Reading Wilde, Querying Spaces: Part 8

Wilde at Home


The home was the focus of a rhetorical debate about the changing roles of women in Victorian England. Victorian writers staked out the home as the ideological territory for a woman s proper role. For many writers, the married Victorian woman seems to have been synonymous with the home she occupied. Instructive novelettes, advertisers, and preeminent writers alike vied to create roles for women that specifically linked them to their homes. While Coventry Patmore preferred to keep his angelic wife "in the house," John Ruskin wrote that "Home was a feeling that followed the true wife wherever she went."

Not surprisingly, the married Victorian woman was to Oscar Wilde a signifier of middle-class banality, and he had little time for the domestic ideology that surrounded her. Thus he introduced a new notion of the home in his "House Beautiful" campaign that focused more on the aesthetically pleasing form of the house than its occupants. By taking the angel out of the house and making it beautiful, he threatened to empty the home of its moral core. In doing so, he opened up the roles of the house's occupants to play--and play-acting was precisely what many visitors to the home of Oscar and Constance Wilde believed they saw.

Perhaps not so ironically, the dramatic interior of their home at 16 Tite Street in Chelsea was planned by the stage-designer William Godwin. While Constance seems to have played her role well enough to have satisfied her Victorian peers and many an adoring biographer after, Oscar seems never to have found the perfect theater. Not content to play on the middle-class stage of domesticity and never truly allowed to usurp the role of aristocratic club man, Wilde remained a duplicitous actor--posing before backdrops until the backdrops superimposed themselves upon him.

--Allison Pease


Oscariana. Epigrams. London: Humphreys, 1895.

In addition to its use as an escape from domesticity, the club may just have often been used as a ruse for other activities. As the cartoon titled "So Convenient!" suggests, men were inclined to be "at the club" more often than they were at the club. Wilde's witticism that "The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties was yet another open secret of the Victorian era. Ironically, the quote was chosen by Wilde's wife, Constance, for inclusion in the compilation of Wildean wit she titled Oscariana. Biographers have suggested that Constance's relationship with the publisher of Oscariana, Arthur Humphreys, was potentially more than a business friendship. Two love letters from Constance to Humphreys are known to exist in a private collection in the United States, although no biographer has yet had access to publish them.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
De Profundis, Being the First Complete and Accurate version of 'Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis' The Last Prose Work in English of Oscar Wilde. With an Introduction by Vyvyan Holland. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

In this passage from the letter Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas from jail, published as De Profundis, he contrasts the male-dominated public sphere with the private sphere of the home. The frivolity of thepublic spaces the Savoy, the music-hall, Willis's, and White's are set in contrast to the petty domestic strife that characterizes "the home." Though Wilde rejects both models here as small, he adheres to an uncharacteristically earnest, " Victorian" binarism. It suggests that in some ways the reappropriation of spaces that the Wilde trials attempted to effect were indeed successful.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
Epigrams & Aphorisms. Boston: John W. Luce and Company, 1905.

Published in 1905, only five years after Wilde's death, this collection of epigrams attempts to remind the reading public of Wilde's genius. In his introduction, George Henry Sargent notes that "Whatever may be thought of the writings of Oscar Wilde as a whole, it is certain that in his epigrams and aphorisms we have the very flower and blossom of his genius" since "there is not only the subtle play of wit, and a command of language...but a permanent and enduring truth behind the words." This collection culls epigrams from fourteen of Wilde's works, including all of his comedies, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young and The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

 


Coventry Patmore, (1823-1896)
The Angel in the House. London: John W. Parker and Son, 1854.

This four-part domestic epic celebrating married love as the highest form of love between a man and a woman was published over eight years, from 1854-1862. Though critics disparaged its saccharine sentimentality, it was a great favorite with the reading public, and was the most popular poem of its time. Perhaps more known than read, the poem contributed to Victorian rhetoric about a woman's proper role and the cult of domesticity.


Ruskin, (1819-1900)
Letter to Young Girls and Young Ladies. New York: John Wiley and Sons,1888.

In his Letter to Young Girls and Young Ladies, John Ruskin separates the male, public sphere from the female, domestic sphere. While men perform their "rough work in the open world," women create "a temple of the hearth, watched over by Household Gods." Ruskin goes on to suggest that this domestic temple is a moral quality that follows a woman wherever she goes. Woman is home and home is woman.

 

 


A Woman's Secret; or How to Make a Home Happy by the Author of "Woman's Work," "A Chapter of Accidents," "Pay To-day," etc. London: Griffith and Farran, 1869.

Written anonymously in 1869, A Woman's Secret; or How to Make a Home Happy resembles the plethora of instructive novelettes that were very popular in the nineteenth century. The storyline follows a young wife's journey into marriage as she learns that cleanliness and good cooking provide the key ingredients to a happy home.


Oscar Wilde, (1854-1900)
Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play about a Good Woman. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane,1893. Presentation copy Inscribed by Wilde to Cosmo Lennox.

The married, middle-class woman held little appeal for Oscar Wilde and part of his rhetorical efforts were aimed at tearing down the institution of the good woman and domesticity that writers like Ruskin and Patmore had built up. In Lady Windermere's Fan, the dandy Cecil Graham quips, "There's nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman. It's a thing no married man knows anything about....I have met hundreds of good women. I never seem to meet any but good women. The world is perfectly packed with good women. To know them is a middle-class education."


Flyer announcing Wilde's lecture "Decorative Art" at the Globe Theater, New York, May 1882.

 

One of the ways that Wilde altered the ideology of the home was to move away from an emphasis on the moral core of the home and a woman's respective role in it toward a focus instead on its aesthetic aspects. He took the victorian cult of domesticity and, in a modernist move, aestheticized it in terms of individual self-reflection. This flyer wasdistributed in New York on the last leg of Wilde's American tour in 1882.

 

 



W. B. Yeats, (1865-1939)
Memoirs Autobiography--First Draft Journal. Edited by Denis Donoghue.London: Macmillan, 1972.

In his Memoirs, the young W.B. Yeats remembered the decadentdetails of Wilde s famous drawing room at 16 Tite Street with remarkable clarity. He commented, "It was perhaps perfect in its unity and I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his life, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate composition." Designed by the architect and stage-designer William Godwin, Wilde's own home-as-stage, the "House Beautiful," put a twist on the Victorian notion of the home-as-haven.

 

 

 

 


Lady Francesca 'Speranza' Wilde Autograph Letter Signed
No place, no year
To Mr. Humphrey

While Wilde was out, either playing the gentleman, or, as it is called in The Importance of Being Earnest, "bunburying," The text of Lady Wilde's letter reads, "I hope that Mrs. Oscar Wilde will meet you tomorrow. My son Oscar is in the country."



Constance Wilde, (1858-1898) Autograph Letter Signed
No date
To Arthur Humphreys

Constance was left to tend to domestic, and even some business affairs. This letter on 16 Tite Street letterhead is from Constance to Arthur Humphreys, the publisher of her compilation of Wildean wit, Oscariana, and details that transaction. Biographers have speculated that the two had an affair.

 

 





Questions and Comments

Return to: Bobst Library // NYU Libraries