Tag Archives: W.B. Yeats

IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

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Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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Oscar Wilde & George Bernard Shaw: An Uneasy Admiration

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

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OSCAR WILDE AND GEORGE BERNARD SHAW FOR THE SHAW SOCIETY

27 OCTOBER 2016

CONWAY HALL

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

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

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

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3 Upper Synge Street

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

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1 Merrion Square North

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

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

Shaw also recalled:

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

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

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

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

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Lucy Shaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for purple cover salome french edition

When Salomé went astray, Shaw was prompted to write:

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

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

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

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

He concluded:

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

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

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

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

earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shaw with Nancy Astor, Charlie Chaplin & Amy Johnson

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

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

He also wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Speranza’s ‘Saturdays’

Speranza, Lady Jane Wilde

Lady Jane Wilde aka Speranza

When Lady Jane Wilde, Oscar’s mother, arrived in London on 7 May 1879, she faced an uncertain future having been left with nothing but debts after the death of her beloved husband, Sir William Wilde. As soon as she recovered her customary ebullience, she revived her Saturday salon and let it be known that she would be at home between five and seven. Visitors came in their droves and, in time, she needed to supplement her ‘Saturdays’ with literary Wednesdays.

‘No more successful hostess than Lady Wilde could be found’,

wrote her friend Catherine Hamilton.

‘She managed to put people at their ease, and without talking too much herself, she drew out the best in others’.

Here’s an excerpt from my book, Wilde’s Women, describing these very special gatherings:

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When William Butler Yeats persuaded novelist Katharine Tynan to write him a letter of introduction to Lady Jane Wilde, he expressed the hope that he would find her ‘as delightful as her book [Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland]…as delightful as she certainly is unconventional’. To Jane, he was ‘my Irish poet’. In time, he would name Maud Gonne, his great love and muse, ‘The New Speranza’. Yeats, who thought the whole Wilde family ‘very imaginative and learned’, acknowledged that London had few better talkers than Jane. He wrote of her that she ‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance’.

Katharine Tynan felt ‘entirely grateful ‘that Jane was ‘very kind to an obscure Irish versifier’. The first gathering she attended took place in the modest house on Park Street in Mayfair that Jane and her elder son Willie took occupancy of towards the end of 1881. Although they had traded up to a more fashionable address, they were obliged to compromise on space and could barely manage the rent on ‘a little house wedged in between another little house and a big public-house at the corner’. When Katharine was greeted by Jane, decked out in ‘a white dress like a Druid priestess, her grey hair hanging down her back’, the first thing that struck her was the gloom. She recounted a humorous anecdote in her memoir, Twenty-Five Years Reminiscences. As she stumbled in the direction Jane indicated: ‘A soft hand took mine and a soft voice spoke. “So fortunate,” said the voice, “that no one could suspect dear Lady Wilde of being a practical joker! There really is a chair”’.

Once they had negotiated the narrow stairway, guests were greeted by Jane or her garrulous elder son, Willie, who bore a striking resemblance to Oscar. On one occasion, an American friend, Anna de Brémont lost her nerve and hovered on the threshold of the red-tinged semi-darkness until Jane called her by name and rose majestically, ‘her headdress with its long white steamers and glittering jewels giving her quite a queenly air’. The gathering that day consisted of ‘long-haired poets and short-haired novelists – smartly dressed Press women, and not a few richly gowned ladies of fashion’. It was considered, ‘very intellectual’ to be seen at Lady Wilde’s crushes and a cacophony of accents competed to be heard. Local Londoners vied with their Hibernian neighbours and a transatlantic twang dominated at the height of the season when visiting Americans were drawn there by Oscar’s popularity. ‘All London comes to me by way of King’s Road…but the Americans come straight from the Atlantic steamers moored at Chelsea Bridge,’ Jane boasted. Her reception for poet Oliver Wendell Holmes was said to have attracted the cream of literary London.

On that first occasion, Katharine Tynan reported that Jane’s blinds were down in defiance of the bright sunshine outside. Inside, the murk was punctured by the few feeble beams that radiated from a scattering of red-shaded tallow candles ‘arranged so as to cast the limelight on the prominent people, leaving the spectators in darkness’. In almost every account of Jane’s life, it is assumed that vanity was her motivation for keeping her house in darkness so as to distract attention from her ravaged looks. Yet, Catherine Hamilton, among others, testified that her friend remained ‘strikingly handsome’ with ‘glorious dark eyes’ well into her sixties. According to another friend, Henriette Corkran, Jane simply detested ‘the brutality of strong lights’.

Certainly, Jane’s own words support this. She told Oscar that she chose crimson wallpaper punctuated with gleaming golden stars in order to give her home ‘a genial glow’. In her Notes on Men, Women and Books, she expressed approval for Sydney Smith’s aphorism ‘light puts out conversation’, and she also admired romantic poet Samuel Rogers for keeping his dining table in ‘soft shadow’ when most people would have, ‘a vulgar, blinding, flaring glare of gas pouring down upon the heads of the unfortunate, half-asphyxiated guests’.

Although her objective was a ‘genial glow’, the atmosphere at Jane’s Park Street home must have seemed oppressive to some. Pre-Raphaelite painter Herbert Gustav Schmalz, who was rumored to have clashed with Oscar when the latter accused him of leaving one of Jane’s gatherings too early, remembered pastilles of compressed medicinal herbs smoldering on her mantelpiece, and curtain-draped mirrors hanging from ceiling to floor, making it difficult to discern where her room ended and where it began.

As Katharine Tynan’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, she saw that Jane’s walls were crammed with photographs of Oscar in various poses. Their subject arrived shortly afterwards, as he generally did in those early days. In response, the crowd parted, allowing him to bow over his mother’s hand before taking up his favourite position by the chimney-piece, where he struck an aesthetic pose. After a time, he shook off his affectation in order to help his mother pass around the tea. Katherine Tynan declared that, on this and on all such occasions, she found Oscar unfailingly ‘pleasant, kind and interested’; just like his delightful mother.

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Yeats on Wilde

We’ve been hearing rather a lot about our great poet W.B. Yeats recently, since 2015 marked the 150 year anniversary of his birth. I’m taking this opportunity to comment on his connections to the Wilde family as outlined in my book, Wilde’s Women. He was rather skeptical about Oscar & Constance’s marriage.

W.B. Yeats as a young man

Although Yeats knew the Wildes well, and thought them ‘very imaginative and learned’, his retrospective commentary, on Oscar in particular, is coloured by the events that marred Oscar’s life. For this reason, it should be treated with some caution. Yet, his observations offer valuable insights into the lives of Lady Jane Wilde and Oscar Wilde in particular.

Perhaps most telling of all is a remark Yeats included in Letters to The New Island (1934):

‘When one listens to her [Lady Jane Wilde] and remembers that Sir William Wilde was in his day a famous raconteur, one finds it no way wonderful that Oscar Wilde should be the most finished talker of our time’

He certainly thought highly of Oscar’s abilities as a raconteur, and he praised him in The Trembling of the Veil, writing:

‘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’.

In 1887, Ward and Downey published Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, a compendium of folk tales, several of them collected by her late husband, William, while he was compiling data for the Irish censuses of 1841 and 1851. Yeats praised this collection lavishly and referred to it liberally in his own Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.

Lady Jane Wilde

His admiration for Lady Wilde prompted him to ask novelist Katharine Tynan to write him a letter of introduction to her; he expressed the hope that he would find Lady Wilde:

‘as delightful as her book …as delightful as she certainly is unconventional’.

Jane, always welcoming to young Dubliners who were trying to make their way in London, as she and her sons had, embraced him as ‘my Irish poet’. He in turn acknowledged that London had few better talkers. Noting her ambitious nature, he decided that Jane:

‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance’.

Perhaps his greatest tribute to Jane was to christen Maud Gonne, his great love and muse, ‘The New Speranza’. Both women were six feet tall.

Yeats also admired Oscar’s writing. He asked permission to include ‘Requiescat’, the poem inspired by the tragic early death of his sister, Isola Wilde, in the anthology of Irish verse he compiled. In reply, Oscar wrote:

 ‘I don’t know that I think ‘Requiescat’ very typical of my work’.

Undeterred, Yeats used it anyway and it was hailed as, ‘the brightest gem in this collection’.

Later, Yeats commented on Oscar’s only novel, declaring: ‘Dorian Gray, with all its faults, is a wonderful book’.

He also realised how astute it was of Oscar to dedicate many of his stories to society women who could further his career, and he declared of Wilde’s plays:

‘the famous paradoxes, the rapid sketches of men and women of society, the mockery of most things under heaven, are delightful’

Yet, he realised how subversive they were and understood that the only real people in A Woman of No Importance were the villains and non-conformists, declaring that the:

‘tragic and emotional people, the people who are important to the story, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot, and Hester Worsley, are conventions of the stage.’

When it came to Oscar’s personal life, Yeats believed he was constructing an elaborate facade. He recalled spending Christmas Day 1888 with Oscar and Constance, and wrote:

‘I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his [Oscar’s] life there, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition’.

Decades after Oscar’s early death, Yeats admitted:

‘of late years I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history’.

He speculated that Oscar might have fled to safety had his mother not declared:

‘If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again’.

Many years earlier, she too had lost a libel action, but she had treated it as a victory and a vindication nonetheless.

Yeats also shed light on the source of Lady Wilde’s intense nationalism. When he delivered a speech marking the centenary of the birth of Young Irelander Thomas Davis on 20 November 1914, Yeats included an account, which he claimed came directly from Jane, of how she had happened upon Davis’s funeral procession in September 1845.[i] Impressed that a poet with such high ideals could provoke this outpouring of adulation and grief, she decided to embrace his cause. Oscar recounted a similar version of this incident during a lecture he delivered to the Irish Diaspora in San Francisco in 1882.

By coincidence Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, was also present at Davis’s funeral in his capacity as member of the Royal Irish Academy. Years later he was invited to head a committee formed to commemorate Davis, and it was he who commissioned the marble figure of Davis by sculptor John Hogan that stands in Dublin’s City Hall.

Thomas Davis

Thomas Davis

Sources:

[i] W.B. Yeats, Tribute to Thomas Davis (Cork, Cork University Press, 1947), p.17.

Much of the information for this post comes from: W.B. Yeats. 1922. The Trembling of the Veil. London: Werner Laurie and my book, Wilde’s Women.

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