THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING CONSTANCE by Joyce Bentley

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING CONSTANCE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Starting with that gauche, jingling title, Bentley proceeds to violate, at one point or other, every stylistic and biographical canon imaginable. Nonetheless this crudely fashioned life of Constance Mary Wilde (1858-98), Oscar's long-suffering wife and mother of his two sons, has enough energy and human interest to survive its flaws. Deeply wounded by her husband's affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, robbed of her home and driven into exile by his conviction for sodomy, hounded even on the Continent by British bigots, Constance occasionally endured the further indignity of being dismissed (by Frank Harris and others) as pretty but dull, a shrinking violet, a lightweight. Bentley is out to quash that hostile verdict (with its implication that a brighter, bolder woman could have held on to Wilde's wayward affections), and she does. She portrays Constance as intelligent (with a graceful if conventional prose style), esthetically sensitive (an expert on interior decoration, dress, embroidery, etc.), politically active (a member of the Women's Liberal Foundation)--in other words, a person of some note even before she was engulfed in one of the great tragic scandals of the fin de siÉcle. SO far, so good. Now if only Bentley hadn't filled up the gaps in her narrative with invented scenes (how Oscar told Constance his syphilis had flared up again) and emotions (""Their moments of reconciliation were searing matters of soul, where their tears would fall together""). If only she had edited out some of her worst lapses (""Temperwise, there was not much hope for the children of this marriage,"" ""She was a mulatto, and an energetic one at that. . .""). Readers will wince (the Wildes would have groaned), but some will probably stick it out to get a new perspective--even in this guise--on an old, absorbing story.

Pub Date: Sept. 28th, 1984
Publisher: Beaufort