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Constance: The Tragic & Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

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The story of the woman at the center of the most famous scandal of the nineteenth century.

In the spring of 1895 the life of Constance Wilde changed irrevocably. Up until the conviction of her husband, Oscar, for homosexual crimes, she had held a privileged position in society. Part of a gilded couple, she was a popular children's author, a fashion icon, and a leading campaigner for women's rights. A founding member of the magical society The Golden Dawn, her pioneering and questioning spirit encouraged her to sample some of the more controversial aspects of her time. Mrs. Oscar Wilde was a phenomenon in her own right. But that spring Constance's entire life was eclipsed by scandal. Forced to flee to the Continent with her two sons, her glittering literary and political career ended abruptly. She lived in exile until her death. 

Franny Moyle now tells Constance's story with a fresh eye. Drawing on numerous unpublished letters, she brings to life the story of a woman at the heart of fin-de-siècle London and the Aesthetic movement. In a compelling and moving tale of an unlikely couple caught up in a world unsure of its moral footing, Moyle unveils the story of a woman who was the victim of one of the greatest betrayals of all time.


“A sympathetic and fascinating story.” (Independent on Sunday, London )

“Powerful and absorbing.” (Sunday Times, London )

About the Author

Franny Moyle has a degree in English and History of Art from St John's College, Cambridge, and is the author of Desperate Romantics. She was a leading arts producer at the BBC, which culminated in her becoming the corporation's first Commissioner for Arts and Culture, and is now a freelance writer in London.

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The Tragic and Scandalous Life of

Mrs Oscar Wilde



To my mother Olga

and my daughter Rosa





The sins of the parents …


Terribly bad taste


The sunflower and the lily


‘Bunthorne is to get his bride’


Violets in the refrigerator


Ardour and indifference


A literary couple


‘Not to kiss females’


Qui patitur vincit


My own darling mother


A dark bitter forest


Modern-day Martha


The strife of tongues


Madame Holland


Life is a terrible thing



Select bibliography

Illustration acknowledgements



I owe the greatest debt to Merlin Holland, whose great generosity has made this book possible. Not only has he shared his extensive knowledge of Oscar, Constance and their circle, but he has made his own immensely important manuscript collection available to me. And as a result of his allowing me to quote both from the letters in his own collection and those held elsewhere around the world, Constance’s voice can be heard once again. I owe a great deal to John Holland, who allowed me to study those letters and manuscripts in his care. Merlin and John have also provided many of the rarely seen photographs featured in the book.

I am grateful to the Trustees of the Broadlands Archives and the University of Southampton, who have allowed me access to the huge, untapped resource they have in the form of the hundreds of letters between Constance and Lady Mount-Temple. Professor Chris Woolgar and the rest of the staff in the Special Collections unit there have been particularly kind. Thanks must also go to the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles, who have again been hugely accommodating in giving me access to their collection of Wilde manuscripts and meeting my numerous requests.

And of course, there have been other institutions and individ; uals who have contributed to this book. The British Library and the Morgan Library & Museum in New York have proven wonderful resources that I have tapped on a regular basis. In addition, I remain grateful to people such as the manager of the Royal Oak Hotel in Betws-y-Coed and the archivist at Bedales School, who so readily went out of their way to send me what precious information they had. It is this kind of open helpfulness that makes writing and researching such a joy.

The continuing support of my agents Georgina Capel and Anita Land, my publisher Roland Philipps and, of course, my family makes the chaos and upheaval of trying to squeeze writing into the rest of my ‘portfolio’ life and career worthwhile.


‘DEAR CONSTANCE … I am coming to see you at nine o’clock. Please be in – it is important. Ever yours Oscar.’1 So went the note that Oscar Wilde, at that moment apparently the most successful man in London, dashed off in hurried pencil to his wife. It was the afternoon of 28 February 1895, and the forty-year-old playwright, wit and bon viveur was writing from the rooms in which he was temporarily resident, in the opulent settings of the Avondale Hotel at 68 Piccadilly, just off Dover Street. He was in a state of high anxiety.

The note made its way out of the hotel and into the wintry bustle of one of London’s busiest thoroughfares, where horse-buses and carriages bustled to and fro. It weaved through the gents in bowlers and top hats and passed advertising boys whose sandwich boards, draped over the shoulders, promoted everything from the pleasure of the current ‘Orient in London’ exhibition at Olympia to Regent Street’s International Fur Store, where ‘a really good and serviceable Fur-Lined Overcoat, trimmed with Fur Collar and Cuffs’, was available for £10.

When the note had left behind the splendid stone surroundings of central London, it found itself in the more modest but undoubtedly more modern domestic environs of Chelsea. Here it grew close to its destination in Tite Street, where a line of red-brick terraced houses found themselves overlooking the gardens of the Victoria Hospital for Children on one side and backing on to the slum dwellings so inappropriately named Paradise Walk on the other. At no. 16 it would have been Arthur, the Wildes’ young butler, who attended to the post boy’s double knock and made sure that this latest missive was placed into the hands of his mistress, Mrs Wilde.

Houses in Tite Street were often beautiful, but they were generally far from grand, occupying a site that only a very few decades earlier would have been the haunt of the prostitutes and swells spilling out from the then notorious (and now demolished) Cremorne Pleasure Gardens. No. 16 had been Oscar Wilde’s home for just over a decade. But although his wardrobe, dining habits and general lifestyle suggested an abundance of funds, Oscar was not even the owner of this relatively modest abode; he merely held a lease on it. Oscar and his wife, Constance, had secured tenure of the five-storey terrace back in 1884, when it had presented itself as merely a conventional new build, typical of the wider development of Chelsea in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The formerly insalubrious but fast-developing borough had acquired bohemian credentials during the 1860s and 1870s. By the early 80s the newly wed Wildes were following in the footsteps of several aspirant artistic householders, such as the painter James McNeill Whistler and the portrait artist Frank Miles, who wanted to secure their own patch of bohemia.

The Wildes had followed artistic protocol, and, like their friends Whistler and Miles before them, they had hired the fashionable avant-garde architect Edward Godwin to turn their conventional red-brick home into something more charming, surprising and aesthetically up-to-the-minute. And so 16 Tite Street, with its black iron railings and tradesman’s gate leading down to the basement domain of Arthur and the cook, was remodelled. Its carefully designed rooms stood in contrast to the dark, cluttered style that had come to define Victorian taste. The interiors at Tite Street were shockingly pared down. The walls were painted white and polished, the floor covering kept pale and plain; internal dividing doors were replaced by curtains, and slim, sparse furniture contributed to a sense of space and calm. All this gave greater prominence to the art on display and the unusual decorative touches that Godwin and his clients had commissioned. In the drawing room, for example, prints and drawings were displayed as a frieze, boldly set off against a broad background band of gold. And in that same room peacock feathers had been pressed into the ceiling plasterwork.

But despite such flourishes, 16 Tite Street was a house that spoke not of riches but of aspirations. It was a home that placed those who lived in it in the set of liberal-minded, forward-thinking folk who found a frisson of pleasure in new territories, dangerously close to the old London slums, and who, rather than displaying riches by accumulating quantities of art and objects, showed their artistic appreciation of the few beautiful things they owned. It marked the Wildes out as pioneers, with more taste and intellect than money. And it pinned their colours to the mast of a movement being termed ‘Aestheticism’ by the chroniclers of the day.

Perhaps because of their far from infinite means, few concessions to art had been made to the exterior of the house, which, like those on either side, sported standard bay windows and a tiled porch that sheltered the shallow steps leading to the front door. Only the bold decision to paint this main entrance white amounted to a statement.

Now Oscar’s note, entering through that unconventional white door, found itself inside a house little changed over the course of a decade. The birth of children had, of course, brought with it the attendant upheaval, and the telltale signs of its shared occupancy with two young boys could be discerned. Alongside prints by contemporary artists such as Whistler, Edward Burne-Jones and Walter Crane were photographic portraits of the boys, Cyril and Vyvyan, and a pastel of Cyril by the Wildes’ friend and neighbour the artist Laura Hope.

Here Constance must have read the latest, brusque communiqué from her husband with a degree of concern. Although the Wildes were used to dealing with one another by post, and had made a habit of living apart from time to time when Oscar’s business made it more practical, the note brought with it an air of panic. In addition to requesting that she remain at home, Oscar informed his wife he had telegraphed Mr Badley, the headmaster of Bedales School, and stopped a planned exeat for their elder son, Cyril. This was out-of-the-ordinary behaviour for a man who not only adored and relished the company of his elder child but who would rarely get involved with the mundane travel, school and holiday arrangements that were very much the domain of his wife.

Oscar had been staying at the Avondale for the best part of three weeks. It was a hotel that had the reputation of being ‘a little Savoy in Piccadilly’, offering excellent cuisine and theatrical décor to match: a marble-clad dining room with frescoed walls, and pillars complete with gilded capitals. But unlike the Savoy, which was inconveniently buried away on the Strand, the Avondale had unique appeal for Oscar. For Wilde found himself in the exceptional position of having two West End hits running simultaneously, and the Avondale placed him almost equidistant from the productions of An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Just a few hundred yards to the east of the Avondale, the Haymarket Theatre had been running Wilde’s An Ideal Husband since early January. The play was about sin and blackmail, and the reputation of a public figure whose past came back to haunt him. London society was flocking to see how the fictional MP Sir Robert Chiltern would extricate himself from Mrs Cheveley, who was blackmailing him with the knowledge that he had sold political secrets in his misspent youth. How was he possibly going to square the situation with his wife, who believed that her ‘ideal husband’ was above reproach?

The play had been an immediate success. Oscar Wilde was ‘the fashion’ in those early weeks of 1895. London flocked to see the exquisite dresses in which the female members of his cast were clad and to be dazzled by the rich, bejewelled language and amusing epigrams that Oscar had wrought for them. Oscar had enthralled his audience with his wit and ingenuity; ‘the whole of society’ was ‘engaged in inventing Oscar Wildeisms’, an intoxicated press announced.2 It was Oscar’s ability to pepper his story so cleverly with aphorisms that ‘the audience is kept perpetually on the qui vive’, one journal opined. ‘When all else fails, he knows how to shock or astonish – and a new sensation is all that fin de siècle society seems to want.’3 He was quite simply the talk of the town, of the land even.

The ability to create sensation was something in which Oscar had become expert. Controversial and unapologetic, a man who captivated people with his magnetic personality, fabulous wit and magical storytelling, he was the embodiment of charm, genius and arrogance bundled into one. His whole career had been built on his ability to get himself noticed by shocking, provoking and then winning over his audience. It was not merely his pen that could provoke; he was expert in using his appearance and behaviour to market himself. His current pose was no exception. An image of the ‘Great Oscar’ as he was at this time, fleshy and languid, is easy to conjure. Noted for his dandyish outfits and unrepentant of his decadent behaviour, he was the subject of an abundance of caricatures, portraying a tall and somewhat over-fed figure, immaculately and expensively dressed with a cane and cigarette in his hand, an extravagant green carnation on his lapel and a withering expression.

It is less easy for us today to invoke a mental image of Mrs Oscar Wilde. Yet her contemporaries would have had little problem. She was a high-profile figure, whose beauty was widely acknowledged, whose activities were often reported in the press and whose appearances and outfits were also monitored for the sake of an intrigued public. In fact, ever since their marriage Oscar’s charming wife had done nothing but enhance and complement his reputation. Constance Wilde balanced her husband. She was wholesome and earnest and provided the ideal foil to his determined flamboyance.

Née Constance Lloyd, she came from a moneyed background. Her highly respected family, although not aristocratic, had branches that had become entwined with the highest echelons of society. Stunning-looking and naturally stylish, with impressive chestnut hair and delicate features, she had been thrust into the limelight in 1884, when she wed a man who, at the outset of that decade, had managed to make himself famous even before he had achieved anything – an accomplishment in itself.

From the moment they married and Mrs Oscar Wilde came into being, Constance had used her new-found celebrity to support the husband she adored but also to forge her own path. She had consistently encouraged Oscar’s ambitions and contributed to his circle, and those who celebrated Oscar knew her well. But she had also pursued her own passions.

Those who admired Constance Wilde were discrete from Oscar Wilde’s fans. In contrast to the self-proclaimed ‘Aesthetes’, of whom Constance would have undoubtedly considered herself one, she was nevertheless a role model for a more politically motivated circle of liberal women. They formed a section of society seeking both to be improved and to improve what they saw as the failings of the nineteenth century.

Those who subscribed to The Young Woman in January 1895 could see the latest photograph of Constance accompanying an article she had written on ‘How to Decorate a House’. In contrast to Oscar, who posed so readily, his wife sat rather awkwardly in front of the camera, actually looking rather glum and insecure. This was her default expression in front of a lens, an involuntary look that she was all too aware made her appear ‘solemnly tragic’. She was consistently surprised by such photographs. ‘Do I really look like that?’ she would ask.4

Her natural warmth and charm unapparent, nevertheless the photograph in The Young Woman reveals Constance’s round, soft face and brown hair, worn in what was then the latest Parisian manner: crimped and drawn down over the temples and ears, then looped back into a bun behind. Her eyes seem dark in the photograph, belying their real-life blue-green hue. Constance is captured wearing one of her favourite ‘Aesthetic’ outfits: a full-sleeved dress with a loose pleated bodice that is drawn in at the waist. The silk she is wearing might be deep red or green, printed with a bold modern pomegranate pattern. Around her neck she wears two strands of ‘art beads’ shining like bright cough sweets. You have no way of knowing that in her stockings she stood five feet eight inches tall.

Very much the darling of the women’s magazines, Mrs Oscar Wilde was renowned for her beautiful outfits, a regular complement to her husband’s own attire. Constance, like so many other forward-thinking women of her day, used fashion to convey something of her political, feminist leanings. A hundred years before women burned their bras, she wore loose-fitting clothing in sympathy with the movement to reform female dress and emancipate women from the confines of corsets and hoops. She sported divided skirts, modelled Turkish trousers and talked about the hygienic virtues of cellular cloth.

But as much as her outfits could be ‘political’, they were also ‘Aesthetic’, worn to be beautiful and to express the value the wearer attributed to the importance of beauty and pleasure. Although her day dress was practical and pioneering, her evening dress could be show-stopping.

That January was no exception. What Constance wore to the opening night of An Ideal Husband became a story in its own right for the women’s press. Her dress was ‘composed of green chine moiré arranged with green chiffon and black silk muslin, and trimmed with velvet roses and ribbon to match’, The Lady’s Pictorial informed its readers.

The full skirt is of green chine moiré with a black silk muslin round the hem, while the bodice is of green chiffon with sprays of roses and with long ends of ribbon reaching almost to the hem of the skirt. The sleeves are formed of two big puffs of black silk muslin, headed with green chiffon and moire, while a garland of velvet roses may be seen on the shoulders.5

The very next day Constance sat down to convey to friends her delight in her husband’s success. Formidable letter-writer that she was, she had a bespoke writing table in her bedroom, part of a larger set of fitted cupboards and shelves that had been specially built and were considered a complete innovation. One visitor to Tite Street described how, when opening the door to Constance’s bedroom, one found oneself ‘about to walk through the opening in a wall apparently three foot thick. When you get into the room you find that on the one side of the door forming a side of the doorway is an ideal wardrobe with every kind of drawer and hanging cupboard for dresses’ and that ‘on the opposite side of the door is a book case and writing table’.6 All this was painted white.

‘Oscar’s play was the most tremendous success,’ Constance wrote to her great friend Georgina, Lady Mount-Temple, ‘and is, I think, the most beautiful play that he has written.’7 Like many of her female contemporaries, she clearly approved of the way in which the play aired the question of morality and marriage.

An Ideal Husband quickly provided an excuse for widespread national debate on the nature of marriage. What constituted an ideal husband, and what was an ideal wife? The title of the play was like a red rag to a bull for the hordes of so-called ‘New’ or ‘Advanced Women’ emerging by the mid-1890s, a group of proto-feminists in whose cultivation women such as Constance and magazines such as The Young Woman played their part. These women, many of whom were associated with the latest craze for bicycling around London, expected more from men than their mothers had done. Not only did they challenge the dominance of men in society; they also challenged the assumption that moral divergences and duplicities were acceptable when perpetrated by men, but not by women. Husbands should adhere to the same moral rules as their wives, and marriages become transparent transactions. Wilde’s farce could not have been better timed for them, and many of them reached for their pens, using the play’s topicality to get letters and opinions into print.8

After the success of An Ideal Husband at the Haymarket, the actor–manager of the St James’s Theatre, George Alexander, had decided that if you can’t beat the opposition, you should join it. He had produced Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan three years previously, and now, with a play by Henry James foundering, he decided to rush Oscar’s latest work, The Importance of Being Earnest, into production. Billed to open on 12 February, it finally enjoyed its prèmiere just two days later, on St Valentine’s Day. A week after opening, The Illustrated London News proclaimed to its readers ‘the eclipse of Mr George Alexander’s fortunes at the St James’ theatre has been very brief. To the delicate but unhappily obscure comedy of Mr Henry James has succeeded a piece of delightful nonsense by Mr Oscar Wilde.’9

A nonsensical tale of assumed identities, hilarious duplicities and babies left in handbags on station platforms hit the spot again, and within just six weeks of the new year Wilde found himself with two huge successes on his hands. This was something quite unprecedented. But then 1895 had been extraordinary from day one.

It had been a strangely momentous year. As if the old world was being prematurely washed away to make way for a new century still five years off, pillars of the cultural and political establishment tumbled within the first few weeks. The poetess of the nation, Christina Rossetti, passed away, as did everyone’s favourite storyteller, Robert Louis Stevenson. Then the great statesman Randolph Churchill died too.

Britain was being bombarded by some of the most extreme -weather for nearly half a century. New-year gales had cost ninety men their lives in the port of Hull, the Channel mail steam-packet had run aground in storms just off Calais, and Gravesend was drowned in flood water. Conditions had failed to improve by February, when wet conditions were replaced by a freeze over Europe the likes of which had not been seen for four decades. For the first time since 1854 the mouth of the River Medway, from Sheerness dockyard to the Isle of Grain, froze over. The Mersey and Thames were solid, and in Oxford coaches were running along the Isis. London had been transformed into a different city, and its parks were unusually busy with skaters packed ten-a-penny on to the frozen lakes and ponds.

Oscar had missed much of January’s arctic conditions. After the opening of An Ideal Husband he had escaped to the warm sunshine of North Africa for a rest, at his wife’s bidding. Since before Christmas, Constance had been worrying that her husband was overworked, and had suggested a recuperative visit to her great friend and Cyril’s godparent, the adventurer Walter Harris, in Tangiers.10 Oscar had embarked on such a trip on 17 January, although, rather than tracking down Harris in Morocco, he had decided to head to Algeria, so persuaded by his travelling companion Lord Alfred Douglas, or ‘Bosie’, as he was called. Constance, meanwhile, stayed behind, battling with the elements to return her children to their respective schools before closing up the house in Tite Street and heading off on her own holiday.

The day before she left, she hurriedly wrote a note to her and Oscar’s great friend Robert Ross. Could he make sure Oscar reserved tickets for The Importance for her friends the Lilleys? And could he arrange for Oscar to send her some money on his return, since she was £38 overdrawn at the bank? ‘I am writing this to you as you know what Oscar is about correspondence,’ Constance explained. ‘He would forget the Lilleys’ address and send me no money!’ ‘My servants will be on board wages,’ she added, ‘and if he wants to come home tell him he must let them have a day’s notice!’ Knowing she herself would miss the first night of The Importance, Constance also asked Ross to send her ‘some of the many papers Oscar will have about the play’.11

On 29 January Constance boarded the Great Western steam train from Paddington and made the journey down to Torquay, on the Devon coast. There she made her way to Babbacombe Cliff, the beautiful seaside home of her great friend the elderly Georgina Cowper-Temple, Lady Mount-Temple. If Constance felt a degree of disappointment at having to read the accounts of her husband’s second first night in as many months in the press rather than enjoy them first-hand, she must have also felt her trip to Babbacombe was worth the sacrifice. For Constance’s visit was not a mere escape. It was also intended to be recuperative.

Despite her relative youth, for some time Constance had been plagued by pains in her back, arms, legs and face. She had also been suffering headaches. What she commonly referred to as her ‘neuralgia’ had more recently developed into intermittent paralysis in her right arm and leg. She had sought relief from her symptoms with increasingly desperate measures, but the ‘electricity treatment’12 in which she had most recently invested was proving ineffective. By the end of January Constance was complaining that she could barely walk.13

Constance’s intense friendship with Georgina, Lady Mount-Temple, had begun some five years earlier, and she had come to rely on the therapeutic effects of the calming, retreat-like holidays she would take at Babbacombe with its septuagenarian occupant. Constance adored Georgina’s country home, and she also loved its lush, wooded gardens, which culminated in cliffs reaching out over the sea. In the summer she and Georgina would walk in the grounds and feed the birds, which Georgina had such a passion for. Often then they would slip into Torquay and indulge in Turkish baths together, an activity that seemed to improve Constance’s aches and pains no end, and Georgina would massage Constance’s aching limbs.

Even when the weather was freezing, as it was that February, and the garden paths too slippery to risk, Constance was able to find much to please her. She and Georgina could talk for hours on the subjects in which they shared a deep interest. Constance had a formidably inquiring and studious mind. She was entranced by knowledge. And in Georgina she had found a partner in conversation without comparison. Their interests in literature, the supernatural, religion and art were perfectly aligned.

All in all, Georgina Mount-Temple had become more than a friend to Constance. She was almost a second mother, whom Constance would playfully address as ‘mothery’, ‘santissima madre’, ‘madre dolorosa’ or ‘darling Ani’. Georgina had become a drug that Constance needed on a regular basis. If Oscar could be accused of an apparently insatiable appetite for fine champagne, cigarettes and the company of his young, adoring fans, in her own way his wife pursued her relationship with Lady Mount-Temple with a similar voracious hunger.

Constance’s trip to Babbacombe had always been envisaged as a month’s sojourn. And so, as February drew to a close, she came home, probably on that 28 February, to find 16 Tite Street empty and the servants still on board wages, as she had left them a month earlier. Her husband had not set foot in the place, a fact that is unlikely to have surprised her greatly.

But the problem Constance faced in February 1895 was that she had grown very much out of touch regarding her husband’s recent activities. With their respective holidays and Oscar’s recent need to stay in the West End rather than at home, the pair of them had barely seen one another since the first night o£ An Ideal Husband.

To have Arthur press a worrying note into her hands the minute she was through the door must have brought home to her how isolated from events she had allowed herself to become. Her decision to steal herself away that February may not have been the wisest one, all things considered, not least because the life of the golden and celebrated Mr and Mrs Oscar Wilde had, in fact, been going noticeably awry over the course of the previous year.

Oscar had always been ridiculed. He had often suffered worse than ridicule from those envious of his talent. But in the last year Constance knew all too well that there had been terrible accusations levelled against her husband, worse than anything any critic or detractor had attempted before. Cocooned away in Babbacombe, she must have hoped that such accusations had died down, that the swell of her husband’s recent success and public popularity had washed away the voices of those who had been trying to harm him. But now she must have sensed, in that hurried pencil note, a warning of imminent scandal.

On stage at the Haymarket the popular actress Julia Neilson, playing Lady Chiltern, was reminding her audience that ‘We women worship when we love; and when we lose our worship, we lose everything’. Talking to the man she has considered up to that point her ideal husband, Lady Chiltern begs him: ‘Oh! don’t kill my love for you, don’t kill that … I know that there are men with horrible secrets in their lives – men who have done some shameful things, and who in some critical moment have to pay for it … Don’t tell me you are such as they!’ With Oscar’s note in her hands, Constance must have wondered whether her husband’s play was about to prove some form of sickening rehearsal for their own impending drama.14


The sins of the parents …

IF YOU HAPPENED to dine at the Café Royal or the Savoy in the early 1890s, you might well have glimpsed the great Oscar holding court. A cigarette and wine glass in hand, enthroned in a corner, with a group of acolytes in attendance, he was the embodiment of blatant decadence. And many who witnessed this bacchanalian version of the man wondered how he and his political, campaigning but nonetheless far more temperate wife had ever determined to marry. But Oscar and Constance were far more similar than has been generally acknowledged. The key to their compatibility was rooted in their own personal histories. On both of them the influence of Ireland, the scars of scandal and the impression of a domineering mother had made their mark. Their connection was Oscar’s home town of Dublin, from where Constance’s mother, Ada, also hailed.

Adelaide Barbara Atkinson, to give her her full name, was the daughter of Dublin’s Captain John Atkinson, once with the 6th Rifles and subsequently Receiver-General of the Post Office there,1 who with his wife, Mary, had brought up their family in an elegant Georgian town house, 1 Ely Place. Mary’s brother Charles Hare, the first Baron Hemphill, Sergeant and QC, lived close by at 65 Merrion Square, where his neighbours included Oscar’s parents, Sir William and Lady Wilde.

Ada Atkinson was a selfish and difficult woman, who when she was just nineteen married her cousin Horace Lloyd, an English barrister eight years her senior. Lloyd was the son of the eminent QC and one-time Radical MP John Horatio Lloyd. In choosing a husband from this branch of the family, Ada was marrying into a considerable fortune and perpetuating an already impressive lineage.2

The entrepreneurial Lloyds had grown rich on the back of the industrial revolution. John Horatio Lloyd was the son of the attorney John Lloyd, who played a leading part in suppressing the Luddite riots in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Educated at Stockport Grammar, John Horatio went to Oxford and took a double first in Classics before being called to the bar and being elected Liberal MP for Stockport. He became an exceptionally wealthy man indeed, not least because his legal practice had become the favoured counsel for the fast-developing railway companies, but also because he invented a type of investment bond on which the development of the railway system became particularly dependent: the Lloyd’s Bond.

Ada and Horace initially lived in 3 Harewood Square in Marylebone, close to Regent’s Park and north of the busy Marylebone Road. On Wednesday 12 November 1856 the Morning Chronicle announced that ‘On the 10th inst at 3 Harewood Square the wife of Horace Lloyd Esq., barrister at law’ was delivered of ‘a son and heir’. This was Otho Lloyd. Two years later the same column announced his sister Constance’s arrival into the world, and the family was complete.

The birth of two children in quick succession did not, alas, signify domestic bliss in Harewood Square. Horace Lloyd’s sense of his marital obligations quickly waned. As his professional success grew, so did his appetite for the pleasures of various gentlemen’s clubs and his ambitions to rise to a position of prominence within the strange business of Freemasonry. Part of the Prince of Wales’s social set, he developed the reputation for being a stop-out who could ‘have taken on any expert in one of the three games, chess and billiards and whist, and beaten him in two out of three’.3

If a guiding paternal hand was absent in Harewood Square, so was maternal warmth. Ada also failed to show much interest in her offspring. Otho Lloyd would later suggest that he and Constance were brought up ‘against the will and determination of two most selfish and egotistical natures’.4

The one thing Ada Lloyd did do, however, was introduce her children to Dublin. Resentful and lonely, Ada’s marital unhappiness prompted regular visits to her mother, ‘Mama Mary’, in Dublin’s Ely Place. After Captain John Atkinson died in 1862, these trips became yet more frequent.

And so the young Constance and Otho found themselves often leaving the modern villas of West End London to spend time in the calmer, quainter Georgian environs of Dublin’s Ely Place and Merrion Square. Here they had their cousin Stanhope Hemphill to play with as well as their youthful aunt Ellena, born in 1853. The Atkinsons, Hemphills and Wildes all moved within the same tightly knit Dublin community, and it is highly likely that the young Lloyd children would have encountered or heard tell of Sir William and Lady Wilde in Merrion Square, and of their two sons, Willie and Oscar.

Constance was not an entirely healthy child. Her brother described her as ‘somewhat bilious’. Nevertheless she survived bouts of the standard juvenile maladies of the era, chickenpox and measles, and by the age of ten, by which time her father had become a QC, she found herself living with her family in the grand surroundings of London’s Sussex Gardens.

The upwardly mobile Lloyds lived first at 9 Sussex Gardens and then, in line with Horace’s burgeoning practice, they moved to an even larger villa at no. 42, where they enjoyed five servants: two housemaids, a cook, a kitchen maid and a butler. As the level of domestic help suggests, Sussex Gardens, just off Hyde Park, was an area associated with the well-to-do. It was also close to grandpa John Horatio, who lived in another huge and imposing villa at 100 Lancaster Gate.

Here Constance enjoyed a thorough education. Otho Lloyd remembered his sister as being able to play the piano well, able to paint in oils, a fine needlewoman and well read.5 She also spoke French and could read Dante in the original Italian. The censuses of both 1871 and 1881 describe her as being a scholar. Although she was almost certainly tutored by a governess with her brother when they were small, when her brother was sent away to Clifton School in Bristol she clearly attended one of the few schools for girls that had been founded in London since the mid-century.

By the 1870s there were a number of colleges open to young women who wanted to continue their education, cherry-picking the courses and classes that appealed. The academic standards the mature attendees of the colleges were expected to meet were in fact very high. Young women, although unable to hold a degree, could, via these schools, study under the tutelage of university staff for examinations that were marked by the University of London.

Constance took one such course and university examination in English literature, specializing in the work of Shelley.6 The intensity of the study required to pass the examination is suggested by Constance’s complaint that the course ‘ought to have been stretched over a year at least’, although, practical as ever, Constance added that she was not going to bother ‘worrying over it’. ‘I intend to take it very quietly,’ she told Otho, relaying that ‘I shall not do any singing next week’ in order ‘to get what time I can for reading’. This strategy clearly proved successful, since Constance also noted that her tutor, a Mr Collins, was barely able to make a single comment on her Shelley essay, it was so good.

But regardless of their education, their impressive address and financial comfort, the emotional home life of the Lloyd children never stabilized. Horace Lloyd’s weaknesses were not limited to billiards and cards: he also had a soft spot for women. Years later Constance witnessed a scene at her grandfather’s house when a woman presented her son at Lancaster Gate and a ‘row’ ensued. Later Otho saw a young man at Oxford who caused him concern. Although Constance’s correspondence regarding this is not explicit, the implication is that Otho felt sure he had spotted his illegitimate half-brother, the product of one of Horace’s unwise dalliances.

[Y]our letter distressed me very much for it seems so very probable, and yet I thought the boy was only about 16 or 17, also I thought she could not have afforded to send him to the University. After all if she can, surely they [sic] is less fear of any ‘rumpus’ since they could only make an exposure in order to get money. Try and see him and see if you can trace any likeness – I tried a short while ago to find out something more about him, but grandpapa evidently thought I would tell Mama or someone about it so he said it was not a subject for me to talk about and shut me up completely, but he has heard nothing of them since they made the row at Lancaster Gate.7

The Lloyd family was particularly prone to the odd sexual deviation. It was not just Horace who had succumbed. John Horatio had also been at the heart of a sex scandal, of sorts. In the 1830s, when, as a politician, he had been assisting Lord Brougham in piloting through the House of Commons the first Criminal Law Amendment Act, a piece of legislation that would abolish capital punishment for certain offences, John Horatio was working until the small hours of the morning on a regular basis. His hard graft was not unnoticed, and he had, according to Otho, secured the promise of being appointed Solicitor-General in due course. But late nights and early starts wreaked havoc with John Horatio’s well-being. ‘His health gave way under the strain,’ Otho explained, and then he did a very odd thing indeed. He ‘exposed himself in the Temple Gardens … he ran naked in the sight of some nurse maids’.8 Not surprisingly, John Horatio’s career took a tumble. He lost the opportunity of becoming Solicitor-General and was forced to retire from political and legal work for four years, during which time he went abroad to Athens and became a director of the Ionian Bank.

Oscar’s own background held similar, greater, scandals. Oscar’s father, Sir William Wilde, was a self-made man. The son of a doctor, he became a highly esteemed and pioneering eye and ear surgeon, as well as a recognized scholar and statistician who had written widely not only on medical issues but also on archaeology and folklore. His decision as a young man to set up a free clinic to treat Dublin’s poor had provided him with the publicity and experience to become Ireland’s leading specialist in his field and had subsequently delivered him his fortune and title. But when Oscar’s father married his mother, the fiery poet and Irish nationalist Jane Elgee, known as Speranza, he already had at least three illegitimate children in tow. One, who went under the name of Henry Wilson, became a doctor and practised with his father. Sir William’s two illegitimate daughters Emily and Mary Wilde were brought up by relatives. But it was not his premarital aberrations that were considered Sir William’s scandal. Rather, it was an incident that happened during his marriage.

In the very year that Oscar was born, 1854, Sir William began an affair with Mary Josephine Travers, the nineteen-year-old daughter of one of his medical colleagues, Dr Robert Travers. Although they may have known each other socially, Miss Travers was also a patient of Wilde’s. Their relationship was a long and relatively open one and resulted in another illegitimate child.9 But after almost a decade, when Wilde ended the relationship, to his horror Miss Travers suggested that their affair had begun with a rape, carried out while, as his patient, she was anaesthetized. Although Travers did not attempt a court action based on her accusation, she began a letter-writing campaign, sending letters to Merrion Square as well as to local newspapers.

Travers’s campaign heightened when, shortly after Wilde’s knighthood, she published a scurrilous pamphlet, a cautionary tale about a girl raped by her doctor, barely concealing her own and Wilde’s identities as Florence Boyle Price and Dr Quilp respectively. The whole of Dublin was scandalized, not least because Travers’s coup was to publish the pamphlet under Speranza’s name. Speranza wrote to Dr Travers, accusing his daughter of orchestrating the campaign ‘in which she makes it appear that she has had an intrigue with Sir William Wilde’. Wilde’s wife also alleged that Travers was attempting to extort money and referred to ‘wages of disgrace’.10

In an event that Oscar would have been wise to have remembered when he faced his own weirdly similar trials, Travers now saw her opportunity to ruin her former lover by dragging the business into court and thus into the public arena and press. She sued Speranza for libel and in giving evidence revealed every detail of her affair with Wilde. Everything was reported. It became a national sensation.

The jury found in favour of Miss Travers, but awarded her just a farthing damages. But of course, the costs of the case had to be paid by the Wildes, and these were considerable. After the trial Wilde retreated to his country home, Moytura House in Galway, and pursued archaeological investigations there while Speranza, an indomitable character, faced Dublin’s society alone with the boys. Sir William Wilde never properly recovered from the incident. He died in 1876. Constance’s great-uncle Charles Hare Hemphill walked behind the coffin as part of the cortège that took the body to Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery.

Constance’s father had met his own demise two years earlier, in 1874, from pulmonary disease. On Sunday 5 April that year The Era announced the death in its column dedicated to Freemasonry:

The death of Br Horace Lloyd occurred on Monday last at his residence in Kensington, at the age of forty six. He had long been a distinguished Freemason and taken a prominent part in the affairs of the Craft … Latterly, however, his health failed, … but it was not suspected at that time that his sickness was ‘unto death’. He did not however recover and … breathed his last on the 30th.

Constance was just sixteen. Her father’s death would have a dramatic and devastating effect on her own life, and heralded another scandal that Constance, barely out of childhood, would have to face. This was not the kind of public scandal that had threatened her grandfather’s and father’s reputations. It was a private scandal, concealed by the family, but for that none the less shameful. This time it centred on the disgraceful behaviour of her mother.

After the death of her husband Ada Lloyd began to abuse her daughter. Behind the respectable white stuccoed façade of the villa in Sussex Gardens the teenage Constance suddenly found herself taunted, threatened and beaten by a woman who had turned from being uninterested and cold to downright cruel. Otho remembered the barrage of suffering his sister faced. It ranged from ‘perpetual snubbing in private and public sarcasm, rudeness and savage scoldings’ to physical violence that included ‘threatening with the fire-irons or having one’s head thumped against the wall’. No teenager could go through this ‘without some mark on the character being left’, Otho later recalled.11

Being made the butt of jokes in public and then slapped and threatened in private scarred Constance’s personality and confidence. As a young woman she developed a pathological shyness when in public and a tendency to irritability and short-temperedness at home. The ‘cruelty and contempt’ Constance suffered in ‘place of the care she ought to have received … fostered a natural irritability which I am sure she tried to overcome but never could entirely, but she would be sorry presently and would not be too proud to say so’, Otho remembered. ‘There is no question she was markedly critical, and was irritated by little annoyances which many another would have hardly noticed.’12

The damage was not merely emotional. If she already had something of a weak constitution, physical abuse did little to improve it. ‘I went to see Mr Morgan yesterday,’ Constance revealed to Otho in the summer of 1878, ‘and he said that I was very weak indeed, with scarcely any pulse … He has given me tonic pills, … and also ordered me to lie down and sleep every day after lunch all of which Mama pooh poohed and declared it was only indigestion; she asked me if it was her cruel treatment of me that made me weak?!’13

One can only speculate why Ada became so cruel and abusive, but it’s likely that sexual jealousy lay at the heart of it. Ada was still only in her thirties when her husband died. Although Horace Lloyd left a legacy of £12,000, which was made over in his will entirely to his wife, the supplementary income from his legal practice died with him, and Ada must have realized that to maintain her current high standard of living she must remarry.

Putting her life with Horace behind her, Ada moved to 1 Devonshire Terrace, Hyde Park, and began her quest to attract a new husband. It would become a search plagued by her own insecurities. She was clearly terrified of growing old. In the 1871 census she declared her age as thirty-five, but when the census called again a decade later, according to the figure given to the census official, Ada had only aged five years. How irritating it must have been for this relatively young widow to have a beautiful and much younger daughter who might deflect the attention of potential suitors from her.

And Constance was beautiful, with her unruly chestnut hair, brunette skin and large eyes. One story goes that she was once attending an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti at the Royal Academy and overheard the man in front of her remark that pouting lips such as Rossetti painted are never encountered in real life. But when the man turned and caught sight of Constance he was ‘taken aback’ and ‘silenced’ by the real-life Rossetti he suddenly saw before him.14

Constance’s brother, Otho, could do little to help with the situation at home. After being away at school in Bristol most of the time, in 1876 he went to Oxford University with a ‘demy’ scholarship to Oriel College to study Classics. Here Otho became the first of the Lloyd siblings to become friendly with Oscar Wilde, who, also a Classical scholar, had gone to Magdalen College two years previously.

On hearing the news that Otho would be joining the university, Speranza dropped Oscar a line, urging him to look Otho up. But in fact it was in Dublin’s Merrion Square that they first met, in 1877, ‘my grandmother having sent me to call on the Wildes’.15 Oscar amused Otho by recounting how he had just been on a trip to Greece and, returning to Oxford a fortnight late, ‘was nearly sent down by the authorities’. Thereafter Otho and Oscar saw one another from time to time in Oxford, although it would be a little while before Otho’s sister had the pleasure of Oscar’s acquaintance.

Meanwhile, in 1878, Constance’s fortunes encountered another dramatic shift when Ada Lloyd finally attracted an appropriate suitor in the form of George Swinburne-King, a man with some private means who also held a position in the accounts department of the Admiralty. A widower, he was a charming man and clearly thought he could take on the fiery yet insecure Adelaide. Constance sensed that matrimony might be on the cards and on 3 September wrote to Otho, who was staying with their grandmother in Dublin, to reveal her suspicions:

Miss Constance Lloyd present her compliments to Mr Otho Lloyd & begs to inform him that he has a sister still living … She also begs to give him a little hint that there is a ‘Steparex’ on the Tapis who may turn into something definite this day (this last hint is strictly private).16

Her instincts were corroborated by a proposal. In a subsequent letter Constance found herself outlining the challenging dynamics and potential conflicts that the proposed Lloyd/Swinburne-King union presented, not least because Mr Swinburne-King had a daughter Eliza, known as Tizey.

everything nearly came to a smash … so there was no good in writing till I knew how it was all going to end. I think it is all right but I do think that Mama should have more trust in a man she is going to marry. It drives me simply wild to hear her always wondering whether he likes her … and whether he has been colder the last two days, & whether he was not out of spirits at such & such a moment … and my greatest fear is the (I fear almost inevitable) jealousy of Tizey … am not sure she is not even a little jealous of me. Mr SK is charming really & devoted to M if she would only see it. We spent yesterday afternoon and evening at Ealing where they have a dear little tiny cottage and I like him very much … she (Tizey) is apparently not clever but takes an interest in dress and wants us two to be always dressed alike so you need no longer groan over your sister’s ugly dresses. We are of course going to be dressed alike for the wedding our idea being Peacock Blue Dresses with … puffy sleeves & outer jackets to match … The colour of course depends eventually upon mama’s dress, which we must not interfere with but I think she is inclined to a navy blue silk.

I tell you Mr King’s idea about me. We were talking about mesmerism & I said I cd mesmerise grandpapa, upon which he turned to Mama & said ‘how strange. I should have thought it required someone with a strong will and not a gentle girl (!!!) like Constance’. ‘Oh Constance has got a very strong will, wait till you know her better’ from Mama … he does not know the smouldering volcano beneath.

… I confess to you that I wld rather there had been no daughter as I think it will hamper all my actions & I shall never be able to go to the College to see all my friends there, & there will be a fuss every time I go to Lancaster Gate & leave Tizey.17

Apart from indicating the oppressive conditions under which she was living, this letter gives a telling snapshot of Constance at the age of twenty. Her interest in spiritualist experiments such as mesmerism is already apparent. Apart from her known college friend Lucy Russell, who was the younger sister of the barrister, financier, property developer and railway entrepreneur James Cholmeley Russell, Otho lists her ‘friends’ during this period as including Bessie Shand, whose brother Alexander (or Alec) went on to become a writer on philosophy and metaphysics. Then there was Mary Moore, the daughter of the Revd Daniel Moore, and Clara Monro, daughter of the famous mental physician Dr Henry Monro, who consulted at St Luke’s Hospital. One can imagine the opinion and zest formed amid this group of privileged, educated, upper-middle-class young women.18

The reference to Otho groaning over her ‘ugly dresses’ alludes to her emerging enthusiasm for Pre-Raphaelite or ‘Aesthetic’ dress. Indeed the description Constance gives of the outfits she and Tizey might wear for Ada’s wedding, in peacock blue with puffed sleeves, sound particularly ‘Pre-Raphaelite’.19 This development in Constance’s taste and appearance was never wholly approved of by Otho, who, like other members of his family, never much identified with or saw the appeal of Aestheticism.

As a self-confessed Pre-Raphaelite – a term that by the 1880s was interchangeable with ‘Aesthete’ – Constance was carrying a torch whose flame had been lit in the 1850s by a group of women associated with the founding Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painters. Women such as Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris, the wives respectively of the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the poet, designer and socialist William Morris, had modelled for the Pre-Raphaelite artists, wearing loose, flowing gowns.

But it was not just their depiction on canvas that sparked a new fashion among an intellectual élite. Off canvas these women also established new liberties for women that some twenty years later were still only just being taken up by a wider female population. They pioneered new kinds of dresses, with sleeves either sewn on at the shoulder, rather than below it, or puffed and loose. While the rest of the female Victorian populace had to go about with their arms pinned to their bodies in tight, unmoving sheaths, the Pre-Raphaelite women could move their arms freely, to paint or pose or simply be comfortable. The Pre-Raphaelite girls also did away with the huge, bell-shaped crinoline skirts, held out by hoops and cages strapped on to the female undercarriage. They dispensed with tight corsets that pinched waists into hourglasses, as well as the bonnets and intricate hairstyles that added layer upon layer to a lady’s daily toilette.

Their ‘Aesthetic’ dress, as it became known, was more than just a fashion; it was a statement. In seeking comfort for women it also spoke of a desire for liberation that went beyond physical ease. It was also a statement about female creative expression, which in itself was aligned to broader feminist issues. The original Pre-Raphaelite sisterhood lived unconventionally with artists, worked at their own artistic projects and became famous in the process. Those women who wore Aesthetic dress in their wake tended to believe that women should have the right to a career and ultimately be enfranchised with the vote.

The flagship store of Aestheticism was Liberty’s of London. By 1875 the brainchild of Arthur Liberty had opened in Regent Street and offered London’s avant-garde set the opportunity to buy the best craft furniture and the finest oriental goods. It also specialized in ‘art fabrics’ which were made up into those loose-fitting, puffed-sleeved Aesthetic dresses, many of which were then worn at the bohemian Grosvenor Gallery. Constance was a regular at Liberty’s. Her letters note deliveries from the store and also the fact she bought Otho a brown tie there, a gesture that it is unclear whether he appreciated, given his apparent reservations about Aesthetic wear.

And so Constance, with ‘her ugly dresses’, her schooling and her college friends, was already in some small degree a young woman going her own way. Moving away from the middle-class conventions of the past, where women were schooled by governesses at home, would dress in a particular manner and be chaperoned, Constance was already modern.

The letter she wrote to Otho in the autumn of 1878 includes another important insight, and that is about money. ‘I want to know if you got your – £10 from grandpapa’, Constance continued,

& if they told you the money arrangements. Grandpapa is going to make you quite independent of Mama & to give me an allowance of how much I know not yet. He will not give Mama a farthing, at which she is rabid. Would God I were independent too; I wld far rather work for my daily bread than have my mother make a compliment of keeping me in food and lodging. She says it is grandpapa’s duty to keep the children of his only son and she says that his keeping you is no compliment as if he did not she is no longer bound to keep you, & you would have to leave Oxford & take a Clerkship. A nice look-out for the son of Horace Lloyd & for me with abilities like yours too!20

With marriage for Ada on the horizon, the Lloyd family had been thrown into an ugly financial war. On Horace’s death, Grandpa Horatio had agreed to supplement Ada’s income to the tune of £400 per year, on the understanding that she was also supporting the children. With a new husband on the scene, Horatio was proposing withdrawing this allowance to his daughter-in-law. In retaliation Ada was refusing to support her own children. John Horatio was evidently less keen to see his grandchildren having to earn their own keep than their mother, and so had been forced to work out a plan to cater for them, as Constance began to outline to Otho. They would ultimately inherit a portion of his estate: ‘by Grandpapa’s will, having reached 23 we become possessed of the 4th share divided between us. Supposing Mama does not marry … we each give her half until her death, when it of course comes back to us.’21

Towards the end of September details had been finalized of further respective annual allowances that their grandfather was prepared to make. Constance, ecstatic to be financially independent of her mother at last, provided Otho with more information on her grandfather’s proposals. Her ability to maintain something of a dry sense of humour amid this domestic turmoil speaks volumes for Constance’s inner resilience, which would serve her well in years to come.

Your mother expected that you would write & condole with her on the loss of her income. You have not followed her unexpressed but oh! how expressive! wishes – in this respect. Was this right? Oh No … it was wrong. Was I say for there is no need now to write. The arrow smote deep but it has been stayed by the hand of whom do you think? – the aged Octogenarian who in spite of the storm of opposition raised by the assembly of Aunts & sisters in law has ventured to express his approbation of your humble servant’s merits by bestowing on her £150 a year, £100 to be given to her guardian for her maintenance, £50 to be devoted to the purchase of her Dress, the payment of any studies or Concerts she may choose to attend & in fact for her ‘menus plaisirs’ in general.22

Rather amusingly, and entirely understandably, Constance suggested buying the meanest possible wedding present for her mother, within the terms of the brief that Ada had clearly set them. ‘A propos of the honourable lady about to be married,’ Constance informed her brother, ‘it is necessary that we give her a present, & that present must be … costly … she has fixed her affections on a plain gold bracelet … I find the smallest is £7.7.6.’23

Ada Lloyd eventually walked down the aisle with George Swinburne-King on 19 October 1878 at St James’s Church in Sussex Gardens. The newly-weds headed off for their honeymoon, and Constance was dispatched to one of her aunts in Norwood, south London.

Constance’s grandfather John Horatio Lloyd had three daughters in addition to his sons Horace and Frederick. The family was close-knit and would remain so throughout Constance’s life. Frederick died early; Emily never married and lived with her father in Lancaster Gate; Carrie had married a physician, Dr Kirkes; and Louisa Mary, known as ‘Aunt Mary’, married William Napier, second son of the Trafalgar veteran and former Lord of the Bedchamber to King William IV, Baron Napier.

It was in Aunt Mary Napier’s cottage in the leafy, smoke-free environs of Norwood that Constance now found herself at the end of October 1878. If she hoped that her mother’s attitude towards her would be changed by marriage, she was to be disappointed. ‘I have not had a line from my parents have you?’ Constance inquired of Otho. ‘Affectionate people!! Before I left Ella had had two letters from Mama, one from Mr King & Tizey … grandpapa one from Mama, and Aunt Emily one from Mama on Monday. Why is it I am always snubbed? However Aunt Mary is more than kind to me & Mr Hope too who admires you immensely.’24

The reference to Mr Hope is to Adrian Hope, a young nephew of William Napier, who would almost certainly have been invited over by Aunt Mary to meet Constance, perhaps with matchmaking in mind. At twenty, Constance was eminently marriageable. Her mother’s recent marriage and subsequent lack of interest in her only contributed to her status as family burden, the responsibility for whom would now be shared out between her grandfather and his daughters. In the 1870s Constance was living in an era when middle- and upper-class women still did not work and were not expected to look after themselves. Despite any ambitions they might harbour, there was still no career path or opportunity for a stratum of society that had traditionally been supported by family or husbands. The era of the career woman remained far off, and those women who had found a living by writing or painting were still few and far between.

Adrian Hope must have been an attractive prospect as a potential husband, but there was clearly no spark. The irony is that later in life Adrian and Constance would indeed become intimately entwined, but in circumstances that neither of them could have foreseen in these early days.

It was not as if Constance was averse to marriage at this time; she simply lacked confidence when it came to young men. She had a tendency to lapse into what appeared to many to be a sulky silence when in company. This tendency, almost certainly an attitude she adopted when struck dumb by the extreme shyness that remained a lasting legacy of her abuse, was something that haunted her for the rest of her life. ‘Sulky’ was an adjective often applied to her by detractors. The photograph in The Young Woman in 1895 serves as a reminder that, years after she had conquered her nerves, she could still unthinkingly appear gloomy and melancholic.

‘Oh me! When shall I marry me?’ Constance moaned to Otho around this time. ‘You say I shall have a chance of marrying. I see none. I have no beauty, no conversation, no small talk even to make me admired or liked … I shall be an old maid, I am doomed to it & you will see your Sister walking about with 6 cats and half a dozen dogs.’25

While Constance was staying with Aunt Mary, the debate raged over where the newly wed Swinburne-Kings would live and whether Constance would live with them. Constance suggested a move that would take them into South Kensington, into the artistic hub that surrounded the South Kensington Museum – now the Victoria and Albert Museum. Constance’s friend Lucy Russell lived in nearby Queen’s Gate, and Constance mooted a similar address. Ada’s response was typically nasty: ‘I suggested to Mama to take a house in Queens Gate but she nearly fainted at the idea, for it suddenly occurred to her that Miss R lives there & she said she would not be near any of my friends for £1000!’26

Although Otho had been unable to protect his sister from Ada’s abuse up to this point, the marriage presented a new opportunity. He visited John Horatio and insisted that Constance must be removed from her mother. Ada put up no resistance. And so Mr Swinburne-King and his daughter moved into Devonshire Terrace, and Constance moved out. Her new home was to be that of her grandfather, 100 Lancaster Gate, with John Horatio and Auntie Emily in loco parentis.

Now it would be these two charged with the future of their shy, studious ward. That within the next few years she would metamorphose into one of the most talked-about women in London was hardly an outcome they could have foreseen.


Terribly bad taste

IN THE SECOND half of the nineteenth century Hyde Park had become a pleasure ground surrounded by the palaces of the rich. It was in one such palace that, by the age of twenty, Constance Lloyd found herself resident.

Grandpa Horatio’s house at Lancaster Gate was enormous and imposing. Built as part of an ambitious scheme in the mid-1850s around the newly built Christ Church, it was one of a row of huge houses, set back from the road and overlooking Hyde Park, that had been described as the most handsome terrace in the whole of London.1 John Horatio was a man who had made his mark, and his address was testimony.

From her new home Constance would have seen the full anatomy of London life. Early in the morning, from half-past seven, the so-called ‘Liver Brigade’ would be out riding. Taking their constitutional gallop, shaking the liver ahead of the day’s toil, London’s top judges, barristers, surgeons and millionaires would be seen clad in silk hats and black hunting coats, breeches and shining patent boots. When they had headed off for the City and Inns of Court, nursemaids in their smart grey flannel uniforms would emerge with perambulators, and governesses would march smart children up and down.

Sometimes Constance would get a sight of a protest, since the park remained the arena for political manifestation since the great Chartist and reformist protests of the 1840s, 50s and 60s. And then in July she would have witnessed the municipal gardeners lay out thousands of potted palms and semi-tropical plants that would transform the park for its ten-week ‘summer season’ into something altogether more exotic.

But prestigious and well located though it was, Constance did not much enjoy ioo Lancaster Gate. Over-sized for its occupancy of three, it was an austere and un-homely place for a modern young woman to live and, as she later told Oscar, she never felt more than a guest there. Although Constance adored her grandfather, her aunt Emily was old-fashioned and disapproved of many of her ambitions. Nevertheless, beneath Constance’s quiet exterior lay a determined soul. Perhaps not quite the ‘smouldering volcano’ that her mother had alleged, but certainly someone with her own strong mind, who was not prepared to toe the line just for the sake of convention. And so Constance pursued her interests as best she could.

She began to display an increasing passion for art and culture, most specifically the visual and decorative arts. Constance makes much mention of the controversial Grosvenor Gallery in her letters in the early 1880s. This was a temple to contemporary art in New Bond Street, designed as an Italian palazzo. The art lovers who worshipped there would pass through its imposing Palladian entrance salvaged from the demolished church of Santa Lucia in Venice, before entering a huge room adorned with a blue coved ceiling on which James McNeill Whistler had painted the phases of the moon and a sprinkling of golden stars. Below a green velvet dado, red silk walls punctuated by Ionic pilasters rescued from the old Italian opera house in Paris displayed the best avant-garde art money could buy.

But the Grosvenor was more than just a gallery: it was also the social nexus for the alternative, Aesthetic, liberal-minded set and was particularly women-friendly. Since its inception it had garnered a reputation for supporting, among others, ‘feminist’ artists, many of whom would go on to become firm friends of Constance and Oscar. Painters such as Emily Ford, Louise Jopling, Evelyn de Morgan and Henrietta Rae had their work shown here. They, like Constance, would have enjoyed the gallery restaurant, which specifically catered for ladies lunching unchaperoned, as well as its library and club, which had a dedicated ladies’ drawing room.

Oscar, who even at university in Oxford was aligning himself with the Aesthetic group of poets and painters, had of course made a point of getting invited to the opening of the Grosvenor in 1877, and years later he summed up its enduring cachet in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘You must certainly send it [the painting of Gray] next year to the Grosvenor,’ Wilde’s Lord Henry Wooton urges the painter Basil Hallward.

The Academy is too large and too vulgar. Whenever I have gone there, there have either been so many people that I have not been able to see the pictures, which was dreadful, or so many pictures that I have not been able to see the people, which was worse. The Grosvenor is really the only place.2

Constance dashed to the Grosvenor on occasion to meet friends, although there is a sense that she did so with some secrecy. In one letter to Otho she confided that ‘as Grand Papa was in the City and Auntie at Windsor, I rushed off there in a hansom and … lunched there’.3

At the Grosvenor, Constance met like-minded friends and solicited introductions to some of the contemporary artists she so admired. One man whose friendship she cultivated in 1881 was the sculptor Richard Belt. Constance’s fascination with Belt, a controversial figure, suggests a susceptibility to men whose character and profession placed them with at least a foot in the demi-monde.

In 1879 Belt had won a prestigious competition to create a monument to Lord Byron, and in 1880 Constance would have seen his huge bronze seated figure of the poet unveiled close to Hyde Park Corner. Just after it was unveiled, an article in Vanity Fair suggested that, far from being by Belt, the statue had in fact been farmed out by him to foreign assistants, as had all the output of his studio since 1876. The source of this libel was another sculptor, Charles Lawes, whom Belt had once assisted and whom he promptly sued. This national scandal was in full swing when Constance and Belt began seeing one another. She visited his studio, had dinner with him and began to make her own investigations into this man, whom she clearly found fascinating and with whom she obviously shared some social connections.

‘Miss Emily A is going to take me to see the Pennants in Westminster next Wednesday in order to ask them about Mr Belt,’ she wrote to Otho.

[T]he H’s had not heard of the libel and are most deeply interested in it and of course having heard of his talents when quite a boy, don’t believe a word of it … I’ve told Auntie that I am going but she does not remember the connection. Mr Belt, I daresay you will remember, was in Mr T’s school, and it was he who first discovered his talents.4

Belt won his libel case, and Lawes was faced with £5,000 worth of damages. Just five years later, however, in another scandal involving the sale of fake diamonds to aristocrats that could easily have formed part of the plot of one of Oscar’s plays, Belt was convicted of fraud and sent to gaol.5

It was not just art and its colourful characters that Constance also found herself drawn to. The Aesthetic movement had generated a new level of appreciation for the decorative arts, and craft skills such as embroidery, enjoying heightened status and recognition, became recognized outlets for female talent in the 70s. In 1872 the Royal School of Art Needlework had been established to provide suitable work for gentlewomen. The leading Aesthetic artists of the day supplied designs for the attendees of the school to work. Above and beyond this institution, the arts-led interior design practice of Morris & Co. – where William Morris’s own wife, Jane, and daughter May took an active role in supervising and commissioning the needlework – had given embroidery a new aspect. No longer a pastime where ladies produced their samplers in the drawing room, art needlework was now fashionable and for public consumption, considered a vital contribution to modern interiors.

Constance, embodying this moment, explored her own needlework skills. Her staunchly Christian aunt Carrie marshalled Constance’s help in decorating the new high school for girls in Baker Street. This school was the philanthropic project of Mr and Mrs Francis Holland. A notable clergyman, Holland raised money and bought the site at 6 Baker Street and erected a modest building that could be converted into warehouses should the school fail. The great and the good from the local Christian community dived in to decorate the plain whitewashed walls in the weeks before the school opened in October 1878.

Constance prepared a series of embroideries to run the length of the school’s ‘Ambulatory’. She spent days working the words ‘Hearken unto me, O ye children, for blessed are all they that keep my ways. Hear instruction to be wise’ on blue sham leather, carefully stitching each letter in a gothic script some five inches high in black, red and gold. Constance’s love of art needlework never left her. Years later she presented Otho with a fire screen that she had ‘embroidered on blue Morris linen in pink and green silks’ and mounted in a Liberty ash frame that was stained green.6

For her efforts for the new girls’ high school Aunt Carrie took Constance to meet the great Francis Holland himself, but Constance performed poorly, ‘simply shaking with fright’ throughout the interview, despite the fact that Holland was charming and full of fun. ‘I do think I am the greatest donkey that ever lived I am so afraid of people,’ she noted afterwards.7

Eventually, however, distance from her mother and the benign effect of her grandfather’s kindness allowed Constance to blossom. Slowly her sense of humour, her intelligence and her love of life began to surface, and her shyness began to recede. The girl who had found herself unable to speak in front of Francis Holland began to transform into a sharp, opinionated woman with a quirky sense of fun.

‘In a discussion she was surprisingly quick at detecting the flaw and weak point in any reasoning,’ Otho recollected. ‘She could carry her own in an argument well, and always had the courage of her opinions,’ along with a ‘quiet humour and a sense of the ridiculous’.8

Constance’s natural interest in the arts reflected that of her grandfather, who had a keen interest in painting and something of a collection. Once Constance was out of her mother’s reach, John Horatio’s influence’s in this sphere began to be felt. A year after her mother wed, she found herself on a tour of Wales with her grandfather, Aunt Emily and Otho, staying for a few days in the Royal Oak Hotel, Betws-y-Coed.9

The small village of Betws had become an artists’ colony in the mid-nineteenth century, with several eminent painters resident in the area and others flocking to capture the surrounding Conwy Valley. And when it wasn’t painters, it was art enthusiasts, the fashion-conscious and intellectuals who were also holidaying there, hoping to soak up the painterly spirit that prevailed and perhaps secure a work of art too. Constance would have thumbed through the visitors’ book at the Royal Oak and seen the sketches left there by the many artists who had stayed there before her, some of whom were the country’s leading landscape painters.

Constance was fired up by the artists she encountered. She delighted in meeting the well-known landscape painter Frederick William Hulme, who was a regular visitor to the village, and while in Betws her grandfather bought a picture of Pont-y-Pair from another painter, named Stevens.

Constance flourished in this artistic atmosphere, and although her stay at the Royal Oak was relatively short, her newly emerging conversational skills managed to make an impression on another cultural tourist, Henry Fedden, a Bristol sugar merchant. He and Constance got along swimmingly.

I was so sorry to leave Betws, I had just begin to feel at home there, and I had made a friend whom I need not say I have been teased to any extent about, because he was, well, a he! Mr Fedden. He was married tho’ and lives at Bishop Stoke about 4 miles from Clifton … He has asked them to let me come and stay with him & his wife, which of course I should like to do immensely.10

Constance’s desire to visit the Feddens in Bristol was granted a few weeks later. In October she found herself installed in their comfortable home in Stoke Bishop, just outside the city, and thus began what would prove a very formative visit for her. The Feddens had a strong appetite for culture. They took Constance to concerts and soirées; they visited a loan exhibition; in the evenings Constance played the piano and Henry Fedden sang, and afterwards they would listen to his wife reading.

During her stay Constance was taken aboard the training ship Formidable, anchored in the Bristol Channel. This marvellous old fighting ship was Henry Fedden’s philanthropic project. He, along with other Bristol businessmen, had leased it from the Admiralty and had turned it into a training vessel, not for privileged children but for street urchins. The Formidable could take up to 350 ‘lost boys’ and train them up into seamen, who could then find useful employment on one of the many commercial vessels that passed through the city’s port.

Mary Fedden was also an impressive character. She was involved in the Ladies’ National Association, and from time to time the Feddens’ home hosted this group’s meetings, at which various speakers discussed how women might also provide constructive action in the war against poverty and injustice.11

This cultured, inspirational and mutually supportive couple presented for their young guest a model of an ideal, modern marriage that stood in stark contrast to the unhappy, selfish and separate lives her parents had lived together. What is more, the kind attention that Henry Fedden, in particular, had paid to her and the personal interest he had taken in her must have also persuaded Constance that, far from being unattractive and doomed to spinsterhood, romantic opportunities could one day be available to her.

In fact, by 1879 Constance had already had some luck in love. She was becoming close to Alec Shand, the brother of her friend Bessie. According to Otho, Constance was even briefly engaged to him,12 although it seems that this was a fact kept between themselves, since her extant letters reflect nothing other than secrecy and some elaborate lying where Alec is concerned. ‘I am rather disturbed in mind about something,’ a 21-year-old Constance wrote to Otho.

I got Tennyson’s ‘Princess’ in the Summer for Alec, who wanted a copy, and did not pay for it. They have unfortunately sent in the account to Aunt Emily in a bill of hers and fearing so the questioning I said I had got it for you. I suppose you will be angry but I do not think you will be asked about it. I will go with you and pay it the first day you’re in town, and then you can say it is paid, if you are asked.13

It seems that Alec returned Constance’s token of affection with much of the same, sending Constance ‘a beautiful bound edition of Tennyson’, which he left with Bessie to pass on. Spoilt for choice suddenly by men bearing gifts, Constance discovered that the devoted Henry Fedden had already given her that very edition, and so it was returned to Bessie with a request for Alec to find a different gift. The poetical works of Keats was presented instead.

But although by 1879 Constance was at last coming out of her shell and enjoying the attentions of men, she had not yet caught the eye of Oscar Wilde. For the moment his sights were trained elsewhere. While Constance had been getting on with her studies, Oscar had managed to secure a reputation at Oxford for being something of a poet and critic. In his final year he had won the Newdigate Prize for poetry with his poem ‘Ravenna’ and had had poems and articles published, mainly in the university and Irish press.

Swept up by the Pre-Raphaelite legacy, just like Constance, Oscar was writing under the influence of the poets of that movement, Algernon Charles Swinburne and Rossetti. He saw an intense devotion to beauty in their work. And this cult of beauty was endorsed in the critical writings of Walter Pater, whose Studies in the History of the Renaissance had a formative influence on him. In the conclusion to these studies Pater essentially argued that in a world in flux, beauty provides a fixed, refined aesthetic that could supersede the transient world and, in so doing, offer the onlooker a form of higher experience.

Pater was a Fellow and tutor at Brasenose College whom Oscar met in the Michaelmas term of 1877. Pater’s theories about the importance of beauty were expressed not only in his written work but also in his own domestic environment. Mary Ward, the wife of The Times’s art critic, Humphry Ward, lived opposite Pater in Oxford and described his ‘exquisite’ house in her memoirs, where ‘the drawing room was decorated with a Morris paper; spindle legged tables and chairs; a sparing allowance of blue plates and pots, bought, I think in Holland … engravings if I remember right from Botticelli; a few mirrors, and very few flowers, chosen and arranged with “simple yet conscious art”.’14

Oscar’s own college rooms declared his similar allegiance to Aestheticism. He too looked to contemporary designers such as William Morris and furnished his rooms simply, incorporating antique blue china and beautiful art prints.

Aesthetic taste could extend to any field in which beauty, its object, could be applied. It didn’t stop with fine art, literature or interiors. Floristry could have an Aesthetic aspect. Lilies and sunflowers were the Aesthetic flower of choice. Japanese or Chinese artefacts were admired. And, of course, fashion was Aestheticism’s route into the mainstream.

Alongside the ‘ugly dresses’ that Constance made up from her Liberty fabrics, some ladies took Aesthetic dress to new extremes. The actress Ellen Terry, associated with the movement through her relationship with the Aesthetic architect Edward Godwin, wore Japanese kimonos. Aesthetic men wore their hair long in the tradition of painters like Rossetti, and their dress seemed to incorporate anything from the long Middle Eastern robes that painters such as William Holman Hunt wore to the loose velvet jackets with which Swinburne became identified. But the dress adopted by the male aesthete was considered ‘effeminate’ by the uninitiated. For his airs and graces Oscar was taunted by his college peers. One prank, with the aim of removing and breaking Oscar’s furniture, ended in the pranksters themselves being thumped and thrown out by Oscar, single-handed. Another attempt to ‘duck’ him in a college fountain also failed.

Oscar left Oxford at the end of 1878 with ambitions to become a poet and critic. With the Newdigate Prize under his belt and a double first to boot, he moved to London and installed himself in rooms in Salisbury Street, off the Strand, in the home of his friend the painter Frank Miles. Miles had ‘a curious old-world house looking over the Thames … with antique staircases, twisting passages, broken down furniture and dim corners’.15 But the well-connected, moneyed and charming young artist had already created there a nexus for the bohemian set, with everyone from the poetess Violet Fane, Ellen Terry and James McNeill Whistler to Rossetti, Swinburne and Morris dropping by. Oscar was the perfect addition.

London was a new exciting arena for the young graduate. When Oscar arrived, the metropolis was quite literally newly aglow. Electric lights were being tested in galleries, and for the first time the Embankment and Holborn Viaduct were illuminated at night. And the cultural scene was sparkling too. In almost every cultural arena there were exciting new developments.

The great actor of the moment, Henry Irving, having just opened a refurbished Lyceum Theatre under his own management, was performing his tour-de-force Hamlet opposite Ellen Terry’s Ophelia; Lord Leighton, an Aesthetic painter of ‘effeminate subjects’,16 had just been elected as the president of the Royal Academy of Arts; and the whole nature of contemporary art was under scrutiny as Whistler went head to head with the great critic John Ruskin in a groundbreaking libel case. Ruskin had seen a series of paintings by Whistler entitled ‘Nocturnes’ and ‘Symphonies’, which today can been seen as the clear forerunner to abstraction. But for Ruskin, far from being a new, exciting development, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket represented the work of a ‘coxcomb’ who was asking ‘two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ – a criticism that Whistler considered worthy of court.

With the arts in a moment of change and debate, there were rich pickings for a budding young critic. But compared with the territories Oscar had vanquished before, London was vast. It must have dawned on him quickly that fulfilling his dreams of a literary career amid this noisy bustling city, where the competition was fierce, would be much harder than winning over editors of the university and Irish presses. Oscar understood that to rise above the noise of the city he must shout loudest. He amplified the attitudes and activities that he had rehearsed in Oxford. Within months he managed to cast himself as not just a follower of the Aesthetic fashion but as its embodiment.

Once Oscar was in residence in Salisbury Street, he and Miles began inviting people to join them for ‘Tea and Beauties’. In their bohemian rooms Miles would display his latest portraits of society belles and Oscar would entertain as only he could, with his rolling, golden voice pouring out wit and stories. Miles had persuaded the supermodel of her day, Lillie Langtry, to pose for him, and his delightful sketch of her had earned him a tidy income when, in reproduction, it became something of a best-seller. She had become a friend of Miles’s and was soon also on Oscar’s arm.

During his university days Oscar’s romantic attentions had been trained for two years on Florence Balcombe, a Dublin girl and future actress whom he adored. But by 1878 he had found himself usurped in her affections by another Dubliner, the writer, theatre manager and future creator of Dracula, Bram Stoker. She married Bram that December, to Oscar’s great distress. Now the high-profile Mrs Langtry, who seemed more than happy to adopt Oscar as her mascot, went some way to easing this disappointment.

But it was not just Lillie Langtry with whom Oscar regularly flirted. He was also showing public devotion to the great actress Sarah Bernhardt. In May 1879 he travelled to Folkestone to meet Miss Bernhardt as she arrived in England. In a gesture that guaranteed press attention, as she stepped foot on British soil, Oscar threw at her feet the armful of lilies he had brought to greet her. He was becoming a study in self-promotion. The following month he wrote a sonnet to her that was published in The World. A month after that his poem ‘The New Helen’ in praise of Miss Langtry appeared in Time.

Laura Troubridge, then a young, aspiring artist but who would one day marry Adrian Hope and become Constance’s neighbour in Tite Street, witnessed the frisson that surrounded Oscar in those early days in London. Her cousin Charles Orde, known as ‘Tardy’, was friendly with the young Mr Wilde. ‘To tea with Tardy’, Laura wrote on 30 June 1879. ‘Met Oscar Wilde, the poet. Both fell awfully in love with him, thought him delightful.’ Then in July:

To the National Gallery, saw Sarah Bernhardt there, had a good stare at her. Met Tardy and went together to tea at Oscar Wilde’s – great fun, lots of vague ‘intense’ men, such duffers, who amused us awfully. The room was a mass of white lilies, photos of Mrs Langtry, peacock feather screens and coloured pots, pictures of various merits.17

Lillie Langtry remembered that, ‘on his arrival from Oxford, Oscar had longish hair and wore an outfit that spoke of bohemian credentials: light-coloured trousers, a black frock coat, brightly coloured waistcoats with a white silk cravat held with an amethyst pin and always carrying lavender gloves.’ But as Oscar’s charm worked its magic on London society and, as Langtry observed, he ‘began to rise in the life of London, and his unconscious peculiarities had become a target for the humorous columns of the newspapers, he was quick to realise that they could be turned to advantage, and he proceeded forthwith to develop them so audaciously that it became impossible to ignore them’.18

Before long Oscar had grown his hair longer than anyone else, and his buttonholes were more unusual. And his outfits became even more outrageous. Caricatures of him in the press quickly became animated on stage. By the end of 1880 a satire on Aestheticism called Where’s the Cat opened at the Criterion Theatre, in which Oscar clearly provided the inspiration for the character of the Aesthetic writer Scott Ramsay. The actor playing Ramsay, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, modelled his performance on Oscar. Then came another play, The Colonel, in which another Aesthete, called Lambert Stryke, was again played in Wildean manner.

In early 1881 the Punch cartoonist George du Maurier was running weekly caricatures of two Aesthetic types, the poet Maudle and the painter Jellaby Postlethwaite. Maudle transfigured over the weeks into Oscuro Wildegoose, Drawit Milde and Ossian Wilderness, and was teased for his interest in lilies, the Grosvenor Gallery and blue china.

And so within two years after arriving in London, Oscar had landed the city. Despite his limited output in print, by 1881 Oscar’s fame was secured when the great painter and social observer William Powell Frith captured him at the Royal Academy summer show amid the great and the good. A lily in his lapel, the young Wilde, tall, long-haired and not yet showing the weight that would define his later years, stands notebook in hand, surrounded by a group of admiring women. To the right of the canvas the figure of George du Maurier is depicted looking on. To the left a woman wearing a loose, puff-sleeved Aesthetic outfit with a sunflower pinned to her breast gives us some sense of the figure that Constance too must have cut at this time.

In the same year that Frith immortalized Oscar in paint, the masters of popular music Gilbert and Sullivan confirmed Oscar’s celebrity with the production of Patience, an operetta in which an Aesthete was presented in the character of Bunthorne. Bunthorne’s costume took Aesthetic dress to new extremes. He wore a loose velvet jacket, knee breeches, silk tights and patent pumps. These extremes of dress were ones that soon became associated not with the fictional Bunthorne but with the man Wilde.

The Lloyds must have looked on with a mixture of bemusement and disapproval at the progress of their family friend. Conventional and upright, the inhabitants of 100 Lancaster Gate would not have considered wearing one’s hair long and becoming the target of ridicule the best credentials. But then again, Oscar’s Oxford contemporary Otho was hardly turning out as they had hoped.

For one thing, Otho had become embroiled in a court case that captured the public’s imagination. A report in the Daily News for 22 March 1879, under the headline ‘The Alleged Frauds upon the Charitable Public’, gives an idea of the case’s appeal. It describes the accused Vernon Montgomery and Ethel Vivian in the dock, amid an unusually packed and rowdy courtroom. Much of the crowd comprised young professional men, attracted by the impressive appearance of the bottle-blonde Miss Vivian, who was parading in the witness box in ‘a light silk dress of fashionable make’.

The prosecution alleged that Montgomery and Vivian placed advertisements in The Times purporting to be on behalf of an embarrassed girl in need of financial assistance. When charitable individuals responded to the advert, Montgomery entered into a correspondence that invited donations.

However, far from being a genuine lady in distress, prosecution witnesses identified Miss Vivian as in fact a Miss Wilmore, a Pimlicobased prostitute for whom Montgomery was almost certainly a pimp. In her defence, Miss Vivian protested from the witness box, much to the obvious mirth of the courtroom, that, far from being her pimp, Montgomery (who was using the moniker Viscount de Montgomery) was in fact a ‘poet’ whom she had met at the Promenade concerts, and that she had subsequently left Pimlico to live with him in his ‘country house’ near Maidstone.

To the horror of some constituents of his Lloyd and Napier relatives, Otho found himself appearing in court as a witness for the prosecution. He was one of the charitable individuals who had responded to The Times advertisement. In what was evidently an act of utter naivety, Otho sent Miss Vivian £5, a not insignificant sum. To the continued mirth of those watching proceedings, Otho noted that, although he acknowledged the fraud, he did not regret his donation to a woman who, regardless of her means of soliciting it, was indeed a subject for charity. Like many of those in the courtroom that day, Otho Lloyd presented as a man too easily turned by a pretty face.

Leaving aside his rather embarrassing susceptibility to the charms of young women and lack of financial acumen, Otho was beginning to concern the family more generally. Despite having won a scholarship to Oxford, he was lackadaisical in his approach to his studies and was soon failing key exams. Constance had made a huge emotional investment in her brother. Unable to pursue a career herself, her natural ambition was bound up in his achievements. As she saw the potential for such achievements slip away, Constance was genuinely distressed.

My Dearest boy, I am so terribly disappointed that you’re being plucked, perhaps the more so that Francis has passed his examination, and I think in all probability Charlie his. It cannot but force itself upon my mind, seeing Grand Papa’s disappointment, almost unspoken it is true, but scarcely for that the less, that you have not worked or that you have worked only indolently, as we are both only too inclined to do. Do dear boy try to make up this future year and work steadily and try to attain the honours that I know with study you have the capability of attaining … Do not think I am lecturing you. You know that all my ambition, all my future hopes are bound up in you and it is really a keen disappointment to me to find that you have none for yourself and it is not only that, but also that it is Grand Papa’s money that is being spent and if you do not profit by your college career it is wasted, is it not so? Is there any possible way by which I can help you? Remember that ignorant as I am, I will do anything in my power, or learn anything by which I could afford you any possible assistance.19

With Otho’s prospects foundering, Constance must have felt all the more keenly what potential suitors might offer her in terms of success and achievement. Despite now having several men ‘in various stages of devotion’, none of them was right. In fact, all of them were, for different reasons, utterly wrong.

In the summer of 1880 Constance, her aunt and grandfather travelled to the coast ahead of a family holiday in Holland. Constance’s Irish uncle Charlie Hemphill and her cousin Stanhope joined the party briefly before it sailed. Constance thought this was nothing more than a social get-together, made possible by the fact that two branches of the family fortuitously found themselves close to one another during their respective travels. She suddenly discovered, however, that Stanhope, whom she had known since his boyhood, had long been holding a torch for her, and the whole meeting had been engineered for a very specific purpose.

‘I’ve been so terribly horrified and frightened that I cannot get over it,’ she wrote to Otho.

Did it ever in your wildest dreams enter your head that Stanhope cared for me? I went out for a long walk yesterday with him and Uncle Charlie and we two stayed behind to pick some berries, and he informed me that he had come to ask me to be his wife. I do hope no one will ever again propose to me, for it is horrid. He said that he had wished to speak to me in Dublin and also in London when he was last there, and he would have waited now to test my feelings but that our going away tomorrow had hurried him on. It was so dreadful. I could but refuse him and he came again this morning to get a final answer, and looked as white as a sheet and frightened me so and yet I could not do anything else, could I? He would insist that I cared for someone else, and I assured him I did not. I have sent him away, and I don’t want to marry, and I do hope nobody else will ever ask me. I am shaking all over still with fright. Tear up this letter.20

With poor Stanhope dispatched, it was not long before another admirer was buzzing around the Lloyd household. As London warmed up under the June sun of 1881, a Mr Fitzgerald began to hover. Despite his admirable persistence, he got short shrift. ‘Mr Fitzgerald came … deep sigh, and requested to escort me somewhere this week,’ Constance informed her brother. ‘It ended finally in his arranging to come to Devonshire Terrace tomorrow and take Mama, Ella, Tizey and myself to the Fancy Fair at the Albert Hall. Poor man. I hope I shall meet someone I know and then I’ll get rid of him. I left Zena and him to have a long conversation together but he made his way over after a time and I couldn’t get rid of him.’21

Three days later the hapless Fitzgerald, failing to take a hint, tried his luck once more, as Constance once again relayed. ‘Mr Fitzgerald was with me the whole afternoon and to my horror … went to the Arbuthnots22 at home in the evening. I positively loathe him now. Isn’t it horrid? He came last Monday and asked to be allowed to escort us on Wednesday, so I couldn’t get off it.’23

Mr Fitzgerald’s timing was poor. Unbeknown to him, his attentions were in competition with those of someone in whom, unlike himself, Stanhope and presumably the now defunct Alec Shand, Constance found herself passionately interested. Like Henry Fedden, whom she found so enthralling, this other suitor was cultured, and, like the fascinating Mr Belt, he was artistic and rather risqué. The man was none other than the newly famous Oscar Wilde.

It was Constance’s Irish grandmother who engineered an opportunity for Constance and Oscar to become properly acquainted in the early summer of 1881, somewhat by default. Grandma Atkinson’s intention was to do a little matchmaking on behalf not of Constance but of her young aunt Ellena. ‘Ella’ Atkinson came to stay with her sister Ada Swinburne-King at Devonshire Terrace in the early summer of 1881. She was twenty-eight and still unmarried. Grandma Atkinson, well acquainted with Lady Wilde, suggested that Oscar, just a year Ella’s junior, might come to tea during her stay. Lady Wilde was only too happy to oblige.

When Sir William Wilde died, Lady Wilde had been left in financial difficulty. Although the gross estate left by the surgeon was some £20,000, he had had debts, and since a substantial £2,000 was left to each of his three sons, William, Oscar and Dr Wilson, Lady Wilde was left with a sum that was quickly deemed not enough to live on in style in Merrion Square. Given both her sons’ ambitions to seek careers in London, the decision was made that she would move to the capital, where she and Willie, Oscar’s older brother, would combine their resources. And so in 1879 Speranza decamped to rented accommodation in Ovington Square, just off the Brompton Road, the plan being that Willie would take a house for himself and his mother once he had succeeded in securing a staff job on a national newspaper. Speranza was devoted to both her sons and, with them both now in London with her, securing a good match for them had become a priority.

At the tea party in Devonshire Terrace, held specifically for Ella’s benefit, Otho recounts that Constance was ‘one of the party too and was introduced for the first time to Oscar’.24 The spark of attraction between the two must have been instantaneous. By 7 June, Oscar had paid a visit to one of Aunt Emily’s ‘at homes’ in Lancaster Gate in order to see Constance again. Constance, suddenly all too aware of the celebrity attached to her new beau, found herself ‘shaking with fright’, something Oscar could scarcely have failed to spot. Nevertheless he persisted, begging her to visit his mother at the earliest opportunity.

Although the Irish side of the family were on very warm terms with the Wildes, the Lloyd clan in London held the notorious Oscar in general disapproval. ‘Grand Papa I think likes Oscar,’ Constance conceded to her brother, ‘but of course the others laugh at him, because they don’t choose to see anything but that he wears long hair and looks aesthetic. I like him awfully much but I suppose it is very bad taste.’25

Bad taste or no, Constance was determined. Despite or perhaps because of her past abuses, she had built up a steely resolve. Oscar’s request to see Constance again as soon was possible was a ‘little request I need hardly say I have kept to myself’, she confided to Otho.

Constance’s attraction to Oscar in these very early days reveals an aspect of their relationship that would remain fundamental to their later marriage. With Constance, Oscar dropped his public mask. As Constance revealed to an Otho who, less persuaded by the Aesthete, had obviously been relating something of Oscar’s college history to her, ‘I can’t help liking him because when he’s talking to me alone, he’s never a bit affected and speaks naturally excepting that he uses better language than most people. I’m glad they didn’t duck him, though you would have enjoyed it.’26

Shortly after this encounter, Constance and her mother paid a return visit to the Wildes in Ovington Square. Speranza had resumed her Saturday salons, which had become famous in Dublin society. Like her son, Speranza loved aristocratic society, and in London she did her best to attract the great and the good to her drawing room, along with Irish friends and literary folk. At that meeting the flirtations continued, with Oscar talking to Constance ‘nearly all the time excepting when his Mother seized on him for somebody else. The room was crammed.’27 On this occasion Oscar asked Constance to go to the theatre with him to see Othello.

Othello was playing at the Lyceum and was creating a sensation, thanks to its unusual proposition that the lead roles of Othello and Iago were being alternated between the famous American actor Edwin Booth and Britain’s greatest stage star, Henry Irving. But more than this, Ellen Terry was starring as Desdemona. And this, Oscar must have known, would delight Constance.

Terry was, as the papers were reminding their readers that summer,

something else besides a graceful, refined and tenderly emotional actress. She has the pre-Raphaelite facial angle, the pre-Raphaelite chest bones, the pre-Raphaelite eyes and lips. She is … justifiably dear to the dramatic but is doubly dear to the aesthetic heart.28

What better, then, than to take Constance to the most talked-about show in town, with the possibility of introducing her afterwards to a heroine? Oscar, already aspiring to become Miss Terry’s recognized male counterpart, the High Priest of Aestheticism, had of course already made a point of getting to know both Irving and Terry personally.

Given her family’s general suspicion regarding her latest beau, it was probably not just the social protocol of her time that encouraged Constance to present the theatre invitation as coming from the mother rather than the son: ‘He [Oscar] or as I put it to the family, Lady Wilde has asked me to go to s