John Murray, £9.99, 374pp. £9.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Constance, By Franny Moyle
One reason for the continuing allure of the Wilde tragedy is that it took place in a still-recognisable London. Wilde ran up huge bills at Kettner's and the Savoy, just as we can. His sublime, timeless comedies continue to be reliable earners on the London stage. As their marriage fell apart, Constance Wilde sought solace with the manager of the still-thriving Hatchard's bookshop. It is very much a tale of today up to the last act. Instead of the modern outcome of the mariage blanc and the "My gay dad" headlines, the exotic Irishman was tried for indecency and punished with the medieval torture of the treadmill.
Oscar's beautiful but ailing wife fled abroad to protect her sons and herself. "Homosexuality was considered so vile," Moyle suggests, "that the wife of the man who was now confirmed in the minds of most as Britain's, if not Europe's, most notorious homosexual was also damned."
But for her sex, Constance was a perfect match for Oscar. Contrary to his view of her as "a grave, slight, violet-eyed Artemis", Moyle describes the 22-year-old Constance as "sexy, unconventionally precocious... a magnet and a flirt". Her mother was Irish and she had a considerable literary talent. Despite the famous image of her being clutched by her adoring son Cyril, this fashionable hostess and writer was far from mumsy.
Moyle provides a fascinating picture of marital breakdown as Oscar fell for Bosie. Constance emerges as proud and capable, but fallible. Weirdly, after Oscar managed a four-month separation from his toyboy, she re-sparked the affair by agreeing to him visiting Bosie in Paris. Her behaviour on the brink of Wilde's libel action, when she accompanied Wilde and Bosie to see The Importance of Being Earnest, does her great credit. But, as Moyle points out, "it was too little, far too late".
Moyle offers a practical explanation of why Wilde did not flee abroad before the fatal libel trial of 1895. His unpaid hotel bill was so huge that his luggage was impounded. "He allowed himself to be persuaded [by Bosie] that the loss of his luggage was a sufficient barrier to flight and that action through the courts would prove fruitful."
The Wildes were not reconciled following Oscar's release from prison. Constance erupted that he was "weak as water" in returning to Bosie. In 1898, she died at 39 due to complications following surgery. Oscar died two years later, aged 46, from meningitis. But after being enthralled by this valuable book, it is hard to resist the conclusion that both Wildes died from a broken heart.
BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital moveTV
Final Top Gear reviewTV
FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets
Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Tunisia hotel attack: Locals form 'human shield' to protect hotel from gunman Seifeddine Rezgui
- 2 Russian officials ban yoga because it's too much like a religious cult
- 3 German ethics council calls for incest between siblings to be legalised by Government
- 4 Ginger Pride festival to take place next summer, organisers say 'time of bullying gingers is over'
- 5 Facebook rainbow profile pictures likely being tracked by social network
Glastonbury 2015: The best bits you missed from Lionel Richie and the Dalai Lama to The Libertines' secret set
Glastonbury 2015: The picture of a man crowd surfing in a wheelchair is brilliant, but it wasn't taken at Glastonbury
Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James' Twitter Q&A didn't exactly go as planned
Guillaume Tell gang-rape scene causes uproar at the Royal Opera House
Glastonbury 2015: Shocking scenes of rubbish left strewn across campsite as clean-up begins
The moment a Queen's Guard soldier lost it and drew his gun at annoying tourist
Greece crisis: IMF was pushed around by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy – and now it is being humiliated
Greece crisis: The wider lesson is that it’s time to abandon this failed experiment in currencies
'I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State' – David Cameron unleashes frustration at broadcaster
Pentagon accuses Russia of 'playing with fire' over nuclear threats towards Nato
They are neither a 'state' nor 'Islamic': Why we shouldn't call them Isis, Isil or IS