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Violet Hunt: The Sweetest Violet in England

Violet Hunt, born in 1862 in Durham in the north of England,was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter Alfred William Hunt and his wife, Margaret Raine Hunt, bestselling novelist and translator of the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Her parents took her to live in London when she was just three-years old and she grew up in Pre-Raphaelite circles. Violet was bright, vivacious and very beautiful. At thirteen, she was writing poetry for Century Magazine. Ellen Terry described her as ‘out of Botticelli by Burne-Jones’.

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Violet Hunt from The Flurried Years (1926)

On one occasion, when Letitia Scott, wife of Margaret’s art tutor, William Bell Scott, invited Margaret, to come and meet ‘a wonderful young Irishman just up from Oxford’, she brought seventeen-year-old Violet along. Oscar Wilde, for it was he, flirted outrageously with Violet:

Beautiful women like you hold the fortunes of the world in your hands to make or mar,

he told her, adding conspiratorially:

We will rule the world – you and I – you with your looks and I with my wits.

Little wonder she thought herself ‘a little in love’ with him.

In her memoir, The Flurried Years (1926), Violet insisted that she had ‘as nearly as possible escaped the honour of being Mrs. Wilde’, adding:

I believe that Oscar was really in love with me – for the moment and perhaps more than a moment for Alice Corkran told me quite seriously that he had said to her quite seriously, “Now, shall I go to Mr. Hunt and ask him to give me little Violet?”

Oscar, who considered her, ‘the sweetest Violet in England’, called on the Hunts almost every Sunday for two years. When he went to America, Violet sought his mother out, hoping for news of her son:

Lady Wilde sits there in an old white ball dress, in which she must have graced the soirees of Dublin a great many years ago,

she wrote; she was not quite as sweet as she looked.

When Oscar returned from America with his hair freshly coiffed and curled, Violet decided he was, ‘not nearly so nice’ after all.

Although she adored the company of men, and described her life as ‘a succession of affairs,’ Violet Hunt never married. She would ‘snub eligibles on principle’, preferring married men since ‘no one could imagine that I wanted to catch them’. She could be terrifying: ‘I rather liked her,’ D.H. Lawrence admitted, adding: ‘She’s such a real assassin’.

Her many conquests included H.G. Wells, with whom she had an affair lasting a year when she was forty-four, and Somerset Maugham, but her most enduring love was for Ford Madox Ford; at thirty-six, he was eleven years her junior when they embarked on their lengthy affair. Violet’s once good opinion of Oscar may have been tainted by Ford’s dismissal of his writing as ‘derivative and of no importance’, although he did acknowledge ‘as a scholar he was worthy of the greatest respect’.

Violet Hunt & Ford Madox Ford

In later years, Violet remembered Oscar as:

…a slightly stuttering, slightly lisping, long-limbed boy, sitting in the big armchair at Tor Villa, where we lived then, tossing the long black lock on his forehead that America swept away, and talking – talking…

Oscar had always encouraged Violet to write. In time, she enjoyed an enviable reputation as a novelist, biographer and hostess of a thriving literary salon. Among her guests were Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry James. Her interest in furthering the cause of women is reflected in the themes of her novels, the first of which, The Maiden’s Progress, was published in 1894. She joined the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in 1908, the year she helped Ford establish the English Review. Although she never published her memoir My Oscar, she did fictionalise him as fickle suitor Philip Wynyard in her semi-autobiographical novel Their Lives (1916).

When she died of pneumonia, aged seventy-nine, she left behind collections of poetry and short stories, seventeen novels, her memoirs of her time with Ford, a biography of Lizzie Siddal, six collaborations, two book translations, and numerous critical articles that were published in London newspapers and magazines.

Unlike that of many of her literary conquests, none of her work remains in print, although some of it is available to read online. Truly, she is one of Wilde’s Women.

Further Reading:

Violet: the story of the irrepressible Violet Hunt and her circle of lovers and friends – Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James by Barbara Belford (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990)

‘Aesthetes and pre-Raphaelites: Oscar Wilde and the Sweetest Violet in England’ by Robert Secor, Texas Studies in Language and Literature,  Volume XXI, number 3 (Fall 1979)

The Flurried Years by Violet Hunt ( London, Hurst & Blackett, 1926), p.173

Also:

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Culture Night 2016: Wilde & Women in The Arts

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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:   

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Alice Pike Barney (1857–1931)

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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)

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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)

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

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William Wilde as a young man

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

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

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

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Amy Levy: ‘a touch of genius’

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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.

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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.

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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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Wilde Tales: What of the Stories We Will Never Hear?

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When Aimée Lowther was a girl, she would rush home to write down the wonderful stories that her friend Oscar told her. Years later, in 1912, four of these stories were published in The Mask: A Quarterly Journal of the Art of the Theatre. They were ‘The Poet’, ‘The Actress’, ‘Simon of Cyrene’ and ‘Jezebel’. Each was captioned, ‘An unpublished story by Oscar Wilde’, and prefaced with the words:

This story was told by Wilde to Miss Aimée Lowther when a child and written out by her. A few copies were privately printed but this is the first time it has been given to the public.

Lowther was in her forties by then, and had enjoyed some success as a playwright and amateur actress. As Wilde’s life had ended twelve years earlier, in room sixteen of the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, he was unable to verify her claims. However, one of these stories, ‘The Actress’, was believed to have been inspired by his great friend Ellen Terry. Edward Gordon Craig, editor of The Mask, was Terry’s son and Aimée Lowther was her close confidante.

Wilde loved Lowther. It is recorded in Richard Ellmann’s biography on Wilde that, when she was just fifteen, he declared: “Aimée, if you were only a boy I could adore you.” In return, she remained loyal to him to the end, and a visit from her could lift his spirits even when he was at his lowest ebb: ‘…your friendship is a blossom on the crown of thorns that my life has become’, he told her in a letter, now collected in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. In A Pride of Terrys, Marguerite Steen wrote that, in 1900, Lowther and Ellen Terry spotted a much diminished Oscar Wilde gazing longingly through the window of a Parisian patisserie and biting his fingers with hunger. They invited him to dine, and were greatly relieved when he ‘sparkled just as of old’, but they never saw him again.

The veracity of Lowther’s claim that Wilde told these four stories to her is borne out by a letter he sent her in August 1899, asking that she not allow the publication of ‘the little poem in prose I call ‘The Poet’’, as it was due to ‘appear next week in a Paris magazine above my own signature’. No such magazine has ever been identified. However,
confusion arose when Gabrielle Enthoven, a passionate collector of theatrical memorabilia, claimed that Wilde had told these stories to her. In 1890, she commissioned the private printing of Echoes, a limited edition, twelve-page pamphlet containing the four stories in question. Aimée Lowther owned a copy of Echoes, which she later gave to Oscar’s younger son, Vyvyan, and the stories reproduced in both Echoes and The Mask are almost word for word the same.

Of course it is entirely possible that Wilde told the same stories to both women. He was a born storyteller and could harness the power of the spoken word in a way that was reminiscent of the seanchaí (a figure familiar to him from his father’s careful documenting of the oral tradition that thrived in his native Ireland).

In A Woman of No Importance, Wilde has his Lord Illingworth say, ‘A man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world’. His own popularity was assured by his eagerness to entertain, to the extent that society hostesses took to including the words ‘to meet Oscar Wilde’ on invitations, in a bid to boost attendance at their gatherings.

Wilde’s popularity as a storyteller was enhanced by the fact that he possessed an exceptionally melodious voice, which Lord Alfred Douglas described as ‘golden’. Frank Dyall, the actor who played Merriman in the first production of The Importance of Being Ernest, recalled Wilde’s voice as being:

…of the brown velvet order – mellifluous, rounded, in a sense giving it a plummy quality, rather on the adenotic side, but practically pure cello, and very pleasing.
~ from Hesketh Pearson’s The Life of Oscar Wilde

To add drama to a narrative, Wilde would modulate his voice from a whisper to a cry of triumph, losing himself in his stories to the extent that those present described him as seeming dazed by the effort of telling them. Yet his true power was in the words. In his autobiography, William Butler Yeats, Wilde’s contemporary and compatriot, said of him: ‘I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous.’

One guest fortunate enough to be present at a lunch hosted by publisher and bon vivant Frank Harris described how Wilde’s musical voice and infectious laughter cut through the lively chatter, causing everyone present to fall silent in order to listen exclusively to him. In response, Wilde filled the hours that followed with humorous anecdotes, embryonic plotlines for plays he was contemplating, macabre tales told in the style of Edgar Allan Poe, and his distinctive take on instructive Bible stories. Frank Harris published several of these spontaneous stories under the heading ‘Poems in Prose’, in The Fortnightly Review, but it is probable that they lost something in the transcribing. In his introduction to Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde,Robert Ross, a great friend and literary executor to Wilde, claimed:

To those who remember hearing them from Wilde’s lips, there must always be a feeling of disappointment on reading them. He overloaded their ornament when he came to transcribe them, and some of his friends did not hesitate to make that criticism personally.

Although he made no attempt to alter his accent, Wilde spoke excellent, ponderous French and, in Paris, earned a reputation as ‘the poet who tells fantastic tales’. His visit to that city in 1891 was described by L’Echo de Paris as, ‘le “great event” des salons littéraires parisiens’. Young André Gide, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature towards the end of his long life, found Wilde utterly captivating and met with him every day for three weeks. After parting from Wilde, Gide felt unable to put pen to paper for several days. In correspondence published by the University of Chicago Press, it is noted that, when he finally made contact with poet Paul Valéry on Christmas Eve, 1891, Gide asked him to ‘please forgive my silence: since Wilde, I hardly exist anymore’.Once, as Gide and Wilde were dining at the home of Princess Ouroussoff, wife of the Russian ambassador to France, the princess swore that a halo appeared around Wilde’s head as he talked.

Princess Ouroussoff was not alone in attributing otherworldly properties to Wilde’s flights of fancy. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that Wilde could cure depression or disease simply by speaking to an afflicted person for just five minutes. The artist W. Graham Robertson, who described Wilde as ‘a born raconteur’ in his auto-biography Time Was, was certain that Wilde had cured him of a ‘violent toothache’ by telling his stories ‘so brilliantly that for an hour and a half I laughed without ceasing’. Some were moved despite themselves. The poet Ernest Dowson attested that Wilde ‘had such a wonderful vitality and joie de vivre that after some hours of his society even a pessimist like myself is infected by it’.

Although he was a very public raconteur, Wilde saved some of his best stories for home, remarking that it was the duty of every father to invent fairytales for his children. In his memoir, Son of Oscar Wilde, Vyvyan Holland wrote of a ‘never-ending-supply’ of fairy stories and tales of adventure, many of them inspired by the imaginings of Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling; Wilde always was a literary magpie. Holland recalled one particular bedtime story, reminiscent of ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’, which described the helpful fairies who lived in the great bottles of coloured water found in the windows of chemist shops. They would dance about at night before making the pills that the chemist would dispense the next day.

Many of Wilde’s bedtime stories were rooted in the misty mythology of the West of Ireland, where his father had once kept a holiday cottage at Moytura. He kept his boys rapt with his description of the ‘great melancholy carp’ that lived in the deep waters of Lough Corrib, refusing to move off the bottom of the lake unless Wilde himself called them up with the ancient Irish songs that his father had taught him. At times, Wilde was moved to tears by his own ingenuity. His eyes glistened as he told his boys the story of ‘The Selfish Giant’ and when his elder son, Cyril, wondered why, Wilde replied that really beautiful things always made him cry.

Several of Wilde’s stories started life in the nursery of his Tite Street home, but in a letter to Amelie Rives Chanler, from 1889, he was adamant that they were intended ‘not for children, but for childlike people from eighteen to eighty’. His great friend Helena Swanwick recognised that the only stimulus he needed to tell a story was to be in the company of good listeners. In her memoir, I Have Been Young, she describes Wilde:

…his indolent figure, lounging in an easy chair, his face alive with delight in what he was saying, pouring out stories and descriptions, whose extravagance piled up and up.

Once, after she allowed her scepticism to show, he enquired playfully: ‘You don’t believe me, Miss Nelly? I assure you… well, it’s as good as true.’

Such was Wilde’s prolificacy that only a tiny fraction of the stories he told ever made it into print, and he would commit a story to paper only if the reaction of his audience merited it. If one of his stories was published, Wilde would often dedicate it to a society hostess whose largesse he had enjoyed. The stories in his collection A House of Pomegranates, which is dedicated to his wife, Constance, pay tribute to four such women: ‘The Young King’ is dedicated to Margaret, Lady Brooke, who would one day lend great support to Constance; ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ was chosen for Princess Alice of Monaco — Wilde told her it was the best of the four; ‘The Star-Child’ was saved for the socialite Margot Tennant, who had recently become Mrs. Asquith, and would later disown Wilde when he most needed her support; and ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ was dedicated to Lady Desborough, ‘as a slight return for the entrancing day at Taplow’. Later, Lady Desborough received a ‘little book that contains a story, two stories in fact that I told you at Taplow’. This ‘little book’ was Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

After Wilde was imprisoned, Adela Schuster, whom he christened ‘Miss Tiny’ on account of her size, believed that his stories might save him. She wrote to his friend More Adey:

Could not Mr. Wilde now write down some of the lovely tales he used to tell me? […] I think the mere re­minder of some of his tales may set his mind in that direction and stir the impulse to write.

In her letter, Schuster recalled, in particular, two stories that Wilde had told her: one concerning ‘a nursing sister who killed the man whom she was nursing’; and a second that was about ‘two souls on the banks of the Nile’. To these Adey added, ‘the moving sphere story and the one about the Problem and the Lunatic’.

Sadly these, and many others, never found their way into print. In a letter to Robert Ross, dated May 1898, Wilde wrote: ‘I really must begin The Sphere.’ He never did, although Frank Harris did publish a version of it as ‘The Irony of Chance (after O.W.)’. Ross sheds light on the inspiration for many of the stories that ‘unfortunately exist only in the memories of friends’, confirming that they were:

Invented on the spur of the moment, or inspired by the chance observation of someone who managed to get the traditional word in edgeways; or they were developed from some phrase in a book Wilde might have read during the day.

How disappointing it is that we will never hear them. How I envy those who enjoyed that great pleasure.

Note: This essay was first published in Thresholds as The Unrecorded Stories of Oscar Wilde and is an edited version of Chapter 13 of Wilde’s Women.

Hear the stories from The Happy Prince and Other Tales read beautifully & analysed by experts here: http://www.wildestories.ie/

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Olive Schreiner

Olive Schreiner

I’ve written a post on the pioneering South African feminist writer Olive Schreiner for the Sheroes of History Blog. Here’s a link:

South African writer Olive Schreiner was born in what is now Lesotho on 24 March 1855. The ninth of twelve children born to Rebecca Lyndall and her husband, Gottlob Schreiner (1814–1876), a German-born missionary, she and just six of her siblings survived childhood. In adulthood, she suffered debilitating ill-health, exacerbated for a time by grinding poverty.

For a time, Schreiner earned a living as a governess and teacher, but she devoted her free time to writing The Story of an African Farm, a radical feminist novel informed by her experience of growing up in Africa. As soon as she could afford to, she sailed for Britain where she hoped to train as a doctor. Unfortunately, although she attended lectures at the London School of Medicine for Women, established in 1874 by an association of pioneering women physicians, ill-health prevented her from completing her training.

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Wilde’s Half-Brother, Dr Henry Wilson

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Dr Henry Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

REFERENCES 

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

Wilde’s Women

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The Birth of Cyril Wilde

Constance Wilde (later Holland) with her son Cyril

Baby Cyril Wilde arrived into the world at ten forty-five on the morning of 5 June 1885. That same day, his father, Oscar, insisted in a letter that his ‘amazing boy’ knew him quite well already.[i] He told a friend, actor Norman Forbes Robertson, that Cyril was ‘wonderful’.[ii]

By all accounts, Cyril, and his younger brother Vyvyan, who arrived eighteen-months later, were lovely, boisterous lads who enjoyed more freedom than many of their Victorian contemporaries. Eyewitness accounts confirm that their parents were indulgent and very fond of them.

Vyvyan & Cyril Wilde (later Holland)

Both boys adored their father, who was kind-hearted and playful and perfectly happy to join in with nursery games, even if they involved getting down on all fours in order to play the part of a bear, a lion, a horse or whatever was required of him. He once spent an entire afternoon repairing a beloved wooden fort.

Boisterous games often spilled out into the beautiful dining-room of their Tite Street home, where all three would dodge between the legs of the spindly white chairs before tumbling together in a tangle on the floor. When they grew tired, Oscar would tell them the most wonderful stories.

Further Reading:

Son of Oscar Wilde by Vyvyan Holland is a remarkable account of a fractured childhood, and gives unparalleled insights into a life that is perhaps more speculated about than any other. It contains a warm account of the time he and his brother had with their father, which lends added poignancy to the tragedy that they never saw him again after 1895.

Wilde’s Women also contains an account of Cyril’s life.

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Cyril died young and his tragic final years are described here.

[i] Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (Robinson, Revised edition, 1999), p.53

[i] Letter to Nellie Lloyd, 5 June 1885, Complete Letters, p.261

 

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Happy Anniversary Oscar & Constance!

Oscance

Photo taken by Vanessa Heron

Happy 133rd wedding anniversary to Oscar and Constance, who married on 29 May 1884. Last year, to mark the occasion, members of the Oscar Wilde Society attended the unveiling of an OSCANCE memorial at St. James’s Church, Paddington by the couple’s grandson and honorary patron of the society, Merlin Holland.

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St. James’s Church, Paddington

Although Oscar was in the public eye by then, the uncertain health of Constance’s grandfather, John Horatio Lloyd, ensured that their wedding was an unexpectedly low-key event. Admittance, by invitation only, was restricted to family and close friends. Nevertheless, the event was covered extensively by the press of the day.

According to the Edinburgh Evening News, Oscar ‘bore himself with calm dignity’. He deprived the gossip columnists of copy by wearing a perfectly ordinary blue morning frock-coat with grey trousers, although he did display ‘a touch of pink in his neck tie’.

The ceremony may have been subdued, but the bride and groom were jubilant. The Lady’s Pictorial reported that:

The newly-married pair, as they came down the long aisle arm-in-arm, looked as hundreds of newly-married people have looked before – the bridegroom happy and exultant; the bride with a tender flush on her face, and a happy hopeful light in her soft brown eyes.

Constance

Constance’s lovely dress was described in society magazine Queen as a:

…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.

Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar’s mother, looked resplendent in grey satin, trimmed with a chenille fringe and topped off with a high crowned hat adorned with ostrich feathers. It was reported in the Lancaster Gazette that she:

‘“snatched” her new daughter to her heart with some effusion’.

After a modest reception at the Lancaster Gate home of John Horatio Lloyd, the newlyweds boarded the boat-train to Dover and travelled on to Paris; ‘few married couples ever carried better wishes with them,’ gushed the Aberdeen Evening Express.

Lovely to think of them sharing such happiness. Read Wilde’s Women for a full account of their marriage.

PBCover

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Did Jane Wilde Inform Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

May 26 is World Dracula Day, so named to mark to anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s magnificent Gothic novel. One of my favourite holiday experiences of all time was when I sat reading Dracula in the window seat of a house in Grape Lane, Whitby (the Yorkshire seaside town where much of Dracula is set). I could just about see the harbour where Stoker’s mysterious ship comes in under full sail and his demonic black dog disembarks before running up the 199 steps towards Whitby Abbey.

Of course, there are many connections between Stoker and the Wilde family, which you can read about in Wilde’s Women. He was particularly friendly with Lady Jane Wilde; ‘I suppose you dine with Lady Wilde as usual,’ his father asked in one letter between them.

I like to imagine Bram reading Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland by his great friend Jane Wilde (who would almost certainly have given him a copy) and thinking ‘hmmmm’.

In Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms & Superstitions of Ireland, published in 1887, ten years before Dracula, Jane explained that:

In the Transylvanian legends and superstitions, of which Madame Gerard (‘Transylvanian Superstitions’ in The Nineteenth Century Vol.18, 1885, pp.128-144) has given an interesting record, many will be found identical with the Irish’.

Particularly significant, she argued, was the shared belief that:

‘the dead are only in a trance; they can hear everything but can make no sign’.

Jane’s descriptions of horned witches who drew blood from victims as they slept might well have informed Bram’s ‘weird sisters’, three female vampires who fed on the blood of men.

While she told tales of men who assumed the shape of wolves and monstrous, soul-devouring hounds, his best loved book reverberates with the howling of wolves, and his Dracula assumes the shape of ‘an immense dog’.

I include details of their friendship in Wilde’s Women:

PBCover

 

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