Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle: A Review

Title:  Constance The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde   
Author:  Franny Moyle 
Publisher: Pegasus
Publication Date: 10/10/2012
Acquired through: Net Galley
Book Synopsis: 

The story of the woman at the center of the most famous scandal of the nineteenth century.

In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children's author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women's rights. A founding member of the magical society The Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs. Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right. But that spring Constance's entire life was eclipsed by scandal. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. She lived in exile until her death.

Constance Lloyd Wilde (1858-98)

"In 1884, I married Constance Mary Lloyd. She was four years younger than me and the pretty daughter of a wealthy Queen’s Counsel (prominent barrister) who died when she was sixteen. I admired her outspoken, independent mind as well as the fact that she was well-read and spoke several European languages – like me. We had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan." Oscar Wilde
My Thoughts
The shining star of this biography is not the woman behind the man but the woman who 'chose' to stand beside the men in her life: her father and her husband. Constance Lloyd Wilde Holland was at her core a 19th century woman, very much a true representation of a Victorian era woman. She was not shy yet she was introverted, especially in groups of people and at parties. However, she was very much a proactive woman as you will witness later. Constance grew up with a father who spoiled her and a critical and judgmental mother who took every opportunity to belittle her daughter leaving her with no self-confidence and a truly wounded spirit. At a very early age, Constance finds out about her father's extramarital affair with the birth of her half-brother Otho of whom she remains close to all their lives. For example, in 1874 Constance’s father, Br Horace Lloyd died from heart disease at home at the age of forty six; Constance was only sixteen and took the news terribly hard. As if this wasn’t enough, she would go through yet another private heartbreak, so it seems, she suffered physical abuse at the hand of her mother, Ada Lloyd.  Behind closed doors and verified by her half-brother Otho who described how his mother would ‘perpetually snub in private and public with sarcasm, rudeness and savage scolding to physical violence that included threatening with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall.’  Constance was made the butt of jokes in public, slapped and threatened in private which understandably scarred her confidence and shaped her personality.  As a result, Constance was painfully shy in public, irritable in public and short-tempered at home. It must be said that Oscar Wilde too grew up knowing about his own father's many affairs, the only difference being he seemed to have a good relationship with his mother whom he adored!

Constance was living in an era when middle-and-upper-class women still did not work and were not expected to look after themselves. Despite any ambitions they might harbor, there was still no career path or opportunity for a section of society that traditionally been supported by family or husbands. The era of the career woman was far off, and those women who made a living by writing or painting were still few and far between.  So, Constance’s grandpapa Horatio left an allowance for herself and Otho to become available when they turned twenty three years old in the amount of £400 annually.  

“I want to know if you got your £10 from grandpapa and if they told you the money arrangement. Grandpapa is going to make you quite independent of Mama and to give me an allowance of how much I know not yet. He will not give Mama a farthing, at which she is rabid. Would god I were independent too; I wld far rather work for my daily bread than have my mother make a compliment of keeping me in food and lodging. She says it is grandpapa’s duty to keep the children of his only son and she says that his keeping you is no compliment as if he did not she is no longer bound to keep you, and you would have to leave Oxford and take a Clerkship. A nice look-out for the son of Horace Lloyd and for me with abilities like yours too!" A letter from Constance to Otho written in the autumn of 1878

Now living with her aunts, and with her mother remarrying, she was free to pursue interests that suited her strong independent nature she was desperate to nurture. Especially, given the fact that she believed nobody would ever marry her, ‘Oh me! When shall I marry me? You say I shall have a chance of marrying. I see none. I have no beauty, no conversation, no small talk even to make me admired or liked…I shall be an old maid, I am doomed to it and you will see your Sister walking about with 6 cats and half a dozed dogs.’ Constance talking to Otho  in a conversation he later recalled. 
  Portrait of Constance Lloyd before her marriage by Louis Desange.
By the 1870s a number of colleges were open to young women who wanted to continue their education, choosing the courses and classes that appealed to them. The academic standards that the college attendees were expected to meet were in fact very high. Young women, although unable  to hold  a degree, could, via these schools, study under the tutelage of university staff for examinations that were marked by the University of London. 

Constance took one such course and university examination in English literature, specializing in the work of Shelley. The intensity of the study required to pass the examination is suggested by Constance’s complaint that 'the course ought to have been stretched over a year at least', although, practical as ever, Constance added that she was not going to bother worrying over it. 'I intend to take it very quietly', she told Otho, relating that 'I shall not do any singing next week in order to get what time I can for reading'. This strategy clearly worked, since Constance also noted that her tutor, a Mr. Collins, was barely able to make a single comment on her Shelley essay, 'it was so good.Moreover, she spoke several languages including French and German, later learning Italian during her time in exile in Italy.   Although she didn’t meet Oscar until she was an adult, their families knew each other in Ireland, Otho and Oscar were contemporaries at Oxford.  Oscar had recently had his heart broken by Florence Balcombe who rejected his suit in favor of another Irishman, Bram Stoker.

Constance became part of a campaigning organization known as the Rational Dress Society in 1881. The Rational Dress Society promoted a style of dress based on the health, comfort and beauty of changing fashion, ‘the inconvenience of their dress is owing not to their eccentricity, but to the necessity they are under of trying to make the divided skirt look as though it were not divided, on account of the intolerance of the British public’ Constance explained in the 6 May 1885 issue of Pall Mall Gazette.  Thus, the introduction of the ‘trouser’ was worn underneath a ‘Ladies Walking Costume’ including short knee-length dresses and loose jackets, where ladies wore trousers underneath or bloomers to cover their legs. The Rational Dress Society was viewed as an ‘avant-garde society as a result.
Constance, still unmarried meets a group of women who had been fighting for social equality for women and for their political enfranchisement, known as the suffragette movement which got under way beginning in the 1880s. Women householders and rate-payers could vote and practice medicine. In 1880 Elizabeth Orme became the first woman to obtain a law degree. In 1882 all married women were defined as subordinate to their husbands, and any property and rights they might have held as single women were surrendered to his ownership. Men had the ability to squander their wives’ private fortunes should they wish, with the former having no recourse. After the marriage act of 1882, married women were suddenly redefined legally. They were given the right to their own wealth, as well as to buy and sell property in their own right. They could hold bank accounts and stocks. They could sue as individuals rather than rely on the offices of their spouse. The flip side was that they were now liable for their own debts and could be declared bankrupt, but few were complaining. Constance was living in an era when she could enjoy both liberty and responsibility above and beyond her mother’s and her grandmother’s generations.

 “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious; both are disappointed" Oscar Wilde

 I really admire the fact that Constance Lloyd was determined to become an accomplished woman before marriage; even if it was to subconsciously support her fear of always being able to be self-sufficient and not to always have to rely on a man whether or not he was her husband. This need never left her and becomes much stronger during and after her marriage to Oscar Wilde. Having two sons, awakens a deep maternal need not only to raise them properly but to show them first hand that women can be themselves either together or autonomously.

Constance Lloyd Wilde was such a fascinating woman. Even though she loved Oscar and being Mrs. Oscar Wilde, that need to be more than simply viewed as an apendage on his arm might have been her downfall. Yes, this was one of the traits Oscar liked about her it quickly became something he resented about her. Constance Lloyd married Oscar Wilde in May 1884 and on 5 June 1885 she gave birth to their first born son Cyril Wilde; their favorite! I loved the chapters Franny Moyle includes describing her as mother to her two boys. The reader truly gets to feel Constance's true happiness bursting forth. While her eldest son Cyril was much loved from the start, it wasn’t until Vvyan her second born was older, that he became interesting to his mother and they forged a strong bond.  As a child, Vvyan was constantly being shuffled off to friends and relatives because Constance felt that he was a sickly child and should be out of London. By all accounts, Constance and Oscar were loving and devoted parents who actually spent time playing with their children, as opposed to just seeing them for an hour in the morning or before bedtime. Of course they had nannies and governesses like most Victorian children, but Constance was very involved in her children’s lives, finding the right schools and governesses for them. Later on when Vvyan wasn’t happy at the school he and Cyril were attending in Germany, Constance found another school in Monaco that he liked much more.

Oscar, Cyril and Constance in Germany

Even with all of her accomplishments Constance was not a physically well woman. She suffered from physical fatigue, joint problems and complained of numbness in her arms and legs. A true diagnosis is never made and Oscar could be understanding of this aspect of his wife's ill health and sometimes grew tired of it complaining to his mates. The more weight she put on, especially after having two children the more he used this as an explanation to support his own affairs; even the most well known one with Lord Alfred Douglas 'Bosie.' It’s unclear whether she was just ignoring the obvious, in denial or just ignorant as a lot of women were to the idea that there were men who liked men. The hardest and saddest part of the book is the last third which details Oscar’s relationship and his neglect of Constance and their children. Bosie seems to have brought out all of Oscar’s worst qualities, his selfishness and narcissism which had been tempered and balanced by Constance.  Although he’d had relationships with other men, starting with his seduction by Robbie Ross, it was his relationship with Bosie that tipped the scales and made him reckless.

Oscar Wilde put his family through so much pain and suffering I find it difficult to forgive his actions though the heart wants what it wants and as we all know love is blind! In the end, he especially hurt his mother with his reckless pursuit of a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury (Bosie’s father).  How he ever thought that he was going to win is beyond me.  He’d already been blackmailed by several rent boys over his relationships with them. He also spent wildly buying expensive cigarette cases, and taking them out to dinner at the CafĂ© Royal, suites at the Savoy and the Cadogan Hotel. It sounds like a cry for help or he wanted to get caught, particularly when you consider that he had not one, but two, successful West End plays  running, An Ideal Husband (how ironic) and The Importance of Being Earnest.  I can’t fault Constance for the actions that she took when she realized that Oscar was going to not only lose the libel case but also would be arrested for gross indecency.  Not only did she change the family name to Holland, but she also moved herself and the boys abroad to escape the scandal. I can only imagine the shock and humiliation she went through. Although it seems harsh, I can understand why she felt the need to keep the boys from Oscar while he was still involved with Bosie. This is the saddest part knowing that their sons never saw their father again. Cyril joined the army and died in the trenches during World War I. Vyvyan applied to study Law at Oxford, his father’s old university, but was apparently turned down because of his father. Luckily, Cambridge accepted him but he eventually temporarily dropped out before resuming his studies later on. He became a writer and translator. Constance spent the rest of her days in Switzerland and Italy. She died at the age of 39 after a botched back operation. Oscar Wilde died two years later of meningitis in November 1900.

Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) 1895

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, written while in prison in May of 1895
“My sweet rose, my delicate flower, my lily of lilies, it is perhaps in prison that I am going to test the power of love. I am going to see if I cannot make the bitter warders sweet by the intensity of the love I bear you. I have had moments when I thought it would be wise to separate. Ah! Moments of weakness and madness! Now I see that would have mutilated my life, ruined my art, broken the musical chords which make a perfect soul. Even covered with mud I shall praise you, from the deepest abysses I shall cry to you. In my solitude you will be with me. I am determined not to revolt but to accept every outrage through devotion to love, to let my body be dishonored so long as my soul may always keep the image of you. From your silken hair to your delicate feet you are perfection to me. Pleasure hides love from us, but pain reveals it in its essence. O dearest of created things, if someone wounded by silence and solitude comes to you, dishonored, a laughing-stock, Oh! You can close his wounds by touching them and restore his soul which unhappiness had for a moment smothered. Nothing will be difficult for you then, and remember, it is that hope which makes me live, and that hope alone. What wisdom is to the philosopher, what God is to his saint, you are to me. To keep you in my soul, such is the goal of this pain which men call life. O my love, you whom I cherish above all things, white narcissus in an unmown field, think of the burden which falls to you, a burden which love alone can make light. … I love you, I love you, my heart is a rose which your love has brought to bloom, my life is a desert fanned by the delicious breeze of your breath, and whose cool spring are your eyes; the imprint of your little feet makes valleys of shade for me, the odour of your hair is like myrrh, and wherever you go you exhale the perfumes of the cassia tree.
“Love me always, love me always. You have been the supreme, the perfect love of my life; there can be no other…

Feel free to leave any comments,


Kevin Marsh said…
Such an interesting article, what a waste of talent. Oscar Wilde could no doubt have left so much more if he'd focussed his energy on play writing instead of being caught up in the way he chose to live his life.
It is odd these days to think that his family were effected his misgivings and suffered as a consequence. Poor Constance!
Hermes said…
Brilliant review, hard to think of anything to add. Linking on my blog.
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi Kevin,
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I tend to agree with you about Oscar Wilde. He did leave us with some wonderful work, though!

Hi Hermes,
I'm so glad you enjoyed it. Thanks so much for stopping by and for linking!
Franny M said…
Hi - this is Franny the author. Glad you like the book. But I'd love to know where you got your photo of Constance. It looks very much like her but its not one I have come across in my research. Would love to know where you found it!
Kimberly Eve said…
Hello Ms. Moyle, Thank you for finding me and commenting. I found the sepia photo of Constance as well as the one with Oscar and Cyril on a German Oscar Wilde website. Here's the link,
Anonymous said…
A very nice review and well done. Oscar was quite an interesting man and I have enjoyed his work and admired his talent. Unfortunately Constance and his sons suffered for his lifestyle. But he has prevailed as a literary force in spite of it all! gigigirl
Kimberly Eve said…
Hi gigigirl,
Yes, it's true you cannot take Oscar Wilde's talent away from him. Constance did the best she could. Thanks for commenting.

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