Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde, by Franny Moyle. Pegasus Books, 2011

There have been a lot of books written about Oscar Wilde, but this is the first about his wife, Constance Wilde, nee Lloyd. Usually portrayed as puritanical and unforgiving, this book, which utilized a lot of unpublished letters, shows a very different picture, one of a loving, intelligent, forgiving and forward thinking woman who was a talented but forgotten writer.

Constance’s life was difficult from the start; her father died when she was young and her mother was emotionally and physically abusive. Constance thought poorly of herself and never expected to marry or make anything of herself. Thankfully, when her mother remarried, Constance was farmed out to relatives in favor of her new step-sister living with the new couple. Her life turned around at that point; she came out of her shell and became considered a beauty and a flirt. Oscar Wilde fell deeply in love with her. Letters he wrote show that the marriage was not a cover; he really did love Constance, although his idea of marriage seemed to have a lot of showmanship to it, an idealized setting for him to act in.

From fairly early in the marriage Constance and Oscar spent time apart. He went to clubs and to the theater by himself frequently; she went to visit friends and take recuperative rests and was a social activist. But they worked together on writing projects, entertained, and were a sought after couple socially. When Oscar first started having sexual relationships with men, Constance didn’t realize it at first because he’d always had close friendships with men, especially younger ones. Things might have gone on like that indefinitely, even though Oscar was starting to neglect both Constance and their sons, if Lord Alfred Douglas- Bosie- hadn’t come into his life. Unlike Oscar’s other boy friends, Bosie was not willing to share Oscar with Constance and his family. He wanted to be the only person of importance in Oscar’s life, and it led to Oscar’s social ouster and imprisonment for homosexuality. Constance and the boys had to leave England because social condemnation damned them, too.

While Bosie painted Constance as a bitch, she continued to support Oscar, both morally and financially, throughout most of his trial and prison term. She was not a vindictive woman. She did not think Oscar was evil. Her moral conscience, and probably continued love for Oscar, would not allow her to feel that way. This book finally sets the record straight on that.

It also chronicles Constance’s chronic illnesses and physical problems, her activities in the newly formed Order of the Golden Dawn and interest in theosophy, her abilities as an artist, her championing women’s freedoms (especially in the area of rational dress), and linguistic abilities. The book also points out that despite all this, she was no saint. She neglected her younger son seriously and even sent her beloved first born off most of the time (although in that era, that was fairly normal for the upper class), over spent for a lot of her married life, and made a lot of bad decisions despite the information staring her in the face. This book presents her as a multidimensional person rather than the caricature she’s been. It also shows Oscar and their marriage in a new light. 

Kindle edition:



  1. I enjoyed reading your thoughtful review of this new book. I am a great fan of Oscar Wilde and his work, and am always interested in new information about his life and relationships. His marriage to Constance is a fascinating subject, and I will certainly take a look at this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I invite you to take a look at my blog: http://www.bookclublibrarian.com/

    1. Hi, Catherine;

      Thanks for the kind comment on my review! I, too, am a big Oscar fan (I was delighted to find that some of my cousins are related to him; sadly, I am not)

      I've added your blog to my blog roll.