Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

by Franny Moyle

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“Tells the poignant story of Constance in the aftermath of Wilde’s trials and imprisonment, and of her brave attempts to keep in contact with him despite her suffering.” —The Irish Times
 In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children’s author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women’s rights. A founding member of the magical society The Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs. Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right.
But that spring Constance’s entire life was eclipsed by scandal. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. She lived in exile until her death.
Franny Moyle now tells Constance’s story with a fresh eye. Drawing on numerous unpublished letters, she brings to life the story of a woman at the heart of fin-de-siècle London and the Aesthetic movement. In a compelling and moving tale of an unlikely couple caught up in a world unsure of its moral footing, Moyle unveils the story of a woman who was the victim of one of the greatest betrayals of all time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453271483
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 10/09/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 237,012
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Franny Moyle has a degree in English and History of Art from St. John’s College, Cambridge, and is the author of Desperate Romantics. She was a leading arts producer at the BBC, which culminated in her becoming the corporation’s first Commissioner for Arts and Culture, and is now a freelance writer in London. 

Read an Excerpt


The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde

By Franny Moyle, John Murray


Copyright © 2011 Franny Moyle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7148-3


The sins of the parents ...

If you happened to dine at the Café Royal or the Savoy in the early 1890s, you might well have glimpsed the great Oscar holding court. A cigarette and wine glass in hand, enthroned in a corner, with a group of acolytes in attendance, he was the embodiment of blatant decadence. And many who witnessed this bacchanalian version of the man wondered how he and his political, campaigning but nonetheless far more temperate wife had ever determined to marry. But Oscar and Constance were far more similar than has been generally acknowledged. The key to their compatibility was rooted in their own personal histories. On both of them the influence of Ireland, the scars of scandal and the impression of a domineering mother had made their mark. Their connection was Oscar's home town of Dublin, from where Constance's mother, Ada, also hailed.

Adelaide Barbara Atkinson, to give her her full name, was the daughter of Dublin's Captain John Atkinson, once with the 6th Rifles and subsequently Receiver-General of the Post Office there, who with his wife, Mary, had brought up their family in an elegant Georgian town house, 1 Ely Place. Mary's brother Charles Hare, the first Baron Hemphill, Sergeant and QC, lived close by at 65 Merrion Square, where his neighbours included Oscar's parents, Sir William and Lady Wilde.

Ada Atkinson was a selfish and difficult woman, who when she was just nineteen married her cousin Horace Lloyd, an English barrister eight years her senior. Lloyd was the son of the eminent QC and one-time Radical MP John Horatio Lloyd. In choosing a husband from this branch of the family, Ada was marrying into a considerable fortune and perpetuating an already impressive lineage.

The entrepreneurial Lloyds had grown rich on the back of the industrial revolution. John Horatio Lloyd was the son of the attorney John Lloyd, who played a leading part in suppressing the Luddite riots in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Educated at Stockport Grammar, John Horatio went to Oxford and took a double first in Classics before being called to the bar and being elected Liberal MP for Stockport. He became an exceptionally wealthy man indeed, not least because his legal practice had become the favoured counsel for the fast-developing railway companies, but also because he invented a type of investment bond on which the development of the railway system became particularly dependent: the Lloyd's Bond.

Ada and Horace initially lived in 3 Harewood Square in Marylebone, close to Regent's Park and north of the busy Marylebone Road. On Wednesday 12 November 1856 the Morning Chronicle announced that 'On the 10th inst at 3 Harewood Square the wife of Horace Lloyd Esq., barrister at law' was delivered of 'a son and heir'. This was Otho Lloyd. Two years later the same column announced his sister Constance's arrival into the world, and the family was complete.

The birth of two children in quick succession did not, alas, signify domestic bliss in Harewood Square. Horace Lloyd's sense of his marital obligations quickly waned. As his professional success grew, so did his appetite for the pleasures of various gentlemen's clubs and his ambitions to rise to a position of prominence within the strange business of Freemasonry. Part of the Prince of Wales's social set, he developed the reputation for being a stop-out who could 'have taken on any expert in one of the three games, chess and billiards and whist, and beaten him in two out of three'.

If a guiding paternal hand was absent in Harewood Square, so was maternal warmth. Ada also failed to show much interest in her offspring. Otho Lloyd would later suggest that he and Constance were brought up 'against the will and determination of two most selfish and egotistical natures'.

The one thing Ada Lloyd did do, however, was introduce her children to Dublin. Resentful and lonely, Ada's marital unhappiness prompted regular visits to her mother, 'Mama Mary', in Dublin's Ely Place. After Captain John Atkinson died in 1862, these trips became yet more frequent.

And so the young Constance and Otho found themselves often leaving the modern villas of West End London to spend time in the calmer, quainter Georgian environs of Dublin's Ely Place and Merrion Square. Here they had their cousin Stanhope Hemphill to play with as well as their youthful aunt Ellena, born in 1853. The Atkinsons, Hemphills and Wildes all moved within the same tightly knit Dublin community, and it is highly likely that the young Lloyd children would have encountered or heard tell of Sir William and Lady Wilde in Merrion Square, and of their two sons, Willie and Oscar.

Constance was not an entirely healthy child. Her brother described her as 'somewhat bilious'. Nevertheless she survived bouts of the standard juvenile maladies of the era, chickenpox and measles, and by the age of ten, by which time her father had become a QC, she found herself living with her family in the grand surroundings of London's Sussex Gardens.

The upwardly mobile Lloyds lived first at 9 Sussex Gardens and then, in line with Horace's burgeoning practice, they moved to an even larger villa at no. 42, where they enjoyed five servants: two housemaids, a cook, a kitchen maid and a butler. As the level of domestic help suggests, Sussex Gardens, just off Hyde Park, was an area associated with the well-to-do. It was also close to grandpa John Horatio, who lived in another huge and imposing villa at 100 Lancaster Gate.

Here Constance enjoyed a thorough education. Otho Lloyd remembered his sister as being able to play the piano well, able to paint in oils, a fine needlewoman and well read. She also spoke French and could read Dante in the original Italian. The censuses of both 1871 and 1881 describe her as being a scholar. Although she was almost certainly tutored by a governess with her brother when theywere small, when her brother was sent away to Clifton School in Bristol she clearly attended one of the few schools for girls that had been founded in London since the mid-century.

By the 1870s there were a number of colleges open to young women who wanted to continue their education, cherry-picking the courses and classes that appealed. The academic standards the mature attendees of the colleges were expected to meet were in fact very high. Young women, although unable to hold a degree, could, via these schools, study under the tutelage of university staff for examinations that were marked by the University of London.

Constance took one such course and university examination in English literature, specializing in the work of Shelley. The intensity of the study required to pass the examination is suggested by Constance's complaint that the course 'ought to have been stretched over a year at least', although, practical as ever, Constance added that she was not going to bother 'worrying over it'. 'I intend to take it very quietly,' she told Otho, relaying that 'I shall not do any singing next week' in order 'to get what time I can for reading'. This strategy clearly proved successful, since Constance also noted that her tutor, a Mr Collins, was barely able to make a single comment on her Shelley essay, it was so good.

But regardless of their education, their impressive address and financial comfort, the emotional home life of the Lloyd children never stabilized. Horace Lloyd's weaknesses were not limited to billiards and cards: he also had a soft spot for women. Years later Constance witnessed a scene at her grandfather's house when a woman presented her son at Lancaster Gate and a 'row' ensued. Later Otho saw a young man at Oxford who caused him concern. Although Constance's correspondence regarding this is not explicit, the implication is that Otho felt sure he had spotted his illegitimate half-brother, the product of one of Horace's unwise dalliances.

[Y]our letter distressed me very much for it seems so very probable, and yet I thought the boy was only about 16 or 17, also I thought she could not have afforded to send him to the University. After all if she can, surely they [sic] is less fear of any 'rumpus' since they could only make an exposure in order to get money. Try and see him and see if you can trace any likeness – I tried a short while ago to find out something more about him, but grandpapa evidently thought I would tell Mama or someone about it so he said it was not a subject for me to talk about and shut me up completely, but he has heard nothing of them since they made the row at Lancaster Gate.

The Lloyd family was particularly prone to the odd sexual deviation. It was not just Horace who had succumbed. John Horatio had also been at the heart of a sex scandal, of sorts. In the 1830s, when, as a politician, he had been assisting Lord Brougham in piloting through the House of Commons the first Criminal Law Amendment Act, a piece of legislation that would abolish capital punishment for certain offences, John Horatio was working until the small hours of the morning on a regular basis. His hard graft was not unnoticed, and he had, according to Otho, secured the promise of being appointed Solicitor-General in due course. But late nights and early starts wreaked havoc with John Horatio's well-being. 'His health gave way under the strain,' Otho explained, and then he did a very odd thing indeed. He 'exposed himself in the Temple Gardens ... he ran naked in the sight of some nurse maids'. Not surprisingly, John Horatio's career took a tumble. He lost the opportunity of becoming Solicitor-General and was forced to retire from political and legal work for four years, during which time he went abroad to Athens and became a director of the Ionian Bank.

Oscar's own background held similar, greater, scandals. Oscar's father, Sir William Wilde, was a self-made man. The son of a doctor, he became a highly esteemed and pioneering eye and ear surgeon, as well as a recognized scholar and statistician who had written widely not only on medical issues but also on archaeology and folklore. His decision as a young man to set up a free clinic to treat Dublin's poor had provided him with the publicity and experience to become Ireland's leading specialist in his field and had subsequently delivered him his fortune and title. But when Oscar's father married his mother, the fiery poet and Irish nationalist Jane Elgee, known as Speranza, he already had at least three illegitimate children in tow. One, who went under the name of Henry Wilson, became a doctor and practised with his father. Sir William's two illegitimate daughters Emily and Mary Wilde were brought up by relatives. But it was not his premarital aberrations that were considered Sir William's scandal. Rather, it was an incident that happened during his marriage.

In the very year that Oscar was born, 1854, Sir William began an affair with Mary Josephine Travers, the nineteen-year-old daughter of one of his medical colleagues, Dr Robert Travers. Although they may have known each other socially, Miss Travers was also a patient of Wilde's. Their relationship was a long and relatively open one and resulted in another illegitimate child. But after almost a decade, when Wilde ended the relationship, to his horror Miss Travers suggested that their affair had begun with a rape, carried out while, as his patient, she was anaesthetized. Although Travers did not attempt a court action based on her accusation, she began a letter-writing campaign, sending letters to Merrion Square as well as to local newspapers.

Travers's campaign heightened when, shortly after Wilde's knighthood, she published a scurrilous pamphlet, a cautionary tale about a girl raped by her doctor, barely concealing her own and Wilde's identities as Florence Boyle Price and Dr Quilp respectively. The whole of Dublin was scandalized, not least because Travers's coup was to publish the pamphlet under Speranza's name. Speranza wrote to Dr Travers, accusing his daughter of orchestrating the campaign 'in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde'. Wilde's wife also alleged that Travers was attempting to extort money and referred to 'wages of disgrace'.

In an event that Oscar would have been wise to have remembered when he faced his own weirdly similar trials, Travers now saw her opportunity to ruin her former lover by dragging the business into court and thus into the public arena and press. She sued Speranza for libel and in giving evidence revealed every detail of her affair with Wilde. Everything was reported. It became a national sensation.

The jury found in favour of Miss Travers, but awarded her just a farthing damages. But of course, the costs of the case had to be paid by the Wildes, and these were considerable. After the trial Wilderetreated to his country home, Moytura House in Galway, and pursued archaeological investigations there while Speranza, an indomitable character, faced Dublin's society alone with the boys. Sir William Wilde never properly recovered from the incident. He died in 1876. Constance's great-uncle Charles Hare Hemphill walked behind the coffin as part of the cortège that took the body to Dublin's Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Constance's father had met his own demise two years earlier, in 1874, from pulmonary disease. On Sunday 5 April that year The Era announced the death in its column dedicated to Freemasonry:

The death of Br Horace Lloyd occurred on Monday last at his residence in Kensington, at the age of forty six. He had long been a distinguished Freemason and taken a prominent part in the affairs of the Craft ... Latterly, however, his health failed, ... but it was not suspected at that time that his sickness was 'unto death'. He did not however recover and ... breathed his last on the 30th.

Constance was just sixteen. Her father's death would have a dramatic and devastating effect on her own life, and heralded another scandal that Constance, barely out of childhood, would have to face. This was not the kind of public scandal that had threatened her grandfather's and father's reputations. It was a private scandal, concealed by the family, but for that none the less shameful. This time it centred on the disgraceful behaviour of her mother.

After the death of her husband Ada Lloyd began to abuse her daughter. Behind the respectable white stuccoed façade of the villa in Sussex Gardens the teenage Constance suddenly found herself taunted, threatened and beaten by a woman who had turned from being uninterested and cold to downright cruel. Otho remembered the barrage of suffering his sister faced. It ranged from 'perpetual snubbing in private and public sarcasm, rudeness and savage scoldings' to physical violence that included 'threatening with the fire-irons or having one's head thumped against the wall'. No teenager could go through this 'without some mark on the character being left', Otho later recalled.

Being made the butt of jokes in public and then slapped and threatened in private scarred Constance's personality and confidence. As a young woman she developed a pathological shyness when in public and a tendency to irritability and short-temperedness at home. The 'cruelty and contempt' Constance suffered in 'place of the care she ought to have received ... fostered a natural irritability which I am sure she tried to overcome but never could entirely, but she would be sorry presently and would not be too proud to say so', Otho remembered. 'There is no question she was markedly critical, and was irritated by little annoyances which many another would have hardly noticed.'

The damage was not merely emotional. If she already had something of a weak constitution, physical abuse did little to improve it. 'I went to see Mr Morgan yesterday,' Constance revealed to Otho in the summer of 1878, 'and he said that I was very weak indeed, with scarcely any pulse ... He has given me tonic pills, ... and also ordered me to lie down and sleep every day after lunch all of which Mama pooh poohed and declared it was only indigestion; she asked me if it was her cruel treatment of me that made me weak?!'

One can only speculate why Ada became so cruel and abusive, but it's likely that sexual jealousy lay at the heart of it. Ada was still only in her thirties when her husband died. Although Horace Lloyd left a legacy of £12,000, which was made over in his will entirely to his wife, the supplementary income from his legal practice died with him, and Ada must have realized that to maintain her current high standard of living she must remarry.


Excerpted from Constance by Franny Moyle, John Murray. Copyright © 2011 Franny Moyle. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Cover Page
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1. The sins of the parents …
  • 2. Terribly bad taste
  • 3. The sunflower and the lily
  • 4. ‘Bunthorne is to get his bride’
  • 5. Violets in the refrigerator
  • 6. Ardour and indifference
  • 7. A literary couple
  • 8. ‘Not to kiss females’
  • 9. Qui patitur vincit
  • 10. My own darling mother
  • 11. A dark bitter forest
  • 12. Modern-day Martha
  • 13. The strife of tongues
  • 14. Madame Holland
  • 15. Life is a terrible thing
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Select bibliography
  • Illustration acknowledgements
  • Index
  • Copyright Page

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