Entertainment Book Reviews

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Books: Oscar Wilde's father was also a scandal

Fiction: The Diary of Mary Travers, Eibhear Walshe, Somerville Press, tpbk, €14.99

Published 26/07/2014 | 00:00

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Mary Travers
William Wilde
The Diary of Mary Travers

Mary Shine Thompson on the story of the notorious affair between William Wilde and Mary Travers

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A larger-than-life version of the cover photograph of Eibhear 
Walshe's new book can be seen by anyone entering the National Library in Dublin. It shows a Victorian matron striding past the library's columns, skirts swirling, the epitome of blue-stocking respectability.

The real-life Mary Travers, however, was somewhat less respectable in the Dublin of that time; it was she who initiated a notorious courtroom drama against one of the most innovative doctors of the 19th century, William Wilde, father of Oscar. This book is a novel based on that story, seen from her perspective.

Few people recall the downfall of William Wilde, who revolutionised the treatment of middle-ear infections. It is a tragic irony that an untreated middle-ear infection ultimately killed his famous son, Oscar. Yet only Oscar's cause célèbre a generation later eclipsed the Travers-Wilde scandal.

Today a plaque stands on what was once the Wilde home at number 1, Merrion Square, not far from the National Library, celebrating William, the "ophthalmic surgeon, archaeologist, ethnologist, antiquarian, statistician, antiquarian, biographer, naturalist, topographer, historian, folklorist". He somehow also found time to work as assistant commissioner on the census, thereby earning himself a knighthood.

Had he not met Mary Travers, nor fathered Oscar with his eccentric wife Jane - she wrote nationalistic verse under the pen name Speranza - he would still have secured his place as an eminent Victorian.

Eibhear Walshe, who lectures in English at UCC and whose previous books include Oscar's Shadow, could hardly have chosen a more scandalous topic for his novel.

William had a way with women, and had skirted scandal long before Travers darkened his door. Before marrying the redoubtable Speranza, he had fathered three natural children, and was heartbroken when the two young daughters tragically died after their dresses caught fire. He trained Henry, his natural son, to be an oculist like himself.

The burning question in mid-1860s Dublin was whether or not William had had his way with Travers - or she with him? Did they enjoy an 'intimacy' (her term) or 'an acquaintanceship' (his)?

Their 'intrigue' certainly lit up the dull existence of a plain woman with few prospects. Mary had divided her time between the homes of her separated and warring parents - the ineffectual, long-suffering father (a professor of medical jurisprudence and a colleague of William), and the mean-spirited but dutiful mother.

Mary was no match for the canny Speranza, who welcomed her into the Wilde home, thereby denying William the allure of forbidden fruit. Mary failed to see through Speranza's strategy.

Walshe's novel cleverly fleshes out available historical accounts of this Victorian drama - and takes some sensible liberties with them. He successfully conveys the passions and the 'dismissive certainties' throbbing behind Mary's voluminous lace ruffs. He shows her developing notions about being a writer, like her hostess, only for Lady Wilde to dash them with some truthful if vengeful criticism.

Inevitably, William lost interest in Mary and moved on to other conquests. She took her revenge on him; and, in the process, on herself. Full of pique, she picketed a public lecture by William and distributed pamphlets brazenly written under the pen name 'Speranza', in which a Dr Quilp - unmistakably William - raped his young female patient. Speranza complained to Mary's father. Mary sued. At the trial, William refused to take the stand.

And, because truth is stranger than fiction, counsel for Speranza was the barrister and MP, Isaac Butt. Once they too had kept gossips busy with their romantic entanglement. This deterred neither of them, however, and Lady Wilde performed magnificently on the witness stand.

The courts valued Mary's reputation at a farthing. The legal cost of the Wildes' salvation came to a whopping £2,000. Although William's influential friends rallied round, his health never recovered and he retired to the west of Ireland. The scandal also proved the ruination of Mary's father's career: he was humiliatingly passed over for the position of Assistant Keeper in Marsh's Library.

In Walshe's telling of the story, Travers only becomes aware of this in late middle age, when she reflects on the episode that marked her a fallen woman. When we encounter her, almost three decades have passed. She is living incognito in Cork with her sister, following press reports of Oscar Wilde's trial.

It is April 1895 and Oscar's libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry is on in London at the Old Bailey, with Oscar facing public disgrace and imprisonment if he loses. In Cork, Mary is increasingly troubled by the growing public outcry.

She has kept her own past a secret and dreads exposure. The people around her in Cork do not know that it was she, as a young woman, who had sued Jane Wilde for libel in the notorious court case in Dublin which had filled the newspapers for weeks.

In Walshe's novel, this controversial case is re-imagined for the first time through Mary's eyes, and in her diary she reveals her own part in the scandal. She now quietly concedes to the non-judgmental pages of her diary that she just might have encouraged William's advances.

She has not lost her capacity for deception, however. Walshe shows her systematically taking advantage of the Victorian predilection for providing charity to distressed gentlewomen - despite having stashed away a tidy income. His eye for the telling detail is sharp and he keeps his readers in suspense throughout.

This is Walshe's first novel and it's a delight. But then, he already has several eminently readable scholarly works to his credit.

And his 2010 book, Cissie's Abattoir, about growing up in Waterford, proved that in the right hands a memoir can be memorable.

William Wilde reputedly said that men should be tried in the light of their time. Mary Travers' tragedy is that she was tried in the light of hers. Perhaps the villain of this most unmellow of melodramas is Victorian attitudes to single women.

This story is tailor-made for television. But who would play Mary? And who is up to the role of Speranza?

Both available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091709350

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