Saturday, May 10, 2014

Someone You Shouldn't Have Fallen in Love With

Willie Wilde
Many a well-known hostess fell before Willie [Wilde]'s charms: one of them Mme Gabrielli sent him, according to Constance Wilde, 'wine, tonics, and bangles'.  - Joan Schenkar
Sometimes, I'll be reading and a word will make me stop. In the sentence above, I stopped several times at the word "fell." Why do we fall in love? Schenkar is talking about Victorian women, falling had other connotations for them... "fallen" women.
Ethel Smyth

I don't think Schenkar intended for that sentence to give me so much pause. People are "falling" for or "falling in love" with other people all the time! The women who fell for Oscar Wilde's older brother, Willie, didn't go on to lead the life of a fallen woman, as our contemporary understanding of Victorian morality indicates they should have. and Shenkar certainly doesn't imply that they did.
Mrs. Frank Leslie

Shenkar does go on to discuss Willie's relationship with the suffragette, Ethel Smyth. Smyth ended her engagement to Willie, then lead a long and happy life, which included artistic successes and love affairs straight through to her 70s. Willie's first wife travelled and flourished financially after their divorce. Divorcing Willie won her sympathy in the press, rather than condemnation, but she did own more than a few newspapers. Willie's second wife doesn't seem to have had much drama in her life, after Willie's passing, but had a long and happy marriage with Dutch translator, Alexander Teixeira de Mattos.

I find Willie in the biography of his daughter and other histories, like that of his first wife, which all combine to paint a picture of a hideously charming womanizer. A kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Willie demonstrated incredible courtesy and outrageous disrespect to the women in his life, including his mother. Like Barney Stintson, I imagine Willie even had a playbook, well-memorized before attending the dances and dinner parties of 1890s London. He slept with as many pretty and rich Victorian women as he could. The latter showered him with gifts and even forgave his attempts to commit bank fraud on their savings accounts.
Dolly Wilde (Willie's daughter)

The image of falling and the long culture of blaming women for indiscreet sexual encounters make me picture the women Willie met as the 1890s equivalent to the women Barney Stintson picked up on the series: How I Met Your Mother, but that simply was not the case. Beautiful, intelligent and wealthy women clearly fell for Willie's charms. He wasn't someone they should have fallen in love with, and may have changed their lives forever; Willie's second wife had a child by him. When the relationship ended, the women in Willie's life were still beautiful, intelligent and wealthy (if they started out that way). The term "fallen" simply does not apply here. Rather than finding the women that Willie preyed on as footnotes in a history of his sexual conquests, I look for him in the footnotes of their biographies because they have biographies and Willie doesn't.

Maybe it's time to question the narrative that a mistake, like Willie, was the end for any good Victorian woman.

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