For Constance: 'Oscar Wilde's Letters to His Wife

Article excerpt

"Every great love has its tragedy," Oscar Wilde wrote from prison.

The great love, and also the great tragedy, of Wilde's life was undoubtedly his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, "Bosie." It was that love--"the love that dare not speak its name"--which led Oscar to court, to prison, to exile, and to disgrace.

But there was another tragedy unfolding, more quietly, alongside this one.

Constance, Oscar's wife, was also ruined by her husband's scandal. When Oscar went to prison, Constance and the children went abroad. They changed their names--from shame, but also from necessity: No one would welcome a Wilde, and on at least one occasion Constance and the boys were turned out of a hotel when the proprietor learned who they were. Still, she never divorced Oscar. She longed for him to return to her, and it pained here bitterly that he chose Bosie instead.

It may be tempting to judge their marriage by its sad end, and conclude that there was never real love between them. The truth, however, is more complex--more complex, more tragic, and more beautiful.

"Hearts Live by Being Wounded"

In the fall of 2007, I was surprised, and strangely moved, to discover in the archives of the British Library a small token of Oscar Wilde's love for his wife. I found there, in a box of letters and manuscript drafts, a simple note, written in pencil, in Oscar's own hand. Signed "Oscar, for Constance," it is a sweet little prose poem on the nature of love:

"Pleasures may turn a heart to stone, riches may make it callous, but sorrows cannot break it. Hearts live by being wounded."

I turned the note over and over in my hands. I read it again and again. At last I copied it down. I felt instinctively that I had found something special. But what? An apology? Or a prediction?

It offered no date, nothing to place it in context, no clue to its origin or circumstance. Was it written in the earliest bloom of their marriage, or during that distant, sexless period after the births of their sons? Before Constance knew of his affairs, or after? Did he write it before he went to jail, while he was imprisoned, or after his release?

Other questions also came to mind: Which pleasures turn the heart to stone? Which riches? Which sorrows? And also--whose heart? Hers? Or his?

Oscar did accuse Constance of being hard-hearted--what he really said was that she was "petty" and had "no imagination"--but it was not an excess of pleasure that made her so (at least, not her pleasures). But if it is Oscar's heart that lives by being wounded--what, exactly, does that imply? Is he reassuring her of his courage in the face of public disgrace? Is he suggesting that she has wounded him?

"The Messages of the Gods"

There are three letters from Oscar to Constance in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. The note I found is not among them.

Undoubtedly there were other letters as well, once upon a once. Constance kept them in a locked blue leather case, and read them often. These were likely destroyed by her family, soon after her death. Those few that remain only escaped destruction by enduring theft; they had been stolen in 1895, during the bankruptcy auction of the Wildes' property.

Of the canonical set, only the first is really what we might call a composition. It was sent from Edinburgh on December 16, 1884. Oscar would have been 30 years old; Constance, 26. They had been married not quite seven months. He wrote:

"Dear and Beloved,

Here am I, and you at the Antipodes. O execrable facts, that keep our lips from kissing, though our souls are one.

What can I tell you by letter? Alas! nothing that I would tell you. The messages of the gods to each other travel not by pen and ink and indeed your bodily presence here would not make you more real: for I feel your fingers in my hair, and your cheek brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. …