Tag Archives: The Duchess of Padua

May 1883: Oscar Wilde Returns to London

To mark 1 May, here’s a tiny May-related excerpt from Wilde’s Women. Oscar, aged 28, returns from Paris to London. He has not been there for some time since he spent 1882 touring America before heading to Paris, where he wrote The Duchess of Padua for Mary Anderson:

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Oscar with curls. Not a great look tbh.

In May 1883, Oscar returned to London with a head full of curls and an empty wallet. He stayed with Jane before taking furnished rooms, ‘for single men of distinction’ on nearby Charles Street in Mayfair. Frank Harris claimed that Jane had suggested Charles Street. She felt he should live at a suitably impressive address since she ‘never doubted his ultimate triumph’ and ‘knew all his poems by heart’.* These lodgings were managed by a retired butler, and his wife, an excellent cook, both of whom were devoted to their brilliant young tenant; they ‘could not speak too highly of his cleverness, kindness and consideration’ and overlooked his tardiness in settling his account.**

Sherard, who shared these lodgings for a time, tells us that ‘the rooms on the third floor that Oscar Wilde occupied were panelled in oak and there were old engravings in heavy black frames on the walls’. he adds: ‘The fact was that, in despite of an address which implied opulence, we were both very poor. It was while they were both staying in this house on Charles Street that Oscar woke Shepard early one morning to tell him that he had become engaged to Constance Lloyd; ‘At breakfast, he spoke of his bride and seemed much in love and very joyous,’ Sherard wrote.

As for the curls, they put Violet Hunt right off him for one.

For more, read Wilde’s Women:

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*Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde; his Life and Confessions, Vol. I, p.82

**Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde, pp.282-3

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Oscar Wilde & The Davis Sisters

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.

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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.

adding,

It is a coincidence that her first published lines should have owed their existence to Oscar Wilde.

Eliza Davis Aria gazes at a photo of her sister Julia

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’.

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In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyeraddressed 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’.

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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)

Sources:

Mrs. Aria London, My Sentimental Self (London, Chapman & Hall, 1922)

Frank Danby, The Sphinx’s Lawyer (New York, F.A. Stokes Company, 1906)

Margaret D. Stetz, ‘To defend the undefendable’: Oscar Wilde and the Davis Family, Oscholars Special Issue: Oscar Wilde, Jews & the Fin-de-Siècle, Summer 2010.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, Wilde’s Women (London, Duckworth & Co., 2015)

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