Wilde, Jane (1821–1896)

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Wilde, Jane (1821–1896)

Irish nationalist writer who was the mother of Oscar Wilde . Name variations: Jane Francesca Elgee; Lady Anna Francesca Wilde; Lady Jane Wilde; (pseudonyms) John Fanshawe Ellis, Albanus or A, and Speranza. Born Jane Francesca Elgee, probably on December 27, 1821 (place of birth unknown); died in London, England, on February 3, 1896; youngest child of Charles Elgee and Sarah (Kingsbury) Elgee; educated at home; married William Wilde (an ophthalmic surgeon), on November 12, 1851; children: William (Willie) Wilde (b. 1852, who was once married to Miriam Leslie ); Oscar Wilde (1854–1900, the writer); Isola Wilde (b. 1857).

Selected writings:

(translator) Sidonia the Sorceress (Reeves & Turner, 1849); Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland (Ward & Downey, 1887); Notes on Men, Women and Books (Ward & Downey, 1891); Social Studies (Ward & Downey, 1893); Poems (M.H. Gill, 3rd ed., 1907).

In her later years Jane Wilde dismissed inquiries about her birth and birthplace as an impertinence. She sometimes admitted that she had been born in 1826, but when applying in 1888 for a grant from the Royal Literary Fund, she stated that her date of birth was December 27, 1821. This fits in with the information available about her family background. Her father Charles Elgee was a lawyer who died in 1824. Her mother Sarah Kingsbury Elgee came from a well-connected Dublin family prominent in business and politics. Sarah's sister Henrietta Kingsbury married the writer Charles Maturin. Jane was educated at home by tutors and governesses and was well read in the classics, a love she passed on to her younger son Oscar Wilde. She was also fluent in French and German and later translated books from Russian, Norwegian and Spanish.

Wilde's family was hostile to Irish nationalism, and she was initially uninterested in the social and political conditions existing in Ireland. This changed in the early 1840s when she read issues of the new journal The Nation, founded by a group of young nationalists who called themselves Young Ireland: "I read it eagerly and my patriotism was kindled." Her first poetry was published in The Nation in February 1846, and this and subsequent items were published under pseudonyms—John Fanshawe Ellis, Albanus or A—before she finally settled on the pen name which made her famous, Speranza. Most of her best-known poems were written between 1846 and 1848; these included "The Lament," "The Stricken Land," "The Exodus," and "The Brothers." As some of the titles indicate, they reflected the state of the country which was in the grip of the Great Famine. In 1848, the Young Irelanders were planning to stage a rebellion. In the July 29th issue of The Nation, Wilde wrote a famous headline "Alea Jacta Est" (The Die is Cast) which led to the government authorities seizing the issue, closing the paper, and arresting The Nation's editor, Charles Gavan Duffy. When Duffy was brought to trial, Wilde stood up in court and announced that she was the author of "Alea Jacta Est," not Duffy, as was being alleged. After several trials and retrials, Duffy was finally released in 1849. These were the first of the dramatic trials which were to disrupt Jane Wilde's life.

In 1851, she married William Wilde, an eminent ophthalmic surgeon in Dublin who was also a distinguished antiquarian. At the time of the marriage, William had three illegitimate children but neither then nor in the future was Jane particularly troubled by her husband's infidelities. She regarded jealousy as vulgar and unworthy. Wilde admired and respected her husband although she found his sporadic depressions difficult to cope with. Her biographer Joy Melville has noted her ambivalent attitude to marriage: half feminist, half deferential. Her first son Willie was born in 1852, followed by Oscar in 1854 and her only daughter Isola Wilde in 1857. Jane adored her children and did not banish them to the nursery as was then the custom. Rather, she read poetry and stories to them, and when they were older they were present at her salons.

Although her family took up more of her time, she continued to write. In 1849, she had translated Meinhold's Sidonia the Sorceress which greatly influenced the pre-Raphaelites and was one of Oscar's favorite stories. The book features a double portrait, not unlike that in The Picture of Dorian Gray. She also wrote regularly for the Dublin University Magazine. Shortly after her marriage, she had become acquainted with Lotten von Krämer who was a leading campaigner for women's rights in Sweden where she had endowed a scholarship for women at Uppsala University. Through Krämer she met another leading Swedish feminist, Rosalie Olivecrona . These friends became extremely important to Jane, and her correspondence with them lasted for 25 years. She visited Sweden a number of times and also taught herself Swedish.

In December 1864, Jane was sued for libel by Mary Travers who alleged that she had been raped by William Wilde in 1862. Travers was mentally unstable, but it was clear that she had had a sexual relationship with William at some point. She began a campaign of public humiliation against William and his family, circulating leaflets around Dublin, and even pursuing Jane and the children when they went on holiday. The trial was a sensational event. It could possibly have been settled out of court but, as she was to urge Oscar to do in 1895, Jane was determined to fight the case. When she took the witness stand, she refused to play the role of the wronged wife although it might have helped her case more if she had. Travers won nominal damages of a farthing but the costs were awarded against the Wildes. William Wilde's health was never the same after the trial, and in 1867 Isola's sudden death devastated the family.

Towards the end of the 1860s, Jane began to hold soirées or conversazioni at her house in Merrion Square which soon became the most celebrated salon in Dublin. It attracted writers, journalists, lawyers, artists, dramatists and students, the latter being friends of Willie and Oscar who were studying at Trinity College, Dublin. But the family's fortunes changed after William Wilde's death in April 1876. Most of his estate was swallowed up in debts and the rest of the family property was heavily mortgaged. Financial problems dogged Jane for the rest of her life. In 1879, with Willie and Oscar both in London, she decided to move there and establish a new salon. She was to find, however, that she was much less well known in London and that her eccentricities, accepted in Dublin, were frowned upon.

Jane lived with her eldest son Willie who was pursuing a journalistic career. But he was feckless and sponged on his mother, to Oscar's great annoyance. Willie, like Oscar, was devoted to his mother, but his demands on her caused increasing friction between the brothers which Jane did her best to smooth over. As Oscar's writing prospered, he helped Jane financially and also secured writing commissions for her when he could. When Oscar married Constance Lloyd (Wilde) in 1884, she and Jane developed a close relationship. It is uncertain whether Jane ever understood Oscar's sexuality, but in 1895, when he was charged with homosexual offenses, she urged him not to flee the country, as many of his friends were advising, but to stay and fight, as she had fought with Mary Travers. Oscar's conviction was a terrible blow, but even from prison he made sure that Jane had enough money from a fund set up by his friends. In 1896, however, Wilde came down with a debilitating attack of bronchitis, and, despite pleas to the prison authorities, Oscar was not allowed to see her. It was Constance who brought him the news of his mother's death that February. In De Profundis, which he wrote in prison, Oscar referred to the name "noble and honoured" which his parents had bequeathed to him but to which he had brought dishonor. Constance died in 1898, followed by Willie a year later, and then Oscar in 1900.

sources:

Coakley, Davis. Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish. Dublin: Town House, 1994.

Melville, Joy. Mother of Oscar: The Life of Jane Francesca Wilde. London: John Murray, 1994.

Wyndham, Horace. Speranza: A Biography of Lady Wilde. London: T.V. Boardman, 1951.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland