“I didn’t even know Oscar Wilde had a wife.”
That phrase has become all too familiar for me as I tell people about my new play, The Importance Of Being Oscar, which follows the famous playwright, Oscar Wilde, at the end of his life. After a scandal that destroyed Oscar Wilde’s life, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison for the crime of being a homosexual. My play takes place right after that. Released from prison, Oscar has an encounter with an old friend, his estranged wife, and his fictional creation, Dorian Gray. I plunged into research on Oscar’s life and learning about his wife, Constance Wilde, was the most fascinating part of my journey. I’ve always had a love of the satirical writer, but I knew very little of the woman who married him.
Constance Wilde, born Constance Loyd in 1859 in Dublin, was a strong supporter of women’s rights and a writer in her own right. I’ll admit my own lack of knowledge, figuring that Oscar Wilde simply got married to hide his homosexuality, which was sadly, illegal at that time. But their marriage, at least in the beginning, was truly a partnership of bright minds and strong personalities. They seemed to share a genuine affinity for each other and were well-matched. Constance would edit Oscar’s work and assisted him with the women’s magazine he ran. She even went on to publish her own book of children’s stories.
And she was a big advocate for women’s fashion reform. And back then, fashion, especially women’s fashion, impacted far more than just their sense of style. Promoting styles of clothes that were looser and allowed for more movement literally allowed women to be more independent. And she condemned the vast amounts of petticoats that were considered normal, in part due to their safety hazard. Oscar’s own two half-sisters, Emily and Mary, both died in 1871 when one of their petticoats caught on fire and the other sister tried to help, only to have her petticoats also catch on fire.
The scandal of Oscar Wilde’s relationship with his young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, which eventually landed Oscar in prison, also destroyed much of what Constance had worked for in her life. Suddenly, her family was in disgrace and her husband in jail. She chose exile, leaving England with the couple’s two children, Cyril and Vyvyan. Though she never divorced Oscar, she required that he give up parental rights and changed her and her son’s name to Holland is dissociate them from the scandal. In the end, she never saw Oscar after his release from prison, though did communicate through letters and provided him with a small stipend. I deviate from this fact in my play, giving her a chance to say a final goodbye to her husband. I can only image the strength she needed to do her best for her children and even for her husband after dealing with such a deep betrayal. Several of Oscar’s young lovers, even Alfred Douglas, had been houseguests in the Wilde’s home, welcomed by Constance.
Constance died in 1898, only a year after Oscar was released from prison.
Brandie June is a writer and playwright and you can check her out at www.brandiejune.com. Her new play, The Importance Of Being Oscar, premieres in June at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. More information and tickets are available here.
For further reading, I highly suggest Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle.