By Chris Wallace
Dear Constance… I am coming to see you at nine o’clock. Please be in – it is important. Ever yours Oscar.
So wrote Oscar Wilde (in pencil) to wife Constance on 28 February 1895 in the throes of one of the biggest own goals in British cultural history. And so opens Franny Moyle’s wonderful new biography of Constance Lloyd Wilde, one of the then prominent but now barely visible wives of “great men”.
Constance, The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (John Murray, 2011) begins with this moment when Constance is about to be forewarned of the Marquess of Queensberry’s accusation that Wilde has corrupted the Marquess’s son Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. Oscar briefed Constance then returned to rooms he rented in Piccadilly near the theatres where he had two plays running simultaneously to meet Bosie and others to discuss the situation. The next morning he and Bosie took a cab to Great Marlborough Street police station in Soho to lay a libel complaint against the Marquis, who was arrested a few days later.
As history shows, there was one small problem with this. Wilde was indeed jumping Bosie’s bones. If one is going to act in umbrage, it’s quite handy for action and reality to be aligned.
That thought occurred this week when another great thespian, departing Foreign Minister and ALP leadership aspirant Kevin Rudd, publicly disavowed soap opera. From a chilly room in Washington’s Willard Hotel, which at 1.30am Washington time exuded all the charm of a Pyongyang re-education centre, Rudd said he refused to be part of the soap opera he said federal politics in Australia had become. This, from the author and star – indeed, the producer – of that very soap opera.
“Remember Oscar,” a good staffer might have whispered in his ear beforehand. “Don’t tempt fate like this.” Because eventually troublesome characters in soap operas meet sticky ends and the drama is all the more satisfying when those troublesome characters have thrown their weight around disproportionately.
This was certainly true of Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas. As Moyle’s biography of Constance Wilde reveals, what was early on a strong marriage and later one that faltered at times but held true even as Wilde began to pursue tempting young men, it was not until his infatuation with the charismatic, narcissistic young Lord Douglas that Wilde ran off the rails. Previously respectful and solicitious of his wife even as his double life grew, Bosie’s brazenness and Oscar’s absolute intoxication with him was accompanied by an increasingly louche disregard for his family that was could not be forgiven.
Moyle recounts a story from Nellie Melba, whose social circle overlapped with the Wildes, where Oscar warned his sons Cyril and Vyvyan that dreadful things happen to boys who make mothers cry. One of the boys asked him in response, what happened to naughty fathers, staying out all hours, who made their mother cry even more?
Oscar had created a parallel universe: home, Constance and their boys on the one hand, his racy pals and their rent boys at a clutch of posh hotels in London and Paris on the other. Throw in a blackmailer or two, an outrageous attention seeker in Bosie and a loud and genuinely outraged father in the Marquess of Queensberry and, hell, there was always going to be trouble!
But to trigger the storm oneself – that is quite a feat. Moyle recounts how even as Wilde left Constance that night to meet Bosie and the boys in Piccadilly, he had decided not to act precipitately, not least because he couldn’t afford the cost of a legal fight. But Bosie as usual turned his head saying his mother and brother – like him, estranged from the Marquess – would foot the bill.
As the storm grew closer for the Wilde family, Constance read Dante’s Inferno. “I feel every word of it true to me,” Constance wrote to a friend. “I am approaching the middle of the path of my life, and I am lost in that dark bitter forest. I certainly was asleep when I entered it and I know not how I entered it or when!”
Many members of the federal parliamentary Labor caucus probably feel that way this weekend. When? How? Why have things gone so wrong? In the end one must look to character – how it is formed, how it holds up under pressure, what are its preoccupations? This reveals the person within.
It’s over thirty years since Kevin Rudd trod the boards at ANU, playing the role of overbearing Chinese landlord. Let’s hope he scripts a graceful exit this coming Monday.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 25 February, 2012