Book review: Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle

‘Dear Constance ... I am coming to see you at nine o’clock. Please be in – it is important. Ever yours Oscar.’

The hastily written note, reeking of panic, which arrived in the space and calm of Oscar Wilde’s modishly minimalist home in Chelsea in February 1895 must have been greeted with some concern by his wife.

And rightly so because Oscar’s forthcoming confession was just the start of a nightmare journey for London society’s most sought-after and talked-about couple...

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Franny Moyle’s poignant and revealing biography brings a welcome new perspective on Oscar Wilde’s beautiful, bewitching and long-suffering wife.

Drawing on numerous unpublished letters, she brings to life the story of a woman at the heart of fin-de-siècle London who was the victim of one of the greatest betrayals of all time.

A celebrity in her own right, Constance was a popular children’s author, fashion icon, a member of the popular Victorian Aesthetic Movement and a leading campaigner for women’s rights.

In that spring of 1895, just as Oscar’s play An Ideal Husband was ironically taking the city by storm, her life changed irrevocably when he was convicted of homosexual crimes and she was forced to flee with her two sons to the Continent.

Her life eclipsed by scandal, her glittering literary and political career abruptly ended, she changed her name to Holland and lived in exile until her premature death aged 39 due to a botched spinal operation just three years later.

Born into an Anglo-Irish family, Constance Lloyd was the daughter of a barrister and raised in Bayswater in London.

Resented by her mother because of her natural beauty, Constance found solace in the bohemian world where she met and fell in love with the avant-garde Oscar Wilde.

The first years of their marriage were deliriously happy for them both, Constance telling Oscar ‘As long as I live you shall be my lover’ and Oscar declaring that he was ‘incomplete’ without her.

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Over the next two years she gave birth to two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, but very soon marriage for Oscar had become ‘a curious mixture of ardour and indifference.’

He loved Constance’s company and companionship but he also loved the attention of young men and when the couple generously took in a friend’s son and practising homosexual, 17-year-old Robbie Ross, Oscar embarked on his first physical relationship with another man.

Constance had always been aware of her husband’s friendship with younger men and, indeed, wrote proudly to a friend in 1892 about ‘how good O’s influence is on young men.’

By this time Constance had accepted the diminished physical passion in her marriage and was reassured that at least the emotional and social bond between them remained despite Oscar now living intermittently at a fashionable hotel in Piccadilly.

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Constance, a woman Moyles sees as in a classic state of denial, seemed to be almost permanently on the move with her two sons in these later years of her marriage.

But it was a state of affairs she could no longer ignore when the dreadful Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas entered her husband’s life.

Oscar became smitten by the selfish, demanding and manipulative Bosie ... a fatal attraction that would lead to the writer’s arrest, trial for gross indecency and imprisonment, and Constance’s enforced exile.

Moyles opens up a new window onto Constance’s life and character, allowing us to see her strengths as well as her failures.

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In today’s world, her predicament would be greeted with sympathy and understanding ... unfortunately for Constance, she married the wrong man in the wrong era.

(John Murray, paperback, £9.99)