Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 25 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# wondrous life
Revealing the hidden lives of the women behind the genius of Oscar Wilde
A new Irish book explores the role of women in Wilde’s life.

THE WONDROUS LIFE of Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde has been pored over by countless scholars; his personal tale has been told many, many times.

But now a new book by Irish journalist Eleanor Fitzsimons takes a look at a previously unexplored aspect to Wilde’s life: his relationships with the women who surrounded him.

The book is an in-depth study of the women most important to Wilde, like his mother Lady ‘Speranza’ Jane Wilde (herself a formidable and very well-known woman); his wife, Constance, a feminist; actress and friend Lillie Langtry; his tragic and witty niece Dolly; and Sarah Bernhardt, the French actress for whom he wrote Salome.


Fitzsimon’s book is the first to gather the stories of the women above, and the other women who Wilde mentored, encouraged, and worked with. Wilde is, of course, known for his literary achievements and his controversial (at the time) private life, which led to him being imprisoned for homosexuality.

He believed, Fitzsimons told, in gender equality, and encouraged women to pursue artistic careers at a time when women’s futures were supposed to stay firmly in the domestic sphere.

Neglected relationships

Fitzsimons believed his relationship with women was a neglected area, so spent months absorbed in archives to find the stories of the women Wilde inspired and was inspired by.

Because of his history and what happened to him – his homosexuality, and the trials and imprisonment - his life is always looked at in terms of his relationships with men.

Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Wilde, was an “incredible character”, who was also a celebrity. Fitzsimons started off researching her, which led her to discover “dozens and dozens of women who were very influential on his work”.

These were not ‘muses’: they were women Wilde collaborated with, wrote for, and encouraged.

“It was really striking for a Victorian man to have such contact with women,” said Fitzsimons. She was also struck by the fact he edited a women’s magazine, which he transformed into a radical read – “you’d go so far as to say [it was] feminist” – which pushed issues such as the vote for women.

Discovering the women involved in “a life that has been so well-examined” made Fitzsimons think of the potential out there for other well-known men.

You’ll always find testimony about his plays, speeches, etc. They are always from the perspective of the men – the theatre manager, or the barristers or solicitors who were representing him – you’d very rarely find the women['s voices].

1280px-Merrion_Square_-_Oscar_Wilde_04 Flickr Flickr

“They’ll come and go in biographies of his life,” she said of these women whose lives she is shedding new light on. “There is never any follow-up as to what happened to them after.”

Finding the stories

It was easy to find information about women like Lady Wilde – “she used to write things and say ‘this will make an interesting story when my life is written about’” – but harder for some women. Major sources of information included the letters written by the women, as well as obituaries.

The book shows the power of some women in Wilde’s life. When he was touring America, his way was “paved by society women who held really influential literary salons”, said Fitzsimons.

These women’s power was huge – “they could make or break you” – and Wilde (and other writers, like Charles Dickens) needed their approval. Sadly, Fitzsimons found that some of the women “barely rate a mention” in coverage from the time, with some of them solely referred to by their husbands’ names.

Fitzsimons loved delving deep into archives. In one case, her query to an American university led them to discovering a pile of letters related to Wilde, which were lying abandoned.


Women and Wilde

Wilde was “a funny character” who by no means loved all women, said Fitzsimons.

He loved women who were really independent and strong-minded and different; women who wanted to be in the public sphere, out there working and thinking.

He had less time (or, even, a “real issue”) with the puritanical women in society. Wilde believed that rather than handing out alms to the poor, they should have been helping to educate the less fortunate.

Fitzsimons doesn’t describe Wilde as a feminist, but as an individualist with feminist qualities, who believed in giving people the tools to make something of themselves.

Scenes from a marriage

The book also sheds new light on Constance Wilde, the playwright’s wife, to whom he was married when he fell for Lord Alfred Douglas, or ‘Bosie’.

She’s often portrayed as hoodwinked. There is a lot of evidence to suggest they loved each other very much.

The pair’s marriage was probably over by the time of the birth of their second child, but Constance remained loyal to her husband, even after his arrest and during his trial.

“She kept the lines of communication completely open,” said Fitzsimons. “She was the one who volunteered to go back to England and tell him his mother had died.”

Encouraging women

Wilde was a “spellbinding” man, adored by women. Interestingly, Fitzsimons believes that his work was even more captivating when he read it himself publicly. “People used to just be hanging on his every word,” she said.

What is clear from the book is that Wilde was extremely encouraging to women. In one case, during a trip to America he helped a woman on the beach who had injured her ankle. It transpired she was in an abusive marriage; Wilde encouraged her to pursue her art, which helped to transform her life.

“He just used to say to women: ‘Go for it – you’re brilliant’,” said Fitzsimons. “Time and time again, there are examples of that throughout my book.”

Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons is launched tomorrow evening (Tuesday 20 October) at 6.30pm in the Gutter Bookshop. The book is available in bookshops now.

Read: This incredible Irishman is unknown in Ireland – but he’s one of our greatest writers>

Read: Oedipus? He’s not just a guy who married his mother…>

Your Voice
Readers Comments