Interview: Franny Moyle, Constance Wilde's biographer

Share this article

Hundreds of undiscovered letters show that, far from being overshadowed by Oscar, his wife was a thoroughly modern careerwoman.

THERE'S a print of Millais's Ophelia in Franny Moyle's Hackney study. You know the one: it's the best-selling postcard at the Tate. Ophelia is floating in the stream in which she has just drowned, maddened by grief for her father who has been killed by her lover.

Down the stream she floats, her grey eyes still shining, her lips lifeless but still kissable, the very image of beauty in death. In her hands she still clutches daisies, which have always stood for innocence, as she floats past the nettles (pain) and willow trees (forsaken love) on the bank of the stream.

Poor, doomed Ophelia. And poor, doomed Constance Wilde too, because Oscar's wife is the woman Franny Moyle has spent the last three years writing about. "Ophelia's rather a good model for Constance, I'm afraid," she says, "in that she was a sacrifice to love as well. God, all these doomed women!!"

As her last book, Desperate Romantics, made clear, Moyle knows all about the tragedy of Elizabeth Siddall, who modelled for Millais's painting of Ophelia before marrying his friend Rossetti and overdosing on laudanum. Indeed, the print came from the set of the TV adaptation, for which she was also executive producer.

But Constance Wilde wasn't just another Ophelia. "Unlike Ophelia, Constance's story is that of a modern woman," she says. "I see her as a bit of a role model for me juggling my telly work with the kids (she is a freelance TV producer with three children under 12], with getting the house redecorated. That's what Constance did. She wanted to Have It All."

Before Moyle started her biography, our image of Constance Wilde was rather murky. Those who did realise that Oscar Wilde actually had a wife tended to place her firmly in the background - overshadowed, insignificant, ignored.

She wasn't. When Moyle worked her way through 400 letters from Constance that no Wilde biographer had seen before, an altogether different picture emerged. "I had no idea of how busy she was," says Moyle. "She's dashing off to marches, to hear speeches, she was editing this, she was writing that - she stood alongside Oscar as an intelligent, busy, determined woman with a view of her own career. In today's society she would have been, I imagine, a rather formidable career woman - and that's an interesting revelation because she had never been portrayed as that."

Moyle discovered the letters from Constance to Lady Georgina Mount-Temple - to whom Constance was so close that she addressed her as "Mother" - in the archives of Southampton University. Because Constance was such a prolific letter-writer, the letters gave a comprehensive portrait of her life from 1890 until her death - eight years in which her marriage disintegrated and her husband became the most infamous writer in the world.

She then got in touch with Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde's only grandson and an expert on his work, seeking permission to quote from Constance's letters. He was able to provide a few more, covering Constance's early life. Even though Moyle has already got a hectic career in television - she is the BBC's former commissioner of arts and cultural broadcasting, no less - she realised that all this new material meant that she'd have to write a biography too.

Fortunately, she's good at it. You can see how good right from the start, which follows a note Oscar wrote from his West End hotel suite, through the streets of London to his wife in their Chelsea house. It's 28 February, 1895. Wilde is hugely successful, his new play The Importance of Being Earnest every bit the triumph that An Ideal Husband was when it opened the previous month. His world - and Constance's too - is about to implode.

At this stage, with Oscar in his 40th year and his homosexual life lived as openly as was possible in Victorian Britain, most other biographers have tended to assume that Constance has been eclipsed in his affections altogether by his passion for Bosie, the young Lord Alfred Douglas.

The Wildes' marriage, Moyle insists, was altogether more complicated than that. "What the letters reveal is that Oscar was utterly devoted to Constance until the last couple of years. He'd write to her dutifully every day, they would go out and have supper and have long talks, he would go out and accompany her, he would make a point of always meeting her at the station, they had a great sense of sharing their children together. Oscar's sexuality didn't necessarily negate his relationship with his wife at all. It was held in parallel. They had a separate, different, but not necessarily less important relationship."

Before that, for at least the first six years after their 1884 marriage, Oscar and Constance were even closer. "In the early part of his career, when he is lecturing about dress and interiors, and when he is editing The Ladies' World, Constance was very much a partner. She was definitely someone he consulted. They had projects together and would undoubtedly talk about what should go in his magazine - her influence is clear, because gradually a lot of her friends creep into its pages."

Perhaps Constance also had an influence on Wilde's fiction. Certainly they collaborated: in a manuscript which came to light three years ago, the first draft of Wilde's children's story The Selfish Giant is written entirely in Constance's hand, with corrections inserted in Oscar's handwriting. Then there is her involvement in the Theosophist Order of the Golden Dawn, a group of spiritualists who believed that works of art could come to life. Is it any coincidence, Moyle wonders, that her membership of the order ended just before Oscar started to write The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Knowing more about Constance, she says, has only added to her appreciation of Oscar. "He becomes a bit more of a rounded character. You see him worrying about the success of his play, someone who's not quite as confident as we always assume. You see his insecurities, his weaknesses, that he's someone who worries about his work and need her support."

Does she end up hating Constance's enemies too? "Absolutely, in the case of Bosie. He was just vile, awful. I can't find anything positive to say about him. All the more so because Constance was just as much a victim of Bosie as Oscar was."

These days, it is hard to imagine just how much of a shock the Oscar Wilde trial was to Victorian society: we have nothing we can compare it to. "But that," says Moyle, "makes it all the extraordinary that Constance was prepared to forgive him, doesn't it? For me, that's the amazing part of this story.

"Even in the 1890s, they have periods when they are very happy together - usually when Bosie is out of the way - when you sense they are both trying hard to make their marriage work but they perhaps they both know it's futile and there is a greater tragedy coming down the track.

"Remember that children's story Constance wrote about the children who capture a little bird? They keep it trapped and one day it flies off through the window and the little girl cries and the mother says 'Don't worry, if you gave it its freedom, it will come back. And they put food out, and the the bird comes back every day. Well, I think that's symptomatic of what was going on in Constance's mind at the time. She was a very liberal-minded, so she knew she couldn't change Oscar, but she wanted to give him his freedom. She thought perhaps that could keep them together. The irony is that it's Oscar who is always writing about sacrifice - like in The Little Prince the bird who sacrifices himself for the love of the prince - yet in practice it's Constance who was always prepared to make a huge amount of personal sacrifice for her husband."

She died young - younger than Oscar. Just 39 and still captivating - indeed Moyle's biorgaphy shows that at least one of the men hitherto thought to have been one of Oscar's gay hangers-on was a regular at the Wildes' Tite Street home out of devotion to Constance, not her husband. The stress of the scandal must have taken its toll, but she never showed it, selling off the Tite Street house efficiently and living in comparative poverty abroad without bemoaning her fate.

When she moved abroad, she took one photo with her. It's the one we've used as out main illustration for this piece - in which her son Cyril wraps his arms around her neck with unVictorian abandon. We know that she always had it with her because it's framed and hanging on the wall in the tiny stamp-sized photos Constance took while living on the Italian Riviera after the scandal.

Franny was first shown these tiny photos by Oscar Wilde's only grandchild, Merlin Holland, when she visited him in France to show him Constance's letters. He scanned the photo of Constance's room in Italy and magnified it on his computer as much as he could. And there it was. "She'd had it framed and it was hanging on the wall," says Moyle. "It was a really spooky moment. I felt I could almost reach out and touch her."

- Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde is published this week by John Murray, priced 20.