So much has been written about Oscar Wilde. But what about his wife, Constance? It’s wonderful that she has her own biography, from the author of Desperate Romantics (one of my favourite non-fiction books).
This an illuminating examination of Constance’s life, mainly focusing on the years between marrying Oscar and the trial that caused their final separation. I hadn’t read about her before reading the book, so it was a sad surprise to find that she died at the age of 40, two years before Oscar, and that their eldest son was a casualty of the First World War. There is a lot of sadness in her story, as their relationship broke down, leaving her to cope with the house and children on her own, and her illness (possibly multiple sclerosis) had a serious impact on her life. It’s difficult not to be mad at Oscar, genius though he was, for not treating her better, as a friend and the mother of his children. They needed to communicate more openly about Oscar’s sexuality, his extravagant lifestyle and Constance’s feelings. However, it’s easy from today’s point of view to criticise how closed society was.
We learn about Constance’s personality – timid but also earnest and strong-willed. She was involved with the rational dress movement (often ridiculed for her loose-flowing outfits that actually allowed her to move about), aestheticism, liberal politics and spiritualism. The biggest surprise for me was that she was a writer too and that Oscar seems to have been inspired by – possibly even taken the credit for – some of her work. If there is a flaw in this biography, it’s the excessive detail at times, such as when describing finances or diverting into the history of topics linked to Constance’s interests. There are two sections of black and white photographs, which perfectly illustrate her life. I’m glad I have read this book, but I wouldn’t re-read.
First published in 2011 by John Murray.