CONSTANCE WILDE (HOLLAND) / Campaigner for suffrage & rational dress

CONSTANCE WILDE (HOLLAND)

Campaigner for suffrage and rational dress, and wife of Oscar Wilde

London

1859 – 1898

In Oscar Wilde: a Summing Up, Lord Alfred Douglas, the love of Wilde’s later life, wrote about Wilde’s marriage to Constance Lloyd. He characterised it as ‘a marriage of deep love and affection on both sides’. Oscar described Constance as ‘quite young, very grave, and mystical, with wonderful eyes, and dark brown coils of hair’. His mother thought her: ‘A very nice pretty sensible girl-well-connected and well brought up’. Yet Constance, who had a troubled adolescence, could appear shy and lacking in confidence.

A recent upsurge in interest – exemplified by Franny Moyle’s excellent biography Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde and my own Wilde’s Women - reveals a bright, progressive and politically active woman who was as loyal and true to her errant husband as her name suggests. Newspaper accounts of the time pay tribute to her beauty but also cover her campaigns for the greater participation of women in public life, and praise her aptitude as a public speaker.

Constance spoke excellent French and Italian. She was also a remarkable accomplished pianist. Her strong views on dress reform led her to join the committee of the Rational Dress Society in order to campaign for an end to the ridiculous, restrictive fashions that prevented women from leading fulfilling lives. In ‘Clothed in Our Right Minds’, a lecture she addressed to the Rational Dress Society in 1888, she advocated the wearing of divided skirts, insisting that, as God had given women two legs, they should have the freedom to use them. She broadened her argument to suggest that women deserved a wider role in all aspects of life. 

A member of the Chelsea Women’s Liberal Association, Constance campaigned to have Lady Margaret Sandhurst elected to the London County Council. Addressing a conference sponsored by the Women’s Committee of the International Arbitration and Peace Association on the theme ‘By what methods can Women Best Promote the Cause of International Concorde’; she stressed the importance of encouraging pacifist ideals at an early age and insisted: ‘Children should be taught in their nursery to be against war’. Her speech ‘Home Rule for Ireland’, delivered at the Women’s Liberal Federation annual conference of 1889 was praised in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Yet, Constance’s world fell apart when her husband was arrested and imprisoned for gross indecency. Obliged to flee abroad with her young children and to change her family name to Holland, she did everything she could to help Oscar. Tentative attempts to effect reconciliation were brought to an end when she died as a result of a botched operation performed in an Italian clinic in April 1898. She was thirty-nine years old. Regrettably, Constance is often portrayed as a figure of pity. In reality, she was strong and courageous, warm and true, and she met the many challenges she faced, including debilitating health problems, with steely determination.

Thanks to herstorian Eleanor Fitzsimons for this herstory.