Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Review - Constance

The wives of great men are boring.

At least, that's the opinion of Gertrude Stein in her book The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. Allegedly by her wife-in-all-but-name Alice and apparently the story of  'the wives of geniuses I have sat with', it's actually a biography written by Stein, and what it's really about is the geniuses themselves, because those are the people readers actually find interesting. So says Stein, anyway.

Stein's enormous ego aside, she does actually have something of a point. While she's in one room, hanging out with Picasso and Matisse and working out Cubism and Modernism (as you do), Alice is next door with Fernande Picasso, talking about... hats. Unfortunately, I know where I'd rather be a fly on the wall.

But at the same time, it's not only the geniuses who deserve to have their stories told. History isn't just big men in little rooms, and as both a historically-interested person and a woman I like hearing about women who took the bad historical hand they were dealt and made something of themselves despite the restrictions they had to operate under. So while, sometimes, I think the feminist reclamation initiative is reaching slightly (as in the case of Catherine Dickens - I've written about her in my blog for Litro), I do think it's an incredibly important project, and one that can yield some awesome results. And so it is for Constance Wilde, wife of the more famous Oscar.

The lady un-vanishes
The more I read of Constance, the new biography by Franny Moyle, the more I felt like I not only approved of Constance, but actually liked her. Constance, as a person, was great. She was smart (she put herself down on the 1871 and 1881 censuses as a 'scholar'), she was funny (her letters are masterpieces of sass), she committed herself to everything she could (including the 'healthy' dress movement, several cults and the beginning of women's lib) and all in all she was supremely uninterested in sitting on her behind and doing nothing.

In her own time, she was actually almost as famous (or notorious) as Oscar himself. If Hello! magazine had been around, she would have featured in it every week in a new and completely mad outfit. A slightly reluctant but very visible public figure, she was also - which I did not know - a fairly well-known children's writer. She published quite a few fairy-tale-style short stories, and there's even new speculation that she might be the real author of 'The Selfish Giant'.

Constance was maybe a little whacky (witness the cults and her obsession with Spiritualism), and somewhat obtuse when it came to her husband's extramarital relationships, but I can imagine meeting her and finding that we genuinely had a lot to say to each other. (Contrast this to my imaginary meeting with Catherine Dickens, which would involve me saying "My, what a lot of children you have! Your husband is an awful man," and then the two of us staring at each other awkwardly until it was time to leave.)

A few months ago I read Richard Ellmann's tome of a Wilde biography (aptly entitled Wilde), and, exhaustive as it was, I couldn't help but feel that it missed something crucial. Wilde was an outrageous exhibitionist, mad, bad and fond of turning up places looking like a cello or a sunflower. Ellmann's book, though, manages to make him, and the life he led, seem boring. After Ellmann, I wanted a book that'd tell me the story of Oscar Wilde with as much shock and gossip as possible, and that's exactly what Constance does. Moyle's got a chatty, scandalous style that'll drive you mad if you want serious scholarship, but if you're looking to have fun with history you'll be delighted by it.

I think Moyle gets a good balance between showing Constance as an individual and talking about the experiences she shared with her husband. Constance, in Constance, isn't just a presence in the background, but neither is Oscar - and neither, interestingly, are their two sons Cyril and Vyvyan. If Ellmann largely forgot the wife, he most certainly forgot the children - Cyril and Vyvyan are just walk-on blobs in Wilde. In Constance, though, we get to hear more of how they felt, and what, as children of such weird, brilliant parents, their lives were like, and the result is fascinating.

Not that Moyle doesn't have her faults. At times she's a fairly lazy writer - you get infuriating sentences like
It would be a cause that in the fullness of time Constance would espouse more fully and formally.
Where was her editor? Never mind that, where was her brain?

She certainly isn't a rigorous academic. I suspect that Constance herself could school her biographer on study skills. Moyle has a habit of randomly generalising for the sake of her plot, and even though it didn't bother me unduly I had occasional raised-eyebrow moments. But, as I said, this book is meant to be fun, a razzle-dazzle joyride through an interesting woman's interesting (and ultimately very sad) life, and it succeeds in being exactly that.

Moyle's close to being the perfect biographer for the Wildes. Naughty, funny and irreverent, she conveys their scandalous lives in delicious (if not exacting) style, and ultimately managed to convince me that Oscar and Constance really did, in their own strange ways, love each other. I know! I was surprised too. But that's the nice thing about Constance. It's telling you a story you know, but in an entirely different way, one that, as I've said before, definitely deserves to be told.

Wives of geniuses, despite what Gertrude Stein may think, can be very interesting indeed.

3 stars.

No comments:

Post a Comment