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Book review - Constance by Franny Moyle

I know I’m a bit late with this review but here goes. In Constance by Franny Moyle we have, as far as I know, the first attempt at a biography of Constance Wilde – the wife of Oscar. In the great performance that was Oscar’s life, Constance has always been little more than a supporting role (in every sense). Personally I always wanted to know more about how she dealt with her husband’s fall from grace and the stigma that attached itself to the family as a result of his conviction for, what was termed, gross indecency.

The book opens with the details of Constance’s early life. It gives us information on her parents and grandparents and shows us how she was a notable and noticed figure in society long before she met Oscar. This came as something of a surprise to me and a pleasant one at that.

However, within the book, as in life, as soon as Oscar appears on the scene he dominates our attention. Much of the book deals with how Constance reacted to events initiated by her husband rather than the other way around. We are shown how she followed her own path whenever she could but inevitably, like the moon, she was dragged back to being little more than Oscar’s satellite time and time again.

I don’t think this is a failing of Moyle’s book. I think the book accurately demonstrates how Constance’s own growth as a person was limited by Oscar and the demands of running a family that he began to slowly absent himself from. She is clearly shown to be a strong willed woman with many talents and interests but, at the same time, one that was doomed to experience restricted personal development due to the events surrounding her husband.

As Oscar explored his new found sexuality he and Constance started to spend more and more time apart. At these moments I found that the book benefitted as Constance got more of the stage (as it were) to herself and we could see how she dealt with her effective solitude by immersing herself first in occult societies (such as the Golden Dawn) and then religion.

The book taught me two things that I was not really aware of before. The first was Oscar’s apparent (and it seems total) selfishness with regards to his new found life. It seems that once he embarked upon his journey to destruction he seemed to care less and less about Constance and the strain he was imposing upon her and their sons.

The second thing I learned was the way that both Constance and Oscar showed blatant favouritism towards their first son and almost ignored their second. As a result of this the brothers spent huge amounts of time apart at a time when they clearly needed each other.

For me the book really came into its own when looking at Constance’s life after Oscar’s imprisonment. It was then that she started to shake Oscar’s influence off and really start looking out for herself and her sons. Her amazing strength and willpower truly amazed me. She endured circumstances that would have completely crushed most people.

The author is clearly on the side of Constance (which is as it should be I suppose) but I’m not entirely sure that her portrait of Oscar is entirely fair. My belief in this may stem from the fact that other books I have read have been more generous towards him and this one is quite different. Perhaps, therefore, we need this book as a counter-weight to the pro-Oscar works that exist.

In short I found this book very interesting and a worthwhile addition to all things Wildean. Oscar dominates a good fifty percent of the book but perhaps that may have helped and probably could not be avoided.

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