Long before Oscar Wilde became a household name, his mother, Jane, was a celebrity in her native Dublin and far beyond. A poet, an essayist, an accomplished linguist, a wit, a beauty, a very loving wife and mother, and a campaigner for liberty and women’s rights, she earned a reputation as a fiery revolutionary in Ireland and as a very accomplished translator of key literary works throughout Europe.
Oscar admired his mother’s considerable intellect and her appetite for life. She had a profound influence on his writing and his character. Through her example he understood that a woman could be just as creative and intelligent as any man.
Although young Jane Elgee, as she was before she married William Wilde, was exceptionally bright and eager to learn, she had no access to a formal education and was entirely self-taught. She recalled her studious nature in an interview published towards the end of her life, admitting ‘I was always very fond of study, and of books’. In her early twenties, Jane became passionate about the cause of Irish freedom. Using the pen name Speranza, she contributed a series of inflammatory poems and editorials to The Nation, the newspaper of the Young Irelander movement: ‘Nationality’, she claimed, ‘was certainly the first awakener of any mental power of genius within me, and the strongest sentiments of my intellectual life’.
Jane Wilde was also passionate about gender equality and bitter in her condemnation of the neglect of women. Harnessing her finest revolutionary rhetoric, she raged:
Women truly need much to be done for them. At present they have neither dignity nor position. All avenues to wealth and rank are closed to them. The state takes no notice of their existence except to injure them by its laws.
Widowed and destitute after Sir William Wilde’s death, Jane moved to London and began contributing wide-ranging, learned articles to The Pall Mall Gazette, The Burlington Magazine, The Queen, The Lady’s Pictorial, The St. James’s Magazine, and Tinsley’s Magazine. She also wrote several scholarly, humorous and very readable books, the last of which, Social Studies, contains essays exploring her distinct take on feminism.
In The Bondage of Women, Jane expressed despair at the disregard shown for the intellect of women: ‘For six thousand years,’ she wrote, ‘the history of women has been a mournful record of helpless resignation to social prejudice and legal tyranny’. She welcomed the Married Women’s Property Rights Act of 1882 as ‘an important and remarkable epoch in the history of women’, expressing relief that, under its terms, a woman would no longer enter marriage ‘as a bonded slave, disenfranchised of all rights over her fortune’. Bitterly aware that such progress followed millennia of neglect, she complained:
‘We have now traced the history of women from Paradise to the nineteenth century and have heard nothing through the long roll of the ages but the clank of their fetters’.
Jane’s most determined campaign was for women to be granted greater access to formal education. In Social Studies she wrote:
It is impossible to believe that woman will be less attractive because educated, less tender and devoted because learned, less loving because she can attain the high station, honour, dignity and wealth, which hitherto only marriage could confer, by her own unfettered intellect and genius.
Marking her death, on 3 February 1896, the Virginia Enterprise described Lady Jane Wilde as ‘a brilliant woman who had contributed much to literature and social life in England and Ireland’. Their obituary writer paid tribute to her as ‘a confirmed woman’s rights woman’.
Written for Sheroes of History by Eleanor Fitzsimons. Eleanor is a researcher, writer and journalist specialising in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013, she won the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize with her essay ‘The Shelleys in Ireland’ and she is a contributor to the Romanticism Blog. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Irish Times, the Guardian, History Ireland and History Today. She is a regular radio and television contributor. Her book, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was shaped by the women he knew was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. She tweets as @EleanorFitz
Find out more…
You can read Social Studies by Lady Jane Wilde here.
You can read more of Lady Jane’s poems online here.