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The flavours of Oscar and Constance's love

Fiction: The Mystery of Love

Andrew Meehan

Apollo, hardback, 240 pages, €17

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Ruminative mood: Constance Wilde with her young son Cyril in 1889

Ruminative mood: Constance Wilde with her young son Cyril in 1889

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The Mystery of Love by Andrew Meehan

The Mystery of Love by Andrew Meehan

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Ruminative mood: Constance Wilde with her young son Cyril in 1889

'Be yourself; everyone else is already taken." "I can resist everything except temptation." "The truth is rarely pure and never simple". It would take an audacious writer not just to put words into the mouth of Ireland's best-known wit, but also to reimagine the relationship between Oscar Wilde and his wife Constance.

Andrew Meehan has already proved himself a brilliantly inventive writer with his 2017 debut, One Star Awake. A former head of development at the Irish Film Board, where he worked on films like What Richard Did and Song of the Sea, Meehan has long honed his dialogue and perfected murky humour.

His own natural grasp of humour certainly proves that he's well enough placed to take on this challenge. And yet in The Mystery of Love, Oscar is relegated to the sidelines; or more specifically, the footnotes. This is, more often than not, Constance Lloyd's story in the telling.

We think we may already know the details of Oscar's marriage to Constance. After their marriage broke down - it's thought they had been sexually estranged for years - the two remained on affectionate terms. Constance forced Wilde to give up his parental rights to their sons Vyvyan and Cyril, and she fled with the boys to Europe, staying variously in Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

Here, as we first land into their marriage, or what's left of it, Oscar Wilde is sitting in Reading Gaol, after being convicted of gross indecency with other men. Constance, Vyvyan and Cyril are starting anew in Italy. She is convinced that they are better off away from England and the furore around Wilde's controversial jailing.

She has never been so happy; nor, admittedly, has she ever been as bored: "She can see it in their bronzed skin and in their faces. Little boys should not have a care in the world. Oh for the day when they'll be old enough to play patience and make themselves useful with the spring clean."

Constance is in a rum­inative mood, and thinks back on some choice moments in her marriage to Oscar; being pregnant and racked with morning sickness, meeting 'LJW' (Lady Jane Wilde), her time living at 100 Lancaster Gate in London and his various indiscretions.

Her recollections of their wedding day is an arguable high point, as is her take on the pair's general dynamic. "Had she been coming to see them as brother and sister? Such is a marriage, yet her love will always be that of a wife. Her felt truths are those of a mother."

Oscar, interjecting in the book's footnotes, appears to recall no shortage of tenderness, beauty and genuine love in the marriage.

She sees the Oscar before a crowded room - "he would poise himself… before delivering his take on the decorative arts with an eloquence that moved through her like some repellant liquid" - and the Oscar before her, in person ("constrained and soggy-seeming, and with his grotty manuscripts tucked under his elbow as unthreatening and lovely as a cup of cocoa").

The account positively shimmers with passages like this. Constance Wilde is a brilliantly companionable and reflective central character, and Meehan's sense of place and time is rock-solid. There's an ethereal note to the poetic delivery of Constance's story, and it makes for a pleasant pacing.

Yet it's in Oscar's footnote interjections that Meehan can really stretch his legs as a comic writer. By turns tender, eloquent and droll, Oscar's asides, usually addressed to Constance herself are as biting and ticklish as you might expect.

"It was important to be his wife and not his mother or his maid," the narrator observes of Constance and Oscar. To which he replied: "You were, without knowing it, all three."

Elsewhere, Oscar observes of his own celebrity: "Were there not all these reminders of whomever the world thought me to be, I might have been inclined to forget it myself."

What Meehan crucially appears to have captured are the various flavours of love that can be found in most marriages, not least one as eventful as this one.

The story of Oscar and Constance has long been compelling: under Meehan's astute eye, even more so. Yet even if The Mystery of Love wasn't written about these two enchanting figures, it's a wonderful read in its own right.

Indo Review