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 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.