Book Review: “Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde” (2011) by Franny Moyle

Constance Wilde

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I bought this book over two years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. The cover design of my edition, bright purple with a pink swirly font, combined with a title that sounds like it was ripped straight from the headlines of a gossip glossy really put me off initially (although come to think of it, the gossip columns played an important part in the lives of the Wildes). Still, curiosity got the best of me in the end, and I’m glad it did. We all know what happened to Oscar Wilde, but the story of Constance is one that is seldom told and deserves to be heard.

Moyle has set out to show that Constance was an interesting person in her own right, so much more than just “the betrayed wife of.” Constance Lloyd turned from a cripplingly shy woman from an abusive household into a women’s rights activist with a strong independent voice, a much admired beauty, a fashion icon, scholar, gifted linguist, and children’s author. She wrote articles on the importance of comfortable clothing for women, joined a secret society dedicated to the occult, held radical political beliefs… But all of this is overshadowed by her husband’s trial and conviction, which forced her to move abroad with her two children, away from prying eyes and judgment.

This biography does not gloss over Constance’s failings as a mother and Oscar’s nasty remarks (“Women are so petty, and Constance has no imagination”), but also repeatedly emphasises that, for a long time, they were very much devoted to one another and thought to be the perfect match by everyone who met them.

I have some qualms with the way Moyle draws biographical conclusions based on the fictional works of both Constance and Oscar and she dwells on details of interior design far too much for my taste, but overall this book is an interesting read for anyone interested in Oscar Wilde, Victorians in general, or the women history has forgotten. After all, it’s very telling that many of the reviewers on Goodreads write that they didn’t even know that Wilde was married.


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