Review: Biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle
John Murray, £20
Constance Wilde has usually been thought of as the long-suffering wife who remained loyal to her husband Oscar even after he was convicted of "committing acts of gross indecency" (that is, consensual sex) with other men.
Her contemporaries recognised as much, as when the actress Ellen Terry wrote to her as "Dearest Constancy" in the weeks before the trial.
The circulation of such stories indicated a widespread desire to establish Constance as something other than a wife crushed by rejection and betrayal. She was a marital exemplar, the standard of loving constancy against which her husband's errant ways should be judged.
Fortunately, the evidence of Franny Moyle's fine biography, the first to draw on more than 300 of Constance's unpublished letters, is that she was far more interesting than this.
In some ways Oscar and Constance were a good match. Both had troubled family histories -- in his case a surgeon father accused by a former patient of raping her while she was anaesthetised, and in hers a grandfather who exposed himself by running around naked "in the sight of some nursemaids", followed by a mother whose parenting techniques included "threatening with the fire-irons or having one's head thumped against the wall".
More importantly, both husband and wife were clever and ambitious, and for the first few years of their marriage their lives ran along parallel tracks.
His theories about the "house beautiful" were supported by her designs for their marital home in Chelsea, an ordinary red-brick villa that they transformed into a temple to aestheticism.
But seen with 20-20 hindsight, there were plenty of warnings that their marriage was built on sand. While Oscar had hoped to demonstrate "the pervading influence of art in matrimony", from the start his love letters were suspiciously theatrical in tone.
More dangerous was Constance's agreement to take in a lodger, Robbie Ross, a precocious 17-year-old who was already, as Moyle quaintly puts it, "a practising homosexual", and who promptly found someone else to practise with by seducing his host.
Finally, most serious of all, there was the trust she placed in Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas, the pouting and grasping acolyte who soon learnt that he could twist Oscar around his little finger.
Eventually Constance rumbled "that BEAST", but as late as 1895 she was prepared to attend the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest sandwiched between them, unwilling to believe that her husband, who had been accused by Bosie's father of "posing as a somdomite" (sic), had in fact spent far longer posing as a happily married man. Even after Oscar's imprisonment, she only gave up hope of being reconciled when he choseto return to Bosie rather than to her.
Although she doted on their elder son, Cyril, she described the sickly younger Vyvyan as "sweet and affectionate" but also "wilful and wayward".
Clearly she worried about how much he took after his father.
Shortly after the final separation she died, following a botched operation in Genoa, and was buried under a tombstone that in 1963 received the inscription 'Wife of Oscar Wilde'.
Rarely has a simple statement of fact sounded more like a reproach from beyond the grave.
Though unapologetic about his sexual behaviour, Oscar's treatment of his wife and children left him writhing with remorse.
Moyle suggests his fairy tales may have been covert confessions of these feelings, given their emphasis on personal sacrifice, but she also helpfully points out that Constance was far from being merely a spurned wife.
She, too, had an affair, writing slyly to her lover that he would make "an ideal husband", and in some ways she was just as much of a pioneer, with her interests in socialism and pacifism, her involvement in women's rights, and her enthusiasm for ventures such as Dorothy's Restaurant, where women could dine -- and more shockingly smoke -- alone.
She might even have raised a rueful smile at the historical irony that she once took Oscar along to meet a friend in Dorothy's.
After all, it must have taken a certain resilience for her to have written that it was pointless being jealous of the young men who were taking up so much of her husband's time, "when I know that the one I am jealous of fills a place that I cannot fill".