Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown.
It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.
Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.
The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.
So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.
In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.
Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed.
Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/autograph-book/
PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?