Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew | Author: Eleanor Fitzsimons | Rating: 11/11 |
Oscar Wilde is a household name, synonymous with the gay rights movement and Victorian England even for individuals who have not read a single sentence of his work. ‘Feminist’, however, is a word much less commonly associated with Wilde. In her new book, Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, Eleanor Fitzsimons brilliantly calls attention to the progressive ideas and beliefs which drew the most daring and interesting women of the time to his side. By examining their public and private correspondences, she demonstrates that these women influenced his works and his thinking every bit as much as he influenced theirs.
From his mother, Jane Wilde, who was a fiercely patriotic Irishwoman and a political activist, to his devoted wife, Constance, a pioneer of the Rational Dress movement, Wilde spent his days surrounded by a host of strong, talented women. He counted among his friends a wide variety of female authors, actresses, activists, and editors, whose ranks included such famous personalities as Sarah Bernhardt, Louise Jopling, Julia Ward Howe, and Florence Stoker, the talented and tenacious wife of Bram Stoker. While most of these relationships were mutually beneficial (Wilde used his influence to help advance the careers of many of these women and used their influence to help advance his own), he also enjoyed long, genuinely affectionate friendships with many of them. Some of his loyalist supporters were women, remaining true to him even after his inglorious downfall. A supporter of women in a general sense, alongside his wife, he advocated for practical improvements in women’s clothing. He also endorsed the ‘New Women’ writers of the period and gave them an outlet for their concerns regarding issues such as legal reforms for female landowners, universal suffrage, and marriage equality when he edited The Women’s World. Under Wilde’s editorship, the magazine heavily featured and solicited works from female writers and strove to make its contents appealing and accessible to readers of both genders.
Finding a book on a well-known historical figure that has something new to say is a rare treat; finding one that’s as well-written as it is well-researched is rarer, still. Fitzsimons makes a solid case for the prevalence and influence of Wilde’s feminist leanings, but the true beauty of her text is her talent for recreating the fascinating, tumultuous social scene of Victorian London. Her research draws upon an impressively extensive collection of letters, telegrams, newspaper articles, magazine interviews, critical reviews, and diary excerpts which also serve to recreate Oscar Wilde himself. Fitzsimons’ portrait of the famous writer is rich with contemporary observations unjaded by any foreknowledge of the scandal which would ultimately end his career. The recollections of his peers vividly engage readers in observations about Wilde’s appearance, his clothes, the distinct sound of his voice and the warmth of his infectious laughter, his unique manner of storytelling, and the ways in which he mesmerized impromptu audiences with his bright, witty conversation. Fitzsimons succeeds wonderfully at getting at the man behind the myth. The only thing for readers to regret here is that they’ll never be able to meet this remarkable individual, themselves.
Undoubtedly, Wilde’s Women is a scholarly text, yet one that’s written beautifully and in clear, fluid language that does not assume a scholarly knowledge of the subject from its readers. In fact, the book almost reads like a novel: Fitzsimons obviously understands how to pace the ‘story’ at the heart of her research, and all of her brief, fascinating biographical asides are well-spaced and never threaten to derail the overall flow of her work. Composed with warmth and sympathy, Fitzsimons writes with genuine feeling while remaining clear-sighted and analytical about her subject. Her concise footnotes and helpful annotations enrich the discussion without getting in the way of it, and the select bibliography is a wonderful gateway for readers interested in learning more about the vast array of people who, by force of necessity, are often only briefly touched upon during the course of the book.
Wilde’s Women is a fascinating read for anyone already familiar with Oscar Wilde’s body of work. It is also a wonderful introduction to the man for those who have been curious, but have never indulged. The depth and painstaking care of Fitzsimons’ research is a fitting tribute to Wilde’s fascinating life and exquisite writing – and really, what better compliment is there than that?