“My dear boy, no woman is a genius…They represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.” The Picture of Dorian Gray
When it comes to the Wilde family you never know how many surprises you are likely to come across. Possibly one of the most unexpected ones, is the brilliance and the nationalistic fervor of Oscar’s mother Jane Wilde.
The daughter of a clergyman, very well connected (a brother became one of the most respected judges on the US bench, and an uncle Charles Ormesby was a member of the Irish Parliament) she was a young woman during the dreadful years of the Irish famine. Her response was to take up a fiery torch for home rule, and she wrote the poem The Stricken Land in 1847.
Her work was published in The Nation under a masculine pseudonym. She even became editor in the revolutionary year of 1848. Her editorial Jacta Alea Est (the Die is Cast) prompted the closure of The Nation. During the trial of the previous editor, she is said to have risen to her feet in court, and thundered that she was the guilty party. The government however, took no action against her.
Meanwhile she was a translator who had mastered ten European languages by the age of eighteen. Her most widely read work was a translation from the German of a popular horror novel, Sidonia the Soceress, in 1849. She followed this with more scholarly translations of Lamartine’s History of the Girodins from the French in 1850, and Dumas’ Voyage en Suisse, as The Glacier Land in 1852.
Somehow, in the midst of all this writing and nationalism, she found time to marry a successful eye surgeon, Dr. William Wilde. He was to become the eye specialist of Queen Victoria, and was knighted in 1871. By then the couple had three children, William Wilde, Oscar, and their youngest, Isola, who they lost to a fever in 1871.
Jane Wilde and her husband moved to Merrion Square in Dublin, a fashionable address, and Jane began her career as a hostess. She loved witty, well informed talk and gathered all the people who could provide it at her soirees. Later on her son’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie) was to claim,rather ironically, that she had encouraged a louche tone that did her children moral harm.
Unfortunately that same year of 1871 the Wildes were taken to court by the daughter of one of Sir William’s colleagues. Mary Travers claimed to have been assaulted by Sir William under sedation. She was counter-sued for libel by Lady Wilde, who lost her case and had to pay costs, but apparently the original story was sufficiently murky that the accuser was only awarded a token amount in compensation.
All of this may have been too much for Sir William who died in 1876. Oscar Wilde noted his mother’s open minded acceptance of the presence of one of Sir William’s many mistresses at his death bed. Jane was paradoxically a feminist and a loyal spouse, who often said that the wife of an exceptional man ought to tolerate his lapses. This may have made the lives of her daughters in law additionally difficult, as both of her sons led active extra marital lives.
Sadly for Jane Wilde her husband died a functional bankrupt. She went to London and lived with her older son Willie. He was not much of a provider for his mother, being a part time journalist and a full time drunk, but her other son Oscar aided her whenever he could.
She was awarded a tiny pension, partially in recognition of her husband’s work, and continued to see what little of Society her reduced circumstances would allow. She also continued to write for the journals like The Pall Mall Gazette and Woman’s World the magazine her son edited. She published Driftwood from Scandinavia in 1884, and Ancient Legends,Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland in 1888. The last title is perhaps her best work, being full of wonderful Irish tales told in a gentle Hibernian rhythm, and a predecessor of The Golden Bough as Emer O’ Sullivan has pointed out in her excellent study of the family,The Fall of the House of Wilde.
Jane Wilde endured one humiliation after another, and when in 1895 Oscar Wilde lost his case of libel against The Earl of Queensbury, she must have felt a twinge of deja vu.
She certainly advised Oscar to stay and fight the charge, perhaps not knowing of her son’s private life, and when he was imprisoned, Lady Wilde fell into a kind of despair. Her request to visit Oscar was denied, and in 1896, she died, the victim of a bad bronchitis. Her imprisoned son had to pay for her funeral, and even then, there was not enough money for a headstone, or even a separate burial space. Lady Wilde was interred in a pauper’s mass grave. A monument has been raised to her and her husband in Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin.
When she died Oscar claimed that he saw a vision of her in his prison cell, booted and hatted as for travel he wrote, and although her greeted her ,she only looked at him sadly and disappeared. Perhaps hers was a triumph of mind over matter after all.