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.

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