Tag Archives: The Woman’s World

In Honour of Millicent Fawcett

Here’s a tiny excerpt from Wilde’s Women to mark the announcement that a statue of Millicent Fawcett is to be erected in Parliament Square in London, the first of a woman to be commissioned. I love how forthright she was in expressing her opinion.

Millicent Fawcett

Oscar invited Millicent Garrett Fawcett, prominent suffragist and co-founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, to address the issue of women’s suffrage [in The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited]. In Fawcett’s opinion, the exclusion of women was, quite simply, morally reprehensible: ‘Even felons were not excluded when once their term of imprisonment was over; lunatics were joyfully admitted’, she argued. It was her bold contention that by enfranchising women, a nation could put an end to war.

Her full article can be read here: Millicent Garrett Fawcett, ‘Women’s Suffrage’, The Women’s World, Volume II, pp.9-12

Read more in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew



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Marie Corelli: ‘the idol of suburbia’

As Women’s History Month comes to a close I’m posting an excerpt from Wilde’s Women that describes the remarkable and hugely successful Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. It is difficult for us to imagine how significant she was nowadays, since she has fallen out of fashion, but at the height of her popularity, she was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. There is a website dedicated to her with a great deal more information. Here is my short profile from Wilde’s Women:

Marie Corelli as ‘Lily’ – Shakespeare Homeplace Trust

Marie Corelli’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Born in London on or around 1 May 1855, a date she rarely admitted to, she was almost certainly the daughter of Elizabeth Mills, lover and later second wife of the journalist Charles Mackay, who was believed to be Corelli’s father. Known affectionately as Minnie, she reinvented herself as Marie di Corelli in order to earn a paltry living giving piano recitals in private homes.

Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, was published in February 1886. It struck a chord and, as a result, a second novel, Vendetta, appeared later that year. By June 1887, Corelli had published a third, Thelma, to great acclaim. Ellen Terry, who lived six doors down from her on Longridge Road, Kensington, adored her books. Lillie Langtry asked if she might dramatise them. Oscar Wilde would have sympathised to hear that she had been snubbed by Rhoda Broughton, who she had been particularly keen to meet.

At the height of her popularity, Marie Corelli was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. According to novelist and poet Arthur St. John Adcock, ‘many of her most enthusiastic admirers are men of the professional classes – doctors, barristers, lawyers, writers, men of education and intelligence’.[i] Her mystical, melodramatic novels were admired by Gladstone and Tennyson, and Queen Victoria had them sent to Balmoral as soon as they appeared.

Yet,Corelli attracted the scorn of critics; Grant Allen in the Spectator called her:

…a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, & was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities & prejudices she gave a glamorous setting.

This didn’t dampen her popularity and she was described with great accuracy as ‘the idol of suburbia – the favorite of the common multitude’.[ii]

Wilde started out as a fan.On one occasion, heassured Corelli that he had ‘read the book [A Romance of Two Worlds] over again,’ adding, ‘you certainly tell of marvelous things in marvelous ways’. He advised her to ignore her detractors, writing: ‘Such a lot of talking-about-you does more good than an infinite number of reviews’.[iii]She appears to have heeded his counsel since, in the foreword to The Sorrows of Satan, she wrote:

No copies of this book are sent out for review. Members of the Press will therefore obtain it (should they wish to do so) in the usual way with the rest of the reading public – i.e. through the Booksellers and Libraries.[iv]

Although she was so pioneering and resourceful herself, Corelli was not a feminist. In her novels, she celebrated the frailty of women, and she opposed the extension of voting rights. Yet Wilde persuaded her to write a speculative article on ‘Shakespeare’s Mother’ for The Woman’s World. He admired her success, but would hardly have wished to emulate her style, which he grew to dislike. Years later, when a prison warder in Reading Jail asked him his opinion of Corelli, he replied: ‘Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here’.[v]

They had fallen out by then and she lampooned him mercilessly in The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary, which was published anonymously in 1892, characterizing him as a lumbering elephant who was guided through life by a dainty fairy, a thinly disguised Constance Wilde. Corelli dismissed Constance as ‘a charming little Radical,’ but she found her compelling; she considered her ‘one of the prettiest things alive’ and ‘infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself’.

Marie Corelli never married. She never discussed her sexuality but would appear to have been attracted to women; she wrote ambiguous love poems and co-habited happily for decades with her companion Bertha Vyver, who referred to her as ‘beloved wee pet’. When she died, on 21 April 1924, crowds gathered outside her home.

[i] Arthur St. John Adcock ‘Marie Corelli: A Record and an Appreciation’, TheBookman, 36, no. 212, 1909, pp.59-60

[ii] In a flattering profile included in ‘Chronicle & Comment’, The Bookman, July 1909, reproduced in The Bookman Volume XXIX, March 1909 – August 1909 (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909), p.461

[iii] Brian Masters, Now Barabbas was a Rotter (London, H. Hamilton, 1978), p.74

[iv] Reproduced in The Bookman, Volume XXIX, p.465

[v]Complete Letters, p.905n2

Read more about remarkable Victorian women in Wilde’s Women:


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‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’

An excerpt from Wilde’s Women:


In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’ column in the January 1888 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887 to 1889, Oscar Wilde praised Women and Work, an essay from poet and philanthropist Emily Jane Pfeiffer. He described Pfeiffer’s work, which was subtitled ‘An Essay Treating on the Relation to Health and Physical Development, of the Higher Education of Girls, and the Intellectual or More Systematised Effort of Women,’ as:

‘a most important contribution to the discussion of one of the great social problems of our day’.

Wilde welcomed in particular Pfeiffer’s refutation of Professor George Romane’s preposterous assertion that men and women should be ‘mentally differentiated,’ as outlined in his essay ‘Mental Differences Between Men and Women’.

In order to illustrate his opposition to Romane, Wilde quoted Daniel Defoe:

‘What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’



Oscar Wilde, ‘Literary and Other Notes’, The Woman’s World, Volume I, January 1888, pp.135-6

Defoe’s ‘The Education of Women’ is included in English essays from Sir Philip Sidney to Macaulay (1910) F. Collier & Son, p.159

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E. Nesbit: ‘A Very Pure and Perfect Artist’

I’m working on a biography of E. Nesbit at the moment and deriving great enjoyment from researching her fascinating life! She was my favourite author in childhood and it is such a pleasure to revisit her stories. Although she’s best known for her children’s stories, her first literary love was poetry, and she sought the approval of Oscar Wilde.


Edith Nesbit

In 1886, Nesbit sent Wilde a copy of her collection Lays and Legends and he responded with an encouraging letter, lauding her ambition to ‘give poetic form to humanitarian dreams, and socialist aspirations’.

In Wilde’s very first ‘Literary and Other Notes’ editorial for issue one of The Woman’s World, in November 1887, he reviewed Women’s Voices, an anthology of poetry edited by Elizabeth Sharp, and he described ‘Mrs. Nesbit’ as ‘a very pure and perfect artist’.

In ‘Poet’s Corner’ in the Pall Mall Gazette, Wilde reviewed Nesbit’s ‘remarkable’ collection Leaves of Life. Describing ‘many of her poems’ as ‘true works of art’, he praised her keen eye for nature, ‘exquisite sense of colour’, and ‘delicate ear for music’.


Wilde also published three of Nesbit’s poems in The Woman’s World: ‘Christmas Roses’ in December 1888, ‘The Soul to the Ideal’ in July 1889, and ‘Equal Love’ in June 1890. Here’s ‘Christmas Roses’ for the season that’s in it.


THE summer roses all are gone–
Dead, laid in shroud of rain-wet mould;
And passion’s lightning time is done,
And Love is laid out white and cold.
Summer and youth for us are dead,
What do old age and winter bring instead?

They bring us memories of old years,
And Christmas roses, cold and sweet,
Which, washed by not unhappy tears,
I bring and lay beside your feet,
With gifts that come with flowers like these–
Friendship, remembrance of our past, and peace!

Edith Nesbit

More on E. Nesbit and Oscar Wilde can be found in Wilde’s Women.


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The Very Brilliant Miss Mary Story

In the December 1887 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited for two years, Oscar Wilde took the opportunity to highlight the success of a Miss Story, the daughter of a Northern Irish clergyman, who had been awarded a literature scholarship by the Royal University in Ireland. She was to receive £100 a year for five years.

In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’, Wilde remarked:

It is pleasant to be able to chronicle an item of Irish news that has nothing to do with the violence of party politics or party feeling, and that shows how worthy women are of that higher culture and education which has been so tardily, and in some instances, so grudgingly granted to them.

Image result for December 1887 issue of The Woman’s World

The Sixth Annual Report of the Royal University of Ireland confirms:

In modern literature, experimental science, and medicine, the highest honours have been carried off by women. In the first of these subjects a young lady – Miss Mary Story – has won the studentship – the highest honour that can be obtained in this University.

The Freeman’s Journal reported on the conferring of degrees and mentioned Miss Story’s achievement:

The entrance of the lady graduates was the signal for quite a tremendous demonstration of applause, and Miss Mary Storey [sic], who had won the studentship in Modern Literature – a prize of £500 – proving her exceptional capacity, was greeted with the warmest expressions of congratulations.

I’d love to know what became of this very clever young woman. Anyone?


Oscar Wilde, ‘Literary and Other Notes’, The Woman’s World, Volume I, December 1887, p.85

Sixth Annual Report of the Royal University of Ireland, 1888

Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women he Knew by Eleanor Fitzsimons


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Culture Night 2016: Wilde & Women in The Arts


I was absolutely thrilled to be invited to participate in Ireland’s wonderful and vibrant Culture Night this year. I spoke at a brilliant event organised by herst_ry at the lovely Liquor Rooms on Dublin’s quays. My topic was how Oscar Wilde helped women in the arts. Here is a taste of just three of the women I spoke about. All three are included in my book Wilde’s Women:   


Alice Pike Barney (1857–1931)


Self portrait: Alice Pike Barney Renwick Gallery, Washington D.C.

One day in July 1882, Oscar Wilde took time out of his arduous lecturing schedule to go to the Long Island resort of Long Beach with one of his patrons Sam Ward. There he was introduced to Alice Pike Barney and her six-year-old daughter, Natalie. When Alice injured her foot in the water, Oscar, well over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, gallantly carried her up the beach and they got talking. Although hugely talented, Alice’s ambitions to study art were opposed by her boorish husband, Albert Clifford Barney, a hard-drinking man with a nasty habit of infidelity.

Oscar encouraged her to ignore her husband and so she did. She took art lessons in Paris and studied under Carolus-Duran and James McNeill Whistler. Later, she was admitted to the Society of Washington Artists and had solo shows at major galleries including the Corcoran Gallery of Art. With newfound confidence, she also wrote and performed in several plays and an opera, and worked to promote the arts in Washington, D.C. Many of her paintings are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Elizabeth Robins (1862 –1952)


Elizabeth Robins: So much more than a beautiful face

American actress Elizabeth Robins was determined to break into English theatre. When she met Oscar at a party in July 1888, he told her: ‘Your future on our stage is assured’. He introduced her to influential theatre directors and even helped her to secure an agent. She found it amusing that he encouraged her to emulate Lillie Langtry since she saw herself as an altogether more serious performer with ambitions to manage and direct too.

The course of Robins’ life changed when she travelled to Norway and studied the works of Henrik Ibsen, a playwright who was sympathetic to the plight of women. In his notes for A Doll’s House, Ibsen asserted:

A woman cannot be herself in contemporary society; it is an exclusively male society with laws drafted by men, and with counsel and judges who judge feminine conduct from the male point of view.

Robins formulated a plan to introduce Ibsen to English audiences. She also hoped to end the stranglehold that male actor-managers had on English Theatre, a situation that resulted in women being undervalued as actors, writers and producers. When she struggled to attract subscribers to fund a series of twelve of Ibsen’s plays at the Opera Comique, Oscar stepped forward: ‘The English stage is in her debt,’ he declared, ‘I am one of her warmest admirers’. He funded her project and encouraged others to do so. Although audiences found the realism of Ibsen’s plays alarming, Oscar turned up several times and gave her productions his full attention. He assured her: ‘I count Ibsen fortunate in having so brilliant and subtle an artist to interpret him’.

Robins, grateful for Oscar’s support, acknowledged:

…he was then at the height of his powers and fame and I utterly unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I could do nothing for him; he could and did do everything in his power for me.

E. Nesbit (1858-1924)


E Nesbit; Pioneer of Children’s Literature

When Edith Bland, who wrote as E. Nesbit, sent Oscar her poetry collection Lays and Legend in 1886, he responded with an encouraging letter. As editor of The Woman’s World, he reviewed her collection Leaves of Life and published three of her poems. In his review of Woman’s Voices, an anthology edited by Elizabeth Sharp, he described Nesbit as ‘a very pure and perfect artist’, and lauded her ambition to ‘give poetic form to humanitarian dreams, and socialist aspirations’.

Nesbit, the main earner in her unconventional family, was obliged to all but give up writing poetry, her true passion, in favour of writing serialised children’s stories. Drawing on her own childhood fears and insecurities, she invented the children’s adventure story in which her protagonists faced genuine peril. Her best loved tales include the classics Five Children and It and The Railway Children. Nesbit changed children’s writing and influenced CS Lewis, JK Rowling and Jacqueline Wilson among many others. She is the subject of my next biography.

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Amy Levy: ‘a touch of genius’

Image result for Amy Levy

Amy Levy, born at Percy Place in Clapham, London on 10 November 1861, had a precocious talent. At 13, she won a junior prize for her criticism of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s proto-feminist epic Aurora Leigh; her essay was published in the children’s periodical Kind WordsMonths later, her first poem, ‘Ida Grey: A Story of Woman’s Sacrifice’, was published in the moderate feminist journal The Pelican. Aged 17, she became the second Jewish woman to attend Cambridge University and the first to be admitted to the prestigious Newnham College. The fact that she left in 1881 without taking her degree may be an early indication of her troubled mind and poor sense of self-worth.

During her short career, Amy wrote political articles including her letter ‘Jewish Women and Women’s Rights,’ which revealed a liberal feminist ethos and was published in the Jewish Chronicle. She also completed three volumes of poetry, one published posthumously, and three exceptionally progressive novels, and she contributed pioneering journalism and brilliant short stories to several periodicals including Oscar Wilde’s Women’s World.

Image result for Amy Levy

The best article in the December 1887 issue, Wilde told poet Louise Chandler Moulton, is ‘a story, one page long, by Amy Levy’. Levy had sent her story unsolicited. Recognising ‘a touch of genius’ in it, Wilde described her writing as ‘as admirable as it is unique’ and commissioned a second story, two poems, a profile of the poet Christina Rossetti, and an article, ‘Women and Club Life’. Levy herself was a member of ‘A Men and Women’s Club’, a radical debating club founded by Karl Pearson, who was a socialist and mathematics professor.

Although she had to all appearances, a successful and fulfilling life, Levy suffered from a desperately melancholic nature. She was hugely talented but desperately troubled and she experienced debilitating bouts of depression exacerbated by failing physical health that had blighted her life since childhood. She was partially deaf. Hailed as a pioneer of early lesbian writing, her own sexuality was never firmly established, although she did form an exceptionally close friendship with cross-gender writer Vernon Lee, born Violet Paget.

On the night of Monday, September 9, 1889, two months short of her twenty-eighth birthday, Levy locked herself into a room at her parents’ house in Bloomsbury, blocked all possible sources of ventilation, and left a charcoal fire burning when she went to bed. She must have realised that the poisonous carbon monoxide fumes would be fatal, and she left instructions that she be cremated; she was the first Jewish woman in England to do so.

Wilde was dreadfully upset to learn of the death of this brilliant woman: ‘the world must forgo the full fruition of her power,’ he lamented in a heartfelt obituary that he published in The Woman’s World.

Image result for Amy Levy

For more on Amy Levy, truly one of Wilde’s Women, read the very comprehensive timeline of her life on The Victorian Web here. Also, this article from Tablet Magazine here and her entry at the Jewish Women’s Archive here.



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Was Oscar Wilde a Feminist?

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


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

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

Josephine Butler

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

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

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

He certainly followed his own advice.

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

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

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

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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

English actress Ellen Terry is immortalised in an iconic painting by Anglo-American painter John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), who was considered the leading portrait painter of his day. In this portrait, which I was privileged to be allowed to include in my book Wilde’s Women,Terry is wearing her costume for Lady Macbeth, a remarkable emerald gown that shimmered with the iridescent wings of the one thousand jewel beetles that had been sewn into it.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Presented by Sir Joseph Duveen 1906

One of my favourite passages in Wilde’s Women describes Oscar Wilde glancing out of the window of his Tite Street home and seeing Terry, a great friend of his, arriving at John Singer Sargent’s Chelsea studio for a sitting. This extraordinary sight prompted him to remark:

The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.[i]

Later, Wilde chose Singer Sargent’s iconic painting for the frontispiece of the July 1889 issue of The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited from 1887-1889.

To his great credit, Sargent suggested that Alice Comyns Carr, a vocal advocate of aesthetic dress who had worked on the design for Terry’s magnificent costume, should co-sign his painting since he considered her as much its creator as he. The woman who made Comyns Carr’s design a reality was dressmaker Ada Nettleship who, along with her team of thirty seamstresses, also made Constance Wilde’s beautiful aesthetic wedding gown. Constance’s gown, the subject of intense public scrutiny, went on public display in March 1884, and was described in society magazine Queen:

…rich creamy satin dress…of a delicate cowslip tint; the bodice, cut square and somewhat low in front, was finished with a high Medici collar; the ample sleeves were puffed; the skirt, made plain, was gathered by a silver girdle of beautiful workmanship, the gift of Mr. Oscar Wilde; the veil of saffron-coloured Indian silk gauze was embroidered with pearls and worn in Marie Stuart fashion; a thick wreath of myrtle leaves crowned her frizzed hair; the dress was ornamented with clusters of myrtle leaves; the large bouquet had as much green in it as white [ii].

Terry loved her Lady Macbeth costume and wrote about it in her autobiography, The Story of My Life:

One of Mrs. Nettle’s greatest triumphs was my Lady Macbeth dress, which she carried out from Mrs Comyns Carr.  I am glad to think it is immortalised in Sargent’s picture. From the first I knew that picture was going to be splendid. In my diary for 1888 I was always writing about it:


“The picture of me is nearly finished, and I think it is magnificent.  The green and blue of the dress is splendid, and the expression as Lady Macbeth holds the crown over her head is quite wonderful . . .”


“Sargent’s picture is almost finished, and it really is splendid. Burne-Jones yesterday suggested two or three alterations about the colour which Sargent immediately adopted, but Burne-Jones raves about the picture . . .”


“Sargent’s picture is talked of everywhere and quarrelled about as much as my way of playing the part . . .”


“Sargent’s Lady Macbeth in the New Gallery is a great success.  The picture is the sensation of the year.  Of course, opinions differ about it, but there are dense crowds round it day after day.”


Since then it has gone nearly over the whole of Europe and is now resting for life in the Tate Gallery.  Sargent suggested by this picture all that I should have liked to be able to convey in my acting as Lady Macbeth.

She looks both wonderful and terrible it it.

The dress, which is exhibited at Smallhyde Place, Terry’s former home, was painstakingly restored in 2011. I am very much looking forward to visiting Terry’s former home with the Oscar Wilde Society. I delivered a talk on the close connections between Terry and Wilde in the barn theatre in September 2016 and you can read the transcript here.


[i] W. Graham Robertson, Time Was (London, H. Hamilton ltd., 1933, reprinted by Quartet Books, 1981), p.233

[ii] From Queen, reprinted in Freeborn County Standard from Albert Lea, Minnesota, 23 July 1884, p.7; also described in Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.258

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Entering The Woman’s World: Oscar Wilde as Editor of a Woman’s Magazine


I am absolutely delighted to have an article on Oscar Wilde as Editor of The Woman’s World magazine, which is based on a paper I delivered to Communities of Communication II in Edinburgh University, 10-11 September 2015, published on the superb Victorian Web. This is an excellent resource for scholars and anyone with an interest in the period. My article is here and reproduced below:

In April 1887, Oscar Wilde accepted the position as editor of The Lady’s World, a high-end, illustrated monthly magazine produced by Cassell and Company. Wilde expressed the opinion to poet Harriet Hamilton King that The Lady’s World was ‘a very vulgar, trivial, and stupid production’ (Complete letters, 332) and in the face of strong opposition from Cassells, he renamed the magazine. The new title, The Woman’s World, was suggested to him by novelist and poet Dinah Craik, daughter of an eccentric Irishman and author of the exceptionally popular John Halifax, Gentleman. Oscar admired Craik enormously and planned to recruit her as a regular contributor and he was dismayed when she died of heart failure, aged sixty-one, just weeks before his first edition was due to appear. He eulogised her in his first ‘Literary and Other Notes’, in November 1887: ‘She was very much interested in the scheme for the foundation of THE WOMAN’S WORLD,’ he wrote, ‘and promised to be one of its warmest supporters’.

In a letter to Thomas Wemyss Reid, General Manager of Cassells, Wilde undertook to transform the magazine into ‘the recognised organ for the expression of women’s opinions on all subjects of literature, art, and modern life’ (Complete letters, 297). He vowed that, under his editorship, The Woman’s World would: ‘take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel’ (297).

A reproduction of the magazine cover, the title-page with Wilde’s name, and the binding of The Woman’s World annual volume. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Wilde’s Motivation

It is often assumed that Wilde took on this editorial role simply to secure access to a regular income. Certainly, as a married man of thirty-two with a young family to provide for and exquisite tastes to gratify, he found it impossible to fund the lifestyle he desired out of his unreliable earnings as a freelance reviewer and, by then, occasional lecturer. Although his wife Constance brought a modest allowance to the household, by 1887 the couple’s resources were falling distressingly short of their outgoings and they were looking for tenants for their lovely Tite Street home. Yet, although the weekly salary of six pounds was very welcome, it does not account entirely for Wilde’s motivation in agreeing to accept Cassell’s offer.

As a committed individualist, Wilde believed that women should be allowed far more autonomy than they were afforded by patriarchal Victorian society. He also shared his mother’s opposition to gendered writing, resistance she had expressed in forthright terms when, as a young woman, she had been offered control of the ‘woman’s page’ of The Nation newspaper. Echoing his mother’s distain, Wilde quipped in a letter to Wemyss Reid: ‘artists have sex but art has none’ (Complete letters, 298).

As a regular contributor to several popular periodicals, Wilde must have realised how badly served intelligent, ambitious women were by the plethora of new magazines claiming to represent their interests. In response, he used The Woman’s World to point out the more absurd aspects of gender discrimination, and to facilitate debate on the contentious issues faced by women who were attempting to enter the public sphere. He also offered a platform to emerging women writers who displayed a style that could be considered more edgy than that adopted by their peers.

Wilde’s zeal for his new role was palpable: ‘I am resolved to throw myself into this thing,’ he told Wemyss Reid, ‘I grow very enthusiastic over our scheme’ (Complete letters, 299-300). In ‘Oscar Wilde as Editor’, an article he wrote forHarper’s Weekly in 1913, Arthur Fish, the young man appointed by Cassell and Company as Wilde’s sub-edito, insisted that the ‘keynote’ of The Woman’s World under Wilde’s editorship was no less than ‘the right of woman to equality of treatment with man’ (Fish, 18). Fish also testified that several of the articles on ‘women’s work and their position in politics were far in advance of the thought of the day’ (18).


With the help of his well-connected friend Lady Mary Jeune, Wilde compiled a list of potential contributors, among them prominent social activists, literary luminaries and society women, including two princesses. Fish called them ‘a brilliant company of contributors which included the leaders of feminine thought and influence in every branch of work’ (18). Since Wilde had told Wemyss Reid that he intended to make The Woman’s World ‘a magazine that men could read with pleasure, and consider it a privilege to contribute to’ (Complete letters, 297), he also invited several men to submit articles.

The first issue of The Woman’s World appeared in November 1887. A fresh cover design featured Wilde’s name prominently with key contributors listed below. In a significant departure from convention, each article was attributed to its author by name. Wilde also increased the page count from thirty-six to forty-eight, and relegated fashion to the back while promoting literature, art, travel and social studies. Gone entirely were ‘Fashionable Marriages’, ‘Society Pleasures’, ‘Pastimes for Ladies’ and ‘Five o’clock Tea’. In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’, Wilde demonstrated unequivocal support for the greater participation of women in public life. He campaigned for them to be granted access to education and the professions, and argued that the ‘cultivation of separate sorts of virtues and separate ideals of duty in men and women has led to the whole social fabric being weaker and unhealthier than it need be’ (WW, 2 (1897): 390).

The editorial direction Wilde intended to take was signalled by the inclusion in the very first issue of ‘The Position of Women’, a lengthy article from Eveline, Countess of Portsmouth. She welcomed amendments to marriage law designed to reform an institution that, in her view, ‘might and did very often represent to a wife a hopeless and bitter slavery’ (WW, I, 8). In ‘The Fallacy of the Superiority of Man’, published the following month, Laura McLaren, founder of the Liberal Women’s Suffrage Union, asked: ‘If women are inferior in any point, let the world hear the evidence on which they are to be condemned’ (WW, I, 54).

A New Slant on Fashion

Left: Scene from “The Faithful Shepherdess” — the frontispiece to the 1888 Woman’s World. Right: Orlando. Both plates are illustrations to “The Woodland Gods” by Janey Sevilla Campbell. These images and those below coem from the Internet Archive version of a volume in the Stanford University Library. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Although fashion remained a key feature, a conventional round-up of the season’s trends was supplemented with articles on cross-dressing, aesthetic design and rational dress. On the first page of his first edition, Oscar published ‘The Woodland Gods’ a review by the aristocratic Janey Sevilla Campbell, more commonly known as Lady Archibald Campbell, of three cross-dressing dramas staged by her Pastoral Players at her home, Coombe House in Surrey. This article was illustrated with images of Janey dressed as a young man to play Orlando in As You Like It and embracing a woman as Perigot in Fletcher’s The Faithful Shepherdess.

Examples of the large number of conventional illustrations of current fashion, which appeared every month — these from Mrs. Johnstone’s “November fashions.” Left: Morning Costume and Frock with Velvet Yoke — Right: Winter Mantles and Mantlets. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

In ‘The Pictures of Sappho’, in April 1888, classical scholar Jane Ellen Harrison challenged several gender-based conventions while, in June 1889, ethnographer Richard Heath contributed an article titled ‘Politics in Dress’. A feature on fans as a feminine symbol pointed out that they were originally carried by men as a sign of power, while one on gloves asked why men, once such decorative dressers, had become so ‘sober’. In ‘Women Wearers of Men’s Clothes’, published in January 1889, Irish-born journalist Emily Crawford insisted that women who adopted masculine styles could accomplish ‘heroic duties’, while novelist Ella Hepworth Dixon applauded the ‘semi-masculine and completely appropriate gear’ adopted by women who rode.

Wilde joined the debate in his very first ‘Literary and Other Notes’ by declaring that, in time, ‘dress of the two sexes will be assimilated, as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits’ (WW, I, 40). He also castigated the ‘absolute unsuitability of ordinary feminine attire to any sort of handicraft, or even to any occupation which necessitates a daily walk to business and back again in all kinds of weather’ (I, 40). In his opinion, restrictive clothing prevented women from taking their rightful place alongside men. Insisting that ‘the health of a nation depends very much on its mode of dress’, Wilde described how ‘from the Sixteenth Century to our own day there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls and endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous Fashion’ (I, 40).

Education and Employment

Education too was a key focus of The Woman’s World. In January 1888, in his review of Women and Work, a collection of essays by poet and philanthropist Emily Jane Pfeiffer, Wilde quoted Daniel Defoe, who had asked ‘what has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught!’ (WW, I, 135-56) He commissioned articles on the women’s colleges and on Alexandra College in Dublin, an all-girls institution of higher education. He also published a series of articles encouraging those few, fortunate women who had benefitted from access to higher education to explore opportunities opening up to them in the professions.

Several articles in The Woman’s World drew attention to the blight of poverty that afflicted women and their children. In several instances, the authors of these articles proposed solutions that went far beyond the usual ineffectual charitable works. In ‘Something About Needlewomen’, published in May 1888, trade unionist Clementina Black, who had helped establish the Woman’s Trade Union Association, highlighted the plight of impoverished needlewomen who were unable to earn a living wage from the piecework they were given. She encouraged them to combine into cooperatives. In July 1888, in one of several features dealing with Irishwomen, Irish journalist Charlotte O’Connor Eccles drew attention to the alarming conditions endured by Dublin’s women weavers, and insisted that their poverty should be alleviated through education and training. Emily Faithfull, a member of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, wrote of the duty of teaching girls some trade, calling or profession.

It is interesting that many of these themes found their way into Wilde’s stories, most notably ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Young King’. His inclusion of the impoverished match-girl in the former must surely represent a nod to the fourteen-hundred women and girls who had gone on strike at the Bryant and May match factory in 1888, refusing to work until their appalling conditions and inadequate wages were improved.

Woman and Politics

Wilde tackled the contentious issue of politics head-on and was unequivocal in his support for the greater participation of women. Reviewing David Ritchie’s Darwinism and Politics in May 1889, he praised that author’s rebuttal of Herbert Spencer’s contention that, should women be admitted to political life, they might do mischief by introducing the ethics of the family into affairs of state: ‘If something is right in a family,’ Wilde countered, ‘it is difficult to see why it is, therefore, without any further reason, wrong in the state’ (WW, II, 390). He commissioned articles on the campaign for women’s suffrage and he helped Lady Margaret Sandhurst in her controversial bid to be elected to the London City Council by publishing in full a speech she had delivered.


Naturally, literature was a key focus of The Woman’s World. One of Wilde’s most rewarding tasks was the commissioning of new works of fiction from emerging and established women writers. The best article in the December 1887 issue, he told poet Louise Chandler Moulton, would be ‘a story, one page long, by Amy Levy . . . a mere girl, but a girl of genius’ (Moulton, 123). Levy had sent the story unsolicited. In response, Wilde commissioned a second story, two poems and two articles. He also championed South-African-born radical feminist Olive Schreiner who, agitated for greater access to political life and an end to the sexual double standard.

In ‘Literary and Other Notes’, Wilde gave what he called ‘special prominence’ to books written by women. The aesthetic and new woman writers he promoted included E. Nesbit, who he described as ‘a very pure and perfect artist’ (WW, I, 36); and controversial poet Rosamund Marriot Watson, who wrote as Graham R. Tomson. When Tomson became editor of aesthetic magazine Sylvia’s Journal in 1893, it was clear that she had learned much from her association with The Woman’s World.

Reaction to The Woman’s World

So what was the reaction to The Woman’s World under Wilde’s stewardship? In Oscar Wilde and his Mother, published in 1911, Wilde’s friend Anna de Brémont declared, ‘[S]ociety began to take Oscar Wilde seriously when he became editor of The Woman’s World’ (73). She described how the magazine caused a ‘flutter in the boudoirs of Mayfair and Belgravia’. Certainly, Constance and Lady Wilde’s drawing rooms were thronged with would-be contributors. The press response was similarly positive: ‘Mr Oscar Wilde has triumphed,’ declared the Nottingham Evening Post, ‘the first number of the “Woman’s World” has already appeared, and has, I believe, been sold out’. Praising Wilde for ‘striking an original line’, the Times hailed The Woman’s World as ‘gracefully got up…in every respect’.

Rival publication Queen admired the improved appearance and impressive array of contributors. The assessment of the St James’ Gazette must have delighted Wilde. ‘The Women’s World is a capital magazine for a married man to buy,’ its reviewer declared. ‘He tells his wife he got it entirely for her sake; but he may always find some very good reading for himself.’ The Spectator decided: ‘The change is undoubtedly one for the better, in the sense of the higher’. Describing the articles as ‘extremely bright and useful’, the Irish Times recorded how, on the evening of the launch, ‘[T]here was not one in the West End to be had for love or money and impatient people could only get through the interval between Saturday and Monday by borrowing copied from friends. Perhaps the most significant reaction of all came from The Englishwoman’s Review, the organ of the suffragist movement in Britain. While refraining from praising The Woman’s World overtly, it ran notices attracting the attention of readers to more progressive articles.


Under the terms of his contract, Wilde had agreed to spend two mornings a week in the offices of Cassell & Company. After a while, Arthur Fish could tell ‘by the sound of his approach along the resounding corridor whether the necessary work to be done would be met cheerfully or postponed to a more congenial period’. On a good day, there would be ‘a smiling entrance, letters would be answered with epigrammatic brightness, there would be a cheery interval of talk when the work was accomplished, and the dull room would brighten under the influence of his great personality’ (18).

Fish never doubted Wilde’s commitment to The Woman’s World and he described how hard his boss fought to retain editorial control:

Sir Wemyss Reid, then General Manager of Cassell’s, or John Williams the Chief Editor, would call in at our room and discuss them [issues] with Oscar Wilde, who would always express his entire sympathy with the views of the writers and reveal a liberality of thought with regard to the political aspirations of women that was undoubtedly sincere.

Yet, Wilde’s tenure was short-lived. Much of his disenchantment was born of frustration rather than a lack of commitment: ‘I am not allowed as free a hand as I would like’ (Complete letters, 325), he told his friend Helena Sickert in October 1887. In a letter to Scottish writer William Sharp, he complained: ‘The work of reconstruction was very difficult as the Lady’s World was a most vulgar trivial production, and the doctrine of heredity holds good in literature as in life’(Complete letters, 332).

As early as December 1887, Cassells were objecting to the ‘too literary tendencies’ (Complete letters, 337) of The Woman’s World. In October 1888, Oscar asked the board to authorise the purchase of a story from Frances Hodgson Burnett, but her name never appeared. Nor did four illustrated articles he had hoped to commission from French explorer and archaeologist Madame Jeanne Dieulafoy. Wilde’s despondence deepened when Cassell’s refused to drop the price to sixpence or seven pence in order to attract a wider readership. Fish noticed that his interest was waning: ‘After a few months,’ he remembered, ‘his arrival became later and his departure earlier until at times his visit was little more than a call’. Wilde’s ‘Literary and Other Notes’ disappeared after the fourth issue and, although it was reinstated at Cassell’s instance, he began to miss his deadlines. It may sound trivial but one of the toughest challenges Wilde faced was Cassell’s strict no smoking policy.

Fish had once described his boss as ‘Pegasus in harness’ and now he was pulling at the reigns. A typical day towards the end of his tenure went as follows: ‘He would sink with a sigh into his chair, carelessly glance at his letters, give a perfunctory look at proofs or make-up, ask “Is it necessary to settle anything to-day?” put on his hat, and, with a sad “Good-morning”, depart again’ (The House of Cassell, 134). In April 1889, Wilde informed the Board of Inland Revenue that he would be leaving Cassell & Co. in August. His final ‘Literary and Other Notes’ appeared in June 1889, and by October his name was gone from the cover.

After Wilde’s departure, The Woman’s World reverted to its unadventurous roots. A renewed focus on fashion prompted The Woman’s Penny Paper to scold: ‘To dress is surely not considered the first or the only duty of women, even by their greatest enemies’. The magazine was discontinued shortly afterwards. Wilde had not neglected his own work during his two-year tenure as editor. Dozens of his poems, reviews, essays and stories were accepted by various periodicals during this time and he also published and promoted his first collection of stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. The break with Cassells heralded an exceptionally productive period that saw the publication of two further collections of short stories: Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime and Other Stories, and The House of Pomegranates; a collection of essays called Intentions; and The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. While Wilde’s sincerity and sympathy were never in doubt, his interest in coping with the day-to-day challenges of bringing out a magazine on someone else’s behalf certainly was.


Read Volume I of The Woman’s World here.

Chandler Moulton, Louise. The Literary World: a Monthly Review of Current Literature 20.8 (1889): 123-27.

De Brémont, Anna. Oscar Wilde and His Mother: A Memoir. London: Everett & Co. 1911.

Fish, Arthur (A). ‘Oscar Wilde as Editor’ Harper’s Weekly. 58 (1913): 18-20.

Anon. The Story of the House of Cassell. London: Cassell & Co, 1922. 114-46.

Wilde, Oscar, The Complete letters of Oscar Wilde. Eds. Holland, Merlin and Rupert Hart-Davis. London: Fourth Estate, 2000.

Wilde, Oscar (Ed), The Woman’s World. 2 vols. London: Cassell & Company, 1888.

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