She was a mother who created a son in her own image, revelled in his glittering success, but suffered alongside him in his downfall. When she died at 75, nine months after he was jailed, there was no memorial to the woman who had taken the literary world by storm long before he did, and no compassion from the Establishment. Her deathbed request that Oscar be allowed to visit her was refused.
She was buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green, west London. If Oscar had still been feted by society and free, instead of incarcerated in Reading jail, Lady Wilde would no doubt have had her tombstone. But in an apparent omission, a token sum was never paid by any other relative to ensure the cemetery marked her grave.
Now the contribution of a woman who did so much to shape her brilliant son is to be recognised in a plaque unveiled by Mary O'Rourke, deputy leader of Fianna Fail, on the last empty panel on the family grave in Mount Jerome, Dublin. It reads: "Jane Francesca, Lady Wilde. 'Speranza' of The Nation. Writer, translator, poet and nationalist, author of works on Irish folklore, early advocate of equality for women and founder of a literary salon."
Merlin Holland, her great-grandson, whose surname remains a testament to the social ostracism that forced Wilde's children to change their name, says: "Oscar and 'Speranza' adored each other. Genetically, he got an enormous amount from her - the rebellious spirit, the love of all things Irish, and conversational brilliance."
Born Jane Elgee in Dublin in 1821, Lady Wilde began her career writing poetry for the revolutionary nationalist newspaper The Nation under the name John Fanshawe Ellis. When the editor asked to meet "this Mr Ellis" he was amazed to see a tall girl with "flashing brown eyes and features cast in an heroic mould".
At 30 she married William Wilde, a polymath who combined ear and eye surgery with antiquarianism, pioneering statistical work and a devotion to Irish folklore. He also had three illegitimate children.
Lady Wilde, as she became in 1864, ran a successful literary salon, first in Dublin, then London, attended by the likes of W B Yeats, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ruskin and Browning.
Oscar, her younger son, used it to practise his wit, but it was his mother who led the way. But as Oscar's star fell, so did Lady Wilde's. Guests at her gatherings in Oakley Street, Chelsea, remarked spitefully on her bizarre dress sense, unconventional attitudes and the way her hair hung down her back.
When Oscar was finally jailed for homosexuality after a damning, widely reported trial at the Old Bailey, a sad anecdote has the elderly Lady Wilde turning over in bed and saying only: "May it help him."Reuse content