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Oscar’s Mum

In response to:

The Impossibility of Being Oscar from the March 8, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

To some readers, my criticism of a single paragraph in an otherwise interesting, three-page review may seem a quibble. But to me, the typically misogynist and inaccurate description of Oscar Wilde’s mother, (Lady) Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, as “admirable if slightly preposterous,” screams out for correction. For reasons unclear to me, other than her being a woman, she has been disparaged and/or ignored by writers, male writers, through the years. In fact, she was an Irish nationalist (during the period 1846–1848 considered by some “The Voice” of the Irish movement), a feminist, a folktale collector, essayist, and poet (publishing first under the pen name John Fanshawe Ellis, later Speranza).

That at least some of her poetry would today be called “doggerel,” as your reviewer wrote, may be so. Still, it was included in Stopford Brooke’s A Treasury of Irish Poetry, as well as other contemporaneous anthologies. Even now, some of it remains quite moving. At various times Ms. Wilde was praised by Yeats, Rossetti, Ruskin, and Swinburne. Her essays would be considered remarkably appropriate if published today. In all she wrote and translated more than a dozen books including travel, biography, history, fiction, and folklore. As a librarian and a storyteller, her collected folktales, especially “The Horned Women,” were among my favorites to tell. Her collected Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, originally published in 1890, with a facsimile reprint issued in 1970 (Detroit: Singing Tree Press), is, for those of us who love such books, enchanting.

On a personal level, Ms. Wilde was by nearly all accounts gracious, generous, and loyal. Portraits I have seen of her show a beautiful, dramatic-looking woman. Women who described her frequently commended her looks. Some called her “strikingly tall.” Yet men who wrote of her invariably described her as “large,” “ungainly,” even “frighteningly tall.” George Bernard Shaw, who seems to have regularly partaken of her hospitality, described at some lengths her “peculiar physical characteristics,” and his descriptions were repeated by others through the years. One wonders, were men simply intimidated by her? By her intellect, her confidence, her bearing?

And what of Sir William Wilde, Lady Wilde’s husband, described by your reviewer only as “a highly successful and fashionable eye and ear surgeon”? At the time of their marriage, November 12, 1851, Speranza had three published books to her credit. Dr. Wilde had at least three children born out of wedlock. It’s unclear whether Ms. Wilde, at that time, knew about them. In 1864 a female patient accused him of sexual assault. The end result of a complicated aftermath ended with the Wildes paying court costs and a farthing in damages to the complainant, establishing, according to those reportedly in a position to know, “what everyone believed.”

It is heartbreaking and inexcusable that Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde and her work are so little known today.

Barbara Ann Porte
Arlington, Virginia

John Banville replies:

Ms. Porte’s letter is a touch strident, but I admire her for springing so vigorously to the defense of “Speranza.”