Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew, by Eleanor Fitzsimmons - book review

Duckworth Overlook - £20

Lesley McDowell
Sunday 25 October 2015 15:31

“There is one thing worth living for, and that is sin.” Not an aphorism attributed to Oscar Wilde as one might think, but rather to his bohemian and outspoken mother, Jane. How much Wilde was his mother’s son is clear from this engaging and sympathetic biography, which also illuminates extremely well the circles of artistic and literary women of the time.

The women in Wilde’s plays were no pushovers; they were intelligent, strong and individual. And they didn’t come out of a vacuum. Fitzsimmons gives us Jane Wilde first, the dominant force in Wilde’s early life, who characterised herself as “Speranza”, Ireland’s foremost female poet (as she saw herself). Her physician husband was pretty colourful too, having fathered illegitimate children before he met Jane (two daughters would die in a horrific fire) and was subject to an accusation of rape. When he died, Jane was left with little but her own wiles, and so she moved from Dublin to London, where she held literary soirees in Chelsea.

Wilde cannot help but be framed by Jane, and his wife, Constance, who echoed her mother-in-law’s values. But not long after the birth of their second child, Wilde was “constructing a façade”. Fitzsimmons quotes Yeats who spent Christmas Day with the young family and who found that “the perfect harmony … suggested some deliberate artistic composition”. Because of Wilde’s later exposure, and perhaps because of his plays about London society, biographers often downplay this suggestion of artifice often associated with him. The “reality” of Wilde then becomes Reading Gaol and an early death in Paris. But Fitzsimmons is showing us another kind of reality here. She shows us a real person when we see him through the eyes of the many women who knew him, as well as his mother and wife.

Ada Leverson, for example, knew Constance but liked to entertain Wilde and Bosie at her home, too. Women seemed less judgemental of his personal life and perhaps he felt he could be himself in their company. And when he did affect a change in manner, it was often out of consideration for other women: Fitzsimmons notes that Wilde would tone down his personality at his mother’s soirees, so as not to outshine her, though he was by far the bigger “celebrity”.

The Wilde that emerges here then is a more considerate, more thoughtful, perhaps less decadent one than we are used to. He loses none of his daring and none of his subversive qualities, but he acquires a new sympathy as a son, husband, father, friend. He may have achieved notoriety for “living for sin”, but the women in his life knew another man, too.

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