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Mrs Wilde, c. 1887

Heartbreak Betrayal and the Unimportance of being Mrs Oscar Wilde

Constance Wilde was the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency” (that is, consensual sex) with other men.

The circulation of such stories indicated a widespread desire to establish Constance as something other than a wife crushed by rejection and betrayal. Fortunately, the evidence of more than 300 of Constance’s unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this.

In some ways, Oscar and Constance were a good match. Both had troubled family histories: in his case a surgeon father accused by a former patient of raping her while she was anaesthetized, and in hers a grandfather who exposed himself by running around naked “in the sight of some nursemaids”, followed by a mother whose parenting techniques included “threatening with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall”.

More importantly, both husband and wife were clever and ambitious, and for the first few years of their marriage, their lives ran along parallel tracks. While he lectured on the need for women to abandon constricting corsets and dangerously flammable crinolines, she put the idea of “rational” dress into practice by wearing daringly baggy trousers and plenty of wool. His theories about the “house beautiful” were supported by her designs for their marital home in Chelsea, an ordinary red-brick villa that they transformed into a temple to aestheticism. Even Oscar’s disappearances into a hidden side of London’s nightlife found echoes in his wife’s experiments with the occult.

Seen with 20-20 hindsight, there were plenty of warnings that their marriage was built on sand. While Oscar had hoped to demonstrate “the pervading influence of art in matrimony”, from the start his love letters were suspiciously theatrical in tone as if he couldn’t quite tell the difference between affection and affectation.

More dangerous was Constance’s agreement to take in a lodger, Robbie Ross, a precocious 17-year-old who was already, as Moyle quaintly puts it, “a practising homosexual”, and who promptly found someone else to practise with by seducing his host.

Finally, most serious of all, there was the trust she placed in Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the pouting and grasping acolyte who soon learnt that he could twist Oscar around his little finger.

With a comfortable income provided by her grandfather, Constance Lloyd had the luxury of viewing marriage as a choice. In the fall of 1880, twenty-one-year-old Constance was living apart from her mother and experiencing London life fully for the first time. She wrote to her brother:

“I cannot say I prefer the life I am leading at present. If I eventually do not marry, I will not live with Auntie all my life, I shall do something… I want something specific to do to prevent my continually dreaming ‘til I get perfectly morbid.”

London in the 1880s was a place where women could increasingly roam freely among certain artistic circles, especially among the Aesthetics. Grosvenor Gallery welcomed women and their friends to converse with artists and sometimes show their own art. London’s first restaurant for women, Dorothy’s, opened on the highly-trafficked Oxford Street with a radical proposition — a place for women to sit and eat alone.

Constance Lloyd was a driven, creative, passionate, humorous, and fiercely modern woman, both when she wed Wilde and when she separated from him.

Art schools and galleries began to fill with young women, no longer satisfied with simply playing the muse, who desired to create. For a middle class of women who were neither required to work nor aristocratically obligated to marry, art offered both intellectual fulfilment and the possibility of a career.

These women were encouraged by the Aesthetics, a fashionable social set that included painters James MacNeil Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, actress Ellen Terry, and poet Charles Swinburne. It was a circle in which young Constance Lloyd found herself enthralled and seduced by its rising star, the critic, poet, and Playboy Oscar Wilde, the twentieth century’s first pop culture celebrity.

Born Constance Mary Lloyd she did not have a happy childhood since her mother abused her verbally and physically. Her father died early and the negative experiences with her mother made her shy and a bit withdrawn. The Wildes and the Lloyds knew each other since the Irish years so when Constance met Oscar they weren’t strangers.

Constance emerged a chronically shy but talented young woman. The beautiful and headstrong Constance was “frankly sexy and unconventionally precocious” when she was first embraced by Britain’s Aesthetic elite and came to the notice of the flamboyant Oscar Wilde.

When Oscar Wilde first visited her in 1881 she was ‘shaking with fright’. Just over two years later Constance Lloyd wrote to her beloved brother: ‘Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news. I’m engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.’

Despite her brother Otho’s warnings (he had heard “something” about Oscar) she idolised him from the start. It seemed to have been a love-match and they seemed happy together.

Otho Lloyd congratulated his prospective brother-in-law by the next post: ‘If Constance makes as good a wife as she has been a good sister to me, your happiness is certain. She is staunch and true.’ And indeed she was.

But no one could possibly have imagined what future heartbreak and shame Oscar Wilde presented to his wife within the heart-shaped engagement ring he designed himself.

There are the wives of famous men consigned to the shadows. In the case of Oscar Wilde, popular belief sees the gay man marrying for convenience (and children) before reverting to his true sexuality. Even his work has been overshadowed by the image of a precious, witty, man-about-town, sporting a green carnation.
Oscar Wilde genuinely loved her – at least, at first. And with good reason. Pretty, energetic, intelligent and talented, Constance Wilde was a thoroughly modern woman.

Rebelling against her dreadful mother and espousing radical causes – from supporting striking dockers to arguing that women should wear less cumbersome clothes – Constance was certainly somebody worth knowing.

An early feminist, she had bold, innovative ideas about fashion and interior design and wrote children’s stories, too. This young woman was perfectly equipped to become half of a celebrity couple.

Constance with her son Cyril in 1889

When she married Oscar, Constance had only experienced the creative half of bohemian life — the sexual side remained the domain of Oscar alone, first with women, and then passionately with men.

In 1882, the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act was an improvement on the previously nonexistent legal rights held by married women. When Constance married Oscar in 1884, a woman could now own, buy, or sell the property, was responsible for her own debts, and was her own legal entity, separate from her husband.

Constance was an engaging portrait of a woman who was very much her own person and one whose intellectual and emotional predispositions matched many of those in the man she married. Constance was no unwitting victim, but her susceptibility to the influence of others contributed to some extraordinarily bad decisions.

Constance spoke French, read Italian, painted with more than ordinary skill and was intellectually curious. She enthusiastically embraced the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, publicly championing the emerging feminist passion for greater freedoms in dress and behaviour, and becoming a fashion icon. Ironically, Constance was an accomplished children’s writer but a neglectful mother. Her nursery stories were published by a prestigious firm, and Constance may even have been responsible for rewriting Wilde’s splendid tale of “The Selfish Giant.” As Mrs Oscar Wilde, she was the perfect brand extension of her decadent husband’s celebrity in social taste and style. Clearly, she very much enjoyed the role.

Oscar and Constance began married life happily in 1884, and by all indications, they were much in love.

But over the next ten years, Constance and Oscar shared a life of increasing public fame and domestic sadness. The pair had two children immediately after their wedding, but as Constance laboured hard through her second pregnancy, Oscar began to reconsider the romantic and sexual nature of their life together. He wrote to a friend:

There are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance—that is all. Our most fiery moments of ecstasy are mere shadows of what somewhere else we have felt, or what we long someday to feel…Sometimes I think the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and am sorry that it is so.

By dividing his devotion to marriage with his romantic pleasures, Oscar and Constance experienced a partnership that expanded the definition of what it meant to be independent, and what it meant to be alone. Constance became a champion of dress reform, and a figurehead of Oscar’s new women’s magazine, in which he advocated that “we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel.” Less generous admirers saw Constance as a fanatic, dipping her toe into whatever cause was fashionable, from votes for women to spiritualism.

Oscar, Constance and Cyril Wilde 1892

It would be wrong to think of Oscar’s marriage as a cover-up of his real self. Seven months after their wedding in 1884 he wrote to Constance from Scotland:

‘I feel your fingers in my hair and your cheeks brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours.’

So – love there was and frustration at the separations ‘that keep our lips from kissing’.

But this fashionable couple embarked on a dangerous path, believing in freedom and independence as much as any self-consciously ‘cool’ partnership in our own time. Right from the beginning, they spent too much time apart. Then, just one year after writing the passionate letter above, Wilde confessed to a friend that the romantic feelings he once held for his wife had shifted into ‘a curious mixture of ardour and indifference’.

Intelligent and imaginative as she undoubtedly was, Constance must have observed that her husband was inordinately fond of the company of young men. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) raised eyebrows because of its focus on male beauty, but Constance was apparently ‘immune to the insinuations’.
She doted on her eldest son, neglected Vyvyan and ignored the chasm opening up within her marriage. Even her closest friend – perhaps scenting danger – told her to slow down.
Which is not to blame Constance in any way for the tragedy that befell her family. That was left to the poisonous Lord Alfred Douglas, who dragged Oscar Wilde into the depths and then (years later) had the insolence to reproach the wronged wife for what happened.

‘Bosie’ was a spoilt, effete young aristocrat who entered Wilde’s life as a fan and became his lover and destroyer. Wilde was smitten by the beautiful young man, but his passion turned into a fatal addiction.

Oscar supported Constance’s enthusiasm for women’s rights, for “rational” dress, and for a literary career of her own. Devoted parents, the Wildes began publishing stories for children at around the same time. Harsh new rulings on homosexuality were introduced to England in 1885. At about this time, with their sexual connection on the wane after the difficult birth of their second son, Vyvyan, the Wildes welcomed young Robbie Ross into their home.

Robbie, a loyal friend to both throughout the rest of their lives, became Oscar’s lover. The situation was not uncommon in the “greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery” world inhabited by the Wildes. Oscar dropped hints to various young men that his sexual preferences had changed; Constance, with seeming innocence, welcomed them all as family friends. No boat was rocked.

Constance’s own restlessness and wish for independence contributed to the making of the disaster named Alfred Douglas.

Spoilt, selfish and vastly in love with what he believed was his own genius, Bosie (the name derived from Lady Queensberry’s pet-name of “Boysie” for her third son) entered the Wildes’ life in 1891.

Constance, immersed in spiritualism (she did herself no favours in that murky world by reporting to Oscar on the secret rituals involved in joining the ludicrous Order of the Golden Dawn), was often absent from home. Oscar, while addressing his wife as “the great lamp” of a cathedral shrine, made ominous reference – in that same moving dedication of his second collection of children’s stories – to “individual side chapels” dedicated to “other saints”.

A warning had been given. By the summer of 1892, Bosie Douglas had usurped Constance’s place. But following Wilde’s break with his expensive, tempestuous and untalented young lover (Bosie’s translation from the French of Wilde’s Salome was so poor that it had to be rewritten by the embarrassed author), it was Constance who succumbed to Lord Alfred’s pleas. In February 1894, she invited him to return.

All too well known is the inglorious part played by Bosie in Wilde’s vertiginous downfall, in 1895, at the height of his fame. It was Bosie who urged Wilde to prosecute Lord Queensberry for the infamous “posing Somdomite” card left, without an envelope, at Wilde’s club. It was Bosie’s careless gifts of suits, their pockets still filled with incriminating letters, that linked Wilde to the world of rent-boys into which his young lover had led him. It was Bosie who hurt Constance’s reputation most, by declaring her responsible for the failure of Wilde’s marriage.

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

What Constance understood about homosexuality is unknown, but it is nearly inconceivable that she could not have been aware of the sexual ambiguity displayed by Oscar’s manner and style or the sexual allusions that filled his poetry. Early indications of Oscar’s sexual interest in men and his inability to be financially responsible or reliable as a parent were not initially troubling to her or to her own lifestyle. For Oscar’s part, marriage to Constance was not initially a cover-up for his true sexuality.

Constance managed to deny the behaviour implicit in Oscar’s long and increasingly frequent sojourns away from home in the company of male friends, his neglect of his children, the vicious rumours of lewd escapades with “rent boys” and, finally, his passionate attachment to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas.

On the one hand, Oscar frequented expensive hotels, lavishing money he didn’t have on Bosie, as well as entertaining ‘renters’ and behaving with increasing recklessness.

On the other hand, Constance’s ‘beloved Oscar’ could dedicate his second book of fairy tales to his wife in loving and uplifting language. Wilde was pulled in two directions, but it was the manipulative, demanding, greedy, selfish Bosie who won.

The facts of the notorious libel case against Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and the subsequent trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency – resulting in two years’ hard labour – are well known.

By the early 1890s, the Wildes led increasingly separate lives. Oscar pursued individualism, and Constance, by nature a fanatic, became involved in one fad after another. Constance’s deep friendship with Georgina Cowper-Temple, the widow of a Whig statesman and philanthropist, became intense. She spent an excessive amount of time at Georgina’s home when she should have been seen publicly in London socialising with her husband or at least kerbing his spending and insisting he come home occasionally.

Clearly, the poisonous homosexual relationship with Bosie was the addiction that ultimately brought down the marriage and the playwright. But equally at play was Constance’s determined denial of her reality.

Constance was always wandering — she was always on the move and never home long enough to confront the disturbing facts of Oscar’s life or its implications for herself and her children.

Constance’s life with Oscar was brief — a little more than ten years as London’s most famous literary couple — when in 1895 the secret life he led with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas exploded publicly, first in a libel suit, then in a criminal suit for sodomy that sent Wilde to prison for two years.

Wilde was a married man with two children when he was sent to prison in Reading. As the scandal became fact his wife Constance Lloyd Wilde quickly got herself and their two sons out of England. She was equally exiled and she did change her family name back to Holland. As a wife, she remained loyal and never applied for a divorce. She even visited him occasionally while he was in prison. She also came and delivered the news his mother had passed away.

Portrait of Constance Lloyd by Louis William Desanges 1882.

The idea of women being treated as status symbols is not a modern phenomenon. Trophy wives from Victorian times were smarter, better rounded and more cultured than those we associate with the term in today’s popular culture.

Although the valuing of women according to their beauty has been dated back for centuries, the arrival of the Aesthetic Movement in the second half of the nineteenth century generated new standards for female beauty. These men surrounded themselves with fashion, art, and interior design in order to reach a level of refinement that elevated their lives to a work of art.

Oscar Wilde’s wife Constance Lloyd also embraced the Aesthetic Movement, styling herself carefully to fit in with the ideals her husband championed.

People began to live their lives like an artwork.

[The Aesthetic Movement was a literary and artistic movement which flourished in England in the 1880s, devoted to ‘art for art’s sake’ and rejecting the notion that art should have a social or moral purpose. Its chief exponents included Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Aubrey Beardsley. The freedom of creative expression and sensuality that Aestheticism promoted exhilarated its adherents, but it also made them the object of ridicule among conservative Victorians. Nonetheless, by rejecting art’s traditionally didactic obligations and focusing on self-expression, the Aesthetic movement helped set the stage for global, twentieth-century modern art.]

Oscar Wilde with the architect of his downfall, Lord by Gillman & Co, gelatin silver print, May 1893

Though unapologetic about his sexual behaviour, Oscar’s treatment of his wife and children left him writhing with remorse. His fairy tales may have been covert confessions of these feelings, given their emphasis on personal sacrifice, but Constance was far from being merely a spurned wife. She, too, had an affair, writing slyly to her lover that he would make “an ideal husband”, and in some ways she was just as much of a pioneer, with her interests in socialism and pacifism, her involvement in women’s rights, and her enthusiasm for ventures such as Dorothy’s Restaurant, where women could dine – and more shockingly smoke – alone.

She might even have raised a rueful smile at the historical irony that she once took Oscar along to meet a friend in Dorothy’s. After all, it must have taken a certain comic resilience, as well as genuine sadness, for her to have written that it was pointless being jealous of the young men who were taking up so much of her husband’s time, “when I know that the one I am jealous of fills a place that I cannot fill”.

Constance lived at the edge of what was fashionable and what was acceptable. A champion of women’s rights, she used her place as the queen of London’s literary society to accomplish social and political reform.

Funerary monument, Monumental Cemetery of Staglieno, Genoa.

In the tragic final years, Constance was often presented as a hard and unforgiving woman, but she should be more convincingly portrayed as a valiant wife. She visited Wilde in prison. She paid his expenses when he left it. She planned, as he did, for a reunion. When Bosie (“that dreadful person”) resurfaced with more appetising invitations, Constance accused Wilde only of being “weak as water.”

A mysterious ill health—headaches, joint pains, weakness and trembling in the limbs, partial facial paralysis and exhaustion continued to plague her in the exile. According to The Guardian, “speculative theories [about her death] have ranged from spinal damage following a fall downstairs to syphilis caught from her husband.” However, again according to The Guardian, Merlin Holland, grandson of Oscar Wilde, “unearthed medical evidence within private family letters, which has enabled a doctor to determine the likely cause of Constance’s demise. The letters reveal symptoms nowadays associated with multiple sclerosis but apparently wrongly diagnosed by her two doctors”.

Constance sought help from two doctors. One of them was a “nerve doctor” from Heidelberg, Germany who resorted to dubious remedies. The second doctor was a high-society surgeon named Luigi Maria Bossi and he conducted two operations (for uterine fibroid) in 1895 and 1898, the latter of which ultimately led to her death. According to The Lancet, “the surgery Bossi performed in December 1895 was probably an anterior vaginal wall repair to correct urinary difficulties from a presumed bladder prolapse. In retrospect, the actual problem was probably neurogenic and not structural in origin.” Bossi was also a professor of gynaecology at Genoa University and a fellow of the British Gynecological Society. Bossi fell out with his colleagues for championing surgery to fix now-discredited “pelvic madness.”

During the second surgery in April 1898 Bossi probably “did not attempt a hysterectomy but merely excised the tumour in a myomectomy”. However, shortly after the surgery Constance developed uncontrollable vomiting, which led to dehydration and death. The immediate cause of death was likely severe paralytic ileus, which developed either as a result of the surgery itself or of intra-abdominal sepsis (blood poisoning). “Ultimately, both Bossi and Constance met their ends tragically: he by the bullet of an assassin and she by the knife of an irresponsible surgeon.”. Bossi was killed by a jealous husband of one of his patients.

When she died in exile in Italy at the young age of thirty-nine, she was separated from Oscar and living under a pseudonym. Her grave had no mention of her famous husband until many years later when her brother added the no-longer-tarnished title, “Wife of Oscar Wilde.”

Wilde (he died two years later, in 1900) laid flowers on her grave in Genoa. Douglas, briefly imprisoned himself for libelling Winston Churchill, continued to diminish her. (Outliving them all, he died of heart failure in Lancing, in 1945.)

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