Chapter 1: ‘Three is company and two is none’ – A Disruptive Friendship
The first chapter of Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer begins with a brief account of the early course of Wilde’s marriage, focusing on the gradual decline on his part from love into indifference – a process accelerated by the arrival of Lord Alfred Douglas in his life. The account of the marriage is interwoven with a straightforward account of the development of Wilde’s writing career.
Evidence is provided that the period during which Wilde’s marriage was sexually active was almost certainly of less than two years, and that the period during which Wilde and Bosie were sexually involved was – contrary to what is often assumed – of just a few months.
There follows an account of the summer of 1893 – a summer that was in some ways a parallel to the Worthing summer of 1894. At the heart of it lay the stay at a house that Wilde rented at Goring-on-Thames, where much of An Ideal Husband was written. Also included is the extraordinary story of how Robbie Ross, Bosie and Wilde all engaged (separately) in sexual activity with a sixteen-year-old schoolboy called Claude Dansey, a scandalous episode that came close to having disastrous consequences.
The extract that follows is the opening section of Chapter 1.
When Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd on 29 May 1884, he was a few months short of his thirtieth birthday, and Constance was twenty-five. Although Wilde was well-known as a wit and a lecturer – and for his colourful and a flamboyant personality – his writings had not yet made much impact. He had written two plays, Vera, or the Nihilists in 1880, and The Duchess of Padua in 1883, but these melodramatic tragedies had attracted little interest. Vera ran for one week in New York in 1882 and The Duchess of Padua was not staged until 1891, when it had a three-week run, again in New York. Wilde had also been writing poetry since he was an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, and in 1881 he had published a collection of his verse. But literary fame still lay several years ahead.
Although it was more than a marriage of convenience, there were practical reasons for Wilde to marry, including the increasing amount of gossip about his sexuality. In addition Wilde’s finances were in poor shape. In the Victorian age the financial situation of a potential bride was rarely irrelevant in upper-class families, and Constance had a decent income. She was also attractive and intelligent, and Wilde seems to have been genuinely in love with her – or thought he was, which comes to much the same thing. But he was not suited to fidelity or indeed to the institution of marriage; and in the event the love of his life was to be not a woman but a young man.
There are differences of opinion about when Wilde first had sex with another male. Certainly there were some intense emotional entanglements with young men as far back as his student days, but there is no proof that these became physical. Both Wilde and Robert Ross – the most loyal of Wilde’s friends, and later his literary executor – said that Wilde’s earliest homosexual experience was the first time he had sex with Ross, then aged seventeen, in 1886. As far as sexual relations with women are concerned, Wilde does not seem to have had sex with a young woman of his own class prior to his marriage, although he had undoubtedly used the services of female prostitutes.
Wilde may have posed as a number of things, but he was not a poser when it came to his love of beauty. Indeed his sensibilities in this regard were one of the reasons that his marriage to Constance so quickly failed. Although he later came to see beauty – as far as the erotic was concerned – exclusively in the form of boys and young men, when he first knew Constance she was a very beautiful woman. Had she, like Wilde’s character Dorian Gray, possessed the miraculous gift of never aging, the marriage might have worked for longer. But, fastidious as he was about beauty – more fastidious in the case of women than of young men – he quickly found Constance physically repellent, as he told Frank Harris many years later:
When I married, my wife was a beautiful girl, white and slim as a lily, with dancing eyes and gay rippling laughter like music. In a year or so the flower-like grace had all vanished; she became heavy, shapeless, deformed: she dragged herself around the house in uncouth misery with drawn blotched face and hideous body, sick at heart because of our love. It was dreadful. I tried to be kind to her; forced myself to touch and kiss her; but she was sick always, and – oh! I cannot recall it, it is all loathsome. … Oh, nature is disgusting; it takes beauty and defiles: it defaces the ivory-white body we have adored, with the vile cicatrices of maternity: it befouls the altar of the soul.
(What, it might be asked, did Wilde’s mirror by this time tell him about himself?)
This terrible account, although doubtless embellished by Harris – his memoirs of Wilde include improbable quantities of direct speech – rings largely true. It should, however, be noted that Wilde was speaking in exile during the last few years of his life, when his view of Constance was coloured by the bitterness of estrangement and by disputes about money. He was therefore being extreme and unfair, just as he was in his account of Lord Alfred Douglas in the long letter known as ‘De Profundis’, written in Reading gaol at a time when he wrongly believed that Bosie had abandoned him.
There are two pieces of evidence which confirm that the sexual side of the Wildes’ marriage was brief. The first is the comment, years later, of Constance’s brother Otho that around 1886 there had been a ‘virtual divorce’ between his sister and Wilde, an expression that indicated the end of sexual relations. The second is that in June 1897, after the poet Ernest Dowson had persuaded Wilde to avail himself of the services of a female prostitute in Dieppe, Wilde told Dowson that it had been his first experience of sex with a woman ‘these ten years’.
Thus, although Wilde was still able to perform in the marriage bed after his elder son Cyril’s birth – his second son Vyvyan was conceived in the spring of 1886 – there seem to have been no sexual relations between Oscar and Constance after Vyvyan’s birth on 3 November 1886. Indeed, allowing for the period when Constance was pregnant with Vyvyan – Wilde would not have engaged in marital relations once pregnancy became evident – we may assume that the Wildes’ marriage functioned sexually for less than two years.
Therefore, while there are various ways in which Lord Alfred Douglas could be argued to have stolen Oscar from Constance, he was certainly not responsible for Wilde’s abandonment of the marital bed, which had happened some five years before they met. In any case, as we shall see in a moment, the sexual side of Bosie’s and Oscar’s relationship was itself brief. What in due course became hurtful and humiliating to Constance was to see Bosie usurp other important parts of her marriage, such as intellectual companionship and emotional support.
Indeed, in spite of her suddenly falling in love in the summer of 1894 with the book-seller and part-time publisher Arthur Humphreys, as we shall see in Chapter 6, nothing that we know of Constance suggests that the cessation of sexual relations would itself have been particularly upsetting to her.
But the fault-lines within the marriage were not just to do with Wilde’s having quickly found his wife sexually unattractive; it is hard to see that the marriage would anyway have flourished indefinitely. Being married to a self-absorbed genius is never easy, and Wilde and his wife were in many ways not well-matched. Constance’s nature was more serious than that of her husband. Her younger son Vyvyan later wrote of her: ‘She may not have had much sense of humour, but then she did not have very much to laugh about.’ In addition, Constance became increasingly religious as the years passed, and close proximity to someone with an earnest and all-consuming faith is irksome for those that take a sceptical approach to religion, as Wilde did:
Religion does not help me. The faith that others give to what is unseen, I give to what one can touch, and look at. … When I think about Religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Fatherless one might call it.
1. The journalist and art critic Robert Ross (1869-1918) was ever-present in Wilde’s life from 1886 till Wilde’s death. Although his place in Wilde’s affections was to some extent taken by Bosie, he never wavered in his devotion to Wilde, and he remained on good terms with Bosie. During Wilde’s imprisonment and exile, however, the relationship between Ross and Bosie became acrimonious, and after Wilde’s death they were bitter enemies.
2. Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, Vol. 2 (Constable, 1938), p. 486. This conversation took place in December 1898 when Wilde was staying at the Hôtel des Bains at La Napoule, near Cannes.
3. Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (Hamish Hamilton, 1987), p. 262, using material from a letter of Otho Holland to Arthur Ransome of 28 February 1912.
4. Letter from Robert Sherard to A. J. A. Symons, 8 May 1935.
5. Vyvyan Holland, Son of Oscar Wilde (E. P. Dutton, 1954), p. 24.
6. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, eds, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (Fourth Estate, 2000), p. 732.