Tag Archives: Lady Jane Wilde

A Glimpse of Oscar & his Mother

My research requires the reading of firsthand accounts of life during the latter half of the nineteenth century. As a result, although I’m not specifically looking for information on Oscar Wilde at the moment, I often stumble across little anecdotes. The latest comes from Here and There Memories, published in 1896 under the pseudonym Hi Regan. The author of this book was Captain John Joseph Dunne, a colourful character and father to George Egerton, who is the subject of my current research. Here’s what he wrote:

‘A tall, elderly lady, dressed with a certain not unbecoming bizarrerie in yellow silk and black lace, came to sign the roll*. She was accompanied by a puppy-faced young man with a lackadaisical air and drab boots. Till then, though I knew her husband well, I had never seen her, and was rather astonished when she signed ‘Francesca Wilde (“Speranza”).’ Her long-haired escort, a la Buckstone’s ‘stricken one,’ was Oscar, not yet above the horizon of self-assertion, nor perhaps dreaming of future effulgence.’ (380)

*‘Butt started the National Roll as a means to get together funds for the Home Rule League’s operations’ (380).

Young Oscar

Oscar Wilde as a Young Man

We can date this incident to 1874. Oscar would have been nineteen and coming to the end of his time as a student at Trinity College Dublin. That autumn he would continue his studies at Magdalen College, Oxford. Lady Jane Wilde was fifty-two – hardly ‘elderly’ – and would reinvent herself in London shortly afterwards.

My thanks to Michael Seeney for prompting me to point out that Oscar’s hair was short at the time, as the photograph shows. Dunne is writing with hindsight. He was also notoriously unreliable! In A Leaf From the Yellow Book, his relation Terence de Vere White wrote of him that he was ‘a born liar if his reminiscences are to be judged’. Also, he wasn’t particularly well disposed towards Oscar since his beloved elder daughter’s career had suffered greatly in 1895 due to Wilde’s perceived association with John Lane and The Yellow Book.

For far more on Oscar and his mother read Wilde’s Women.

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Oscar Wilde the Irishman: A speech he made in Minnesota on St. Patrick’s Day, 1882.

Much time is devoted to speculation as to exactly how Irish Oscar Wilde believed himself to be. Although he truly saw himself as a citizen of the world, and was careful to ingratiate himself with those who occupied the highest positions of power and influence in England, he was also the son of an Irish nationalist mother.

On 17 March 1882, Wilde, aged twenty-seven, participated in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that were organised in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. He was touring America at the time, lecturing to audiences the length and breadth of that emerging nation. A comprehensive account of the event, including his apparently impromptu remarks, was carried in the Saint Paul Globe the following day. This is Wilde at his most Irish – he was wise to give his audience what they wanted. Perhaps he was also sincere in his sentiments.

Here’s my account of the occasion, based on the report in the Saint Paul Globe:

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On a rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1882, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, Father John Shanley took to the stage at the Opera House and declared that he was:

…pleased to announce the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters – of a daughter who in the troublous times of 1848 by the works of her pen and her noble example did much to keep the fires of patriotism burning brightly in the hearts of Ireland’s sons. A son of that noble woman was present in the person of Mr. Oscar Wilde, who had kindly consented to say a few words on this happy occasion, and whom he had the pleasure of introducing

Wilde, who had been sitting in a box to the side of the stage, ‘skipped’ onstage, dressed in ‘his too too raiment,’ the outfit he had worn when he had delivered a lecture the previous night. This was described as:

cut away coat, velveteen waistcoat, velvet knee britches, black stockings and pumps, one hand gloved in a white kid, the other bore lace handkerchief and necktie, and the long straight brown hair hanging down upon his shoulders.

Wilde was greeted with ‘a generous demonstration of applause,’ which he acknowledged with a slight bow from the front of the stage. He began to speak:

Ladies and gentlemen, when I gave myself the pleasure of meeting with you to-night, I had not thought I would be called upon to say anything, but would be allowed to sit quietly in my box and enjoy listening to the loving and patriotic sentiments that I knew would be given voice. But the generous response you have given to the mention of the efforts of my mother in Ireland’s cause, has filled me with a pleasure and a pride that I cannot properly acknowledge. It is also a pleasure to me that I am afforded this opportunity during my visit to America to speak to an audience of my countrymen, a race once the most artistic in Europe.

There was a time before the time of Henry II, when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality. The few books saved from the general wreck are remarkable for their literary excellence and beauty of illustration. There was a time, too, when Ireland was the university of Europe – when young Monks educated in Ireland went forth as educators to all other European countries, while at the same time students from these same countries flocked to Ireland to study the arts, etc., under the great masters of Ireland. There was a time when Ireland led all other nations in working in gold. In those times no nation built so splendidly as did Ireland. The cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices of  those days showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.

Those proud monuments to the genius and intellectuality of Ireland do not exist to-day. When the English came they were burned. But portions of these blackened, mouldering walls still remain to remind visitors of the beauty of the work wrought by Ireland, for the pleasure and enjoyment of Ireland, in the days of her greatness. But with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years. And he was glad it had not, for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.

Art was an expression of the liberty loving, beauty loving sentiment of a people. But the artistic sentiment of Ireland was not dead in the hearts of her sons and daughters, though allowed no expression in their native country. It is that sentiment which has reduced you to meet here to-night to commemorate our patron saint. It finds expression in the love you bear for every little nook, every hill, every running brook of your native land. It is shown in the esteem you bear for the names of the great men whose deeds and works have shed such lustre upon Irish history. And when Ireland gains her independence, its schools of art and other educational branches will be revived and Ireland will regain the proud position she once held among the nations of Europe.

He thanked the audience once more, and was rewarded with ‘generous applause as he withdrew from the stage’.

For more on Oscar Wilde read my book Wilde’s Women

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For  more on Wilde’s lecture tour of America visit this brilliant website: http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org

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Margot Asquith & The Star Child

Margot Asquith in 1905

In her memoir More Memories, socialite Margot Tennant, who was by then the wife of Scottish Liberal M.P. Herbert Asquith, wrote:

‘On 7th December [1891] I received a letter from Oscar Wilde, saying he had dedicated his new story The Star Child to me’.

Margot first met Oscar at a garden party given by Lady Archibald Campbell. In her memoir, she remembered him as a

‘large, fat, floppy man, in unusual clothes sitting under a fir tree surrounded by admirers’.

Oscar was recounting a ‘brilliant monologue’ at the time in which he compared himself playfully,to Shakespeare. Margot felt compelled to join his circle and afterwards they struck up a lasting friendship while strolling around Janey Campbell’s lovely gardens.

Recalling a ‘brilliant luncheon’ Margot hosted with her husband, poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt wrote in My Diaries; being a Personal narrative of Events 1888-1914:

‘Afterwards, when the rest had gone away, Oscar remained, telling stories to me and Margot’.

During the autumn of 1889, Margot invited Oscar to stay at Glen, her family’s country estate, although she decided he must dislike the countryside since he spent ‘most of his time in the house,’ where he ‘wrote several aphorisms and poems on loose sheets of paper’. The fact that she managed to lose these sheets is indicative of the poor regard she developed for his work: ‘Speaking for myself’, she confessed, ‘I do not think his stories, plays, or poems will live’. Yet, her letter indicates that she was pleased when he dedicated ‘The Star Child’ to her.

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This tale, which is included in A House of Pomegranates, appears to borrow from Irish mythology; Wilde’s charmed child possesses some of the qualities associated with the Sidhe, a fairy race described beautifully by his mother, Jane, in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland. In Wilde’s tale, two poor woodcutters happen upon a beautiful infant who appears to have fallen from the heavens. Although he grows up to be cruel and haughty, the boy is redeemed once he passes through a series of trials that oblige him to confront  his wickedness.

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Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan

Wilde’s tales rarely have conventionally happy endings; although the young man becomes king and rules for three years, his munificence barely touches the unequal society he presides over and he is replaced by a series of despots. The moral of the story is that no matter how beneficent the ruler, the people cannot progress without self-determination.

Margot Asquith too was close to the seat of power. Within months of the publication of A House of Pomegranates, her husband was appointed Home Secretary and in this role he acted as Wilde’s prosecutor. A distant relative by marriage of Lord Alfred Douglas, Margot would have nothing to do with Oscar when he needed her most, although she did remain a loyal friend to Robbie Ross.

You can read ‘The Star Child’ here.

Sources:

Eleanor Fitzsimons, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew (Duckworth, 2015)

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Margot Asquith, More Memories (London, Cassells & Company,1933)

Dr. Anne Markey, Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales: Origins and Contexts (Irish Academic Press, 2011)

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Oscar Wilde & George Bernard Shaw: An Uneasy Admiration

I was delighted with the very warm welcome I received when I addressed the Shaw Society on links between Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in London last week. Shaw features in my book Wilde’s Women but I added much more detail for the occasion. I have reproduced my script here (warning, it’s a long one!)

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OSCAR WILDE AND GEORGE BERNARD SHAW FOR THE SHAW SOCIETY

27 OCTOBER 2016

CONWAY HALL

Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw had much in common. Both Dubliners, born within twenty minutes walk of each other. Both of a similar age: Wilde was less than two years older than Shaw. Both inventive men who remained dogged in their questioning of the status quo. Together, they were recognised as the first Irish playwrights in decades to make an impact on the London stage

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Yet, they were wildly different in both temperament and inclination, and, as a result, they developed no more than an uneasy and rather distant relationship. They never became close friends and met on only a handful of occasions, mostly by chance rather than arrangement. Despite this coolness, each held the other’s talent in high regard and both were influenced by ideas conceived by the other.

A little background information to start: George Bernard Shaw was born at 3 Upper Synge Street, in the lower-middle class Portobello district of Dublin city, on 26 July 1856. His father, George Carr Shaw, was an ineffectual, alcoholic civil-servant-turned-corn-merchant. His mother, Bessie, who was considerably younger than her husband, was a rather disillusioned and distant presence. An exceptionally accomplished singer, she introduced music into her son’s life.

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3 Upper Synge Street

At the time of Shaw’s birth, Wilde, aged 22 months, was living twenty minutes walk away at 1 Merrion Square, an opulent residence described by his mother, Jane, who, as Speranza, was a significant literary figure in her native city, as having ‘fine rooms and the best situation in Dublin’.  Wilde’s father, Dr. William Wilde was an eminent eye and ear surgeon, and an accomplished author with a keen interest in history and folklore.  He was also reckless with money and a notorious philanderer who was involved in a sex scandal, the Travers affair, which broke his spirit.

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1 Merrion Square North

Although there is no record of them ever meeting in Dublin, Shaw was certainly aware of the brilliant, flamboyant Wilde family. In ‘My Memories of Oscar Wilde’, the biographical portrait he contributed to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions’ (1916), he describes his first encounter with William and Jane Wilde:

I was a boy at a concert in the Antient Concert Rooms in Brunswick Street in Dublin. Everybody was in evening dress; and – unless I am mixing up this concert with another (in which case I doubt if the Wildes would have been present) – the Lord Lieutenant was there with his blue waistcoated courtiers. Wilde was dressed in snuffy brown; and he had the sort of skin that never looks clean, he produced a dramatic effect beside Lady Wilde (in full fig) of being, like Frederick the Great, Beyond Soap and Water, as his Nietzschean son was beyond Good and Evil. He was currently reported to have a family in every farmhouse; and the wonder was that Lady Wilde didn’t mind – evidently a tradition from the Travers case, which did not know about until I read your account, as I was only eight in 1864.

Shaw also recalled:

Sir William Wilde…operated on my father to correct a squint, and overdid the corrections so much that my father squinted the other way all the rest of his life.

The explanation for Shaw’s early presence in the Antient Concert Rooms may be that this was the venue used by his mother’s music teacher George John Vandeleur Lee to stage his Amateur Musical Society concerts. In fact, one of Lee’s best-known singers was Bessie Shaw. Incidentally, years later, Shaw appeared on that stage too, as a speaker rather than a singer.

In 1873, when Shaw was almost sixteen, Bessie moved to London with Lee, taking her daughters with her. Lucinda, always called Lucy, the oldest child, became a successful music hall singer. Elinor, the middle child, died of TB in a sanatorium on the Isle of Wight on 27 March 1876. Shaw remained with his father in Dublin, to complete his education and afterwards, worked as an office boy for a land agent, a job he hated. He considered his expertise in literature, theatre and music as hard won when compared to the privileged start enjoyed by Wilde, who had the finest education and moved within rarefied circles from childhood.

In April 1876, Shaw joined his mother and surviving sister in London. In November of that year he was invited to Lady Wilde’s home at Park Street – she had moved to London after the death of her husband. Shaw speculated that Lady Wilde took an interest in him as the brother of Lucy Shaw, who may have been popular with the Wilde boys. He wrote: ‘The explanation must be that my sister, then a very attractive girl who sang beautifully, had met and made some sort of innocent conquest of both Oscar and Willie.’ At that time, Wilde was an undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, taking a degree in literæ Humaniores, or Greats.

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Lucy Shaw

Shaw was grateful for Lady Wilde’s kindness and patronage at a difficult time in his life – he was working part-time at the Edison phone company and spending his free time in the reading room of the British Museum attempting to write novels. ‘Lady Wilde was nice to me in London,’ he remembered:

during the desperate days between my arrival in 1876 and my earning of an income by my pen in 1885, or until a few years earlier when I threw myself into socialism and cut myself contemptuously loose from everything of which her “At Homes“ themselves desperate affairs enough ‘were part.

Shaw met Wilde at one of Lady Wilde’s gatherings, an encounter he recalled with mixed emotions. Wilde, he wrote:

…came and spoke to me with an evident intention of being specially kind to me. We put each other out frightfully; and this odd difficulty persisted between us to the very last, even when we were no longer mere boyish novices and had become men of the world with plenty of skill in social intercourse. I saw him very seldom [Shaw recalled possibly between six and twelve’s times from first to last], as I avoided literary and artistic coteries like the plague….

As Shaw developed an interest in socialism, he began to avoid invitations to Lady Wilde’s gatherings, but he met Wilde elsewhere. The first mention of Wilde recorded in his diary is in September 1886, when both were guests at the home of Irish novelist and historian Joseph Fitzgerald Molloy. Wilde, who was also  interested in socialism, but had his own distinctive take which differed greatly from Shaw’s and was rooted in individualism, reportedly listened somewhat sympathetically to Shaw’s plans for the establishment of a socialist magazine, although it is also reported that he teased him about its name.

However grudgingly, Shaw admired Wilde. Praising ‘Oscar’s wonderful gift as a raconteur’, he recalled an enjoyable day they spent in each other’s company. What also drew Shaw to Wilde was gratitude when he alone signed Shaw’s petition of 1887 requesting that those involved in the Haymarket riots in Chicago in May 1886 be reprieved. Afterwards, he wrote:

It was a completely disinterested act on his part; and it secured my distinguished consideration for him for the rest of his life.

In November 1887, Shaw wrote in his diary that he ‘had a talk with Wilde’ at Lucy Shaw’s wedding tea at St. John’s Church.

The careers of both Irishmen followed a similar trajectory. As both wrote anonymous reviews for the Pall Mall Gazette, it seems Wilde’s submissions, three to four per month, were occasionally misattributed to Shaw, and vice-versa (Shaw confirmed this to biographer and editor David J O’Donoghue).  Shaw would surely not have minded, since he admired Wilde’s style, describing it as ‘exceptionally finished in style and very amusing’.

As a book reviewer, Shaw reviewed Lady Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland in July 1888, and concluded that ‘probably no living writer could produce a better book of its kind’ – faint praise that may have reflected gratitude for her kindness despite his lack of interest in her subject. He also insisted that her ‘position, literary, social and patriotic’ was ‘unique and unassailable’.

Image result for Lady Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends of Ireland

On 6 July 1888, Wilde attended a meeting of the Fabian Society in Willis’s Rooms. There, he listened to artist Walter Crane, who had illustrated his The Happy Prince and Other Tales, published just a few weeks before. Crane spoke on “The Prospects of Art under Socialism.” Wilde’s attendance was reported in evening newspaper the Star, as was Shaw’s:

Mr. Oscar Wilde, whose fashionable coat differed widely from the picturesque bottle-green garb in which he appeared in earlier days, thought that the art of the future would clothe itself not in works of form and colour but in literature…. Mr. Shaw agreed with Mr. Wilde that literature was the form which art would take….

Although Shaw, writing to Frank Harris, claimed it was a talk he had delivered that influenced ‘The Soul of man Under Socialism’, several of his biographers, among them Stanley Weintraub and Karl Beckson, believe it was this lecture by Crane combined with a discussion Wilde had with Shaw afterwards.

Of course Shaw and Wilde are recognised primarily as playwrights nowadays. Recognising a connection between their works, in 1893, Wilde initiated a pattern by sending Shaw a copy of Lady Windermere’s Fan, with the inscription “Op 1 of the Hibernian School, London ’93”. He also sent a copy of the French version of Salomé in February 1893, but excluded this from the Hibernian School, reciprocation for Shaw’s gift of his The Quintessence of Ibsenismabout which Wilde wrote:

…your little book on Ibsenism and Ibsen is such a delight to me that I constantly take it up, and always find it stimulating and refreshing: England is the land of intellectual fogs but you have done much to clear the air: we are both Celtic, and I like to think that we are friends….

In this letter Wilde also praised Shaw’s opposition to theatre censorship. As Salomé  had just been refused a licence, this was a very welcome stance on the part of his countryman.

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When Salomé went astray, Shaw was prompted to write:

Salome is still wandering in her purple raiment in search of me and I expect her to arrive a perfect outcast, branded with inky stamps, bruised by flinging into red prison [PO] vans, stuffed and contaminated by herding with review books…I hope to send you soon my play Widowers’ Houses which you will find tolerably amusing.

He did indeed reciprocate with Op 2, his first play, Widowers’ Houses, in May 1983. Wilde responded with a letter:

I have read it twice with the keenest interest. I like your superb confidence in the dramatic value of the mere facts of life. I admire the horrible flesh and blood of your creatures, and your preface is a masterpiece – a real masterpiece of trenchant writing and caustic wit and dramatic instinct.

Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance became Op 3, while Arms and the Man became Op 4 – Wilde attended the first night in April 1894. They got as far as Op 5, An Ideal Husband, which Shaw reviewed for Frank Harris’s Saturday Review, disagreeing with the assertion of sneering critics that Wildean ‘epigrams can be turned out by the score by any one light-minded enough to condescend to such frivolity’. ‘As far as I can ascertain,’ he went on, ‘I am the only person in London who cannot sit down and write an Oscar Wilde play at will’.

He concluded:

In a certain sense Mr Wilde is our only thorough playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors and audience, with the whole theatre.

Undoubtedly, Shaw had a high opinion of Wilde’s talent. In an interview with The Star, published on 29 November 1992, he described Wilde as ‘unquestionably the ablest of our [Irishmen’s] dramatists’. When Lady Colin Campbell, who succeeded Shaw as art critic of the World, expressed dislike for A Woman of No Importance, Shaw insisted that Wilde’s epigrams were far superior to the “platitudes” of other dramatists and informed her:

There are only two literary schools in England today: the Norwegian school and the Irish school. Our school is the Irish school; and Wilde is doing us good service in teaching the theatrical public that “a play” may be a playing with ideas instead of a feast of sham emotions…. No, let us be just to the great white caterpillar: he is no blockhead and he finishes his work, which puts him high above his rivals here in London…. (May 1893)

The remark commonly attributed to Wilde that Shaw ‘has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by all his friends’ originates with W.B. Yeats who regarded Shaw as a ‘cold-blooded Socialist’. It is a version of a quote from Dorian Gray. Yet Shaw seemed to accept it as genuine, and told Ellen Terry in 25 September 1896: ‘Oscar Wilde said of me “An excellent man: he has no enemies; and none of his friends like him”‘.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

Shortly before the ill-fated action for libel Wilde took against the Marquess of Queensberry began, Shaw encountered him while lunching with Frank Harris at the Cafe Royal. Wilde expressed unhappiness with Shaw’s poor review of The Importance of Being Earnest, and fell out with Harris when he attempted to persuade him to drop the libel case. In 1950, months before his death, Shaw revisited Earnest in a letter to playwright St. John Ervine, describing it as ‘a mechanical cat’s cradle farce without a single touch of human nature in it’. Claiming that he was present at ‘all the Wilde first nights’, he summed up by writing:

It amused me by its stage tricks (I borrowed the best of them) but left me unmoved and even a bit bored and quite a lot disappointed.

Weintraub saw traces of Earnest in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell, which had ‘something of Wilde in it’, specifically he believed, ‘the wordplay on earnestness is too pervasive to be coincidence’. In Man and Superman (1903), Shaw writes: “There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.” In Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde had written: “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” In Major Barbara (1905), Shaw’s imperious Lady Britomart bares a close resemblance to Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.

After Wilde was imprisoned, Shaw drafted a petition to the Home Secretary asking that he be released. He discussed its circulation with Wilde’s brother Willie, but the brothers were estranged and Willie, showing little enthusiasm, quipped, according to Shaw: ‘Oscar was NOT a man of bad character: you could have trusted him with a woman anywhere’. Disheartened, Shaw concluded that, since only he and the Reverend Stuart Headlam had signed, it would be of little use ‘as we were two notorious cranks and our names alone would make the thing ridiculous and do Oscar more harm than good’.

Instead, contrary to press policy, Shaw went out of his way to praise Wilde’s work and keep his name in the public eye. Reviewing a minor play by Charles Hawtrey in which Charles Brookfield had a minor role, both men had conspired against Wilde, in the Saturday Review in October 1896, Shaw compared it to ‘the comedies of Mr. Wilde, and insisted: ‘Mr. Wilde has creative imagination, philosophic humour, and original wit, besides being a master of language, whilst Mr. Hawtrey observes, mimics and derides quite thoughtlessly’. In 1897, when it was suggested in literary periodical the Academy that an Academy of Letters be founded, Shaw wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that only Henry James and Oscar Wilde deserved to be nominated. The academy never materialised. Later, Shaw defended Wilde in a lengthy open letter to New York anarchist publication Liberty.

When Wilde was living in Paris after his release from prison, Shaw made a point of sending him his work as it was published and Wilde reciprocated. Shaw’s last contact with Wilde was when the latter sent him an inscribed copy of the Ballad of Reading Gaol from Paris in 1898. In 1905, five years after Wilde’s death, when his prison letter appeared as De Profundis, Robert Ross sent a copy to Shaw. Although Shaw wrote in his biography of Harris: ‘We all dreaded to read de Profundis’, he had a high opinion of it and wrote to thank Ross:

It is really an extraordinary book, quite exhilarating and amusing as to Wilde himself, and quite disgraceful & shameful to his stupid tormentors. There is pain in it, inconvenience, annoyance, but no unhappiness, no real tragedy, all comedy. The unquenchable spirit of the man is magnificent: he maintains his position & puts society squalidly in the wrong – rubs into them every insult & humiliation he endured – comes out the same man he went in – with stupendous success.

Throughout his life, Shaw was asked to comment on Wilde but he generally refused. In his 1918 preface to Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions titled “My Memories of Oscar Wilde” (actually, a letter, to which Harris added the title and edited the contents, Shaw, rather bizarrely attributed Wilde’s fate to his size, writing: ‘I have always maintained that Oscar was a giant in the pathological sense and that this explains a good deal of his weaknesses’. An odd comment since, although Wilde was well above average height at 6’ 3”, Shaw was almost 6’ 2”.

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Shaw with Nancy Astor, Charlie Chaplin & Amy Johnson

During the 1930s, Shaw collaborated with Lord Alfred Douglas on a biography of Frank Harris, and the two corresponded. Shaw told Douglas:

I think Wilde took you both [Harris and Douglas] in by the game he began to amuse himself [with] in prison: the romance of the ill treated hero and the cruel false friend.

He also wrote:

The Queensberry affair was your tragedy and, comparatively, Wilde’s comedy’. In a sense this inverts a line from de Profundis: ‘I thought life was going to be a brilliant comedy, and that you were to be one of many graceful figures in it. I found it to be a revolting and repellent tragedy…

In 1940, in a response to an anonymous review of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Oscar Wilde: a Summing Up in the TLS, Shaw wrote to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement discussing the legalities of the case, since this reviewer had stated that Douglas was misled by Shaw in his assessment of Wilde’s conviction. In an interesting commentary regarding the distinction between ‘vice and crime’, Shaw wrote the following:

Oscar Wilde, being a convinced pederast, was entirely correct to his plea of Not Guilty; but he was lying when he denied the facts; and the jury, regarding pederasty as abominable, quite correctly found him Guilty.

He gives no indication as to his own view, merely confines himself to commentary on the law.

According to H. Montgomery Hyde, when reviewing Wilde’s short life, Shaw, who clearly felt some fellowship with Wilde based on their shared nationality declared:

It must not be forgotten that though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilized capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and, as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.

Previously, he had defended Wilde’s controversial congratulating of the audience after Lady Windermere’s Fan as ‘an Irishman’s way of giving all the credit to the actors and effacing his own claims as author’. He also condemned the critics’ dismissal of An Ideal Husband by claiming that an Englishman ‘can no more play with wit and philosophy than he can with a football or a cricket bat’. He attributed Wilde’s refusal to run from his trials to his ‘fierce Irish pride’.

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Oscar Wilde died in Paris on 30 November 1900. Writing to Harris sixteen years later, Shaw concluded:

I am sure Oscar has not found the gates of heaven shut against him; he is too good company to be excluded; but he can hardly have been greeted as, “Thou good and faithful servant’.

An affectionate summation of a man he admired but never loved.

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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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The Raven and the Revolutionaries

Today, 19 January marks the anniversary of the birth of American author Edgar Allan Poe in 1809. In December 1811, just weeks before her son’s third birthday, Poe’s mother, Eliza Poe, an English-born American actress, died from tuberculosis. His father, David Poe, who was of Irish descent, had abandoned the family by then. Local paper, the Enquirer, reported on Poe’s mother’s death:

“On this night, Mrs. Poe, lingering on the bed of disease and surrounded by her children, asks your assistance and asks it perhaps for the last time“.

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Only known image of Eliza Poe

Poe was taken into the home of Scottish Merchant John Allan, who gave the young boy his name. Best known for his chilling yet utterly compelling tales of the macabre, it was Poe’s supernatural narrative poem, The Raven that brought him to the attention of an admiring American public when it appeared in the New York Mirror on February 8, 1845; it had been published in the American Review the previous month under the pseudonym ‘Quarles’. Within weeks, The Raven had been reprinted a dozen times and had spawned several parodies.

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From Nevermore: The Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane  in Cornell University

This hugely positive response ensured that Poe achieved fame in his lifetime, and his literary legacy lingers to this day. References to The Raven in popular culture include appearances in: Hubert Selby Jr’s 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) when Georgette, the lead character in ‘The Queen is Dead’, reads the poem aloud; in Joan Aiken’s novel Arabel’s Raven (1972); in Stephen King’s novel Insomnia (1994); in the 1989 film Batman when Jack Nicholson’s Joker asks Kim Basinger’s Vicky Vale to ‘Take thy beak from out my heart’; and in The Simpsons ‘Treehouse of Horror’ when Lisa reads the poem aloud to Bart and Maggie.

The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror

Yet, Poe might never have achieved such prominence without the help of Anne Lynch Botta (1815-1891), a prominent patron of the arts whose literary gatherings at her brownstone salon at 25 West 37th Street, were described as a ‘bibliophile’s dream’, and were attended by every major poet, artist and musician of her day, among them Emerson, Irving, Trollope, Thackeray, Horace Greeley, Fanny Osgood and Margaret Fuller. Lynch Botta introduced Poe, virtually unknown in New York, to her influential circle and encouraged him to read early versions of The Raven aloud.

Manet Le Corbeau Illustration

Illustration by Edouard Manet

Although a published poet herself, friends confirmed: ‘It was not so much what Mrs. Botta did for literature with her own pen, as what she helped others to do, that will make her name a part of the literary history of the country’.[i] In The Literati of New York – No. V, Poe wrote of her:

In character Miss Lynch is enthusiastic, chivalric, self-sacrificing, “equal to any Fate,” capable of even martyrdom in whatever should seem to her a holy cause — a most exemplary daughter. She has her hobbies, however, (of which a very indefinite idea of “duty” is one,) and is, of course, readily imposed upon by any artful person who perceives and takes advantage of this most amiable failing.

He described her appearance too:

In person she is rather above the usual height, somewhat slender, with dark hair and eyes — the whole countenance at times full of intelligent expression. Her demeanor is dignified, graceful, and noticeable for repose. She goes much into literary society.

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Anne Lynch Botta

While his literary talent also emerged in time, it may have been the revolutionary credentials of his formidable mother that attracted Lynch Botta to young Oscar Wilde, who she entertained during the early weeks of his 1882 tour of America. Her own father, a revolutionary Dubliner named Patrick Lynch, had been first imprisoned, then deported from Ireland, aged eighteen, after the failed rising of 1798. By coincidence, Lady Jane Wilde, as she had become by then, presided over a hugely popular literary salon of her own in London, where she had resettled after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. Both women are included in my book, Wilde’s Women.

PBCover

UPDATE: John Cooper’s blog on Oscar Wilde in America is a wonderful source of information and he provides fascinating new insights into Wilde’s connection with Botta in a recent blog post.

[i] Memoirs of Anne C. L. Botta, written by her friends (New York, J. S. Tait & sons, 1893), p.23

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