The Very Secret Lover of Oscar Wilde: A memorandum taken by his wife, Constance.
Written this day, the 7th of March, 1898.
It is such a long time later that, now I take up my pen, the dust sweeps over the life of that man who was once my husband and I pause to think on whether those things that still haunt the depths of my imagination are, and were, really true. Many a long night has passed since that night when I realised that he was lost to me, when the guttering gaslight shone over the surface of the mahogany table that was my pride and joy. I used to lay tea on it, have those intelligent friends of his round to afternoon tea and supper, always knowing that when I left the room and dimmed the gaslight his lips would meet theirs in a kiss…
Of course I knew what he was, had known the minute I married him. That was part of the attraction, God forgive me, and I cherished it as my, and his, secret for as long as I could. He would always walk in the door, throw that cape of his onto a chair and sweep me into his arms, smelling of cigarette smoke and absinthe and other men's kisses still sweet and fresh on his lips. I asked him once, very quietly, as we sat across from each other in the library, my tea cooling in my hand and with his pen scratching fast across the paper, why he had married me if pleasure was his chosen course in life. He, very gravely, set his pen down and I saw the undersides of his hands blackened by ink, printed over with the fluid arcs of words.
'You know why I married you. You are my very secret lover.'
With that, he stood, velvet and fine cotton rustling, and came to me as I sat with a copy of Frankenstein in my hand, and crouched before me.
'No matter who I love for a spell, I cannot deny what I feel for you. You embrace me as I am, completely and wholly, and for that I owe you my soul. Though other men may claim my heart, I am yours.'
He kissed my forehead then, and I could smell the bitter tang of something I liked to label as his own scent, the way his cologne mixed with the thick smoke of those cigarettes.
I loved everything about him. I loved him so much it made me ache sometimes. That my sound fanciful to the extreme, but I, the only woman he ever loved in the way he loved those men, can say how much he meant to me with all my knowledge of who he really was. Sometimes as I lay there in bed next to him, secretly tingling inside with the knowledge of what he'd done with the hands that so tenderly held me, the part of me that was burning with shame could sometimes find a release in the knowledge that he truly did love me.
One night, I lay there and ran a scene through my mind, and hated my duality. I hated the way I had revelled in the way he had whispered what he had been doing into my ear as we made love, hated my sinful unclean joy in a carnal act so forbidden, so utterly against all that was good and holy. My climax came in a drench of shame-fuelled adrenaline, winding my hands deep into his thick hair and feeling every strand whisper against my fingertips. After he had whispered his goodnights, fallen asleep with a hand possessively across my hip, I cried into the pillow as the last vestiges of lust fell from me.
I was unclean, as damned as much as he, and my cruel deception of being his secret-keeper felt like a noose tightening around my throat.
The children did not know, and would not ever know. Those beautiful boys of mine, tousle-haired angels, played and argued and loved with all the tenacity of children, protected by their mother's deception; the weaving of her skilful webs keeping the precious silence.
I, in turn, kept my own secrets. I hid my self-hatred, my guilt, my burning and ever-watchful shame in small ways that soon turned to large. I hated to show him the mass of scars my left arm had become, told him nothing of those long blood-drenched hours where I sat alone, and watched that small white porcelain bowl in front of me turn red. Laudanum and absinthe may have been the Queen's vices, but, to my mind, what better punishment could there be than the shining knife that so tempted me, that broke my resolve into a thousand sinful pieces?
Better to die than to confess my multitude sins.
I remember the evening he found me at it. I had thought he would be out seeing another male friend, and it was thus that he arrived home early, opened our bedroom door to find me with the red blood staining that small bowl darkly.
He flew into a rage that was so consuming I feared he would pass out from the shock. He was incensed to find that I had hidden what I felt from him, had hidden my scars under long-sleeved gown and nightdresses, and had not breathed a word about the duality in my soul. He called a doctor, some fellow he knew who would not ask questions, and applied the tourniquet himself.
'Constance, my love. I do not know what to do with you. How do I tell you what you should and should not do when you are even a grown woman?!' he murmured to me, one hand in my hair. 'Is this self-mutilation on account of my dual life?'
'No,' I replied, shaking and turning chill from blood loss, 'it is on account of mine.'
He found it all out from me, and from then those long hours spent with the knife were no more. In a way, he made it so that I accepted what was deemed unnatural in the eyes of a society that brimmed with corruption and self-deceit, one that hated expression of self like no other society in history to date. He taught me that to live a life in hiding from the reality of one's soul was to live a life in chains, and each and every one of those magnificent poems, short stories and plays showed me this in detail. The life I lived with him suddenly took on a new meaning: the boys' laughter as their father played with them, helping to build a train set, was all the more pure; the songs from the music halls he would sing as he shaved in the morning seemed to breathe with joie-de-vivre; the way we'd walk together, listening to the noise of the traps and carriages moving past, he sometimes catching my eye and smiling that irresistible smile of his- the debonair half-grin, a twinkle of mischief in his eye. I knew he loved me then.
It was not to last. This way of life abruptly came to a strict halt when he stopped making love to me, when he stopped telling me what he did in those hours when I was not with him. It was then that I knew there was a secret that I could not hope to fathom out, could not be taken into confidence, and then the despair returned to me in a vast cloak. I felt as if a best friend of mine had suddenly died, the hole widening with each silence; and as I lay in a cold, empty bed for nights on end my world seemed to shrink, the clock slowing the passage of time with each lengthy tick. Such bitter tears have I never cried as I did then!
That autumn of 1891 held so much doubt that even now I cannot remember it without a shudder. I felt weak again, strained, holding a grotesque and hideous mask of pretend before my face in order to preserve my sanity, in order to hide from Cyril and Vyvyan the true extent of my despair. I knew my husband was falling away from me, knew that by the taint of something thick and bitter on his breath as he kissed me on the cheek, the stains that lingered on a silk tie that I had no recollection of his wearing.
When he left our house permanently I knew there was no longer present any of the previous affection he had ever had for me. I knew, for so long, I had kept myself ignorant for fear I would go mad. I had head the argument between him and the Marquess of Queensberry, heard the obscenities shouted and allusions to all sorts of filth voiced in our hallway. My husband was very calm as he dismissed him, but I saw the white-hot rage that filled his eyes as he walked into the library.
I knew, by that time, that he did love Alfred and not I. I could see it as a clear, shining fact, as if he'd written it with that elegant fountain pen and published it for all the wide world to see. There was too much pain for me if I thought that way, and so, once again, I became his secret-keeper.
Not many know that hours before his dramatic arrest I had made my way to the Cadogan Hotel in a vain attempt to plead with him. I found him sitting on the bed, head in hands, eyes shut against the pain of the world. The memories flood back to me of room 118…
He looked up. I was not sure whether a tear had fallen down his face as he had done so.
'Go away. I cannot talk to you!'
He buried his head in his hands, a look of indescribable pain in his eyes. I could not help the tears brimming in my eyes from falling to the ground at that utter despair. Could it be that he hated himself as much as I had once done? Could it be that he felt guilt over leaving a wife and two sons utterly behind him, for so long?
'You must leave, Oscar. Run from this country, run abroad, go with Alfred if you will, but please leave! They are coming for you.'
Silence met my impassioned plea as I moved towards him, my skirts rustling round my legs, as the expensive silk he used to wear had done so long ago. Now he sat before me in a plain white shirt and brown breeches, bare lower legs and feet making him seem so much younger.
I knelt beside him, looking up into his face. A small tear found its way out of my eye, but I resolutely held the rest in. 'Please, please, do this for me. Do this for what we used to share, and for those things you taught me so long ago.'
'What did I teach you, wife? Did I teach you to abandon your family in pursuit of pleasure? Did I teach you to leave the one woman who was your best friend so that you might never set eyes on her fair face again? Did I teach you to torture, to murder, to kill a soul in a body that, although weakened by blood-loss and childbirth and horrific grief, still kept your secrets? IS THAT WHAT I TAUGHT YOU?!'
He stood as he yelled the last of his tirade, his hair dishevelled and unkempt, and swung back his hand.
I only heard the blow to my cheek, never felt it. I fell to the floor, my elbow scraping painfully across the carpet, and the buttons on my sleeve popped off. Blood from the cuts I had made only last night (telling myself 'never again!') was staining my sleeve, and he watched as it ruined the expensive taffeta of my best dress. I had worn it, a present from him, for him.
All in an instant he was turning from my crumpled form, putting his hands to his face, and in sheer horror calling out, 'Oh God, that I have become this animal!'
I heard his dry sob of fright and tried to push myself up onto my hands, but I found I could not. I was too weak and tired. Instead, as he sank to the bed, I tried to reach him with my voice.
'Oscar… you taught me not to run from myself, not to live a life of lies. If that meant I was your secret-keeper my love for you made it not only possible but easy and acceptable. I loved you as I have loved no other being on this earth, and I still love you now. It is the remainder of a love that I still hold for you that makes me come to this place tonight to beg you to run.'
As I spoke, I found the adrenaline that had thrilled through me as he struck out had given me a new strength. I dragged myself to my feet using the edge of the bed and stood opposite him, feeling despair and anger and love bleeding one into the other.
'Oscar, you taught me that what is realised is right. Now, for God's sake and mine, I beg of you, please run now!'
He turned to me, crying as I was, but with those slow languorous tears that looked like pearls that I once had kissed away.
'Ah, but Constance! If you know what you ask you will realise that God does not care for me any more. Why, there is enough suffering in one narrow London lane to show you that God does not love man, and that wherever there is any sorrow, though, but that of a child, in some little garden weeping over a fault that it
has or has not committed, the whole face of creation is completely
marred. It is marred, and shows its ugly face in me. Why should I keep running?'
I turned from him, and saw that his mind was made up. I could not, now, feel anything but a keen and fell sorrow, and made my way to the door in a state of numbness: as if I had taken laudanum, and it dogged my steps to the door.
The last I saw of him before his arrest and trial was his disbelieving face, beautiful still even with its veil of tears, as I replied to his impassioned outburst- 'My dear Oscar- you are entirely wrong!'
What is there left to say? I am ill, dying I suspect; my children are thirteen and fourteen, healthy strapping beautiful young boys; my husband is released from gaol. I live in Switzerland, under an old family name, but I know this: Oscar, though he still loves Alfred as he loves no other, I am reconciled to him. Quietly, away from the boys' eyes, I bought a copy of this work and read it fitfully, watching the door in case one of them should come in and see their mother reading something deemed 'unfit for ladies'… what rot.
I have found a passage that convinces me that, whilst in that terrible gaol, he was still thinking of me and, although I shall certainly never see him again, I can now rest easily knowing that… well, I shall say no more. Instead, I shall transcribe a passage of his work and let you, the reader of this, my memorandum, decide for yourself.
I, Constance Wilde, here close my memorandum. Goodbye and God bless you, Cyril and Vyvyan. I love you as a mother, as a friend and confidant. Goodbye to you, the unseen reader of this, but last and not least this scrip is dedicated to you, my husband. I love you, my Oscar. I wish you all the luck in the world. Be happy, whether it be with Alfie or no, but know you are reconciled to me, and I you.
"I remember talking once on this subject to one of the most beautiful personalities I have ever known: a woman, whose sympathy and noble kindness to me, both before and since the tragedy of my imprisonment, have been beyond power and description; one who has really assisted me, though she does not know it, to bear the burden of my troubles more than any one else in the whole world has, and all through the mere fact of her existence, through her being what she is--partly an ideal and partly an influence: a suggestion of what one might become as well as a real help towards becoming it; a soul that renders the common air sweet, and makes what is spiritual seem as simple and natural as sunlight or the sea: one for whom beauty and sorrow walk hand in hand, and have the same message.
On the occasion of which I am thinking I recall distinctly how I said to her that there was enough suffering in one narrow London lane to show that God did not love man, and that wherever there was any sorrow, though but that of a child, in some little garden weeping over a fault that it had or had not committed, the whole face of creation was completely marred. I was entirely wrong. She told me so, but I could not believe her. I was not in the sphere in which such belief was to be attained to.
Now it seems to me that love of some kind is the only possible explanation of the extraordinary amount of suffering that there is in the world. I cannot conceive of any other explanation. I am convinced that there is no other, and that if the world has indeed, as I have said, been built of sorrow, it has been built by the hands of love, because in no other way could the soul of man, for whom the world was made, reach the full stature of its perfection. Pleasure for the beautiful body, but pain for the beautiful soul."