When Lady Jane Wilde learned that her son Oscar’s latest play had the provisional title ‘A Good Woman’, she wrote to express her disapproval: ‘I do not like it- “A Good Woman”. It is mawkish. No one cares for a good woman. “A Noble Woman” would be better,’ she insisted. Oscar renamed it Lady Windermere’s Fan. Whatever about the fictional Mrs. Erlynne, Jane was a very noble woman indeed: a poet, an essayist, an accomplished linguist, a wit, a beauty, a very loving wife and mother, a campaigner for liberty and for women’s rights, and an enduring heroine in her native Ireland. Oscar admired her considerable intellect and her appetite for life. She had a profound influence on his writing and his character, and through her example, he understood that women could be just as creative and intelligent as men.
Young Jane Elgee was exceptionally bright and eager to learn, but the denial of a formal education to women left her dependent on her own resources. In an interview published in Hearth and Home towards the end of her life, she recalled her studious nature: ‘I was always very fond of study, and of books,’ she said.
My favourite study was languages. I succeeded in mastering ten of the European languages. Till my eighteenth year I never wrote anything. All my time was given to study.
Although hailed in an obituary in The Times as ‘the most ardent and hot-headed of nationalists’, Jane admitted to the interviewer from Hearth and Home that, until her early twenties, she was ‘quite indifferent to the national movement’. Her rebellious nature is evident in the distance she moved from her staunchly unionist family. ‘Nationality’, she claimed in a letter to the editor D.J. O’Donoghue, ‘was certainly the first awakener of any mental power of genius within me, and the strongest sentiments of my intellectual life’. The impetus for her decision to write for The Nation, the organ of the Young Irelander movement, was the death of Thomas Davis, aged thirty, from scarlet fever. Regarded by many as the most talented and passionate of the Young Irelanders, his loss was a terrible blow. In Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages of Ireland, Jane described him as ‘an incarnation of passionate genius--the most powerful of the poets, the most brilliant of the essayists’. When editor, Charles Gavan Duffy invited contributions from sympathetic readers, the most eye-catching came from Jane, who wrote as Speranza and signed her letters John Fanshaw Ellis.
The first poems from the pen of Speranza were translations of suitably rousing verse from Russian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese, but she soon gained the confidence to write poetry of her own. According to Wilde’s biographer Robert Sherard, Jane declared: ‘Once I had caught the national spirit, all the literature of Irish wrongs and sufferings had an enthralling interest for me, then it was that I discovered that I could write poetry’. In his memoir Four Years of Irish History, Duffy recognised in Jane ‘the spirit of Irish liberty embodied in a stately and beautiful woman. For him, his new correspondent’s ‘little scented notes, sealed with wax of a delicate hue and dainty device, represented a substantial force in Irish politics, the vehement will of a woman of genius’. Alexander Martin Sullivan took over at the Nation in 1855, and described in his New Ireland how ‘her personal attractions, her cultivated mind, her originality and force of character, made her a central figure in Dublin society’.
During the famine year of 1847, Jane’s words had a galvanizing effect: ‘a nation is arising from her long and ghastly swoon’, she declared in ‘To My Brothers’. In ‘The Voice of the Poor’, she railed against the horror, writing ‘before us die our brothers of starvation’. In ‘The Famine Year’, she condemned the arrival of ‘stately ships to bear our food away’. In ‘The Exodus’, she lamented the ‘million a decade’ forced to flee. Her most popular composition was ‘The Brothers’, a rousing ballad eulogising Henry and John Sheares, one a lawyer, the other a barrister, both United Irishmen hanged for their part in the rising of 1798. In tone and theme it resembles her son’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and it was taken up by the street balladeers of Dublin.
As Ireland headed inexorably towards insurrection, Jane became increasingly provocative. Her unsigned editorial ‘Jacta Alea Est’(the die is cast), an unmistakable call-to-arms, prompted the suppression of The Nation. When Duffy revived it after the failed rising of 1848, Jane wrote a poem to mark the occasion but she had lost her fire. Offered a page devoted to ‘feminine contributions’, she quipped ‘it probably would be the only page left unread’. She had no time for gendered writing.
Throughout her life, Jane was bitter in her condemnation of the neglect of women. In April 1850, harnessing her finest revolutionary rhetoric, she raged in The Nation:
Women truly need much to be done for them. At present they have neither dignity nor position. All avenues to wealth and rank are closed to them. The state takes no notice of their existence except to injure them by its laws.
Yet, she was contradictory in her approach. While she campaigned vociferously for women to be granted access to education and the professions, and welcomed progressive legislation, she also believed a loyal wife should accommodate her husband’s indiscretions, provided he was a genius like Oscar’s father, William Wilde.
William’s untimely death deprived Jane of the comforts and privileges extended to the wife of an eminent man and his profligacy obliged her to move to London. Within months, she was contributing wide-ranging, learned articles to the Pall Mall Gazette, The Burlington Magazine, The Queen, The Lady’s Pictorial, The St. James’s Magazine, and Tinsley’s Magazine. She wrote several learned, humorous and eminently readable books, the last of which, Social Studies, contains essays exploring her distinct take on feminism.
Jane’s progressive, albeit slightly erratic, views on the position of women in society were uncompromisingly frank and she injected much of the revolutionary fire she had harnessed in the pursuit of Irish nationalism into her arguments for gender equality. In ‘The Bondage of Women’, contained in her book Social Studies, she expressed despair at the universal disregard shown for the intellect of women: ‘For six thousand years,’ she wrote, ‘the history of women has been a mournful record of helpless resignation to social prejudice and legal tyranny’. She finished with an exceptionally powerful passage:
Genius never yet unsexed a woman, or learning or culture ever so extended; but the meanness of her ordinary social routine life, with all its petty duties and claims, and ritual of small observances, degrades and humiliates her, for it deprives her of all dignity, and leaves her without any meaning in God’s great universe.
In ‘A New Era in English and Irish Social Life’, published in Gentlewoman in January 1883, she hailed the Married Women’s Property Rights Act of 1882 as ‘an important and remarkable epoch in the history of women’. Under its terms, women obtained a legal identity permitting them to enter into contracts to buy or sell their own property. In response, Jane expressed relief that a woman would no longer enter marriage ‘as a bonded slave, disenfranchised of all rights over her fortune’. Yet, bitterly aware that progress followed millennia of neglect, she cried in Social Studies: ‘We have now traced the history of women from Paradise to the nineteenth century and have heard nothing through the long roll of the ages but the clank of their fetters’. In an astute summation of the hurdles that remained, she wrote:
Women have been so long politically non-existent that they almost tremble to assert they have any rights apart from their husbands. They require much training in habits of self-assertion and self-reliance, and full knowledge of their newly acquired legal rights, in order that they may become worthy of the nobler life of freedom.
Again in Social Studies, she campaigned vociferous for women to be granted greater access to formal education, insisting:
It is impossible to believe that woman will be less attractive because educated, less tender and devoted because learned, less loving because she can attain the high station, honour, dignity and wealth, which hitherto only marriage could confer, by her own unfettered intellect and genius.
Jane, a visionary idealist, often felt hopeful rather than despondent when confronted with inequity, believing that righteous thinking and courageous action would lead inevitably to change. Her optimism shines through in this passage from Social Studies:
Now, for the first time in the history of the world, a path is opening to female intellect, energy and talent, and, henceforth, women, perhaps, may lead in the learned professions, take their part in home government, form ministries to organise the code of female rights, and claim the highest university honours in rivalry with men.
Marking her death, on 3 February 1896, a sympathetic obituary in The Athenaeum declared: ‘Under the mark of brilliant display and bohemian recklessness lay a deep and loyal soul and a kindly and sympathetic nature’. The Freeman’s Journal lauded her as ‘almost the last of that brilliant circle of poets and writers who, fifty years ago, gave to the “Young Ireland” movement a world-wide celebrity’. The Virginia Enterprise described her as ‘a brilliant woman who had contributed much to literature and social life in England and Ireland’, and paid tribute to her as ‘a confirmed woman’s rights woman’.
Wilde's Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons was published on the 16th October 2015