A lively debut biography of the flamboyant Irish writer.
Journalist Fitzsimons takes a fresh perspective on the defiant, often outrageous playwright, poet, and novelist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), focusing on the women who loved and supported him. Drawing on rich archival sources, 19th-century newspapers, and journals, memoirs, and biographies, Fitzsimons creates sharply drawn portraits of a colorful cast of characters. Some of these women— notably, the elegant actress Lillie Langtry and the legendary Sarah Bernhardt—proved to be creative inspirations, but others played minor, if entertaining, roles in Wilde’s life. As Langtry’s escort, 25-year-old Wilde became “one of the most talked-about men” in London. As for Bernhardt, Wilde “somewhat modeled himself” on her, a friend remarked. During his American tour in 1882, lecturing to mostly female audiences wearing “knee britches, black silk stockings, and shoes with glittering buckles” and sporting a sunflower in the lapel of his velvet coat, he so delighted his listeners that they showered him with rose petals. In Boston, he was feted by activist Julia Ward Howe, whose guests included Isabella Stewart Gardner; and in New York, by writer Kate Field, who hosted a gathering for him—as she had done for Dickens, George Eliot, and Mark Twain. Surely the most flamboyant woman in Wilde’s life was his eccentric mother, Jane, who doted on him. “There is one thing in the world worth living for, and that is sin,” Jane once said. And surely the woman he most hurt was his gentle, compassionate wife, Constance. Fitzsimons reveals Wilde as more than an admirer but also a champion of women. As founder and editor of a magazine, The Woman’s World, he aimed “to foster a sense of sisterhood,” promote political and social reform, and provide an outlet for “the thought and culture” of his articulate female contemporaries.
A brisk, sympathetic look at an understudied aspect of Wilde’s eventful life.