I innocently allowed myself to be pulled into the vortex of nineteenth century Oxford many months ago and now find that I cannot seem to leave. It’s a bit disconcerting, really. I have every intention of moving on, but inevitably one more interesting character pops into view just as I resolve to quit Oxford for good and wheedles me into tarrying just a while longer. I have to say it has always been worth my while. My current wheedler is the ever-charming Oscar Wilde. I managed to buy a thrift copy of Richard Ellmann’s definitive biography on Oscar and fell headlong into a rabbit hole worthy of Alice and her Wonderland. For Oscar’s is a world of eccentric surprises at every turn. Anything genuinely eccentric is always both irresistibly attractive and just a bit unsettling at the same time. We want to continually scamper back to the status quo of respectability and predictability – the way people ought to behave – and yet find ourselves peeking through the hedges delighting at the circus parade of a life that could have as its motto, “Go big, or go home.”
Eccentrics teach us a lot about ourselves if we don’t turn away from them in fear of the uncomfortable. There is a genuineness about eccentrics that knows no guile. What you see is what you genuinely get with all its foibles, talent, beauty, and tragic flaw in full and glorious view. Eccentrics never hide behind pretense, and there is something so emancipating to our own human nature to experience someone so utterly and unapologetically human – able to recognize himself a god and yet admit himself a fallen, pathetic creature with equal candor. Such a one is Oscar Wilde.
Oscar did not live in a vacuum. He did not just magically appear on the scene, although, come to think of it, he might enjoy it immensely if you believed that fact. He had a family. And you meet them almost right away in Chapter One. I was intrigued by the whole lot of them, but found myself quite taken with his mother, Jane Elgee Wilde, as she led me down her own particular rabbit hole. It soon became clear that to know Jane was to know Oscar. Not so much by nurture but by very nature. They were in every way ‘two peas in a pod’.
Jane Wilde was Irish through and through. She stood six feet tall, with a “stately carriage and figure, flashing brown eyes, and features cast in an heroic mould” seemingly, “fit for the genius of poetry, or the spirit of revolution.” From a very young age she, “had a sense of being destined for greatness, and imparted it.” In keeping with that persona, she had a penchant for reading and writing Irish Revolutionary poetry.
By her own admission she had a wild and rebellious nature:
I should like to rage through life – this orthodox creeping is too tame for me – ah, this wild rebellious ambitious nature of mine. I wish I could satiate it with Empires, though St. Helena were the end.
She hankered after spectacle and had a perpetual sense of drama – almost as though she considered herself the stuff of her own poetry and reinvented herself to comply with that destiny. Even after she married and admitted with a sigh that at last her great soul was “imprisoned within a woman’s destiny” she insisted, “If heroic deeds were not possible, she could at least dress with derring-do.” She wore dresses that were covered with golden roses, flounces and oversized shamrocks. “In her salon in Dublin, and later in London, she cut a figure in increasingly outlandish costumes, surmounted by headdresses and festooned with outsize and bizarre jewelry.” Her favorite color was scarlet, and she wore it all the way through to older age to the consternation of her more staid and scandalized female neighbors, and the absolute delight of her son, Oscar, who had a particular attraction to that same color, although he called it vermillion, a word he “liked to draw out lingeringly, in his inflections of tints and shades.” He too owned a coat of vermillion, and a coat shaped like a violin. His mother approved wholeheartedly of both.
Her son Oscar was utterly enchanted by her from a very young age. He shared her love of spectacle and both of them viewed the sensible world as a stage of sorts meant for their sole entertainment. Her rebellious Irish blood ran through his veins and he “had a taste for both her poetry and her politics.” She came from a background of tradesmen and ordinary workmen, but when her husband was knighted for his advances in ophthalmology, she took it upon herself to do away with the bothersome name of ordinary Jane Frances. She concocted an intricate genealogy for herself that traced her roots to Tuscan origins – all the way back to Dante Alighieri, no less “who could not save himself from becoming Jane Elgee’s ancestor.” She began signing her letters in different personas: to tradesmen and people of “no consequence” she was Jane Wilde.
To those she liked she became J. Francesca Wilde, but to poets and writers she pulled another name from the motto at the top of her writing paper: Fidanza, Speranza, Costanza. She plucked Speranza right out of the air and signed all her letters henceforth: Francesca Speranza Wilde. All her friends knew her as Speranza from then on. Oscar was probably amused by this as both she and he “loved improving on reality.” Neither one of them ever really committed to a specific age. When pressed about her nebulous birth dates in this regard, Speranza would “reply airily, that her birth had never been recorded, no Registry Office having been required when giants still walked the earth.” Oscar was to defend this cloud of origin through the mouth of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, when she declares most emphatically, “Indeed, no woman should ever be quite accurate about her age. It looks so calculating.” He also humorously points out the complete ‘logic’ of preferring one name over the other through the mouth of Gwendolyn as she reminds Jack that Ernest is the only name she could marry, “It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations!” When Jack insists that perhaps Jack is a good name as well, she retorts, “Jack? No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations. The only really safe name is Ernest.” I think Speranza would have concurred. Life, for Speranza, must always produce vibrations!
I found myself increasingly enchanted by Speranza’s glorious eccentricity. Everything we love about Wilde came as a gift to him from her own heart. She adored both her boys Willie and Oscar with a passion. They were allowed to enter all the conversations at the dinner table and she entertained their ideas on politics and culture without condescension.
She was a veritable mistress of the soiree. She invited poets, writers, painters, professors, and politicians to her home for legendary and wonderful parties. She was an expert conversationalist and hostess. This is where Oscar learned how to hone his own wit, his power of conversation, and was educated in a swirl of intriguing, beautiful thoughts and ideas. “University professors, government officials, and visiting actors and musicians thronged to these parties. Under Lady Wilde’s aegis musicians played, actors and actresses enacted scenes, and poets recited their verses”. She did not only entertain, but wished to be entertained in return. Oscar was enamored of these Saturday events and was to continue the tradition in his own rooms at Oxford, where he strove to be “worthy of his blue china” in true Irish sentiment.
Speranza was married to a much shorter man named William Wilde, which earned them the nickname The Giantess and the Dwarf, which they carried with panache. He was a gifted eye surgeon and archaeologist, and they were proud of and pleased with each other in a deep love born of respect. It was in this marriage that Speranza was to reveal her greatest quality: a large and forgiving heart. She was never surprised by a person’s faults or failures. Ever. She was able to always define a person by their greatest gift and not their most tragic flaw. She had a genius for seeing the beauty in everything shining underneath. She had no illusions about human nature, but it never made her love less. William Wilde had had many “dalliances” before he married her – the oh so understated British euphemism for illegitimate children – He had three, in fact. She accepted this when she married him and unabashedly invited those three children to live with them and brought them up as her own along with Willie and Oscar…no matter WHAT the neighbors said. She was able to see more than Sir William’s faults, failures and temptations and she could love him with abandon as she most certainly did. I find that so astounding. The true and large nature of her heart. At the end of his life when he lay dying, she even sought out the mother of his other children, she who had loved him too, and invited her “under cover” to come and say goodbye to him. Oscar was moved quite deeply by this, and never forgot that heroic act of a woman who had indeed been born for the greatness of forgiveness.
She had Oscar and his brother Willie baptized Catholic while on a trip…just out of the blue. She said she felt it needed to be. When she had to tell her staunchly anti-Catholic husband about it, he did not fly into a rage as he would have with anyone else but simple said, “I don’t care what the boys are as long as they become as good as their mother.” He knew her goodness and forgiveness firsthand. I can’t help but think that baptism made all the difference to the healing of the turbulent and sorrowful future of her son Oscar. It was as if she unwittingly sensed he would need it somehow, whether she was quite aware of its efficacy or not.
Speranza lacked all hypocrisy. What you saw was Speranza and her life, warts and all…all in plain sight. She did not hide behind any pretense or facade. She taught Oscar to do the same. For he had many faults, many moral failures, many demons to contend with as we all do…he lived in an age of great temptations, but he always managed to lack all hypocrisy of life and remained very kind to all. He inherited her genius for seeing the beauty in everything. He understood the demons within himself so well that he was able to accept the demons of others without fear or disgust. People always remained intriguing, lovely, silly, larger than life creatures to him. His mother gave him this outlook – to gaze at others and find the glorious, god-like good. In the end, this enabled him to forgive the most abominably unjust treatment. He overcame all bitterness and anger and learned to accept the sufferings of his later life. I think he learned all this from watching his mother.
In thinking about Speranza, I am moved that this is just one single life. She had her part to play in the life of Oscar, gave him an understanding of himself, and in the end was perhaps his salvation. Her love for him never wavered, no matter what happened to him or the choices he made. Perhaps this is the love that kept him from despair. It is Speranza’s large life that has inspired me to try and see others straight on, warts and all. It has shown me that sometimes faults and eccentricities throw into relief the glory that life can be unfettered by the weary chains of hypocrisy. Her life teaches us something about the true nature of love, hope, kindness, humility and forgiveness. When pretense falls, and we accept the fact that we each have been created “little less than a god” capable of extraordinary heights and yet also the very depths of sin, this is true self-knowledge. This knowledge is the beginning of wisdom.
Denise Trull lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband Tony. She is the artistic director of a small but mighty theater company and loves the written word in all its forms.