Wilde's Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew

Wilde's Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

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“A lively debut biography of the flamboyant Irish writer . . . focusing on the women who loved and supported him” (Kirkus Reviews).
In this essential work, Eleanor Fitzsimons reframes Oscar Wilde’s story and his legacy through the women in his life, including such scintillating figures as Florence Balcombe; actress Lillie Langtry; and his tragic and witty niece, Dolly, who, like Wilde, loved fast cars, cocaine, and foreign women. Fresh, revealing, and entertaining, full of fascinating detail and anecdotes, Wilde’s Women relates the untold story of how a beloved writer and libertine played a vitally sympathetic role on behalf of many women, and how they supported him in the midst of a Victorian society in the process of changing forever.
“Fitzsimons reminds us of the many writers, actresses, political activists, professional beauties and aristocratic ladies who helped shape the life and legend of the era’s greatest wit, esthete and sexual martyr . . . provide[s] a potted biography of the multitalented writer and gay icon . . . highly enjoyable.” —The Washington Post
“Fitzsimons brilliantly calls attention to the progressive ideas and beliefs which drew the most daring and interesting women of the time to his side. The depth and painstaking care of Fitzsimons’ research is a fitting tribute to Wilde’s fascinating life and exquisite writing—and really, what better compliment is there than that?” —High Voltage

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781468313260
Publisher: ABRAMS (Ignition)
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, and journalist specializing in historical and current feminist issues. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals, including the Sunday Times and the Guardian. She is a regular radio and television contributor residing in Dublin, Ireland.

Read an Excerpt


The Real Mrs Erlynne

Besides, my dear Windermere, how on earth could I pose as a mother with a grown-up daughter? Margaret is twenty-one, and I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most. Twenty-nine when there are pink shades, thirty when there are not.

OSCAR WILDE, Lady Windermere's Fan

On Saturday evening, 20 February 1892, a lively throng, numbering close to twelve hundred, filed through the ornate foyer of the St James's Theatre in the heart of London's 'clubland'. That first-night crowd, described by The New York Times as 'the most brilliant audience that had gathered for years in the St James's Theatre', included family and friends of the playwright, critics, writers, and those eager to witness what would undoubtedly be one of the most talked about nights in the theatrical season. As each patron took his or her seat in anticipation of curtain-up, the excitement was palpable. George Alexander, the dynamic actor-manager who was to play the male lead, must have experienced more than his usual measure of first night jitters, as it was he who had commissioned this 'modern play' almost two years earlier. Since then, it had come close to being abandoned several times: 'I can't get my people real', the author complained in a letter that offered the return of the £50 advance he had received. Six months later, he wrote to say: 'I am very much disappointed I have not been able to write the play'.

In the weeks running up to its glittering debut, Alexander worked tirelessly on the staging of this potentially controversial new comedy, written by one of the most talked about men in London. He rehearsed it exhaustively and endured incessant interventions from the playwright, who was present at every rehearsal. Up until the moment his audience streamed in, and beyond, he and the play's exacting author remained locked in disagreement as to the timing of a shocking disclosure. Their animosity had peaked with the arrival of a strongly worded letter earlier that month: '... had I intended to let out the secret, which is the element of suspense and curiosity, a quality so essentially dramatic, I would have written the play on entirely different lines', fumed its author, Oscar Wilde. For him, it was vital that the audience would admire the selfless actions of his unconventional female protagonist without interpreting them as the duties of motherhood.

Alexander gave up. On the opening night of Lady Windermere's Fan, Mrs Erlynne's secret was revealed during the final act, just as its author had wished. This fleeting victory prompted Clement Scott, the irascible but influential theatre critic from The Daily Telegraph to accuse Oscar of making his audience work far too hard:

for two-thirds of the evening, people were asking one another: "Who is she? What is he? Why does she do this? How does he come to do that? Is this adventuress a mistress, or can she be a mother?"

Scott, a first night fixture whose pithy reviews could make or break a production, had conspired with Alexander and was acting on a letter in which the theatre manager had raged about his inability to persuade 'this conceited, arrogant and ungrateful man of his stupidity'.

Oscar capitulated and moved his revelation to Act II, insisting that he had not been swayed by the critics but by 'a small number of personal friends' who had joined him for a post-performance supper and convinced him that 'the psychological interest of the second act would be greatly increased by the disclosure of the actual relationship existing between Mrs Erlynne and Lady Windermere'. Absent from that gathering was Oscar's wife, Constance, who had watched his play from a private box. Neither planned to return home that night: owing to the unpleasantness of faulty drains at their Tite Street house, Constance and the couple's elder son, Cyril, were staying with an elderly relative of hers; their younger son, Vyvyan, was with friends in Reading. Pleading the necessity of staying close to the theatre, Oscar had taken rooms at the Albemarle Hotel, but he did not return there alone: with him was Edward Shelley, an impressionable young clerk with The Bodley Head publishing house. He was, by then, leading a complex and exhausting double life.

That first night audience was not as confused as Clement Scott suggested, since they applauded enthusiastically as the curtain fell. The artist Louise Jopling, a close confidante of Oscar's, insisted that she had never enjoyed a first night so much. She recalled the 'intermittent ripples of laughter, running all over the house, at the witty sayings Oscar put into the mouths of his characters'. Perhaps the notoriously puritanical Scott was outraged by the audience's tacit approval of Mrs Erlynne's scandalous behaviour. His views on women, actresses in particular, unlike Oscar's, were utterly unsympathetic. Six years later, in 1898, Scott was forced into retirement after he gave an ill-considered interview to the evangelical periodical Great Thoughts during which he declared: 'It is really impossible for a woman to remain pure who adopts the stage as a profession'.

Oscar's play was all about women. The critic with The Sunday Times proclaimed, 'The men are not conspicuous successes as characters, though they all talk interestingly and amusingly, except Lord Windermere'. Central to his plot was Mrs Erlynne, a fallen woman who was blackmailing her son-in-law in a bid to gain readmittance into society. Although the fallen woman was a stock character on the Victorian stage, she was, as a general rule, required to be penitent or vulgar; she was never allowed to triumph; and she often paid for her transgressions with her life. Oscar's Margaret Erlynne bore scant resemblance to her peers. Rather than present a coarse or contrite woman, he invented a witty and humane adventuress who was, in accordance with his explicit stage directions, 'beautifully dressed and very dignified'. Here was a Victorian mother who had transgressed in the worst way possible by abandoning her child in infancy, but who had survived, thrived even, by means of her ingenuity. As such, she embodied the characteristics and behaviour of many of Oscar's woman friends, who set their own rules and, with great inventiveness, circumvented the strictures imposed by patriarchal Victorian society.

Oscar's compatriot George Bernard Shaw, who sat among the audience that night, admired Lady Windermere's Fan enormously and sought to emulate its style. Also present was Henry James, another would-be playwright but someone who rarely had a kind word for Oscar. He deemed the play 'infantine' and of a 'primitive simplicity', a pronouncement that had all the characteristics of a fit of professional pique. Yet, even he could not ignore the obvious enjoyment of those seated around him, and he was forced to admit, albeit grudgingly:

There is so much drollery – that is, "cheeky" paradoxical wit of dialogue, and the pit and gallery are so pleased at finding themselves clever enough to "catch on" to four or five of the ingenious – too ingenious – mots in the dozen, that it makes them feel quite "décadent" ... and they enjoy the sensation as a change from the stodgy.

Although this was his fourth play, Lady Windermere's Fan was Oscar's first comedy and the first of his plays to be produced on the London stage. Yet, he had sufficient self-belief to shun Alexander's initial offer of £1,000 in favour of a share of the takings. Whether reckless or astute, his gamble paid off: the play was a resounding success and ran for five months in the St James's Theatre before touring the provinces and returning to the West End for a second successful run towards the end of 1892. During that first year alone, it netted Oscar a sum that could have been as high as £7,000, and was boosted by the returns from a successful New York production. Although this would have funded a very comfortable lifestyle for Oscar and his family, including his impoverished mother, it was frittered away instead in a hedonistic blur of champagne, cigarette cases and a succession of sumptuous hotel suites and dining rooms.

At the end of that first performance, Oscar bounded on stage, scandalising all of London by holding a lit cigarette as he spoke. As smoking in the company of women was rarely tolerated, his detractors assumed that he was being deliberately provocative, but Louise Jopling insisted that he was suffering from 'sheer nervousness'. Women, who were expected by men to feel insulted by his behaviour, were often the first to leap to Oscar's defence. In his buttonhole, he wore a peculiar blue-green hued carnation that found its match in a dozen or more displayed on the lapels of a coterie of young men seated among the audience. This odd bloom, which signalled a shift in Oscar's allegiances, was treated with great suspicion by Scott and others. His star may have been in the ascendency that night but the anonymous publication, less than three years later, of The Green Carnation, a scandalous lampoon, would signal a turn in the tide of public opinion against him.

Oscar's speech that night caused further controversy. Although the exact wording is disputed, George Alexander insisted that Oscar was arrogant in congratulating his audience for having the wit to appreciate his play. This was a misinterpreted joke in all probability. He was also careful to praise his cast. Most prominent among them was Marion Terry, who, at thirty-nine, was nearing the end of her second decade on the stage. Although she played leading roles in more than 125 plays during a career that spanned fifty years, the role of Mrs Erlynne was to become her most celebrated. The Terrys were theatre royalty but Marion had always been overshadowed by her more famous older siblings: Ellen, a fixture at the Lyceum and a great friend of Oscar's; and Kate, who had retired by then and would become grandmother to Sir John Gielgud. The success of Mrs Erlynne was a huge boost to Marion's career, yet it was a role she very nearly missed out on.

Although Oscar collaborated closely with several actresses and campaigned vociferously to secure his preferred leading ladies, he did not always get his way. Towards the end of September 1891, he had written to theatre director Augustin Daly, and offered the part to Ada Rehan, the lead actress in Daly's New York-based company: 'I would sooner see her play the part of Mrs. Erlynne than any English-speaking actress we have, or French actress for that matter', he insisted. Rehan, who Oscar described as, 'that brilliant and fascinating genius', had enjoyed enormous success on the stages of America and Europe, and was considered a worthy rival to the magnificent Sarah Bernhardt. Born Delia Crehan in County Limerick, Ireland in 1857, her family had moved to Brooklyn when she was just a child. Her unconventional name was the result of a typographical error made early in her career, when she was billed as Ada C. Rehan. Adopting this as her stage name, she gained great renown as a Shakespearean actress, doing particularly well in his comedies.

When Daly turned Mrs Erlynne down on Rehan's behalf, he ensured that she missed out on the opportunity to play one of the most memorable roles in theatrical history. Yet, despite his flattering words, she had not been Oscar's first choice either. The woman who inspired the character of Margaret Erlynne but passed up on the opportunity of playing her was sitting in the theatre on that first night. Lillie Langtry, muse, celebrated beauty and, at Oscar's instigation, actress was always at the centre of any glitzy occasion, but this one had more resonance for her than most. In her memoir, The Days I Knew, Langtry described how:

He [Oscar Wilde] called one afternoon, with an important air and a roll of manuscript, placed it on the table, pointed to it with a sweeping gesture, and said: "There is a play which I have written for you".

When she asked which part was intended for her, Oscar replied: 'A woman with a grown-up illegitimate daughter'. Lillie, in her late thirties, reacted with incredulity: 'My Dear Oscar', she remonstrated, 'am I old enough to have a grown-up daughter of any description?' Although she insisted that he put his manuscript away for twenty years, Oscar went ahead, and incorporated her rejection into his plot by having Mrs Erlynne declare:

Besides, my dear Windermere, how on earth could I pose as a mother with a grown-up daughter? Margaret is twenty-one, and I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most. Twenty-nine when there are pink shades, thirty when there are not.

We can tell a lot about Oscar and any man perhaps, by examining the women he befriended. Throughout his life he gravitated towards outsiders who contravened the rules, and as more restrictions were placed on them, many of his friends were unconventional women. As Mrs Allonby says in A Woman of No Importance, 'There are far more things forbidden to us [women] than are forbidden to them [men].' Jersey-born Lillie and Dublin-born Oscar, two outsiders in London, had been firm friends ever since they met at the studio of the artist Frank Miles. Oscar, aged twenty-two, was a brilliant undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, while Lillie, one year older almost to the day, had escaped the stifling confines of Jersey society by marrying Edward Langtry, an outwardly well-to-do, widowed Irish landowner, within six weeks of meeting him. Both were determined to defy the invisible conventions that marked them as outsiders. On reaching London, Lillie had abandoned her husband to his first love, alcohol, and made her way by means of her extraordinary beauty. Her timing was perfect: the technology that had transformed the printing industry allowed Miles to reproduce his portraits of her in the pages of newspapers and magazines, making her iconic.

Although Oscar was sexually attracted to beautiful young men for much, probably all, of his adult life, he was fascinated by beautiful young women too. He had a tendency to idealise their beauty, to be intimidated by it even, and he regarded Lillie's beauty as 'a form of genius'. His description of her lovely face is characteristically florid:

Pure Greek it is, with the grave low forehead, the exquisitely arched brow; the noble chiselling of the mouth, shaped as if it were the mouthpiece of an instrument of music; the supreme and splendid curve of the cheek; the augustly pillared throat which bears it all: it is Greek, because the lines which compose it are so definite and so strong, and yet so exquisitely harmonised that the effect is one of simple loveliness purely: Greek, because its essence and its quality, as is the quality of music and of architecture, is that of beauty based on absolutely mathematical laws.

It is often assumed that Oscar Wilde used the adjective 'Greek' to refer to male beauty or homosexual love. Clearly, this was not always the case.

Tall, broad-hipped and full-bosomed, with a luminescent complexion and golden-brown hair, Lillie was so beautiful, and had such mysterious origins, that she was allowed to bypass convention and gain entry into the most exclusive social circles in London. Oscar, who won similar passage by means of his wit, was a fixture at her side. Jilted by another beautiful young woman just two years earlier, he was on the rebound and it was widely speculated in the press, and, more credibly, by his biographer and friend Vincent O'Sullivan, that Lillie and he were lovers. This seems unlikely. Although she admired 'the splendour of his great, eager eyes', Lillie was not attracted by Oscar's appearance. What drew her to him was his 'remarkably fascinating and compelling personality'. Of this, she recalled:

... there was about him an enthusiasm singularly captivating. He had one of the most alluring voices that I have ever listened to, round and soft, and full of variety and expression, and the cleverness of his remarks received added value from his manner of delivering them.

When Oscar set up home with Frank Miles in 1879, Lillie and he became inseparable. Laura Troubridge, who at one time believed herself 'awfully in love' with Oscar, described his sitting room as if it was a shrine: 'a mass of white lilies, photos of Mrs. Langtry, peacock feather screens and coloured pots, pictures of various merit'. Lillie lent Oscar the portrait that Edward Poynter had painted of her, and he displayed it on an easel at one end of his room, like an altar. His devotion was canny. As she was the most talked-about woman in London, he, as her escort, became one of the most talked-about men.

Oscar fêted the women he admired with flowers and sonnets written in their honour. For years, Lillie bore the brunt of his attentions. To her bemusement, she would spot him wandering the streets of her fashionable Park Lane neighbourhood; she imagined he was 'probably investing me with every quality I never possessed'. He called to see her almost every day, often presenting her with a solitary amaryllis or Jersey Lily, which he would purchase in the Covent Garden flower market before walking the length of Piccadilly to her Park Lane home. Such aesthetic behaviour attracted the attention of the librettist W. S. Gilbert, who incorporated it into Patience, a comic opera devised with his partner, composer Arthur Sullivan:

Though the Philistines may jostle You will rank as an apostle In the high aesthetic band If you walk down Piccadilly With a poppy or a lily In your medieval hand


Excerpted from "Wilde's Women"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Eleanor Fitzsimons.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1 The Real Mrs Erlynne,
2 The Precocious Miss Elgee,
3 Taming Speranza,
4 Lost Sisters and an Earlier Libel Trial,
5 'The Sweetest Years',
6 'Tea and Beauties',
7 'How Different an Actress Is!',
8 'The Paradise for Women',
9 The Revolutionary and the Duchess,
10 Speranza's Saturdays,
11 Married Life,
12 Entering the Woman's World,
13 Stories for Girls,
14 In the Footsteps of Ouida,
15 The Perfect Salomé,
16 Deadly Serious Social Comedies,
17 A Less than Ideal Husband,
18 The Wittiest Woman in the World,
19 'Death Must Be So Beautiful',
20 Not Much to Laugh About,
21 'The World Rings with His Infamy',
Epilogue: A Wilde Legacy,
Selected Bibliography,
Notes and References,
About the Author,

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