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

Is a title that keeps up the spirit of its subject’s era but the book is not really scandalous and the tragedy seems to exist in the bare facts of her life (although Constance had plenty of reasons to be sad she tended to be rather a cheerful person) rather than coming through in personal detail because the Wildes’ letters to each other were all (except 3, 3 lousy letters) either torn up or stolen,  People please stop doing  this. If you have an inkling that you are going to be famous preserve everything down to your baby teeth, please. Think of us. Think of Me. Having to go through life Not Knowing.

However that’s not to say that personal detail does not exist in this book. It sure does, since Constance’s 300 or so other letters all  apparently still exist, nicely preserved (because the Universe is kind).

Many people blame Oscar for writing to people for money at the end but I don’t see what else he could do. One poignant statement does exist in one of the last two letters quoted in the book, when Constance says regarding Oscar -she could never lose her concern for him and when she tried contacting him through mutual friends he wrote demanding money outright  (although he had a regular allowance from Robbie Ross, but Oscar must have been crazy unhappy after the hideous Douglas, his love, emotionally kicked him in the guts, not that Constance knew) –  that she “[is] rather afraid of him”, which is indeed quite sad. It seems to me that what Wilde wrote about Douglas – “He understands me and my art and loves both.” would much more appropriately describe Robbie Ross who did both these things. Constance loved Oscar but lacked the tools to understand homosexuality. Indeed, unless you were gay yourself especially in the information dead end that was the19th century, I’m thinking that lacking experience and information it would have been difficult to be accepting of it.

It strikes me that Oscar’s life was the craziest drama with plots and sub plots and who did what to whom-who was doing whom-when, where and why, you have to try to keep ’em all straight in your head. Still, no doubt Oscar enjoyed it.

I think the book is interesting as it gives you a picture of Constance’s interests and the avenues open to young purposeful women in the 19th century (hardly anything). Constance fled from one interest to another and was always looking for something that, in her short life, she eventually did not find. She wasn’t good at being an actress or a writer. She was good at political mobilisation but the candidate she supported wasn’t allowed to take on her democratically elected position because her opponent was a sore loser the Constitution did not specifically say “women”. She was businesslike, good with sorting through legal details, interested in art,photography,travel, socialising,the supernatural (apparently like many Victorians), literature,politics,fashion, interior design,religion, her children, Oscar (all her life, after she fell for him) and social issues. I can very easily see her today, doing an undergrad program in literature maybe and probably going on to a career in social work,journalism or politics. But instead we have this statement, “I can quite easily see that I’m leading the most useless life ever but I cannot see what I can do about it.” becoming one of the many indictments of a complacent,insular,judgmental, insensitive, selfish,greedy and patriarchal time.

I wish the book had followed a more chronological format within the chapters, because to appreciate each story I have to keep the time table straight in my own head. But still, it gives me peeps at Oscar, and his wife’s perspective, which is what I wanted, so it’s all excellent.

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