the Drawing-Room (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980), p.103

12 ‘The Literati of Dublin’, Irish Times, March 1878

13 Lady Wilde, Social Science, p.74

14 Mulholland Gilbert, Life of Sir John Gilbert, p.78

15 Corkran, Celebrities & I, p.141

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Jane Elgee: ‘the most extraordinary prodigy’

Novelist William Carleton died at his home in Rathmines, Dublin on 30 January 1869. You can find an excellent profile of his life and work here.

In December 1850, Carleton sent a copy of the Nation newspaper to engraver and magazine proprietor Ebenezer Landells. The accompanying letter drew his friend’s attention to ‘the critique in the 202nd page’, which ‘was written by Miss Elgee’. In his letter Carleton declared:

She is the most extraordinary prodigy of a female that this country, or perhaps any other, has ever produced. She is acquainted with all literatures and all languages, and all history, ancient and modern.

This extract from David O’Donoghue’s Life of William Carleton, drawing on testimony from one of Carleton’s daughters, makes clear the esteem in which he held the woman who had later married his friend and physician Dr. William Wilde.

Lady Wilde, for whose genius he had the strongest admiration, came to see him. Indeed, nothing could exceed the kindness and sympathy shown to us by both Sir William and Lady Wilde at this time of suffering and sorrow.

Carleton was eulogised in the Irish papers. On 6 February 1869 a poem written in his honour by Lady Wilde was published in the Nation. Here’s an extract:

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Little wonder Carleton had expressed admiration for the ‘great ocean of her soul’.

Source: David O’Donoghue, Life of William Carleton Volume II (London, Downey & Co., 1896)

For much more on Lady Jane Wilde, read Wilde’s Women

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Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

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In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

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Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Jane Elgee & William Wilde: ‘Wed on Wednesday, Happy Match’

On 12 November 1851 Dr William Wilde married Jane Elgee at St. Peter’s on Aungier Street, Dublin. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Wilde’s Women to mark the occasion:

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Excerpt from Chapter 3: Taming Speranza

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 12 November 1851, , a carriage brought Dr. William Wilde and Jane’s uncle John Elgee to the door of 34 Leeson Street, the home she had shared with her mother, recently deceased, for the past eight years. To the men’s surprise, Jane was ready to leave, allowing them to reach St. Peter’s on Aungier Street [1], her parish church, in time for a nine o’clock wedding. The modest ceremony that joined ‘William R. Wilde Esq., F.R.C.S.’ and ‘Jane Francesca’ was conducted by the groom’s older brother, Reverend John M. Wilde. For the occasion, Jane had exchanged her mourning clothes for a, ‘very rich dress of Limerick lace’ with matching veil worn under a head wreath of white flowers, but she was back in black by eleven o’clock that same morning.

Both bride and groom were well known in the capital, and their dozens of acquaintances would surely have delighted in witnessing the sealing of such a dynamic alliance, but a lavish wedding would have been inappropriate on account of Sarah’s death. Describing the day to the bride’s estranged sister, Emily, Elgee hinted that the couple had married a day earlier than expected and confirmed: ‘nobody were present save our own party and the old hangers on of the church’. Perhaps they desired an auspicious start to their married life. An old folk rhyme beloved of Victorian brides advised: ‘Wed on Wednesday, happy match’. Theirs was certainly happy, but it did not lack turbulence.

After a celebratory breakfast at the Glebe house, Elgee waved the newlyweds off on their short journey to the coastal village of Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, where they caught the steamer to Holyhead. Judging by his letter to Emily, he was determined to improve relations between the sisters: ‘I don’t want to see open war between you and them’, he cautioned. Acknowledging that, ‘love of self’ was a prominent feature of Jane’s flamboyant character, he countered by insisting that she possessed, ‘some heart’ and, ‘good impulses’. It reassured him that she had chosen for her husband a man she clearly liked and respected: ‘Had she married a man of inferior mind he would have dwindled down into insignificance or their struggle for superiority would have been terrific’, he warned.

Notes & Sources:

[1] This was the church where her literary uncle by marriage, Charles Maturin served as Anglican Curate for the last eighteen years of his life.

Much of the detail in this post comes from a letter sent by John Elgee to Emily Warren. This letter was shown to Terence de Vere White and he quotes from it in ‘Speranza’s Secret’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 1980.

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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

Also:

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Oscar Wilde’s Father and the Campaign to Bring Cleopatra’s Needle to London

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William Wilde as a young man

On 12 September 1878, one of of three Ancient Egyptian obelisks, popularly known as ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’, was erected on Victoria Embankment in London. Presented to the United Kingdom in 1819 by the ruler of Egypt and Sudan Muhammad Ali, in commemoration of the victories of Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile and Sir Ralph Abercromby at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801, this obelisk had remained in situ in Alexandria until 1877. It was then that Sir William James Erasmus Wilson, a distinguished anatomist and dermatologist, sponsored its transportation to London at great expense.

Almost four decades earlier, in April 1839, William Wilde, a Dublin-based surgeon and keen amateur Egyptologist and archeologist, who had travelled extensively throughout Egypt and beyond, wrote an article for the Dublin University Magazine in which he urged the British Government to transport one of these obelisks to London. It was lying in the sands, utterly neglected, and would, he suggested, make a fitting tribute to ‘the immortal Nelson’.

In his book Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Mediterranean, which can be read online, he records his first encounter with the needles. Below is his article from the Dublin University Magazine in full, containing a detailed description of the obelisks along with practical suggestions as to how to transport them. Since William died in April 1876, with his sons, Willie and Oscar, and his wife, Jane, at his bedside, he never saw his scheme come to fruition.

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The Mystery of Oscar Wilde’s Maternal Grandfather

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On the 13th August last, at Bangalore, in the East Indies, Charles Elgee, Esq., eldest son of the late venerable Archdeacon Elgee, of Wexford.

The last known record of Charles Elgee, maternal grandfather of Oscar Wilde, is an obituary that was published in the Freeman’s Journal on 4 February 1825. Charles had left the family home sometime earlier, a departure that obliged his wife Sarah (nee Kingsbury) to raise their three surviving children, Emily, John and Oscar’s mother Jane, alone. It was she who oversaw their education.

Charles and Sarah Elgee’s marriage was a turbulent affair and the early years, during which three of their four children were born (the third, Frances, died in infancy in 1815), were characterised by regular changes of address. Jane was born in 1821, towards the end of this unstable marriage, and evidence suggests that the family was living in County Wexford at the time. Certainly, this is stated as a fact in her obituary in The Guardian on Wednesday 12 February 1896, and The Times on 7 February 1886, and is often mentioned in local histories of the county.

Financial troubles may have contributed to the couple’s estrangement; a deed registered on 11 November 1814, granting Charles £130 from his wife’s inheritance to discharge his debts, contained an ominous clause in which he agreed not to touch his wife’s assets should they decide to separate. This was necessary, since, until the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act 1882, English law defined a wife as subordinate to her husband and stripped her of her legal identity.

It is not known why Charles travelled to India, although an obituary for his grandson and namesake, Charles Le Doux Elgee, son of John Kingsbury Elgee, which is included in the Report of the Secretary, Class of 1856, Harvard, suggests that he may have had ‘some connection with the East-India Company’.

Nothing further is known, by me anyway. Everything I have discovered is documented in chapter two of Wilde’s Women. Perhaps one of you can shed some light on this intriguing mystery?

 

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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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Wilde’s Half-Brother, Dr Henry Wilson

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Dr Henry Wilson

In June 1877, Oscar Wilde wrote to his friend Reginald ‘Kitten’ Harding expressing his sorrow at the unexpected death of a cousin. This ‘cousin’ was Wilde’s half-brother, Dr. Henry Wilson, one of three children born to his father, William, before his marriage to Jane Elgee. Each one of these children, a son and two daughters, was acknowledged privately by their father and supported by him.

Henry Wilson, who was thirteen at the time of his father’s wedding, was commonly passed off as his nephew. Yet, Wilde took a keen interest in his eldest son’s progress, paying for his education and bringing him into St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, the hospital he had founded, to work alongside him until he succeeded him as senior surgeon.

Wilson’s death came as a dreadful shock to his family. Just four days earlier, Oscar had attended a dinner party he hosted and had attested that his half-brother seemed in perfect health. Wilson had fallen ill that evening, an illness that Oscar attributed to a chill he had caught while out riding.

Despite the best efforts of six colleagues who remained with him during his final days, Henry Wilson died of pneumonia on 13 June 1877. He was thirty-nine years old and had never married. An obituary in the Dublin Journal of Medical Science described Wilson as being ‘under the guardianship of his relative Sir William Wilde’, and eulogised him as a learned and popular man with a ‘kindly and cheerful manner’ and a ‘genial nature’.

Willie and Oscar Wilde were chief mourners at Wilson’s funeral and fully expected to be the main beneficiaries of his will. Instead, he bequeathed £8,000, subject to a life interest granted to two unnamed female relatives, to St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital.

REFERENCES 

‘In Memoriam Henry Wilson’ Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Volume 64, Issue 1, 2 July 1877, pp.98-100

Wilde’s Women

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