Wilde’s Women

This lively new study deals with Oscar Wilde’s professional links with women writers, journalists, actors and activists and connects these experiences with an examination of his relationship with his mother Jane, his wife Constance, his friend and ally Ada Leverson and with other women friends.
Wilde had so many incarnations within a relatively short life – as poet, dandy, novelist, aesthete, dramatist, sexual outcast and, latterly, icon of dissidence – and his editorship of The Lady’s World was only one of these many incarnations.
However it is a significant one in relation to his intellectual and imaginative formation. Wilde took on this job in 1887, retitling the journal The Woman’s World and expanding the scope of the journal’s interests in fashion and topics of domesticity to engage his readers with literature, art, politics and the professional life of the working woman.
Wilde’s commitment to reshaping this journal reflects his interest in challenging conventions of Victorian female identity and Fitzsimons takes as her starting point her perception that: “Given the nature and magnitude of the monstrous injustice perpetuated against him, Oscar Wilde’s life is often examined in terms of his relationship with men.”
She retilts this perceived imbalance by assessing his relationships with women and subtitles her book, How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew. Fitzsimons interweaves her account of Wilde’s own life with “compelling accounts of the many fascinating and brilliant women who influenced, inspired and collaborated with Oscar Wilde throughout his life”.
Fitzsimons takes a chronological approach to her task, with short biographical accounts of the women Wilde knew and loved – Florence Balcombe, Lillie Langtry, and Sarah Bernhardt – as well as the many women he worked with. She goes on to trace their influence on the women protagonists Wilde created in his plays.
For no clear reason, the book takes as its opening moment February 20th, 1892, the first night of Lady Windermere’s Fan and argues that the play was inspired partly by the life of Oscar’s beloved friend and muse Langtry.
Wilde’s interest in the subversion of conventional motherhood, as seen in this play, leads Fitzsimons on an account of the influence of Wilde’s mother, the poet and translator, Jane Wilde, known as Speranza.
Quite correctly, Jane becomes a central focus throughout the book and Fitzsimons puts it well when she writes that, “Truly, without Jane there would be no Oscar as we know him.”
One of the many casualties of Wilde’s disgrace was the retrospective trivialisation of his mother’s literary reputation, her transformation from respected poet and intellectual into a kind of Celtic pantomime dame, “queering” her son by her overbearing love and by her own dramatic nature.
A strength here is that Jane is taken seriously as a writer and scholar, Fitzsimons arguing that her self-presentation as a writer was a key influence for Oscar, as was her ability to adapt and survive.
Sensibly Fitzsimons dismisses the idea that Jane’s cross-dressing the toddler Oscar in skirts (a common practice for boys) made him gay, a theory alluded to by an otherwise admiring James Joyce in his 1909 essay, Oscar Wilde, the Poet of Salome.
Jane’s former protégée Bernard Shaw also didn’t help her posthumous reputation, with his own bizarre theory that Speranza suffered from a kind of physical disorder called gigantism, transmuted somehow into a psycho-sexual disorder for Oscar.
Colm Tóibín, in one of the best essays on Wilde in his 2002 collection Love in a Dark Time, observes that hostile or mocking accounts of Speranza surface only in the early 20th century, after Oscar’s fall.
“In all of Oscar Wilde’s letters which refer to his mother, there is not one word of mockery or disloyalty. Mostly he refers to her not as his mother but as Lady Wilde. He seems in his early letters to enjoy referring to her in all her grandeur.”
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