John Murray £20

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde, By Franny Moyle

The importance of being in earnest denial

In her sympathetic and fascinating biography of Constance Wilde, Franny Moyle largely refrains from making judgements.

So it's something of a shock when she writes, on the start of Wilde's libel trial: "[Constance] was ... about to pay a high price for the streak of rebellion in her character that had led her into the arms of the man she now must have known was about to ruin her life."

Constance Lloyd was born into a well-to-do, upper-middle-class family in 1858, the second child of cold, distant parents. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother resented her only daughter's beauty; it wasn't long before bohemian Constance, favouring the loose, flowing dress of the Pre-Raphaelites, was attracting admirers. She preferred artistic types and fell passionately in love with the king of them all: Oscar Wilde. In spite of obstacles such as American heiresses and lengthy book tours, their relationship blossomed and he proposed. Wilde was then considered rather a ladies' man, Moyle notes, but already there were hints, by Constance's brother Otho, of more worrying tendencies.

Constance didn't want to know and it's hard not to like her stance and admire her brave challenge to society and determination to marry the man she wanted. Did she really "pay a high price" for that, as Moyle suggests? She was very happy for a long time – two children quickly followed the Wildes' marriage (Moyle hints that the second birth ended sexual relations between a couple which had, up until then, been passionate). But Constance wanted her life to be about more than a husband and babies, and she published children's stories (Moyle argues convincingly that she may have not simply transcribed Wilde's story, The Selfish Giant, but actually rewritten it), became involved with the women's suffrage movement, and studied spiritualism; this resulted in a very strange initiation ceremony which many believed she only did because Wilde wanted good material for a story.

As her husband's fame and fortune increased, so Constance became something of a celebrity in her own right. Is that why she ignored her husband's associations with handsome young men? It seems remarkable that she could have been unaware of his predilections, his nocturnal visits to opium dens and brothels. Moyle gives Constance the benefit of the doubt, but it seems a classic case of denial. Constance made too many trips away to friends' homes in the final years of their marriage for it to have been anything but running away from the truth. What cannot be denied, though, is that this brave, loyal woman lived up to her name, visiting her husband in prison and willing, even, to take him back. She died at the age of 40, after a botched operation. Constance lived a remarkable life, and, tragic though the end may have been, I wonder if she would have changed much of it.

Lesley McDowell is the author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers, published by Gerald Duckworth & Co, £16.99

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living