I have just read: Constance: The tragic and scandalous life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle published by John Murray, London 2011
Moyle has done her homework and researched as much as we know, especially from the surviving correspondence between Constance and her friends and delatives, which yields a full chonology of her life and insight into her feelings and decisions. One also, of course, get insight into the life and personality of Oscar Wilde her husband.
Reading the book raises many thoughts and questions about the human condition. Constance died at the age of forty from an unidentified disease that had been slowly yet progressively crippling her for many years. Her later years were marred by the trial and imprisonment of Oscar for homosexuality and the resulting scandal topping many other lesser scandals in which he and she had been embroiled.
1. A first area of thought, therefore, is society's changing attitudes to sexuality and sexual orientation. His homosexuality was at that time regarded as a far worse offense than his adultery.
2. One wonders on the effect of names. He was called Wilde and lived a wild life. She was called Constance and, despite it all, remained remarkable constant.
3. In the 1890s marriage was a much more formal affair. Even during the time when they were close and in love Oscar and Constance spent, by modern standards, a remarkably large proportion of their time apart, often even in different countries. This, in itself, did not seem to make much if any difference to the stability of the marriage.
4. One gets an insight into class solidarity. As a successful upper middle class family they had servants and spent a lot of time in the company of members of the aristocracy who, in many cases, stood by them into their later times of poverty and deprivation.
5. Oscar could have avoided imprisonment with hard labour by fleeing the country - many others in similar circumstance had done so - but he chose to stay. Why? Was there a conscious or unconscious wish to be punished? A remorse? A death wish? The experience of prison seriously damaged his health and thus greatly shortened his life.
6. There are several occasions in the book where Moyle refers to some decision or action of Constance or Oscar as "a mistake". One cannot help wondering at these points what unconscious motivations were in play.
7. One of the biggest issues from a spiritual point of view is the question - a lot broader than this single instance - of the relationship between morality, inspiration strenght of character and creativity. Many spiritual teachings and teachers would have us believe that these all move in parallel such that enhancement of one generalises to all. However, here, in the case of Oscar we have a basically weak and sinful man who is remarkably creative - something of a genius - who, even toward the end of his life when he was "a broken man" could write The Ballad of Reading Jail and we acclaimed as a writer of supreme talent. Even though by this stage, Constance had lost patience with him finally and more or less given up on him as a husband or even friend, still she was massively impressed by this his last major work. Wilde is not alone in this respect. There are planty of examples in the world of the arts where debauchery has been the fertile soil of masterwork.
8. Then there is the question of the male-female dynamic in such creativity. Constance was a creative person herself on a lesser level. She was also a forceful social campaigner and a person of unconventional yet strong religious convictions. In the early days this must have helped to provide a chemistry that yielded his great writings and a number of lesser ones from herself.
Constance comes out of the book as a more moral and sane person who, while creative in her way, could not reach the same heights as her husband nor yet sink to the same depths.