Tag Archives: William Wilde

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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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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Jane Elgee & William Wilde: ‘Wed on Wednesday, Happy Match’

On 12 November 1851 Dr William Wilde married Jane Elgee at St. Peter’s on Aungier Street, Dublin. Here’s an excerpt from my book, Wilde’s Women to mark the occasion:

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Excerpt from Chapter 3: Taming Speranza

Shortly after eight o’clock on the morning of Wednesday, 12 November 1851, , a carriage brought Dr. William Wilde and Jane’s uncle John Elgee to the door of 34 Leeson Street, the home she had shared with her mother, recently deceased, for the past eight years. To the men’s surprise, Jane was ready to leave, allowing them to reach St. Peter’s on Aungier Street [1], her parish church, in time for a nine o’clock wedding. The modest ceremony that joined ‘William R. Wilde Esq., F.R.C.S.’ and ‘Jane Francesca’ was conducted by the groom’s older brother, Reverend John M. Wilde. For the occasion, Jane had exchanged her mourning clothes for a, ‘very rich dress of Limerick lace’ with matching veil worn under a head wreath of white flowers, but she was back in black by eleven o’clock that same morning.

Both bride and groom were well known in the capital, and their dozens of acquaintances would surely have delighted in witnessing the sealing of such a dynamic alliance, but a lavish wedding would have been inappropriate on account of Sarah’s death. Describing the day to the bride’s estranged sister, Emily, Elgee hinted that the couple had married a day earlier than expected and confirmed: ‘nobody were present save our own party and the old hangers on of the church’. Perhaps they desired an auspicious start to their married life. An old folk rhyme beloved of Victorian brides advised: ‘Wed on Wednesday, happy match’. Theirs was certainly happy, but it did not lack turbulence.

After a celebratory breakfast at the Glebe house, Elgee waved the newlyweds off on their short journey to the coastal village of Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, where they caught the steamer to Holyhead. Judging by his letter to Emily, he was determined to improve relations between the sisters: ‘I don’t want to see open war between you and them’, he cautioned. Acknowledging that, ‘love of self’ was a prominent feature of Jane’s flamboyant character, he countered by insisting that she possessed, ‘some heart’ and, ‘good impulses’. It reassured him that she had chosen for her husband a man she clearly liked and respected: ‘Had she married a man of inferior mind he would have dwindled down into insignificance or their struggle for superiority would have been terrific’, he warned.

Notes & Sources:

[1] This was the church where her literary uncle by marriage, Charles Maturin served as Anglican Curate for the last eighteen years of his life.

Much of the detail in this post comes from a letter sent by John Elgee to Emily Warren. This letter was shown to Terence de Vere White and he quotes from it in ‘Speranza’s Secret’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 1980.

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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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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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