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

  • Franny Moyle
  • Pegasus
  • 374 pp.

No mere cipher to her philandering husband, the wife of the acclaimed writer was an accomplished woman in her own right.

Reviewed by Linda Lear

Franny Moyle insists that Constance Lloyd Wilde was no mere cipher — a hapless woman — loyal to her philandering husband, who happened to be the foremost playwright and wit of the fin de siècle. Instead, Moyle’s engrossing new biography presents an accomplished woman of the Aesthetic Movement who was made more interesting and more tragic by the behavior of man she married.

Constance Lloyd, born in 1858 into an emotionally neglectful and abusive family, emerged a chronically shy but talented young woman. Moyle suggests that the beautiful and headstrong Constance was “frankly sexy and unconventionally precocious” when she was first embraced by Britain’s Aesthetic elite and came to the notice of the flamboyant Oscar Wilde. Relying on a new cache of unpublished letters from Constance, Moyle presents an engaging portrait of a woman who was very much her own person and one whose intellectual and emotional predispositions matched many of those in the man she married. Constance was no unwitting victim, but Moyle believes her susceptibility to the influence of others contributed to some extraordinarily bad decisions.

Constance spoke French, read Italian, painted with more than ordinary skill and was intellectually curious. She enthusiastically embraced the ideals of the Aesthetic Movement, publicly championing the emerging feminist passion for greater freedoms in dress and behavior, and becoming a fashion icon. Ironically, Constance was an accomplished children’s writer but a neglectful mother. Her nursery stories were published by a prestigious firm, and Moyle suggests that Constance may even have been responsible for rewriting Wilde’s splendid tale of “The Selfish Giant.” As Mrs. Oscar Wilde, she was the perfect brand extension of her decadent husband’s celebrity in social taste and style. Clearly, she very much enjoyed the role.

Oscar and Constance began married life happily in 1884, and by all indications they were much in love. What Constance understood about homosexuality is unknown, but it is nearly inconceivable that she could not have been aware of the sexual ambiguity displayed by Oscar’s manner and style or the sexual allusions that filled his poetry. Early indications of Oscar’s sexual interest in men and his inability to be financially responsible or reliable as a parent were not initially troubling to her or to her own lifestyle. For Oscar’s part, marriage to Constance was not initially a cover-up for his true sexuality. But Moyle is never quite able to explain how Constance managed to deny the behavior implicit in Oscar’s long and increasingly frequent sojourns away from home in the company of male friends, his neglect of his children, the vicious rumors of lewd escapades with “rent boys” and, finally, his passionate attachment to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas.

By the early 1890s, the Wildes led increasingly separate lives. Oscar pursued individualism, and Constance, by nature a fanatic, became involved in one fad after another. Constance’s deep friendship with Georgina Cowper-Temple, the widow of a Whig statesman and philanthropist, became intense. She spent an excessive amount of time at Georgina’s home when she should have been seen publicly in London socializing with her husband or at least curbing his spending and insisting he come home occasionally.

Clearly, the poisonous homosexual relationship with Bosie was the addiction that ultimately brought down the marriage and the playwright. But equally at play was Constance’s determined denial of her reality. Moyle gives a sometimes tedious travelogue of Constance’s wanderings — she was always on the move and never home long enough to confront the disturbing facts of Oscar’s life or its implications for herself and her children.

Moyle, the author of Desperate Romantics (2009), was the BBC’s first commissioner for arts and culture before she left to pursue a career as a freelance writer and producer. She opens the biography with a film maker’s eye for drama, recounting the arrival of an urgent message from Oscar bidding Constance to be “at home” to meet him on February 28, 1895. Even if we already know that Oscar is foolishly about to sue the Marquess of Queensbury for libel, it is a brilliant hook. Not until the end of the book do we discover the meaning of that message or the subsequent descent into humiliation it portended.

Moyle’s reading of the new material underscores her contention that Constance had an “extraordinary ability to accommodate events, cope and move forward.” The public disgrace that followed Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, his years in prison and his return to the arms of Bosie is well known. Forced to flee abroad to save her inheritance and to live a near vagabond existence, Constance finally changed her name to Holland to protect herself and her sons, but she continued to send Oscar money and to believe he would come back to her. Moyle’s account of Constance’s wanderings over Europe and her miserable death after a botched gynecological surgery in Genoa at age 39 is heartbreaking.

Constance is a scholarly telling of the human dimensions of the Aesthetic Movement and of one talented woman who eagerly participated in it. Moyle’s account is detailed but not ponderous. There are end notes, a short bibliographic essay, a bibliography and an adequate index. She does not gloss over Constance’s failures as a mother, failures which are quite staggering, nor does she absolve Constance of her almost pathological denial of her reality as a wife.

Moyle suggests the ultimate perpetrator of in this tragedy was neither Oscar’s excesses nor Bosie’s perniciousness, but rather a fickle culture that applauded their misbehavior as good theatre.

Linda Lear is the biographer of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (2009) and of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (2008). She writes “Telling Lives” at

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