Saturday 16 December 2017

Books: Wilde about women... the women in Oscar's life

Non-fiction: Wilde's Women, Eleanor Fitzsimons, Duckworth, hdbk, 320 pages, €31.60

Wilde's Women
Wilde's Women
Social leper: One-time friend of Wilde, the actress Sarah Bernhardt
Oscar Wilde
The most pitiful of Wilde's women, his wife Constance

Brian Lynch

Oscar Wilde was "a fatuous fool and a tenth rate cad". Nowadays, anyone uttering 'hate speech' of this kind would be labelled a homophobe. But in fact this quotation was from novelist Henry James - and as well as being a razor-sharp judge of human nature, James was as gay as a lark (if, that is, a lark in a closet can be gay).

Eleanor Fitzsimons' idea for a book about the women in Wilde's life is a good one, not least because, as she says, his life "is often examined in terms of his relationships with men".

Her position is decidedly feminist. Describing Wilde as "an individualist who believed that few limits should be placed on anyone's life", she says that "Oscar chose as some of his closest friends, free thinking, influential, enterprising and intelligent women who challenged conventional gender roles".

Fitzsimons doesn't limit herself to Oscar's friends. For example, his niece Dolly Wilde never met him and he was long dead before the publication in 1928 of Ladies Almanack, an obscure lesbian novel in which she plays a minor role. But Dolly was wild about Wilde. An "incorrigible womaniser", she devoted her life to imitating his wit and style, even dressing up as him, but she was a heroin addict, a messy drunk, and in 1941, at the age of 45, she died from an overdose of paraldehyde.

Fitzsimons was right to include Dolly in her book. And, while they hardly fit her subtitle - "How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew" - she has interesting things to say about the many society ladies who were dazzled by Oscar during his lecture tours of America.

Fitzsimons is informative, too, about women who did shape him. When the actress Sarah Bernhardt, for example, spoke of the calamity that had sent Oscar to jail, a witness reported "her wonderful eyes moistened with emotion". On the other hand, when the ex-convict was down and out in Paris and offered to sell her the rights to his play Salomé for £400, Bernhardt didn't respond. Even for free-thinking women, Oscar was a leper.

Fitzsimons properly concentrates her gaze on Wilde's mother, Jane, who was famous for the red-hot nationalist poems she published under the name Speranza. The portrayal of this marvellous eccentric is fair, but to quote Jane saying that "the present state of Irish affairs requires the strong guiding hand of men, there is no place anymore for the more passionate aspirations of a woman's nature" and to say that the statement was "characteristic of Jane's unique brand of proto-feminism" stretches fairness to breaking-point.

Jane's approach to equality was hardly feminist, either: "In love," she said, "I like to feel myself a slave".

Her liking was much indulged by her husband, Sir William, an eminent doctor. He had at least two children outside marriage and when Jane was pregnant with Oscar he brought one of his patients, Mary Travers, into the family home in Merrion Square.

Fitzsimons says Sir William took "an inappropriate interest" in Mary's appearance. A letter he wrote advising her to buy "a warm muff" and "pam-jams" was read out in a court case Mary eventually took against him for libel. The jury was informed that "pam-jams" was "a slang term for a lady's drawers".

Long before that embarrassment, Jane had got browned off with her slavery. One day when Mary called to the house Jane refused to see her. Whereupon Mary "perched on the marble-topped table in the hall and glared up the stairway, remaining there for two hours". Marble is cold so she needed her pam-jams.

The young Oscar, as Fitzsimons says, "must have been utterly perplexed by this turn of events". More perplexing, though, is Fitzsimons' analysis: "Jane's determination to close ranks against the interloper provided a striking example of spousal solidarity and set a high bar for future daughters-in-law".

The most pitiful of Wilde's women was, of course, his wife, Constance. Fitzsimons is good on the love the couple initially had for each other, but she is so blinded by the "monstrous injustice" done to Wilde she fails to see the monster in Oscar. His cruelty to Constance and an undercurrent in him of misogyny - women, he said, "take everything and give nothing" - are fundamental to why his relationship with the opposite sex is interesting.

It is also why Henry James, for all his psychological genius, was so foolish in his judgment. Whether one thinks Wilde was a "cad" or not, there was nothing tenth rate about him. The foolishness may be explained in part by envy: Henry envied Oscar for coming out of the closet with a sunflower in his buttonhole. Wilde the man also revealed a terrible weakness in James the novelist: he could never have imagined a character as fabulously complex as Oscar was. He had what all heroes have to have: a tragic self-destructive flaw.

If Henry James wasn't up to the job, Fitzsimons need not feel ashamed that her often fascinating book isn't up to it either. But while she has plainly put a lot of effort into her work, the same cannot be said of her publisher. The text is littered with errors: "coarse" is repeatedly spelled as "course"; a "tenet" becomes a "tenant"; and a horse is guided by "reigns". Whoah is me.

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