Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

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 IrvingEllen 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?

Oscar: A Life by Matthew Sturgis (not a review in the end) – if you want to know more about Oscar Wilde go here:

https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk

Dear Oscar,

My hero.

I am writing to tell you about the latest big fat biography of yourself, you, Oscar Wilde. You’ve probably already read Oscar: a Life by Matthew Sturgis, but if not do. It’s a vast catalogue of your life, a huge collection of facts all gathered together in a single volume and narrated with lively enthusiasm by historian Matthew Sturgis. Even for people not inclined to read or to learn more about your sainted self, it’s an easy page turner. Like you, the book is an astonishing achievement, exhaustive, charming and compelling, and only minorly flawed by the publisher’s sloppy production.

The book tracks the timeline of your life with immense detail. Your upbringing in Ireland and time at Portora School are carefully documented, along with masses of skinny on your relatives, family, friends and contemporaries. Your brilliance and sometime (fleeting) sportiness are shared, as are the details of your move to Trinity College Dublin and thence to Oxford. It was at Oxford that your identity as an artist started taking tangible shape, along with your previously under-developed abilities to command attention, involvement and direction. You’re soon drawn to London and its fashionable society, a larger and more demanding stage where you continued to thrive rising slowly through the soup. But you had no readily accessible means of earning a decent living, despite winning the Newdigate Prize for Ravenna in 1878 and publishing Poems in 1881. Transition was needed from poet, to performer, author and playwright, and was soon in motion.

The brilliant idea of an American tour was almost a disaster following your first performance in New York City in 1882. D’Oyly Carte had wisely hedged his gamble with only a single booking for the preening society aesthete with unproven oratory skills. Subsequent tentative dates were only to be confirmed following responses to the initial outing. Despite a rough start, the lecture and the jokes worked out and you grew over the coming months into a polished and popular performer.

It was clear from the outset that Oscar Wilde’s outwardly shifting persona would respond to the demands of audience as it did throughout the 1882 US tour. But persona and audience morphed in tandem throughout your life. Aspiration and vanity, victories and collapses, your evolving sexuality from heterosexual, bisexual to homosexual, shaped your identity and presentation. A pattern in others’ of cautious or bold risk-taking, mirrored your own mercurialism. It traces across your life: diminished risk to publish or stage your work as your reputation grew; increased risk to commercial ventures of your notoriety and attendant outrageousness. No rules. 

Mr Sturgis presents a clear picture of your obvious brilliance and magic, and also of your vulnerability to flattery and beauty. No surprises there. And throughout his work Mr Sturgis energetically corrects errors in literary critic Richard Ellman’s definitive biography, published after Ellman’s death in 1987. But the huge numbers of typographic errors publisher Head of Zeus has allowed in Oscar: a Life rather undermines one’s confidence in these corrections. I am sure someone has already pointed them out, but throughout the text’s 720 pages there is barely a chapter without mistakes: your funeral was on the 3rd December, not the 3rd November. Is it Salomé or Salome? And shouldn’t pronouns and verbs agree? 

We learn that intellect untamed searches always for innovative ideas, insights and perspectives no matter how grungy their habitats or philosophy (remember the Decadents?). Pushing the ideas of others to their limits, challenging social convention and expectations whether in poems or fashion or home décor began with you, you, Oscar Wilde. And it’s what all of us now aspire to. Aesthetic traditions, their particularities, expression, are conversely universal and unique, for individuals are simultaneously ordinary and exceptional. Whatever the green eyed James Whistler charges, your aesthetic persona and expression are more than a reworking of someone else’s philosophy. Thankfully this comes through in Oscar a Life.

It’s also clear that your genius morphs with your humanity, kindness and individualism subverted, or glittered, with vanity and ego. The emergence of the Oscar Wilde persona began early, grew as your genius became apparent, was amplified by fame and then started to distort. But never, ever did your brilliance, underlying decency and generosity of spirit diminish. Throughout the public scenes, trials and imprisonment, consideration for others was always there. It too often got lost in the torrent of passion for Bosie and his evil influence and subculture corruption. Denial and shame made you spiteful sometimes, as guilt and embarrassment periodically trumped kindness. This was particularly and horribly evident in your dealings Constance and others whom you should have trusted more. But you know this.

Knowledge, carnal or otherwise, was always your fuel but sadly wisdom too often lingered a little too long, as it does for most of us. Our shared frailty is why people still read and enjoy your work, why love for Oscar Wilde is spread so far and wide. You are not forgotten and your influence persists, variously cloaked in notoriety and hero worship. It’s acknowledged by those who know you. It’s obviously unacknowledged by those who are unknowingly beholden to you, but they are many.

You show us the origins of much that distresses modern life: performance and identity, the need for audience and attention, the desire to be heard and taken seriously, understanding what it is to be as one and as one of many. The paradoxes in which you so delight are clear in both biographies. Truth and lies, male and female, brutality and gentleness, hypocrisy and faith, the secptic and the trusting, mirrors all. But the paradoxes are clearest in your works. They veil our ugliest traits, our vanities and deceits, ignorance and denials. In the darkly radical The Picture of Dorian Grey and the evanescent humour of The Importance of Being Earnest our own hypocrisies are played out.

You were not self-destructive (too vain for that), but rather caught in a vortex of events, shocked and horrified at your own reversal, that your gainsayers really did mean it. That this time there was no chance of rebounding. You knew disaster was coming but instead stood fast, brave, and faced it. It was a matter of honour and truth, of the artistry of life in black and white and of your own integrity in the dock. You stood on a stage of your own construction and were not cowed when enemies tried to dismantle it. Not then, not now.

Ever yours,

– A Woman of Even Less Importance.

PS “…No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite 
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name, 
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame. …”