From sidelines to limelight

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Old 22-Jul-2011
From sidelines to limelight

The first X-rated film I ever went to was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. For three quarters of an hour, nothing much happened, but all the time you could hear the terrible distant sound of a chainsaw in the background.

The tension lay in the waiting. Before a single murder had taken place, I had become so terrified by the sound of this saw that I could take it no longer — and found myself scuttling out of the cinema into the sunshine of Leicester Square.

In this regard, reading this biography of Oscar Wilde's wife Constance is a little like watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: For the first 200 pages you follow this attractive, intelligent, wealthy, rather earnest woman through her difficult childhood, her marriage to the brightest of the bright young things, the birth of their children, her various pastimes and good causes, and it all makes for perfectly pleasant reading.

But present at all times is the background buzz of the chainsaw.

Franny Moyle heightens the tension by performing the now-obligatory biographer's trick of starting her book with a cliff-hanger — that is, not with the birth of great-great-grandparents or a description of everyday life in 19th century Dublin but at the moment before the lightning strikes.

Sitting in their Chelsea house, Constance Wilde opens a note that says: "Dear Constance ... I am coming to see you at nine o'clock. Please be in — it is important. Ever yours, Oscar." Though she does not know it, this is the beginning of the end: Within three months, her husband will be doing hard labour in Reading Gaol, the most reviled man in the country, while Constance herself will be semi-paralysed by a poisonous mix of shame, rage and love. Three years later, she will be dead.

Constance came from a similar Dublin background — comfortable, slightly eccentric — to Oscar's. Both their fathers had illegitimate children and both were subject to scandal.

Like Oscar, she had an overbearing mother who seems to have taunted her and beaten her, which in turn made her extremely shy and left her with a low opinion of herself. In fact, she had plenty of beauty — a visitor to the Royal Academy thought she was a Rossetti painting come to life — and it is easy to see how the overwhelming attention of the mellifluous Oscar would have given her a belief in her own intellect. At their second meeting she was shaking with fear but his charm helped evaporate her self-doubt.

At the height of their romance, Constance's brother sent her a letter warning her that he had heard a very unsavoury story about Oscar; the letter crossed with hers declaring that they were engaged. "I don't wish to know the story but even if there were foundations for anything against him it is too late to affect me now," she said. In the years ahead, the suggestion of wilful ignorance hovers over her marriage.

When they got married, Oscar was famous for being famous, rather than for his stories or his plays. So Constance's family money came in handy, and the two were able to lead a comfortable life in Chelsea.

As she grew in confidence, she began to disagree with Oscar on various issues — for instance, she believed that art and morality were indivisible, whereas he was the most notable proponent of art for art's sake. But they seemed to rub along.

Constance loved Oscar but did Oscar love Constance? His letters to her now seem dreadfully camp ("O execrable facts, that keep our lips from kissing, though our souls are one ... ").

But they had two sons and all seems to have been well in that department, though Frank Harris later claimed that Oscar told him that, after a year or so, Constance "became heavy, shapeless, deformed ... with drawn blotched face and hideous body ... oh! I cannot recall it, it is all loathsome." Franny Moyle quotes this but fails to add that Harris was a pathological fibber.

It can't be denied, though, that, for Oscar, the novelty of domestic life soon dwindled. "I myself would sacrifice everything for a new experience," he wrote to another friend after a year of marriage. His aphorisms, too, display an underlying contempt for the very idea of marriage, at least to a woman: "Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same."

"In married life, three is company and two none." "One should always be in love. That is the reason why one should never marry." These are jokes, of course, but every joke, no matter how preposterous, contains a jagged shard of truth.

In many ways, Constance blossomed in her marriage, pursuing her own interests and causes with great zeal. She wrote articles and theatre reviews, and became increasingly attached to political and feminist causes, speaking at fundraising events and marching alongside striking dockers.

But she always seems to have been looking for a greater purpose in life. She was a devotee of Theosophy, with its mixed bag of spiritualism and Eastern philosophy, and joined a weird society called The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, established for "the study of Occult Science, and the further investigation of the Mysteries of Life and Death, and our Environment".

Meanwhile, her husband had begun numerous affairs, first with their 17-year-old lodger Robbie Ross and then with virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry whom he managed to pick up as he cruised around the West End.

Like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, Franny Moyle's Constance shows that even walk-on characters occupy centre stage in their own lives. While the whole crushing drama was self-willed by Oscar, Constance was its entirely innocent victim. There is something very moving about seeing it through her eyes.

She behaved very decently throughout his incarceration and beyond, travelling from the Continent to Reading Gaol just to ensure that she would be the one to break the news of his beloved mother's death to him, and, later, making sure that he had money on his release. "Try not to be hard on your father. Remember that he is your father and he loves you," she wrote to her younger son, Vyvyan.

She died aged 39, in 1898, after an operation. Oscar Wilde told a friend he was "overwhelmed by grief", and there is no reason to disbelieve him. He himself died just two years later, an outcast. "The suspense is terrible," Oscar had joked, "I hope it will last." But, of course, it never does.

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde
By Franny Moyle,John Murray,
384 pages,

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