Even her husband’s bed partners — and there were always plenty of those around — found mostly good things to say about Mrs. Oscar Wilde, or “poor, dear Constance” as she was known in polite society after the Bosie scandal broke their marriage wide open. “So sweet, so pretty and good, how came she by her outrageously intellectual husband?” wondered Richard Le Gallienne. “It was impossible not to predict suffering for a woman so domestic and simple mated with a mind so searching and so perverse, and a character so self-indulgent.”
That is unfair. Differences in temperament and intellectual chops are more expeditiously resolved by divorce than by tragedy. Constance Lloyd was a woman of intelligence and discernment, but as Oscar’s appetite for fame and louche young men kept on growing, so did the distance between them. “She could not understand me and I was bored to death with the married life,” Wilde confided to his ever faithful acolyte, sometime lover, and eternal sidekick, Robbie Ross. “But she had some sweet points in her character and was wonderfully loyal to me.”
“Of course, Oscar did not feel it at all,” noted Ross when Wilde learned of his wife’s death. Constance had visited her husband twice during his two year’s imprisonment, once journeying all the way from Italy, where she had settled, to spare him a stranger bringing news of his mother’s death. That’s the kind of woman she was. She offered to take him back and allow him to see their two young sons if he would only stay away from Lord Alfred Douglas. But that just wasn’t going to happen.
Decades later, a “reformed” Bosie Douglas would maintain in a book of self-serving memoirs that Wilde “certainly had been (as he often told me) very much in love with her and their marriage was purely a love match. At the time when I first met him, he was still fond of her, but he was often impatient with her and sometimes snubbed her and he resented and showed that he resented the attitude of slight disapproval she often adopted towards him.”
They stayed together for ten years. When they wed, Oscar was only middlingly famous as an epigrammarian, lecture circuit luminary, and author of a single book of poems. Possibly he thought heterosexual matrimony would cure his craving for male lovers. Constance’s forbearance, support, hostess skills, and, not least of all, the income she put at his disposal were essential in crafting the Wildean public persona. If marriage turned out to be a trap, then, who was responsible for setting it?
Apart from the emotional trauma caused by the revelations that provoked Wilde’s 1895 jail sentence for “gross indecency,” a trove of letters written by and to Constance that surfaced in the 1970s leaves no doubt this vibrant, socially aware, intellectually gifted woman deserved far better from the husband who ruined her life and the quack doctor who ended it.
An operation was supposed to relieve the agonizing pains in the back, arms, and neck that she had been experiencing for more than a decade. The surgeon was a celebrated Italian gynecologist with a one-size-fits-all gynecological explanation for everything. He took his scalpel to the uterine wall to excise the “creeping paralysis.” A more competent diagnostician would have recognized the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
Constance died five days after undergoing surgery, on April 7, 1898, aged 40. Oscar heard the news and wailed. “If only we had met and kissed each other! It is too late. How awful life is!” Robbie Ross was not impressed with all the histrionics and wrote that “He really did not understand how cruel he was to his wife, but I never expect anyone to believe that.”
HERE RESTS IN PEACE/CONSTANCE MARY/DAUGHTER OF HORACE LLOYD Q.C./ BORN JANUARY 2 1859 DIED APRIL 7 1898/ GOD SHALL WIPE AWAY ALL TEARS FROM THEIR EYES/ REV. XXI.V.4
When Constance Wilde was laid to rest in the Staglieno cemetery outside Genoa, Italy, her grave was marked by a Celtic cross of pale marble polished to a gloss and inscribed with a design of twining ivy. Its restraint and simplicity makes it a stand-out among the “funerary monuments, tombs, and sculptured figures that are exquisitely wrought and are full of grace and beauty” that a day-tripper to Staglieno named Mark Twain had remarked on a few years before.
Oscar Wilde visited his wife’s grave a grand total of once, in February 1899, while travelling from Nice to Switzerland. To Ross he described “a garden at the foot of the lovely hills that climb into the mountains that girdle Genoa. It was very tragic seeing her name carved on a tomb — her surname, my name not being mentioned, of course — I brought some flowers. I was deeply affected with the scene, also, of the uselessness of all regrets. Nothing could have been otherwise and Life is a very terrible thing.” You bet, Oscar. On the evening of his one-day detour to mourn and moralize, he went into Genoa and picked up an Italian actor for a casual bout of sex and useless regrets.
But wait — what was that about his name not being mentioned? There it is on the pediment, as clear as can be: WIFE OF OSCAR WILDE. Hard to believe Constance would have chosen this of all places to publicly affirm her connection with the man who destroyed her happiness. It turns out that the text was not added until 1964, at the behest of her brother’s descendants. The real question, though, is how to account for those words appearing on three identical tombstones in two different countries?
Obviously, all three are anachronisms, but only two are fakes. The authentic tombstone is the one to which Oscar paid his respects in the Cimetero Monumentale di Staglieno. But the Genoa municipal authorities declined to give the cast and crew of Brian Gilbert’s 1997 biopic Wilde permission to film a 40-second sequence in which Stephen Fry as Oscar strides along a colonnade of cypresses, cutting to the gravestone on which the camera lingers just enough to establish that Constance Wilde, played by Jennifer Ehle, has died since her last appearance on camera.
So the movie makers went instead to Granada, Spain. The Cemeterio San José is that country’s second-oldest burial ground, and like Staglieno, the place is thick with towering cypresses and Romantic angels overcome by grief and graffiti. There, the producers were allowed to get the footage they craved of Stephen Fry as Oscar, with the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range visible in the far distance. A prop headstone was constructed out of wood, but the camera crew left it behind to be discarded after the shot was in the can.
Now the Cemeterio San José is run by Emucesa, a public-private company that sees to the business end, conservation and upkeep of grounds and statuary, and basically provides comprehensive one-stop funerary services to the public. For many years its managing director has been José Antonio Muñoz, a gentleman who helped identify and design some of the improvements that were introduced around the turn of the century so the complex could fully serve a city the size of Granada, while respecting its privileged location on a hill adjacent to the gardens of the Generalife palace.
Renovation work has endowed the necropolis with ultra-modern facilities that include external glass elevators to help the elderly and infirm navigate its staggered hillside terraces. Bluetooth technology allows cellphones to double as audio guides. In addition, San José has a cafeteria, multi-faith (no more mandatory crucifix) viewing rooms, and biodegradable urns — all very state-of-the-art. But what was to be done with the leftover copy of a marker intended for somebody’s distant grave, in a cemetery that is chock full of the real item?
“All of us working here, we had got so used to seeing it,” Muñoz said. He insisted he is not a particular admirer of Oscar Wilde — a casual reader, yes, but not a devoted one. But even for someone whose professional life has been spent in cemeteries, there was something compelling about the copy. “It just looked nice,” he said.
Weather and neglect had taken their toll. Instead of just chucking it into the dumpster, Muñoz moved the unwanted prop inside his office and convinced his board of directors to commission an exact duplicate of the exact duplicate, only this time in real marble, and place it among the tenanted tombs. The intent, he was at pains to clarify, was never to hoodwink people into thinking that Wilde’s wife had been laid to rest in Granada, or indeed, imply that he and/or the missus ever visited the city — though Oscar surely would have found it “charming.” The result is that at the foot of the cruciform marker, adjacent plaques affirm in Spanish and English that despite the “Here rests in peace Constance…” inscription, that actually she doesn’t. Sorry.
The new marble cross has been standing in the cemetery’s third courtyard since 2006 while its wooden counterpart, the film prop discard, continues to grace the interior of Muñoz’s offices. He confirmed that he has, on rare occasions, been asked about it by some of the visitors (almost all of whom are Spanish) that come to pay their respects to departed loved ones or to contemplate the sculptures. Glorious shade from all those cypresses and breezes chilled by the Sierra Nevada’s year-round snow cap are not the least of the attractions that bring local people to mingle with their dead while Granada swelters through its summers.
Oscar Wilde, meanwhile, remains the center of attention at the Père Lachaise cemetery in the French capital where, for the past decade or so, he has been at the top of the dead celebrity charts, edging out posthumous neighbors such Fréderic Chopin, Maria Callas, Marcel Proust, and rocker Jim Morrison of The Doors.
The result of this upsurge of Wildean interest is that the winged, self-evidently male sphinx (or angel?) sculpted by Jacob Epstein over the tomb has come under assault from admirers bestowing saliva-rich, lipstick-smudged kisses all over it, which caused Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, to have a seven-foot-high plate glass barrier erected to deflect the incoming pool of drool and discourage fits of stone smooching.
Maybe all those scarlet smudges can be taken as a gauge of the fame that Oscar Wilde always knew he had coming to him. The tomb itself was restored in 2011, at a cost of some $75,000, most of which was put up by the government of the Republic of Ireland. But not many visiting fans know that the tomb they have appropriated as their personal fetish is actually a duplex. The remains of Robbie Ross were inserted in accordance with a request made by the latter on his deathbed in 1918, but not carried out until 1950. It’s easy imagine Oscar’s delight at having some celestial company.
No room in the tomb for Constance, though. Like the man said: no regrets either. One can only hope that her life’s tragedy was resolved in something like the manner her wayward genius of a husband evoked in his story of the Canterville Ghost: “To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death’s house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.” •