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

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