THE STORY of Oscar Wilde and his extraordinary family is a remarkable one. Oscar’s sensational triumphs and terrible downfall are incredibly moving but his parents, the brilliant Sir William Wilde and the flamboyant Lady Jane Wilde, also led amazing lives and experienced triumph and tragedy.
Sir William was an eminent surgeon, antiquarian, and author whose personal life attracted innuendo while Lady Jane’s fiery nationalist poetry, under the nom-de-plume of Speranza, made her a heroine of the Young Irelanders.
Sir William and Lady Jane also found themselves in a sensational libel trial containing accusations of illicit sex which eerily foreshadowed Oscar’s own trials of a generation later. Then there are the Wilde offspring whose lives were also touched with tragedy.
Sir William and Lady Jane had three children together while Sir William also fathered three children out of wedlock before his marriage, but none of his children would live past their forties.
Now this gripping family saga is vividly described in More Lives Than One by Galwegian Ger Hanberry which is published this month by Collins Press.
A Lough Corrib beginning
Hanberry is best-known as a poet so what drew him to the epic story of the Wilde family?
“It was really Sir William’s book, Lough Corrib, its Shores and Islands that got me started,” he reveals over an afternoon coffee in Sheridan’s Bar. “About 2002, my son won the book as a prize in the Cong-Galway race run by the Galway Boating and Yachting Club and he duly passed it on to me.
“I read it and I thought it was fabulous. Even though it was first published in the 1860s it still stood the test of time. I retraced William’s steps around the Corrib and checked out the sites he mentions to see what they’re like today – I was doing the MA in writing at the time in NUIG and I researched Sir William as part of the non-fiction module of that course, so that’s how it all began.
“As I delved into Sir William’s life I found his wife Jane, ‘Speranza’, was also a fascinating character. I felt there was a story here that hadn’t been fully told, most of the knowledge was already out there but the so-called minor characters pre-Oscar hadn’t really been given their due time on the stage.
“I realised what I had was a family saga that began in the early 1700s and continued up until today. In telling the story I tried to find a voice that would appeal to the general reader, even though it’s academically researched. The characters are so fascinating and larger than life I think it would appeal to someone picking up a book going through an airport.”
One of many absorbing episodes in the book describes how, in 1864, Mary Travers, a patient of Sir William’s whom he had befriended, accused him of raping her while she was unconscious in his surgery.
Travers embarked on a campaign of harassment against Wilde which provoked Jane into writing an angry letter to Travers’ father, himself an eminent doctor. Mary Travers sued Jane Wilde for libel over the contents of the letter and the resultant trial, at the Four Courts in December 1864, caused a sensation.
The jury found in favour of Travers but awarded her the minimal sum of one farthing – though the Wildes had to pay most of the trial costs. There were personal repercussions as well, as Hanberry explains.
“The court case took a toll on William’s ego and emotions,” he says. “In the last seven/eight years of his life, he turned his back on his practice and spent a lot of time here in the west. He also got into a lot of debt. There is no actual evidence that he had sex with Mary Travers, but the relationship certainly wasn’t entirely innocent, his letters to her clearly show that he was infatuated.”
Whatever the truth of his involvement with Mary Travers, Sir William did father three illegitimate children before marrying, but paid for their upbringing. His daughters Mary and Emily were raised as wards by his brother Ralph, while his son Henry Wilson qualified as a doctor and became a partner in Sir William’s practice. Tragically, their lives were all cut short.
Mary and Emily were burnt to death in a fire when they in their twenties while Henry died aged 40 after a sudden illness. Sir William and Lady Jane’s beloved daughter Isola also died young, aged only eight years.
Then there were the two sons, Willie and Oscar, neither of whom would see 50. Willie was clever, charming and gifted, some said he was as talented as Oscar, but he was also feckless and ended up sponging off his family and friends, or pawning Oscar’s belongings to raise the price of a drink.
“Willie is a fascinating character,” Hanberry observes. “He was a gifted journalist and wrote some great stuff but drink slowly got the better of him and he eventually sank under the burden of alcoholism – which indeed Oscar did as well in the last two years of his life.”
One of the most poignant stories in the book is the description of Lady Jane’s final years in London. Like Dickens’ Miss Havisham she would greet visitors bedecked in the dresses and jewellery she wore when she was a feted society lady decades before. But as poverty, age, illness, and grief took their toll, she increasingly withdrew from the world.
“I couldn’t get the image of Miss Havisham out of my head envisaging her in her final decay,” Hanberry declares. “Imagine the sadness of her in that back room, asking to see Oscar, Willie rampaging around the house, ashamed to meet people, friends calling to the door but being turned away.
“The proud, flamboyant Lady Wilde in a dank old back room, it’s one of the most heartbreaking images in the book and then she ended up in an anonymous grave. Willie drank all the money and didn’t put up a headstone so after seven years they dug up the bones and dumped them in a pauper’s grave.
“In Mount Jerome where Sir William is buried there’s a four-sided monument and her name is there and if you didn’t know the story you would think she was buried there but she isn’t sadly.”
Tragedy would also afflict the lives of the next generation of Wildes; Willie’s daughter Dolly died aged just 46 while Oscar’s eldest son Cyril was killed in the First World War. And the scandal of Oscar’s disgrace can even now create ripples, as Hanberry discloses;
“The shadow of the fall is still there,” he says. “There’s a Youtube video of Merlin Holland, Oscar’s grandson, giving a talk on Oscar in Moscow and these right-wingers stand up and disrupt the talk because they’re outraged about homosexuality.
“You can see on Merlin’s face one part of him is not surprised - he was forewarned about these guys - but there is also a sadness and resignation there. When I saw that video it was too late for me to include it in the book but it did make me realise why he still feels he’s persecuted to a degree where he feels unable to change the family name back to Wilde. The scars are still there.”
More Lives Than One will be officially launched at a reception at Galway City Museum on Saturday September 17. The book retails at €24.99.