Constance Wilde should probably be pretty pissed off. She’s dead, but I use the present tense because she has reason to still be really ticked, 120 years after her husband, Irish writer Oscar Wilde, went to prison for being gay.
What would you do, if you married the person of your dreams, had two kids together, supported one another’s career choices, became your generation’s power couple, and then watched him go to trial and throw it all away in a few pithy comments, as if your life together was nothing more than a giant spitball to be hurled at the world for a quick laugh?
You see what I’m saying, right? She should have been all of the synonyms for mad-as-hell-not-going-to-take-it-hear-me-roar-you-scumbag-I-will-pick-up-all-the-pieces-of-my-mind-I-should-have-given-you-ages-ago. If nothing else, she should have thrown her hands in the air and shouted, “Does anyone know how socially and religiously tricky it is for a woman to survive divorce in 1895?”
That question would have been rhetorical; Constance knew how tricky divorce would be. She knew she’d been betrayed, perhaps beyond redemption. She knew that she could lose everything, despite the fact that she had been the wealthy one at the start of her marriage. Oscar could take her money, her reputation, her whole life.
What she may not have known (or known soon enough) was that Oscar was gay. At this point I imagine that your inner voice is getting rather snarky, saying, “Yes, but, didn’t she know better? How could she be married to Oscar Wilde, the icon of gay men, and believe that he’s straight?” Some scholars argue that she did know, and married him in order to be his beard. Other scholars have argued that she had absolutely no idea until that spitball hurled through the courtroom in 1895, after they’d been married for 11 years.
More recent scholars and I believe the answer lies somewhere in between. Do you know what it’s like to know something at your core and yet be unable to see it or understand it in reality? Think about the way people respond to the idea of their own deaths. It’s something we are all aware of, nearly all of our lives, and yet we don’t know how we will respond until death confronts us.
Similarly, there must have been some part of Constance that was not surprised to learn that Oscar was gay (or bisexual, if you prefer; scholars debate about that, too). Their marriage had been rocky and she must have had suspicions of some sort. But remember that this was before the word homosexual had reached widespread usage, when gay men and women kept their secrets to avoid going to prison for two years hard labor (exactly Oscar’s sentence — the harshest offered). Also note that to whatever degree Oscar Wilde represents a notable stereotype of gay men (flamboyant dress, etc.), he in many ways created or solidified those stereotypes. Oscar’s “feminine” choices were noted at the time, but they weren’t obvious signs of homosexuality (nor are they today, except to the extent that society has embraced the stereotypes).
So, back to Constance. She wasn’t all that angry, according to the letters and documents left for us to decipher, and I find this shocking. Absurdly, it even makes me a little bit angry at her. I like to believe that while she was writing rather curtly of Oscar in her post-1895 letters she smashed one or two valuables and slapped one or two faces. All the better if the valuables and the face belonged to Oscar.
Even if there’s no evidence to show that Constance was angry enough to suit me, it’s clear that she was hurt. She was heartbroken. But she was not devastated, and she was not helpless. Not yet.
Constance moved on, quite literally. She gathered herself and her 8- and 10-year-old sons, changed their last name to Holland, and moved them to Switzerland. It became clear that the money intended to care for her sons in the event of her death was in danger of going entirely to Oscar. She was receiving messages from Oscar that alternated between spiteful and repentant. She tightened her social circle upon learning that one of her best friends had not only known of Oscar’s affairs, but had been one of them.1
Have you decided yet what you would have done? You’re sort of angry just reading this, aren’t you?
But now here’s the thing. I can come to terms with her apparent lack of anger towards Oscar. I can understand that; for if you’ve loved and lived with someone for over a decade, you may find more compassion than anger in your heart. Breathe deeply; betrayal is hard, but people recover. What Constance should really be angry about now is that she has been largely forgotten.
People disappear through the cracks of history, I know. It would be impossible to memorialize everyone in the way they perhaps deserve. Yet this happens so often to women that I feel it’s worth being angry about. How could we have forgotten Constance Wilde, remarkable as she was?
This is what happens when history defines or remembers a woman only by the accomplishments or defeats of her husband, brother, father, son. The woman disappears, and if she ever resurfaces we heap positive adjectives onto her like so many toppings on an ice cream sundae. What we should do instead is ask questions.
Why do we not know who Constance Mary Lloyd Wilde Holland was?
Constance persevered. She did not flourish — overstating the achievements of the forgotten eventually disappoints us all and makes them seem rather pathetic. As if what this individual did and endured was not in itself enough and we need to beautify it with excessive words.
I want to describe her without sounding trite, like some half-hearted cheerleader for the history of womankind. To say she was complicated would be obvious. Aren’t we all? If I call her strong, independent, or confident it sounds as if I’m whitewashing or being intentionally vague. (See? That ice cream sundae of adjectives is pretty easy to make.)
Yet she was all of these things: complicated, strong, independent, and confident. Most people are. She rejected suitors, relished the art world, wrote children’s stories and articles on fashion and decorating, she argued that women should be involved in politics and that clothes should be beautiful as well as comfortable. She compiled a book of Oscar’s sayings and in so doing may have had an affair with her publisher. She was a hands-on mother at a time when being so was considered strange and impractical.1
Constance was more like you or me than we allow ourselves to believe about most historical figures. So was Oscar. If they lived today, perhaps they’d have their own reality TV show. Yes, the ubiquitousness of reality TV would erase any romance the Wildes’ lives might carry for us. But at least Constance would be more likely to get equal airtime.
To keep Constance from being forgotten again, please read these books:
- Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde
- Anne Clark Amor’s Mrs. Oscar Wilde: A Woman of Some Importance
- Joyce Bentley The Importance of Being Constance
1 SOURCE: Moyle, Franny. Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. London: John Murray, 2011.