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Finding Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

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Article by writingie © 19 September 2016 Eleanor Fitzsimons .
Posted in the Magazine ( · Non Fiction ).

These days I’m often described as the woman who spent three years living with Oscar Wilde. While I do sometimes feel like a bit of a one-trick pony (many of you will be relieved to hear that I am working on a second trick), I’m convinced that developing a bit of an obsession with your subject is a healthy and inevitable consequence of a biographer’s life. While it’s not that difficult to gather enough information to fill three-hundred pages, particular when you’re writing about a life as well documented as Oscar Wilde’s, the magic ingredient in a successful biography is empathy. You have to really care!

For years, I’ve written features and opinion pieces for magazines and newspapers. I also contributed to the brilliant feminist blog www.theantiroom.com, and researched television programmes for RTE. Yet, my real interest lay in bringing the lives of brilliant but neglected women to the fore. In 2011, I returned to UCD and studied for an MA in Women, Gender and Society. On graduating, I was taken on by leading non-fiction agent Andrew Lownie. Now all I needed was a topic, one that would appeal to publishers and potential readers. I pitched the idea of examining Oscar Wilde, who is endlessly fascinating and universally loved, from a new angle; his relationships with women. Wilde’s Women, was published by Duckworth Overlook in October 2015, and has just been released in paperback.

As Wilde is a leading contender for the title of most-written-about man in the world, several commentators warned me that little remained to be uncovered. Yet, I was certain that a preoccupation with his sexuality, coupled with the neglect of testimony from Victorian women left much to be explored. Happily, I was right. Although I wasn’t short on enthusiasm and empathy, the challenge I faced when writing Wilde’s Women was that many of the women who had a profound influenced on Wilde’s work and life are scarcely remembered outside of academic circles. Even then, they languish in notes and references.

Eleanor Photo 2008 - CopyMy starting point was Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Francesca ‘Speranza’ Wilde. I suspected that no son of a woman as flamboyant and heroic as Lady Wilde could have anything less than the utmost regard for women. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the richness of her brilliant life and the ferocity of her campaigns for women to be educated and admitted to professions generally reserved for men. Jane Wilde was a celebrated poet, an accomplished linguist and translator, a campaigner for liberty, a wit, a beauty, and a loving wife and mother. She was also an incorrigible snob and a brilliant conversationalist. Her prominence in her day ensured that her life is well documented. She was a prolific essayist and letter writer, and she inspired several well-regarded biographies. Researching her life presented little difficulty.

Although Wilde was attracted exclusively to men for much of his life, as a young man he was romantically involved with several women. Interest in his wife Constance has been revived since the publication of Franny Moyle’s excellent biography Constance, which drew on a cache of newly discovered letters. I researched the life of Florence Balcombe, Wilde’s first girlfriend who married Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, instead. The letters and poems he sent her during their two year courtship reveal a genuine, if chaste, attachment. I caught wonderful glimpses of this remarkable, tenacious woman in the Stoker family papers in Trinity College, Dublin; in society pages of the time; and in letters and autobiographies written by her more celebrated acquaintances.

Many of the warmest and most revealing accounts of Oscar Wilde were written by women, and I uncovered these in memoirs, autobiographies and letters. As a young man, Wilde cultivated friendships with influential women whose fame eclipsed his. Actresses Lillie Langtry, Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt left detailed records of their friendships with Wilde in their letters and autobiographies. When progressive American actress and director Elizabeth Robbins staged the plays of Ibsen in London, Wilde funded her, praised her publically and discussed theatre reform with her. She recorded her gratitude and left valuable insights into his character in her unpublished memoir.

Pacifist feminist Helena Swanwick left lovely anecdotes describing Wilde’s kindness to her family: ‘His extravaganzas had no end, his invention was inexhaustible, and everything he said was full of joy and energy,’ she wrote. After he was released from prison, Wilde confided in journalist Claire de Pratz, sharing his sadness at the death of his mother and his separation from his children. It was to her he said ‘my wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other has to go’. She documented his final months with great compassion in little-known diaries and journal articles.

The powerful women who promoted Wilde when he toured America, where he was barely known, are scarcely remembered and I found the most complete account of them in their obituaries. I dug deep to animate their lives. As editor of The Woman’s World, a high-end, illustrated monthly magazine, Wilde commissioned leading thinkers and campaigners on gender and women’s rights, among them Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Edith Simcox and Clementina Black, to write about education and voting rights. In his ‘Literary and Other Notes’, he promoted progressive women authors such as Olive Scrivener, who campaigned vociferously for an end to the sexual double standard; troubled Amy Levy, who he recognised as a genius; and poet turned children’s author Edith Nesbit, the subject of my next biography. This magazine is digitised at www.archive.org and available in the National Library of Ireland.

Although disgracefully neglected or utterly forgotten, the women in Wilde’s Women led fascinating lives, fraught with the challenges of operating in an oppressively patriarchal world. Researching their lives took me many months and required a degree of ingenuity but it was a hugely rewarding task. I’m proud to have written a book that has been well received, well reviewed and described as ‘a vital new portrait of Wilde’.

(c) Eleanor Fitzsimons

About Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew

‘A remarkable book… the breadth and depth of research is astonishing’ Emma Thompson

‘Eleanor Fitzsimons is to be congratulated on finding a new and eminently profitable angle from which to approach him [Wilde]: the women who were so uncommonly significant in his life.’ Simon Callow, Guardian

Hailed as a gay icon and pioneer of individualism, Oscar Wilde’s insistence that ‘there should be no law for anybody’ made him a staunch defender of gender equality. Throughout his life from his relationship to his extraordinary mother Jane and the tragedy of his sister Isola’s early death to his accomplished wife Constance and a coterie of other free-thinking writers, actors and artists, women were a central aspect of his life and career.

Wilde’s Women is the first book to tell the story of his female friends and colleagues who traded witticisms with Wilde but also give him access to vital publicity and whose ideas he gave expression through his social comedies. Author Eleanor Fitzsimons reframes Wilde’s story and his legacy through the women in his life including such fascinating figures as Florence Balcombe who left him for Bram Stoker, actress Lillie Langtry (for a while an inseparable friend) and his tragic and witty niece Dolly who bore a strong resemblance to the writer and loved fast cars, cocaine and foreign women. Full of fascinating detail and anecdotes Wilde’s Women relates the untold story of how the writer played a vitally sympathetic role on behalf of many women and how they supported him in the midst of a Victorian society in the process of changing forever.

Wilde’s Women is out in paperback now (with a gorgeous new cover) or pick up your copy online here!


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