Book review: The Fall of the House of Wilde

Oscar Wilde was the most famous — and notorious — of his family but they were already a wild bunch long before his scandalous downfall. Mary Leland reads between the lines of a chronicle of fortune and misfortune.

Emer O’Sullivan

Bloomsbury, €25

THERE’S always something slightly dubious about a title which is a steal from somebody else: in this case Edgar Allen Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher. The borrowing belies the book. 

Horrible things happen to the Wildes of Dublin and London, but theirs is not a horror story. Nor was there ever really a House of Wilde. 

There was no dynasty; ancestors yes in the sense that we all have ancestors, and of descendants only a few. 

The jacket design superimposes the title on an image of Oscar Wilde, but while Oscar may have been the family’s social tragedy its downfall was already well in hand by the time of his imprisonment and exile.

But book and cover come to mind: these comments matter because the book is so much more than a familiar-sounding title and a recognisable face. 

Emer O’Sullivan works her way diligently through the thickets of Wildean genealogy to arrive at its principal characters and locations and the first of her achievements is to place the family’s most notorious member within a domestic environment in which he was not by any means the most prominent or promising.

The chief personalities in this often-told story are Sir William Wilde, his wife Jane, their elder son Willie and his brother Oscar. A daughter, Isola, died aged 10 in 1867. 

Later would come Oscar’s wife Constance and their two sons and, slightly more shadowy although yielding the Wilde’s only other descendant, Willie’s second wife, Lily, and their daughter Dorothy.

Lady Jane Wilde had preached the gospel of self-belief and practised what she preached as journalist, rebel, poet, wife, mother and prominent hostess with a salon at her home on Dublin’s Merrion Square. 

Writing as ‘Speranza’ for The Nation, which was the mouthpiece of the Young Ireland movement, she admitted in a private letter that ‘Excitement is my genius’. 

She was able to defend with some relish the controversies which beset her husband, and despite circumstances which would have overwhelmed others she never failed in her profound affection for and loyalty to her two sons.

Both she and Sir William were highly educated, widely read in Irish and European literature, politically well-connected, able to travel where their many cultural, literary and antiquarian interests took them, and given that as a physician William Wilde specialised in diseases of the eye and ear, alert to and involved in scientific and medical research.

In 1864 Wilde was knighted for his contributions to statistical science, a tool he used to highlight humanitarian issues. 

It was something of a calamity therefore to find himself that same year a co-defendant with Jane in a libel action brought by a former patient and protegee, Mary Travers. (The Diary of Mary Travers by Eibhear Walsh is a fictional version of this affair.)

This was the first great scandal afflicting the family. Although the verdict was in favour of Mary Travers, she was awarded only a farthing’s damages. 

Jane survived the experience with public aplomb; for Sir William, by now a doctor with an international reputation, the outcome was one of gradual decline into indifference. This was hastened by the death of Isola three years later.

Sir William also had a least three illegitimate children: a son who joined his professional practice, and two young daughters who were burned to death when their crinolines caught fire at a dance in county Monaghan a few years after the trial. 

William retreated to his beloved fishing lodge in Connemara, to his work as an author and academician, and died as one of the most eminent Irishmen of his time in 1876.

By then the two Wilde boys were at university and becoming more than a little expensive. 

Despite several attempts at a professional career Willie, reputedly the most promising of the greatly gifted brothers, declined at last into a drifting life fuelled by alcoholism and curtailed by inertia and debt.

Oscar was trapped by a different addiction; his great popular success — scandalous in itself given the nature of such works as The Picture of Dorian Grey — encouraged

notions and habits of extravagant glamour, or glamorous extravagance. Glamour, at any rate. And at any cost, including his marriage, which began to surrender to his distaste for the physical evidence of maternity.

In a letter to his biographer Frank Harris, he wrote that Constance had been ‘white and slim as a lily… in a year or so the flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless, deformed… Oh, nature is disgusting…it befouls the altar of the soul.’ In other words, Constance was pregnant.

No fear of that with Lord Alfred Douglas. This young aristocrat’s only recommendation was his physical beauty, but it enslaved Oscar Wilde even after the writer, felled at the peak of his theatrical success, had endured his trial and imprisonment and left for France.

Before this catastrophe, however, and before Oscar’s descent into the decadence which he allowed betray him, the most notable achievement of this book emerges. 

Already thoroughly researched and rich with scholarship, it is from here that O’Sullivan’s narrative opens onto a glittering, fractious endless argument.

The subject is art and artists, the world of literary and dramatic criticism, the Pre-Raphaelites, poetry, Ruskin, Whistler and the aesthetic influences and pretensions of a world in which Oscar not only flowered but eclipsed most of his contemporaries. 

O’Sullivan’s occasionally pretentious prose disappears in these chapters: her observations brighten in a spirited and authoritative commentary: ‘Few people entered Whistler’s domain without getting mugged in public, and Oscar was no exception’…’ she writes, while leading us to her account of the entrapment, the downfall, and the squalid ending of Oscar’s brilliant career and withered life. The gospel of self-belief failed him at the last.

But ‘The Fall’ had been ensured already by the failure of Sir William Wilde to provide for the future of his widow and sons. 

Despite her fervent and heart-breaking efforts to keep her name in vogue, her family solvent, and her home secure, Lady Jane Wilde died in poverty.

Only Willie and his wife attended her funeral at Kensal Green in 1896. No memorial stone was erected to mark the grave where, as O’Sullivan writes, the woman thought in Ireland to be ‘the Aeolian Harp of her age’ was laid. Her remains were later dug up and re-buried at an unknown site.

Having trekked around Europe with her two sons, re-named Holland to avoid the taint of their imprisoned father, 40-year-old Constance died in 1898 and is buried in Genoa. 

The two boys were sent back to relatives in England from where Cyril was killed fighting in the First World War while Vyvyan became a barrister. His son Merlin lives in France.

Oscar died in Paris in November 1900, was buried at Bagneaux; nine years later his remains were transferred to the city’s Pere Lachaise cemetery to lie under the monument designed by Jacob Epstein.


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