Constance, Os­car and the mys­tery of love

In An­drew Meehan’s fic­tion­alised tale, Constance Wilde shunts her hus­band Os­car to the side to take cen­tre-stage at last

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOK REVIEWS - Leaf Ar­buth­not

The Mys­tery of Love By An­drew Meehan

Apollo, 240pp, £18.99

Constance Wilde has long haunted the myth of her hus­band Os­car. Pos­ter­ity has var­i­ously por­trayed her as ma­tronly, naive, cruel, wronged, blinded by the prej­u­dices of her era. In An­drew Meehan’s novel – his se­cond – Constance shunts Os­car to the side to take cen­tre-stage at last.

Meehan tells the fic­tion­alised story of their mar­riage through her eyes, though Os­car is not ex­cluded from pro­ceed­ings en­tirely. Constance’s ver­sion of events is pep­pered with as­ter­isks which draw the eye to the bot­tom of the page, where Os­car makes him­self heard in ital­ics.

Meehan’s first book, One Star Awake, told the eerie and mov­ing tale of an Ir­ish­woman in Paris who had lost her me­mory. In this novel Constance is sim­i­larly a woman at sea. The book opens af­ter her mar­riage has bro­ken down. Os­car is in jail, Constance is in pain and re­spon­si­ble for the cou­ple’s en­er­getic young sons, Vyvyan and Cyril.

The three have taken refuge in a vil­lage near Genoa. No amount of ges­tic­u­lat­ing makes Constance able to com­mu­ni­cate with the im­pen­e­tra­ble Ital­ians around her. Af­ter the ruckus of Os­car’s Lon­don trial,

Constance’s iso­la­tion among the or­ange trees is some­times to her taste; at other times her lone­li­ness gapes and she feels the urge to throw a plate at a wall.

While Constance is es­tranged from her hus­band, she is con­sumed by mem­o­ries of their time to­gether. Meehan pieces to­gether the story of the re­la­tion­ship with care; what emerges is some­thing sub­tle and com­pli­cated, not at all a straight­for­ward case of a het­ero­sex­ual woman fall­ing for a clos­eted gay man and be­ing hu­mil­i­ated as a re­sult.

The two are ten­der to one another from the be­gin­ning. Constance first meets Os­car in the op­pres­sive gloom of his mother’s par­lour in May­fair, Lon­don. Renowned al­ready, Os­car passes Constance as if “on wings”, car­ry­ing a teapot around for no ap­par­ent rea­son. Constance is de­cided: “There would be no other.”

For Os­car too the en­counter is seis­mic: “All it took,” he comments in a foot­note, “was your face in can­dle­light.” Meehan shows with im­mense em­pa­thy how the bright­ness of their love comes to di­min­ish to “a con­sol­ing form of hard-heart­ed­ness”.

The scene in which Constance and Os­car have sex for the first time is par­tic­u­larly well-told. They are on their hon­ey­moon. Constance kisses her new hus­band ravenously, “chok­ing as much of him as she could fit into a sin­gle mouth­ful”. Os­car, mean­while, re­treats into aw­ful au­to­ma­tion un­til he does “not ap­pear to be in his body any­more”. To get him­self over the line he thinks of the bucked-tooth boy who brought their lug­gage up to the Paris ho­tel room.

When Os­car pro­posed in 1883, Constance told her brother in a let­ter that she was “per­fectly and in­sanely happy”. By the 1890s her joy had whit­tled to grief. She wrote, heart-wrench­ingly, to a friend: “I can­not make out whether it is my fault or Os­car’s that he is so cold to me and so nice to oth­ers.”

Meehan does not ap­por­tion blame, but probes how some­thing whole and ra­di­ant and unas­sail­able can spoil.

He also makes some bold ed­i­to­rial choices, imag­in­ing Constance walk­ing in on her hus­band hav­ing sex with one of his lovers. We can­not be sure if that hap­pened but there is an emo­tional truth to the scene nonethe­less.

“Well, well, well,” Constance says. She is dis­tressed to re­alise that she sounds cheer­ful, and that her over­rid­ing urge is “to ask Os­car if he had been hav­ing a nice time”. Her re­ac­tion is bleakly comic and en­tirely be­liev­able.

The book, though brief, is not an easy read. The prose has an ar­chaic flavour, with cer­tain words cap­i­talised and short­ened. But the writ­ing can be ex­quis­ite – more like prose po­etry than cash-in-hand fic­tion.

Much of the beauty is smug­gled into Os­car’s foot­notes. When he learns his wife had a lover, his re­ac­tion is gor­geously phrased. “Hag­gard light, in my cell, in my heart. You had a lover,” he comments.

Constance died in 1898 at 39, of an ill­ness that might have been MS. Os­car, weak­ened hor­ri­bly by prison, as well as pos­si­bly by syphilis, al­co­holism and poverty, per­ished two years later.

Though the cou­ple were es­tranged in their fi­nal, lugubri­ous years, there is rea­son to be­lieve that Os­car cared for Constance right un­til the end.

Not long be­fore his death he vis­ited her grave in Paris. “It was very tragic see­ing her name carved on a tomb,” he wrote af­ter­wards to Robert Ross. “I brought some flow­ers. I was deeply af­fected – with a sense also of the use­less­ness of all re­grets. Noth­ing could have been other­wise and life is a ter­ri­ble thing.”

Meehan’s novel cap­tures that es­sen­tial fu­til­ity – but also shows the wis­dom of another of Os­car Wilde’s claims that “the mys­tery of love is greater than the mys­tery of death”.


Constance Wilde with her son Cyril in 1889.

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