Fall of the House of Wilde

A Book Review by Robert Glass

Emer O’Sullivan, The F all of the House of Wilde, Oscar Wilde and His Family, London, Bloomsbury, 2016.
ISBN:  9781408843581
RRP: £12.47

This excellent book has as its starting premise in the Preface that ‘Biographies of Oscar Wilde typically treat him in isolation’, whereas he was ‘the son of two immense personalities’ (Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde) ‘who were at the centre of Irish society’ from the 1830s until William’s death in 1876. O’Sullivan’s premise is true of H. Montgomery Hyde’s 1976 biography where William’s life is covered in the first eight pages of a 495-page tome. It is less true of Richard Ellman’s definitive Oscar Wilde (London, Hamish Hamilton 1987), though again most of Ellman’s discussion of Sir William occurs in the first 15 pages of his book. Ellman’s treatment of Lady Jane is more extensive, but much of that is about her interaction with her sons in the twenty years she outlived her husband.

What O’Sullivan does in The Fall of the House of Wilde, with rigour, insight, and elegant prose is to explore fully the public life and work of the Wildes, and to weave into that exploration a critical, perceptive and sympathetic exploration of the family dynamics which both underpinned and eventually undermined, the family both as individuals and as a group. In addition to Sir William, Lady Jane and the redoubtable Oscar, O’Sullivan provides us with mini-biographies of their other son Willie, daughter Lily, and the many people who intersected with them for good and ill.

Though not formalised in its Table of Contents, The Fall of the House of Wilde divides into three parts which in turn cover the individual lives of  William Wilde and Jane Elgee before their marriage in 1851, their life as a married couple until William’s death aged 65 in 1876, and in what is the longest section of the book (281 of 444 pages), the life of the family after his death, including of course Oscar’s rise as one of the great Irish cult figures and playwrights, and the well-known tragedy of his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

The first two parts of O’Sullivan’s book (up to page 163) are the most interesting, providing as they do most of the new detailed material about the Wilde family. William and Jane were both important figures in Dublin before they were married. William chose to study medicine under medical educator Robert Graves, ‘without question one of the most important men in (his) life’. Graves chose William to accompany a patient on a health-seeking cruise to the lands of the Mediterranean and the Near East. This proved life-changing for William in two ways. First in Cairo, they observed a high incidence in the local population of blindness from trachoma which ‘influenced his decision to specialise in diseases of the eye’. Secondly, he started the practice of compiling and publishing reflections on his travels: not just a ‘Narrative of a Voyage …’as its title suggests, but one which ‘supports the disquisition of scholarly topics, like a platform built for a lecturer’. The book established William as a considerable thinker, a ‘confident and precocious’ 23-year-old, becoming soon a regular contributor to the Dublin University Magazine, being an active member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Royal Dublin Society, and from 1842, editor of the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science, ‘making him a central figure in the Dublin medical world’. Before his marriage, William published three more books, including the historical-archaeological travel book The Beauties of the Boyne and the Blackwater(1849), which some see as one of the contributors to the renaissance of Celtic culture post 1850. In 1841, he was chosen by the government to undertake the first medical census in Ireland.

Jane Elgee first came to notice by writing poetry and articles for the Nation, the literary journal established in 1843 by Thomas Davis, John Blake Dillon and Charles Gavan Duffy. She was widely read, with a working knowledge of many languages, whose contributions to the Nation displayed ‘the idiosyncrasy of the autodidact’. She was critical of British policy during the famine. In an article ‘Jacta Alea Est’ (‘The Die is Cast’), she supported the Young Irelanders in their attempt to rebel against the English in 1848. As O’Sullivan puts it, in one of the pithy epigrams which characterise her writing style, ‘The year 1848 was Jane’s 1968’…. partly an existential affair, something she had to do to stamp her individuality on the world’ (p.56). She was also an adept translator.

The productivity of the Wildes continued in the early years of their marriage, but Jane’s declined after the birth of their first child, Oscar: she complained to her friend John Hilson of ‘lassitude and mental torpor’. Nonetheless, she continued to be ‘eager for new encounters’, famously running a salon — ‘Saturday receptions between 1 pm and 6.30 pm’ — often attracting as many as 100 people from a range of backgrounds and perspectives.

Just when the Wildes seemed to be at the height of their powers, William having been knighted on 28 January 1864, the Mary Travers affair, described by O’Sullivan as ‘a story sensational enough for a penny dreadful novel’ (p.117) erupted into the Wildes’ lives. William had met Mary as a patient in 1854, but ‘What began as an avuncular, filial relationship soon became more loving’. Mary accused William of rape, went public, leading to a confused court case to which O’Sullivan devotes two chapters. Though an early biographer of Sir William claimed that the Travers case had ‘altered him much for the worse’, O’Sullivan believes that this is misleading. Much more important was the death in February 1867, seemingly from meningitis, of the Wildes’ nine-year old daughter Isola (p137). Even so, despite William suffering from ill health, he managed to publish another book Lough Corrib, Its Shores and Islands, telling ‘the history, archaeology, literature and anecdotes of the area’ which sold well, leading to a second edition in 1872. Jane too had several editions of her poetry published, and in 1874 a translation of Emmanuel Swedenborg’s The Future Life. 

The most substantial  part of O’Sullivan’s book deals with events after Sir William’s death. Here there are four interconnecting themes: ongoing financial distress, Lady Jane’s continuing commitment to debate, writing and publishing, her unflinching support of her two sons, however outrageous and indefensible their conduct, and Oscar’s life as an aesthete, playwright and storyteller.

‘The family received William’s will with a shock’ writes O’Sullivan at the start of Chapter 18 headed ‘The Unravelling’. Sir William left the family with a raft of financial problems of which they were previously unaware, which led them, specifically Jane and her ‘other son’ Willie, to have to sell the family home at Merrion Square and move to progressively poorer accommodation in London. The situation was not helped by Willie’s ‘reputation for indolence and casualness’: he continuously ‘drained rather than added to her (Lady Jane’s) resources’. From time to time Oscar assisted by clearing his mother’s debts e.g. in 1882 with funds earned on his American tour, and again in 1891 when she was ‘living one step away from destitution’.

Though in straitened circumstances from the time of her and Willie’s arrival in London, Jane continued with her famous at-homes inviting mostly those concerned with ‘the life of the mind’ such as George Bernard Shaw. She continued to publish books and articles, most famously in 1888 and 1890 works on ancient Ireland which she had developed from material left in a shoe box by her husband. In the second volume she continued her practice of expressing controversial views about the relationship between England and Ireland, forecasting presciently, for example, in the context of the 1880s debates about Home Rule, ‘the unstoppable unrest of Ireland’.

Her unflinching support for her sons is demonstrated by her attitude to Oscar’s early endeavours to have his poems published and plays produced. Some of these (e.g., his self-published 1881 book of poetry) and his early plays (e.g. Vera) were not well received, though Jane always saw ‘the sunny side of negative criticism’. This support continued during the early difficult part of Oscar’s tour of America, and indeed throughout his subsequent life. Similarly, if to a lesser extent with Willie, whose indolence, and drinking problems and extravagance worried her. As O’Sullivan puts it ‘Jane, Willie and Oscar were three emigres united in their loyalty to each other, each giving the others a leg up when they could’ though Willie continued to live beyond his means ‘opting out of the world of ambition’.

Much of the second half of this book is about Oscar’s rise to fame as an aesthete, writer and playwright, and his destructive relationship with Lord Douglas. Much of the material covered is well known from Ellman and other sources, but O’Sullivan’s particular contribution is to highlight the dynamics and impact on the lives of Jane, Oscar, Willie and their respective wives of the interaction between them. As she makes clear this interaction was often very strained (Oscar effectively disowned Willie for a time), but on the whole they were loyal and mutually supportive.

Part of the distinctive quality of this book, which  is vast in scope, is that  O’Sullivan provides the relevant background to many of the issues covered, whether it be the state of debate about history and culture when Sir William was doing his writing about his travels, the history of Irish nationalism as context to both William and Lady Jane’s contribution to the movement for Home Rule, and the significance and meaning of the work of, for example Ruskin and Whistler, in the context of Oscar’s intellectual development.

The title of the book is misleading as its content covers both the rise and the fall of the Wildes individually and collectively: Oscar’s life doesn’t really take off until after his father’s death, and Willie’s never really goes anywhere. Lady Jane’s life is a mixture of ups and downs: after her husband’s death, she shows great resilience in the face of huge challenges until just before her death.

In summary I can do no better than quote from Stephen Fry’s encomium on the book’s dusk jacket:

O’Sullivan’s detailed portraits of (Oscar) Wilde’s mother, father and brother are, at every page, compelling, informative and fascinating-especially to one who made the vain mistake of thinking he just about knew it all.

In contrast to Stephen, I knew virtually nothing. Thanks to Emer O’Sullivan, I am now fairly well informed. And the process of becoming so has been a real pleasure. I discovered this book a couple of months ago on Readings ‘bargain table’. So you know where to start to get a copy.

Robert Glass

Bob is an occasional contributor to Tintean, and has a background in economics and history.