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Authors: Constance: The Tragic,Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

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Franny Moyle

BOOK: Franny Moyle
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Constance

The Tragic and Scandalous Life of

Mrs Oscar Wilde

FRANNY MOYLE

JOHN MURRAY

To my mother Olga

and my daughter Rosa

Contents

Acknowledgements

Introduction

1.

The sins of the parents …

2.

Terribly bad taste

3.

The sunflower and the lily

4.

‘Bunthorne is to get his bride'

5.

Violets in the refrigerator

6.

Ardour and indifference

7.

A literary couple

8.

‘Not to kiss females'

9.

Qui patitur vincit

10.

My own darling mother

11.

A dark bitter forest

12.

Modern-day Martha

13.

The strife of tongues

14.

Madame Holland

15.

Life is a terrible thing

Epilogue

Notes

Select bibliography

Illustration acknowledgements

Index

Acknowledgements

I owe the greatest debt to Merlin Holland, whose great generosity has made this book possible. Not only has he shared his extensive knowledge of Oscar, Constance and their circle, but he has made his own immensely important manuscript collection available to me. And as a result of his allowing me to quote both from the letters in his own collection and those held elsewhere around the world, Constance's voice can be heard once again. I owe a great deal to John Holland, who allowed me to study those letters and manuscripts in his care. Merlin and John have also provided many of the rarely seen photographs featured in the book.

I am grateful to the Trustees of the Broadlands Archives and the University of Southampton, who have allowed me access to the huge, untapped resource they have in the form of the hundreds of letters between Constance and Lady Mount-Temple. Professor Chris Woolgar and the rest of the staff in the Special Collections unit there have been particularly kind. Thanks must also go to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, who have again been hugely accommodating in giving me access to their collection of Wilde manuscripts and meeting my numerous requests.

And of course, there have been other institutions and individuals who have contributed to this book. The British Library and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York have proven wonderful resources that I have tapped on a regular basis. In addition, I remain grateful to people such as the manager of the Royal Oak Hotel in Betws-y-Coed and the archivist at Bedales School, who so readily
went out of their way to send me what precious information they had. It is this kind of open helpfulness that makes writing and researching such a joy.

The continuing support of my agents Georgina Capel and Anita Land, my publisher Roland Philipps and, of course, my family makes the chaos and upheaval of trying to squeeze writing into the rest of my ‘portfolio' life and career worthwhile.

Introduction

‘D
EAR
C
ONSTANCE
… I am coming to see you at nine o'clock. Please be in – it is important. Ever yours Oscar.'
1
So went the note that Oscar Wilde, at that moment apparently the most successful man in London, dashed off in hurried pencil to his wife. It was the afternoon of 28 February 1895, and the forty-year-old playwright, wit and
bon viveur
was writing from the rooms in which he was temporarily resident, in the opulent settings of the Avondale Hotel at 68 Piccadilly, just off Dover Street. He was in a state of high anxiety.

The note made its way out of the hotel and into the wintry bustle of one of London's busiest thoroughfares, where horse-buses and carriages bustled to and fro. It weaved through the gents in bowlers and top hats and passed advertising boys whose sandwich boards, draped over the shoulders, promoted everything from the pleasure of the current ‘Orient in London' exhibition at Olympia to Regent Street's International Fur Store, where ‘a really good and serviceable Fur-Lined Overcoat, trimmed with Fur Collar and Cuffs', was available for £10.

When the note had left behind the splendid stone surroundings of central London, it found itself in the more modest but undoubtedly more modern domestic environs of Chelsea. Here it grew close to its destination in Tite Street, where a line of red-brick terraced houses found themselves overlooking the gardens of the Victoria Hospital for Children on one side and backing on to the slum dwellings so inappropriately named Paradise Walk on the other. At no. 16 it would have been Arthur, the Wildes' young butler, who attended to
the post boy's double knock and made sure that this latest missive was placed into the hands of his mistress, Mrs Wilde.

Houses in Tite Street were often beautiful, but they were generally far from grand, occupying a site that only a very few decades earlier would have been the haunt of the prostitutes and swells spilling out from the then notorious (and now demolished) Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. No. 16 had been Oscar Wilde's home for just over a decade. But although his wardrobe, dining habits and general lifestyle suggested an abundance of funds, Oscar was not even the owner of this relatively modest abode; he merely held a lease on it. Oscar and his wife, Constance, had secured tenure of the five-storey terrace back in 1884, when it had presented itself as merely a conventional new build, typical of the wider development of Chelsea in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The formerly insalubrious but fast-developing borough had acquired bohemian credentials during the 1860s and 1870s. By the early 80s the newly wed Wildes were following in the footsteps of several aspirant artistic householders, such as the painter James McNeill Whistler and the portrait artist Frank Miles, who wanted to secure their own patch of bohemia.

The Wildes had followed artistic protocol, and, like their friends Whistler and Miles before them, they had hired the fashionable avant-garde architect Edward Godwin to turn their conventional red-brick home into something more charming, surprising and aesthetically up-to-the-minute. And so 16 Tite Street, with its black iron railings and tradesman's gate leading down to the basement domain of Arthur and the cook, was remodelled. Its carefully designed rooms stood in contrast to the dark, cluttered style that had come to define Victorian taste. The interiors at Tite Street were shockingly pared down. The walls were painted white and polished, the floor covering kept pale and plain; internal dividing doors were replaced by curtains, and slim, sparse furniture contributed to a sense of space and calm. All this gave greater prominence to the art on display and the unusual decorative touches that Godwin and his clients had commissioned. In the drawing room, for example, prints and
drawings were displayed as a frieze, boldly set off against a broad background band of gold. And in that same room peacock feathers had been pressed into the ceiling plasterwork.

But despite such flourishes, 16 Tite Street was a house that spoke not of riches but of aspirations. It was a home that placed those who lived in it in the set of liberal-minded, forward-thinking folk who found a frisson of pleasure in new territories, dangerously close to the old London slums, and who, rather than displaying riches by accumulating quantities of art and objects, showed their artistic appreciation of the few beautiful things they owned. It marked the Wildes out as pioneers, with more taste and intellect than money. And it pinned their colours to the mast of a movement being termed ‘Aestheticism' by the chroniclers of the day.

Perhaps because of their far from infinite means, few concessions to art had been made to the exterior of the house, which, like those on either side, sported standard bay windows and a tiled porch that sheltered the shallow steps leading to the front door. Only the bold decision to paint this main entrance white amounted to a statement.

Now Oscar's note, entering through that unconventional white door, found itself inside a house little changed over the course of a decade. The birth of children had, of course, brought with it the attendant upheaval, and the telltale signs of its shared occupancy with two young boys could be discerned. Alongside prints by contemporary artists such as Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane were photographic portraits of the boys, Cyril and Vyvyan, and a pastel of Cyril by the Wildes' friend and neighbour the artist Laura Hope.

Here Constance must have read the latest, brusque communiqué from her husband with a degree of concern. Although the Wildes were used to dealing with one another by post, and had made a habit of living apart from time to time when Oscar's business made it more practical, the note brought with it an air of panic. In addition to requesting that she remain at home, Oscar informed his wife he had telegraphed Mr Badley, the headmaster of Bedales School, and
stopped a planned exeat for their elder son, Cyril. This was out-of-the-ordinary behaviour for a man who not only adored and relished the company of his elder child but who would rarely get involved with the mundane travel, school and holiday arrangements that were very much the domain of his wife.

Oscar had been staying at the Avondale for the best part of three weeks. It was a hotel that had the reputation of being ‘a little Savoy in Piccadilly', offering excellent cuisine and theatrical décor to match: a marble-clad dining room with frescoed walls, and pillars complete with gilded capitals. But unlike the Savoy, which was inconveniently buried away on the Strand, the Avondale had unique appeal for Oscar. For Wilde found himself in the exceptional position of having two West End hits running simultaneously, and the Avondale placed him almost equidistant from the productions of
An Ideal Husband
and
The Importance of Being Earnest
.

Just a few hundred yards to the east of the Avondale, the Haymarket Theatre had been running Wilde's
An Ideal Husband
since early January. The play was about sin and blackmail, and the reputation of a public figure whose past came back to haunt him. London society was flocking to see how the fictional MP Sir Robert Chiltern would extricate himself from Mrs Cheveley, who was blackmailing him with the knowledge that he had sold political secrets in his misspent youth. How was he possibly going to square the situation with his wife, who believed that her ‘ideal husband' was above reproach?

The play had been an immediate success. Oscar Wilde was ‘the fashion' in those early weeks of 1895. London flocked to see the exquisite dresses in which the female members of his cast were clad and to be dazzled by the rich, bejewelled language and amusing epigrams that Oscar had wrought for them. Oscar had enthralled his audience with his wit and ingenuity; ‘the whole of society' was ‘engaged in inventing Oscar Wildeisms', an intoxicated press announced.
2
It was Oscar's ability to pepper his story so cleverly with aphorisms that ‘the audience is kept perpetually on the
qui vive
', one journal opined. ‘When all else fails, he knows how to shock or astonish
– and a new sensation is all that fin
de siècle
society seems to want.'
3
He was quite simply the talk of the town, of the land even.

The ability to create sensation was something in which Oscar had become expert. Controversial and unapologetic, a man who captivated people with his magnetic personality, fabulous wit and magical storytelling, he was the embodiment of charm, genius and arrogance bundled into one. His whole career had been built on his ability to get himself noticed by shocking, provoking and then winning over his audience. It was not merely his pen that could provoke; he was expert in using his appearance and behaviour to market himself. His current pose was no exception. An image of the ‘Great Oscar' as he was at this time, fleshy and languid, is easy to conjure. Noted for his dandyish outfits and unrepentant of his decadent behaviour, he was the subject of an abundance of caricatures, portraying a tall and somewhat over-fed figure, immaculately and expensively dressed with a cane and cigarette in his hand, an extravagant green carnation on his lapel and a withering expression.

BOOK: Franny Moyle
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