The Wilde family was prominent in the Dublin social scene, and well connected with other wealthy Dublin families. One such was the Davis family. Although both Hyman Davis, a dentist, and his wife, Isabella, were Londoners, they spent many years in Dublin and several of their eight children were born there. In the late 1870s, both Willie and Oscar were friendly with Dublin-born James ‘Jimmy’ Davis who, in a chequered career, was alternately a theatre writer, racing correspondent, theatre critic and solicitor.
Jimmy’s younger sister Eliza, who made her name as fashion columnist ‘Mrs Aria’, recorded her recollections of Oscar and Willie in her memoir, My Sentimental Self (1922).
Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.
Their connection did not end there. Eliza made her name as a journalist, editor of fashion magazine The World of Dress, and author of books on fashion and motoring. When she became involved in a long-term affair with Henry Irving, she suggested, to no avail, that he stage Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua.
Her intervention on Oscar’s behalf may be attributable to their youthful friendship but may also have been rooted in the fact that her older sister Julia, also a participant in their tennis parties, was given her first break in journalism as a result of an attempt to parody Oscar’s work. Eliza wrote:
Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.
It is a coincidence that her first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde.
In 1906, six years after Oscar’s death, Julia, writing as Frank Danby, published a novel, The Sphinx’s Lawyer. In My Sentimental Self, Eliza described this book as Julia’s attempt ‘to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde’.
In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyer, addressed to her brother Jimmy, who wrote under the name Owen Hall, and who had fallen out spectacularly with Oscar, Julia declared:
‘Because you “hate and loathe” my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you’. For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’
In the pages that follow, Oscar appears in the guise of Algernon Heseltine, a man treated unjustly by society because he ‘was not as others’ on account of his genius; ‘the applause changed to low suspicious muttering’, Julia observed. It seems certain, given the title of her novel, that Julia’s qualified defence of Oscar was also connected to her great friendship with Ada Leverson, Wilde’s ‘Wonderful Sphinx’.
Yet, although Julia lauded Oscar’s genius and characterised him as a martyr, The Sphinx’s Lawyer was no vindication since she suggested that Heseltine was mad and should ‘have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’.
Her descriptions of Oscar, as ‘Heseltine’, facing his accusers, are worth reading:
The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth. The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men. He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost. He was not as others. He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded. When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.
The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew. He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible. Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end. He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.
For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic]. When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes. It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it. The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew. (104–05)