The recent mini-battle in Arizona about whether same-sex couples should receive the same kind of services that other couples get, has called attention to recent the dramatic changes in the way a majority of Americans view gays and lesbians. While celebrating the change in attitudes that have resulted in more respect being given to different groups, it is sad to look back on some of the tragedies caused in the past by harsh anti-homosexual laws.
Constance Lloyd Wilde was a woman whose life was shattered by the trial and imprisonment of her husband, Oscar Wilde, on charges of gross indecency. Born in London in 1859, Constance Lloyd grew up in the Victorian era when marriage was considered sacred, but adultery was common. Among many middle-and-upper class British couples, men were routinely pardoned for engaging in extra-marital sex, and while the rules were stricter for women, many of them could have affairs as long as they were discreet. Constance grew up under the supervision of parents who would be considered neglectful today, but were following the usual pattern of paying little attention to their children and bestowing little affection on them.
Despite this unpromising start, Constance received a good education and grew up to be a spirited, intelligent and very attractive woman. She was determined to make something of her life so she did not rush into marriage, but mingled with the artistic set which included painters, designers and writers. She became interested in Aestheticism and began to design her own dresses using the new Liberty fabrics, which reflected the tastes of modern young people. Oscar Wilde a young Irish poet and critic who had left Oxford and moved to London was a leading member of this group and it was not long until the two met.
Oscar Wilde soon became a prominent figure in London society. He earned his living by writing and lecturing on cultural life. In 1878 he traveled to America on a lecture tour during which he was both lionized and made fun of by the press and public. Whatever he did his fame continued to grow. After he returned to London, he continued to see Constance Lloyd and in 1884 they were married. Oscar was 30 years old at the time and Constance was 25; they were both well-educated intellectuals, but in terms of understanding their own desires and sexuality they probably knew less than the average college student today.
The early years of their marriage were happy. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, and became a much-noticed couple in the London social scene. Their house was a showplace of Aesthetic interior design and Constance’s avant-garde clothes were noticed and discussed by many friends, acquaintances and even the press. Constance brought an income of 250 pound a year to the marriage, which would have been adequate for most middle-class families, but the Wildes had expensive tastes and expensive habits.
As the years went by Oscar Wilde’s life became more chaotic. His plays were hugely successful, but his lifestyle was difficult to maintain. He enjoyed the company of young men and began spending more and more of his time away from home. Whether Constance realized that these ardent friendships were replacing her in Oscar’s affections is difficult to know. Looking back from the 21st century, it is easy to think that she must have known he was homosexual, but so many of the realities of sexual life were hidden from women in those days that we cannot be sure about how much of her husband’s life she understood. She carried on her life, taking care of her boys, maintaining a social presence, and even writing a well-received children’s book called There Was Once. She and Oscar remained close, but their way of life was becoming too fragile to maintain.
Almost everyone has heard the story of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. He developed a long-lasting crush on a young man, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), whose father was the Marquis of Queensberry. When the Marquis began hounding Wilde with the threat of bringing charges against him, Wilde foolishly sued the Marquis for libel. He lost the suit and was charged, convicted, and eventually imprisoned for gross indecency. England was the only country in Europe at that time that had a law against homosexuality, but Wilde unfortunately refused to leave the country to escape the charges.
Almost overnight not only Oscar’s life, but the life of his whole family changed dramatically. Many old friends stopped speaking to Constance and the English schools to which she hoped to send the boys refused to accept them. She moved to the continent, changed both her name and her sons’ names to Holland, and enrolled the boys in German schools. Through it all she was not completely estranged from Oscar but continued to hope for reconciliation. Time ran out on that hope because Constance died in Genoa in 1898 at the age of 37 without ever seeing Oscar again. Oscar died two years later without having seen his sons again.
You can follow the whole story in Franny Moyle’s recent biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.
The tragedy of the lives of the Wilde family is that so much of the suffering was unnecessary. Certainly their marriage was under a great deal of strain as Oscar came to terms with his nature, but if they had been living in 2014 instead of the 1895, they might have been able to work out the issues privately. The public outcry and the exile of Constance and the boys were pointless. The disruption of the lives of these innocent people helped no one. It has taken a hundred years for society to understand this and to accept the right of gays and lesbians to live their lives in peace and security for themselves and their families. Things aren’t perfect today, but at least this is one area in which real progress has been made.