They say not to judge a book by its cover, however in this case I’d disagree. I really love the cover of Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons, a gorgeous rendereing of Oscar Wilde, his mother Jane, wife Constance & friend Lille Langtry in purple & green hues reminiscent of the Suffragettes. I think it’s brilliant, and as it turns out, so too is the content that lies within.
This is a book about Oscar Wilde, it is also not a book about Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s Women follows the story of Oscar’s life, giving many wondeful details along the way, brilliantly interwoven with the lives of a multitude of fascinating women who influenced him. It is every bit as much about them as it is about him.
The book is positively overflowing with sheroes, a handful of which I’d heard of before, many more whose names, like the names of so many marvellous women from history, have become obscure. As I read the book my list of ‘sheroes to google’ grew longer and longer!
As you might expect, two of the most prominent women we’re introduced to are Oscar’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, and his wife, Constance. Jane Wilde is a rather awe inspiring character, and Eleanor’s writing really brings her to life. I love the fact that, long before her son became a household name, his mother was well known across Ireland for her inflammatory nationalist poetry, written under the pen name ‘Speranza’*.
His wife too had interests beyond those expected of many Victorian housewifes & mothers. She was an active supporter of the Rational Dress movement and a talented linguist, pianist and public speaker. Despite the way which their relationship would end, it seems that there was, for a time, a true & deep affection between her and Oscar. I sometimes found it hard to read about the unfolding of Constance’s life, particularly when, despite her own failing health and Oscar’s really very heartless actions towards her, she demonstrated an unending ability to forgive and show mercy towards him.
There are so many other sheroes I’d love to mention who piqued my interest. Some, like the fascinating author known as Ouida (Maria Louise Ramé) and French actress Sarah Bernhardt are given several pages worth of coverage in the book. Many others are only fleetingly mentioned as they passed in and out of Oscar’s life, giving us brief glimpses of bright trailblazers who were defying gender stereotypes and challenging the assumptions of what a woman could, or could not, do. Journalists, actresses, artists, women’s rights activists; Oscar’s life was peppered with extraordinary women and it’s a delight to uncover so many of them in this book. Just a few of the names which I will be going away and finding out more about are painter, Louise Jopling; journalist, Jane Cunningham Croly (better known as ‘Jenny June’); British feminist, Helena Swanwick (nee Sickert); American publishing mogul, Mrs Frank Leslie (who later married Oscar’s brother Willie) and Polish actress, Helena Modjeska.
Fitzsimons eloquently shows how these women influenced Oscar, drawing out the characters and themes in his plays which they inspired. We learn how women were there by his side in the high times and the low. While there were many who abandoned Oscar upon his arrest and subsequent trail, there were two women in particular, Adela Schuster and Ada Leverson, who remained by his side and helped him through the difficult time of his trial, incarceration and after his release.
One of my favourite women mentioned in the book never met Oscar. His niece, Dorothy (Dolly) Wilde was born three months after Oscar was imprisoned. Whether it was something in the genes, or just coincidence, Dolly certainly displayed the independence of mind and willingness to break with convention that her uncle, and indeed her grandmother, had. She was openly lesbian, and although she was never published, was said to be a captivating storyteller. Sadly her life was overshadowed by alcohol, drug addiction, and the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in 1939. She too died young, at just 45 years old, likely due to an overdose, perhaps due to the cancer, recorded as ‘through causes unascertainable’.
I’ll be honest, I only had a surface level knowledge of Oscar Wilde before reading this book, but in addition to coming away with a desire to know more about the chorus of incredible women who influenced him, I’ve also developed a desire to know more about the man himself. He supported the forward thinking attitudes of his female friends, he challenged norms with both his life & his writing and, although he was far from perfect (his behaviour towards his wife and the way he continued to be frivolous with his money while his mother, whom he loved so dearly, slipped into deeper and deeper poverty are two examples in particular which frustrated me,) he never-the-less comes across as a warm, enchanting person who was loved deeply by those lucky enough to be counted amongst his friends.
I’m hugely grateful to Eleanor for sharing this book with me, it’s been a joy to read and is meticulously researched. You can feel her passion for the subject leaping from the pages, and it’s contagious!
You can get Wilde’s Women here.
*We’re lucky enough to have a post all about Lady Jane Wilde on the blog, which Wilde’s Women author, Eleanor Fitzsimons wrote for us. You can read it here.
This book was given to me to read as a review copy.