Very useful in modern conversation, Oscar Wilde. Not for the quotable quips — everyone knows those already. His real value comes when you’re trying to guess someone’s sexuality. ‘He can’t be gay,’ someone will say of whoever is under the microscope, ‘he’s married with two kids.’ You hit them with the reply: ‘So was Oscar Wilde.’
It’s hardly surprising that so many people are unaware of Mrs W’s existence, or that those who do tend to forget about her, given her husband’s status as poster boy for the Two Fingers to Convention party. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Oscar was a Victorian Alan Carr, standing in the middle of Piccadilly belting out ‘Sing If You’re Glad To Be Gay’. The truth, of course, is that he sued for libel to hide his homosexuality. To the extent that we do consider the question of his wife, we probably imagine a dowdy old boiler (in modern terms a ‘beard’), dutifully providing a couple of sons but otherwise keeping well out of the way. The truth was far more complicated. It always is in the best stories, and this is a very good story, very well told.
Constance Lloyd was a pretty, dynamic, much sought-after young woman when Oscar Wilde, not then as famous as he would become, first fell in love with her. Rebelling against a bully of a mother, she had grown into a proto-feminist. No bras were burnt, but the Rational Dress Society, of which Constance was a leading member, demanded that women shouldn’t be expected to don underwear weighing any more than seven pounds. She ate at women-only restaurants, helped get the first female councillors elected, and, aiding the brothers as well as the sisters, supported striking dockers. But it was her interest in the Aestheticism Movement, with its ‘art for art’s sake’ motto, that led her to choose Oscar from her many admirers.