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Oscar Wilde the Irishman: A speech he made in Minnesota on St. Patrick’s Day, 1882.

Much time is devoted to speculation as to exactly how Irish Oscar Wilde believed himself to be. Although he truly saw himself as a citizen of the world, and was careful to ingratiate himself with those who occupied the highest positions of power and influence in England, he was also the son of an Irish nationalist mother.

On 17 March 1882, Wilde, aged twenty-six, participated in the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that were organised in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. He was touring America at the time, lecturing to audiences the length and breadth of that emerging nation. A comprehensive account of the event, including his apparently impromptu remarks, was carried in the Saint Paul Globe the following day. This is Wilde at his most Irish – he was wise to give his audience what they wanted. Perhaps he was also sincere in his sentiments.

Here’s my account of the occasion, based on the report in the Saint Paul Globe:

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On a rainy St. Patrick’s Day in 1882, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, Father John Shanley took to the stage at the Opera House and declared that he was:

…pleased to announce the presence with them of a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters – of a daughter who in the troublous times of 1848 by the works of her pen and her noble example did much to keep the fires of patriotism burning brightly in the hearts of Ireland’s sons. A son of that noble woman was present in the person of Mr. Oscar Wilde, who had kindly consented to say a few words on this happy occasion, and whom he had the pleasure of introducing

Wilde, who had been sitting in a box to the side of the stage, ‘skipped’ onstage, dressed in ‘his too too raiment,’ the outfit he had worn when he had delivered a lecture the previous night. This was described as:

cut away coat, velveteen waistcoat, velvet knee britches, black stockings and pumps, one hand gloved in a white kid, the other bore lace handkerchief and necktie, and the long straight brown hair hanging down upon his shoulders.

Wilde was greeted with ‘a generous demonstration of applause,’ which he acknowledged with a slight bow from the front of the stage. He began to speak:

Ladies and gentlemen, when I gave myself the pleasure of meeting with you to-night, I had not thought I would be called upon to say anything, but would be allowed to sit quietly in my box and enjoy listening to the loving and patriotic sentiments that I knew would be given voice. But the generous response you have given to the mention of the efforts of my mother in Ireland’s cause, has filled me with a pleasure and a pride that I cannot properly acknowledge. It is also a pleasure to me that I am afforded this opportunity during my visit to America to speak to an audience of my countrymen, a race once the most artistic in Europe.

There was a time before the time of Henry II, when Ireland stood at the front of all the nations of Europe in the arts, the sciences and general intellectuality. The few books saved from the general wreck are remarkable for their literary excellence and beauty of illustration. There was a time, too, when Ireland was the university of Europe – when young Monks educated in Ireland went forth as educators to all other European countries, while at the same time students from these same countries flocked to Ireland to study the arts, etc., under the great masters of Ireland. There was a time when Ireland led all other nations in working in gold. In those times no nation built so splendidly as did Ireland. The cathedrals, monasteries and other public edifices of  those days showed a higher style of architecture than that of any other nation.

Those proud monuments to the genius and intellectuality of Ireland do not exist to-day. When the English came they were burned. But portions of these blackened, mouldering walls still remain to remind visitors of the beauty of the work wrought by Ireland, for the pleasure and enjoyment of Ireland, in the days of her greatness. But with the coming of the English, art in Ireland came to an end, and it has had no existence for over 700 years. And he was glad it had not, for art could not live and flourish under a tyrant.

Art was an expression of the liberty loving, beauty loving sentiment of a people. But the artistic sentiment of Ireland was not dead in the hearts of her sons and daughters, though allowed no expression in their native country. It is that sentiment which has reduced you to meet here to-night to commemorate our patron saint. It finds expression in the love you bear for every little nook, every hill, every running brook of your native land. It is shown in the esteem you bear for the names of the great men whose deeds and works have shed such lustre upon Irish history. And when Ireland gains her independence, its schools of art and other educational branches will be revived and Ireland will regain the proud position she once held among the nations of Europe.

He thanked the audience once more, and was rewarded with ‘generous applause as he withdrew from the stage’.

For more on Oscar Wilde read my book Wilde’s Women

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For  more on Wilde’s lecture tour of America visit this brilliant website: http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org

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Lady Jane Wilde & Her Love for Sweden

I’m really pleased that Wilde’s Women is still being reviewed 18 months after publication. I’m particularly delighted that a Wildean scholar of the calibre of Professor Peter Raby reviewed it for Women’s Studies, a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. ‘The author writes sympathetically & vividly about Lady Wilde, as she does about Wilde’s wife, Constance,’ Raby writes.PBCover

In response, here is an extract that describes the admiration Jane Wilde had for Scandinavian women and the freedoms they were afforded:

Shortly after [her daughter] Isola arrived, Jane formed an extremely significant friendship with a progressive young Swedish woman named Charlotte ‘Lotten’ von Kraemer. Then, as now, Scandinavians took a more enlightened approach to gender equality and Jane’s admiration demonstrates how far ahead of her time she was. It must be remembered that many Victorian women were complicit in their subjugation, propping up male-dominated institutions that kept them down and shunning women who objected.

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Lotten von Kraemer

As Lotten suffered from a painful and debilitating ailment of the ear, triggered by a bout of scarlet fever in adolescence, she had been advised to consult Dr. William Wilde, one of Europe’s leading aural specialists. She and her father, Baron Robert Fredrik von Kraemer, Governor of Uppsala, arrived at lunchtime one Sunday in July 1857. They were surprised to learn, by means of a wink and a nod that the lady of the house was not yet up. Instead, they were shown into William’s study. He arrived, holding one ‘unruly little boy’ by the hand and carrying a smaller boy in his arms. This was Oscar, not yet three, with ‘curly brown hair and large dreamy eyes’. Lotten was moved by the warm affection William showed towards his sons.1

Hospitable as ever, William invited these visitors to return for dinner. In the meantime, he volunteered his wife to take them on a tour of Dublin, which she did with great good humour. Willie and Oscar were present that evening, a highly unusual practice in a Victorian household and one that was to continue when Oscar had sons of his own. William stroked little Oscar’s cheek and sent him to fetch a book, while Jane prevailed upon Baron von Kraemer to teach her the rudiments of Swedish. Lotten admired her, ‘soulful and captivating vivacity’, recognising that the fire in her glance betrayed her past as a revolutionary poet. She was struck by the affability of the occasion and the exceptionally congenial bond that existed between husband and wife.

Lotten and Jane had much in common. During her lifetime, Lotten was a published poet, essayist, and editor of Var Tid (Our Time), a magazine of modern culture. She also endowed a scholarship enabling female medical students to attend Uppsala University; she founded Samfundet De Nio (the Nine Society), a prestigious and progressive Swedish literary society; and she provided vital finance to the Country Association for Women’s Suffrage. Although early correspondence was taken up with medical advice passed on by William, much of it involving the application of leeches, Lotten and Jane were soon discussing topics of mutual interest: literature, culture and the position of women in society. It impressed Jane that:

Clever and intellectual women, also, in Sweden hold a much higher position in society than their literary sisters in England. They are honoured and made much of, and treated with considerable distinction, solely from belonging to the peerage of intellect. Whereas in England wealth, with the ponderous routine of life that wealth entails, seems to be the chief measure of merit and the highest standard of perfection in social circles.2

Ever the linguist, Jane attempted to master Swedish, but the lack of a tutor obliged her to struggle alone with the aid of a dictionary. Although she did manage to write a few letters, she never mastered the language: ‘Even this endeavour [learning Swedish] I have given up with all other literary employment since the cares of a household have come on me’, she told Lotten.3 One ambition she did not abandon was that of instilling a love for literature in her children, and she was successful in this. While Willie enjoyed Tennyson’s epic ballad, Lady Clare and Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Oscar remembered his mother reading Walt Whitman’s recently published collection, Leaves of Grass (1855) to him. He mentioned this when he met the poet in New Jersey in 1882.

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Once Willie turned six, Jane hired an English governess, an arrangement that allowed her to travel with her husband, William: ‘without this, we’re apt to fossilize in married state’ she declared’.4 They toured Scandinavia during the autumn of 1859, and Jane said of Stockholm, ‘I will never enjoy any place again so much’.5 She was less taken with Germany, concluding, erroneously as it happened, that people, ‘who live on beer and cheese, are not, and never can be, politically dangerous’.6

Years later, Jane organised her journals into Driftwood from Scandinavia, a moderately successful travel book in which she expressed her admiration for the elevated status of women in Swedish society. Through Lotten, Jane met Rosalie Olivecrona, a pioneer of the Swedish women’s rights movement and co-founder of Tidskriftför Hemmet (Journal for the Home), a campaigning feminist publication ‘devoted to general literature and the advancement of women politically and intellectually’. What impressed Jane about Rosalie was that, although she held ‘a very important place in the highest circles of Stockholm society’, she remained ‘with all her learning, a most attractive and elegant woman in style, look, and manner’.7

Jane admitted to Lotten that she had ‘little time for writing or even for thought,’ yet she managed to complete all three volumes – 1,446 pages – of The First Temptation; Or, “Eritis Sicut Deus”: A Philosophical Romance [by W. Canz]. Translated from the German by Mrs. W.R. Wilde.8 Although her skills as a translator were lauded, this odd and controversial book received mixed reviews; one damning assessment was motivated by revenge, as would later become apparent.

Jane Wilde enjoyed her status as a public figure. She began one very revealing letter to Lotten by writing: ‘When my correspondence is collected and published after my death…’ Yet, the incompatibility of literary and family life concerned her. ‘After all writing is a fatal gift for a woman,’ she told Lotten, who was childless, ‘I would be a much better wife, mother, & head of a household if I never touched a pen. I feel this so strongly that I shall never encourage my daughter to authorship.9 Such misplaced guilt remains familiar to her contemporary counterparts.

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Lady Jane Wilde

When Jane learned that her Swedish friends were in the habit of hosting regular literary receptions, she decided to establish ‘weekly conversazione’ of her own  in order to ‘agglomerate together all the thinking minds of Dublin’.10 The Athenaeum described 1 Merrion Square as, ‘the first, and for a long time the only, bohemian house in Dublin,’ but expressed concern that Jane had gathered together all those, ‘whom prudish Dublin had hitherto kept carefully apart’.11 The Irish Times attributed her success to an absence of snobbery, ‘so fatal to social gatherings in Ireland’.12 Delighted with her initiative, Jane grew determined to live up to her maxim; one Oscar adapted and made his own. It is monotony that kills, not excitement,’ she wrote:

Dull people fail in the will to live, and so they soon lose their hold on life. Excellent good women, who give up society and devote themselves exclusively to home and homely duties, grow old so soon.13

As was her wont, she invited mostly men and those few women she admired: novelist Rosa Mulholland Gilbert, and literary sisters Alice and Henriette Corkran. Gilbert remembered Jane

‘dressed in long flowing robes of Irish poplin and Limerick lace…adorned with gold chains and brooches modelled on the ancient ornaments of Erin’s early queens’.

She considered Jane to be ‘of a kindly nature, and warm and sincere in her friendships,’ adding,

‘she had a commendable desire to make her house a social centre for all who were engaged in intellectual pursuits, or interested in literature or the arts’.14

Henriette Corkran thought Jane‘an odd mixture of nonsense, with a sprinkling of genius’, and declared that ‘her talk was like fireworks – brilliant, whimsical and flashy’.15 In time, Oscar’s conversation would be likened to fireworks too.

1 Lotten von Kraemer, ‘Författaren Oscar Wilde’s Föräldrahem i Irlands Hufvudstad’ Ord och Bild Illustrerad Månadsskrift, Volume 11, 1902, pp.429-435, http://runeberg.org/ordochbild/1902/0473.html accessed on 10 January 2015

2 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia (London, R. Bentley and son, 1884), p.201

3 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 20 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

4 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 21 December 1858, National Library of Sweden

5 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer, 3 Dec 1859, National Library of Sweden; Later, Jane returned to Sweden with William, who was to receive the prestigious Nordstjärneorden (Order of the North Star) from King Karl XV.

6 Lady Jane Wilde, Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.275; Oscar appears to have inherited her low opinion of Germans (see Complete Letters, p.409)

7 Lady Jane Wilde Driftwood from Scandinavia, p.196

8 Letter to Lotten von Kraemer (fragment), 1860, National Library of Sweden

9 Letters to Lotten von Kraemer, 19 March 1862 & 22 April 1862, National Library of Sweden

10 Letter to John Hilson, 10 February 1859, University of Reading, Special Collections, MS 559

11 The Athenaeum Magazine, quoted in Victoria Glendinning ‘Speranza’ in Peter Quennell Genius in the Drawing-Room (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1980), p.103

12 ‘The Literati of Dublin’, Irish Times, March 1878

13 Lady Wilde, Social Science, p.74

14 Mulholland Gilbert, Life of Sir John Gilbert, p.78

15 Corkran, Celebrities & I, p.141

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Marion Terry as Oscar Wilde’s Mrs Erlynne

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Marion Bessie Terry (13 October 1853 – 21 August 1930), born Mary Ann Bessy Terry but known affectionately as “Polly”, was the fifth surviving child of actors Benjamin Terry (1818-1896) and Sarah Ballard (1819-1892).

While undoubtedly overshadowed by her older and more famous sister Ellen, Marion enjoyed considerable success throughout her career. Unlike Ellen, she rarely played any of Shakespeare’s women, and appeared in only a handful of his plays, although her first professional role was as Ophelia in Hamlet when she was nineteen.

After enjoying a successful and varied career for two decades, Marion, aged thirty-nine, was offered the role that was to become her most celebrated, as Mrs. Erlynne in Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan. Although she was third choice for the role behind Lillie Langtry and Ada Rehan, she acquitted herself admirably. Theatre critic Clement Scott declared that she played the part ‘to perfection’.

In his memoir Yesterday, English writer Robert Hichens described how Marion had confided in him that:

the management had grave doubts about her during  the rehearsals, but that she felt certain she could “get away with it”.

His verdict was that she ‘scored a complete triumph in it’.

Offstage, Marion Terry was reserved and protective of her private life. She never married and died of a cerebral haemorrhage at her home in London, aged seventy-three, after a career that spanned five decades.

For more on the original production of Lady Windermere’s fan read Wilde’s Women:

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Salomé in Paris: ‘a protest against English morality’.

Tragically, although Ada Leverson, one of Oscar Wilde’s closest friends, insisted that he cared little for any of his plays except Salomé since it most fully ‘expressed himself,’ Wilde never saw Salomé performed. Refused a licence by the English Examiner of Plays, it was staged during Wilde’s lifetime by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, founder of the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, but its author was in prison at the time.

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When Lugné-Poe visited London after Wilde had been sentenced to two years hard labour, he was shocked at how apathetic and powerless the playwright’s supporters appeared to have become. In an act of solidarity, he staged the world premiere of Salomé in his Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in Paris on 11 February 1896, performing the role of Herod himself and casting Lina Munte, a trained dancer, as Salomé.

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Lina Munte

Several French newspapers reported on the performance and critics were unanimous in their praise for Munte; La Matin reported that she ‘was absolutely remarkable with her ferocious sensuality,’ while Francisque Sarcey of Le Temps noted that she imitated the diction of Sarah Bernhardt, the actress Wilde had originally intended for the part.

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Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, Paris

A number of critics noted the sympathy expressed for Wilde by the French public. L’Événement described the staging of Salomé as ‘a protest against English morality’. The Journal des Débats reported that:

When the curtain fell, the audience responded to the name of the playwright with rapturous applause.

Wilde, who received no payment for the performance, assured his lover Lord Alfred Douglas:

‘All I want is to have my artistic reappearance, and my own rehabilitation through art, in Paris, not in London. It is a homage and a debt I owe to that great city of art’.

REFERENCE:

The Reception of Oscar Wilde in Europe by Stefano Evangelista, Bloomsbury Publishing

Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, Duckworth Overlook

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Stories for Children by Wilde, Constance Wilde

On 2 February 1889, a joint review of two collections of ‘fairytales’, one from Oscar Wilde and the other from his wife, Constance, was published in the Irish Times. 

Mr and Mrs Wilde possess charming children of their own and they have utilised their acquaintance with the infant world in giving to it some delightful fairytales, which even the elders must appreciate. “The Happy Prince and Other Tales,” illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacomb Hood, and published by David Nutt is one of the happiest works which Mr. Oscar Wilde has ever produced; whilst Mrs. Wilde’s fairytales, also published recently and entitled “There Was Once,” are a charming reproduction of the old stories, familiar to our childish days, which Nisbet [sic] has brought out.

The death of her beloved grandmother, ‘Mama Mary’ had prompted Constance to compile There Was Once – Grandma’s Stories, a beautifully illustrated collection of five traditional tales and four familiar rhymes. You can still buy this book by following the link. Mama Mary was Mary Atkinson, widow of Captain John Atkinson, who had been Receiver General of the Post Office. She had lived at 1 Ely Place in Dublin, close to the Wilde’s home on Merrion Square .

The Dandy Chair, with three children playing in the long grass, with two older boys holding the younger child. Published in Nister's Holiday Annual for 1899, edited and arranged by Alfred J Fuller; published by Ernest Nister, 1899.

This was not Constance’s only foray into writing for children; The Bairn’s Annual of Old Fashioned Fairy Tales in 1887 featured a story called ‘Was It a Dream’ by Constance Wilde. In 1892, Ernest Nister, publisher of There Was Once, brought out A Long Time Ago, favorite stories retold by Mrs. Oscar Wilde & others. Nister also published A Cosy Corner and Other Stories, which included Constance’s story ‘For Japan’, featuring a little girl named Isola, probably after Oscar’s sister who had died in childhood.

In 1893, Nister brought out A Dandy Chair and Other Stories, an illustrated collection of children’s stories by Constance Wilde, Edith Nesbit and Mary Louisa Molesworth.  One story contributed by Constance was called ‘The Little Swallow’. Although her stories are mostly lost to us now, Constance Wilde’s literary career is covered comprehensively by Franny Moyle in Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. You can also read about her life in Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped By The Woman He Knew.

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Jane Elgee: ‘the most extraordinary prodigy’

Novelist William Carleton died at his home in Rathmines, Dublin on 30 January 1869. You can find an excellent profile of his life and work here.

In December 1850, Carleton sent a copy of the Nation newspaper to engraver and magazine proprietor Ebenezer Landells. The accompanying letter drew his friend’s attention to ‘the critique in the 202nd page’, which ‘was written by Miss Elgee’. In his letter Carleton declared:

She is the most extraordinary prodigy of a female that this country, or perhaps any other, has ever produced. She is acquainted with all literatures and all languages, and all history, ancient and modern.

This extract from David O’Donoghue’s Life of William Carleton, drawing on testimony from one of Carleton’s daughters, makes clear the esteem in which he held the woman who had later married his friend and physician Dr. William Wilde.

Lady Wilde, for whose genius he had the strongest admiration, came to see him. Indeed, nothing could exceed the kindness and sympathy shown to us by both Sir William and Lady Wilde at this time of suffering and sorrow.

Carleton was eulogised in the Irish papers. On 6 February 1869 a poem written in his honour by Lady Wilde was published in the Nation. Here’s an extract:

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Little wonder Carleton had expressed admiration for the ‘great ocean of her soul’.

Source: David O’Donoghue, Life of William Carleton Volume II (London, Downey & Co., 1896)

For much more on Lady Jane Wilde, read Wilde’s Women

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Why Did She Marry Him?

Today is the anniversary of the birth of English writer and poet Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), who was born Richard Thomas Gallienne (the “Le” was a later addition) in Liverpool on January 20, 1866. Although his father, a brewery worker, ensured that Richard, one of his ten children, received a good education and was articled to a firm of accountants, Le Gallienne took no interest in pursuing this career.

Richard Le Gallienne by Alfred Ellis

In 1887, he published his first literary work, My Ladies’ Sonnets. By then, he was also reviewing books for The Academy. The direction his life was to take was determined by the fact that he failed his final accountancy exams in December 1888. He moved to London and began a professional relationship with publisher John Lane that was to continue until 1924. You can read far more about him here.

My interest in Le Gallienne relates to a passionate love affair he had with writer Edith Nesbit, the subject of my next biography, who was married to Hubert Bland at the time. Although married himself, Le Gallienne wrote and published several love poems to Nesbit. One of them, ‘Why Did She Marry Him?,’ interests me particularly.

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Edith Nesbit

Le Gallienne speculates as to why Edith chose to marry the undeserving Hubert Bland (and undeserving he was in many respects, although she did love him in her own fashion). Perhaps he was unaware that Edith, aged twenty-one at the time, was seven months pregnant on her wedding day, 22 April 1880. A certain pragmatism was involved on her part one has to assume.

Why Did She Marry Him?

Why did she marry him? Ah, say why!
How was her fancy caught?
What was the dream that he drew her by,
Or was she only bought?
Gave she her gold for a girlish whim,
A freak of a foolish mood?
Or was it some will, like a snake in him,
Lay a charm upon her blood?Love of his limbs, was it that, think you?
Body of bullock build,
Sap in the bones, and spring in the thew,
A lusty youth unspilled?
But is it so that a maid is won,
Such a maiden maid as she?
Her face like a lily all white in the sun,
For such mere male as he!
Ah, why do the fields with their white and gold
To Farmer Clod belong,
Who though he hath reaped and stacked and sold
Hath never heard their song?
Nay, seek not an answer, comfort ye,
The poet heard their call,
And so, dear Love, will I comfort me—
He hath thy lease, that’s all.
Although Bland family legend has it that Edith and Richard were passionately in love for a time, and that she threatened to leave Hubert for him on at least one occasion, their affair came to an end. Le Gallienne married three times and died in Menton on the French Riviera in 1947.
Le Gallienne also makes a very brief appearance in my first book, Wilde’s Women:
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Sarah Bernhardt & Damala the undead

One of the absolute stars of Wilde’s Women is French actress Sarah Bernhardt, a truly remarkable woman.

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In 1882, Sarah, who had no shortage of lovers, proposed to and married Aristides Damala, an aristocratic Greek army officer and playboy twelve years her junior. She should have listened to her son Maurice, who despised him and thought him an absolute scoundrel but she was besotted with him.

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Sarah Bernhardt with her son Maurice

The preening Damala had ambitions to act and, since no company would hire him, Sarah took over the Théâtre de l’Ambigu made him her leading man. The whole enterprise was a disaster. Damala, who had taken to calling himself Jacques by then, developed a voracious addiction to morphine and embarked on a very public affair with his leading lady. Sarah lost a fortune.

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Jane Hading and Aristides Damala, circa 1883 

Damala was a constant source of distress to his wife. On one occasion, one of his spurned lovers left her baby daughter, who she claimed he had fathered, in a basket on Sarah’s doorstep. In 1889, Sarah threw Damala out, but she took him back in order to nurse him as he lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-four. He died in a hotel room in Paris on 18 August 1889, and you can read his death notice from the New York Times here.

Sarah, a very talented sculptor, created this marble funerary portrait of her husband in death:

It is well worth seeking out further information on their very turbulent marriage. For me, the most interesting legacy Damala left is his possible influence on Dracula. On one occasion, when Bram Stoker dined with Damala backstage at the Lyceum, he noted:

I sat next to him at supper, and the idea that he was dead was strong on me. I think he had taken some mighty dose of opium, for he moved and spoke like a man in a dream. His eyes, staring out of his white, waxen face, seemed hardly the eyes of the living’.*

Certainly, Stoker was influenced by friends in shaping his most celebrated story. It was Jane Wilde who suggested Transylvania to him.

* Stoker, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, pp.345-6

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Oscar Wilde & The Davis Sisters

The Wilde family was prominent in the Dublin social scene, and well connected with other wealthy Dublin families. One such was the Davis family. Although both Hyman Davis, a dentist, and his wife, Isabella, were Londoners, they spent many years in Dublin and several of their eight children were born there. In the late 1870s, both Willie and Oscar were friendly with Dublin-born James ‘Jimmy’ Davis who, in a chequered career, was alternately a theatre writer, racing correspondent, theatre critic and solicitor.

Jimmy’s younger sister Eliza, who made her name as fashion columnist ‘Mrs Aria’, recorded her recollections of Oscar and Willie in her memoir, My Sentimental Self  (1922).

Both Oscar Wilde and Willie Wilde became frequent visitors, and in a public garden which spread its ill-kept lumpish lawn behind our dwelling we often played tennis together: Willie in a shirt showing some desire to be divorced from the top of his trousers, and Oscar in a high hat with his frock-coat tails flying and his long hair waving in the breeze.

Their connection did not end there. Eliza made her name as a journalist, editor of fashion magazine The World of Dress, and author of books on fashion and motoring. When she became involved in a long-term affair with Henry Irving, she suggested, to no avail, that he stage Wilde’s second play, The Duchess of Padua.

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Her intervention on Oscar’s behalf may be attributable to their youthful friendship but may also have been rooted in the fact that her older sister Julia, also a participant in their tennis parties, was given her first break in journalism as a result of an attempt to parody Oscar’s work. Eliza wrote:

Julia’s attempt at a parody of a villanelle by Oscar Wilde which had appeared in The World led to an interview with Edmund Yates [editor], who found in it some excuse for encouraging her to take up writing as a career.

adding,

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

Eliza Davis Aria gazes at a photo of her sister Julia

In 1906, six years after Oscar’s death, Julia, writing as Frank Danby, published a novel, The Sphinx’s Lawyer. In My Sentimental Self, Eliza described this book as Julia’s attempt ‘to defend the undefendable Oscar Wilde’.

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In an astonishing preface to The Sphinx’s Lawyeraddressed to her brother Jimmy, who wrote under the name Owen Hall, and who had fallen out spectacularly with Oscar, Julia declared:

‘Because you “hate and loathe” my book and its subject, I dedicate it to you’.  For, incidentally, your harsh criticism has intensified my conviction of the righteousness of the cause I plead, and revolt from your narrow judgment has strengthened me against any personal opprobrium that such pleading may bring upon me’

In the pages that follow, Oscar appears in the guise of Algernon Heseltine, a man treated unjustly by society because he ‘was not as others’ on account of his genius; ‘the applause changed to low suspicious muttering’, Julia observed. It seems certain, given the title of her novel, that Julia’s qualified defence of Oscar was also connected to her great friendship with Ada Leverson, Wilde’s ‘Wonderful Sphinx’.

Yet, although Julia lauded Oscar’s genius and characterised him as a martyr, The Sphinx’s Lawyer was no vindication since she suggested that Heseltine was mad and should ‘have been placed in safety, kept from spreading his disease, from working evil’.

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Her descriptions of Oscar, as ‘Heseltine’, facing his accusers, are worth reading:

The fire of his own genius had burnt Algernon’s youth.  The light that blazed about him obscured for him the minor rules of meaner men.  He saw more largely, amazing visions thronged, all sense of proportion became lost.  He was not as others.  He felt that, and at first the dazzled world which his personality fascinated saw it too, and applauded.  When the applause changed to low suspicious muttering, he became more flamboyant; he was supremely conscious of his gifts.

The end was not swift, yet it was upon him before he knew.  He stood before his accusers in the dock as a child might have stood, impudent, bewildered, irresponsible.  Those for whom he and his ailments held no meaning found him guilty, and sentenced him to a terrible end.  He was as a sick child, morally, mentally, physically, dazed, and failing.

For his fine hands, which had penned epic and philosophy, poem, and drama, there were bundles of tarred oakrum [sic].  When he failed over his task there was darkness, more appalling solitude, less food, stripes.  It ought to be incredible, but the whole bare truth is beyond it.  The personal degradation to which this man of genius was subjected, the outrages to his glimmering sense and dying manhood, made a martyr to him to those who knew.  (104–05)

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

An excerpt from Wilde’s Women:

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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!’

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Source:

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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