The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

London in the 1880s was a city where a woman could create a life of her own, socially, intellectually, and artistically. 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 fulfillment 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.

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. But as Franny Moyle reveals in Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (public library), Constance Lloyd was a driven, creative, passionate, humorous, and fiercely modern woman, both when she wed Wilde and when she separated from him.

Constance in her early-twenties, before her marriage to Oscar Wilde. She is wearing controversial “aesthetic” dress, with a loose-fitting blouse and sleeves for extra movement.

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.

William Powell Firth, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. To the right, Oscar Wilde and his set are portrayed in aesthetic dress while listening to his lecture.

In these new places, Constance found like-minded men and women with whom she could converse and engage with socially and intellectually. In her first letters to her new beau Oscar, she dared to disagree with his opinions on art:

I’m afraid you & I disagree in our opinion on art, for I hold that there is no perfect art without perfect morality, whilst you say they are distinct & separable things.

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 property, was responsible for her own debts, and was her own legal entity, separate from her husband. (In 1858, Isabella Robinson, on trial for adultery, wasn’t even allowed to be present in the divorce court — her only voice was her diary, read aloud by the prosecution.)

Archibald Grosvenor, an idyllic poet, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Patience.’ The hit musical, was a satire on the Aesthetic movement and its most famous members, including Oscar Wilde.

In a letter after their engagement, Constance was nothing but smitten with her love:

How can I answer your letters, they are far too beautiful for any words of mine, I can only dream of you all day long…If you had your magic crystal you would see nothing, believe me, but your own dear image there forever, and in my eyes you shall see reflected nought but my love for you.

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 labored 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 Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony in New York in 1882, two years before his marriage to Constance.

Perhaps her interests were wide-ranging because unlike a conventional married woman of the time, she didn’t simply live one life, with one devotion to house and home. Oscar taught her the ways of a divided love, as freeing or as painful as that might be. In his second book of fairy-tales, Constance was surprised to read Oscar’s dedication to her:

To you the Cathedral is dedicated. The individual side chapels are to other saints… The candles that burn at the side altars are not so bright or beautiful as the great lamp of the shrine which is of gold, and that has a wonderful heart of restless flame.

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. When she died in exile in Italy at the young age of forty, 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.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

Published January 21, 2014




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