New York Times
December 9, 2016
By all accounts, Oscar Wilde put his true art into being Oscar Wilde. He spoke in faultless sentences and, with his brilliance of dress and force of presence, drew beauty out of transient moments. His writing then recounted this perfection of daily being, this ability to be steeped in the immediacy of place and time. The aesthetic philosophy he lived was developed in part by his mentor, Walter Pater, an Oxford professor; Wilde gave flesh to Pater’s ideas, especially the notion that success is “to burn always with this hard gemlike flame.” Yet an even greater influence was Wilde’s mother, with her gift for loading each instant with poetic passion.
While Wilde’s imprisonment for “acts of gross indecency with male persons” was a tragedy, he may have avoided the misfortune outlined in one of his many bons mots: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” In her deeply researched biography of the Wilde family, Emer O’Sullivan reminds us of the influence of Jane Wilde, a bluestocking who sometimes called herself Speranza and invented for herself a romantic Italian family tree.
A wildly erudite member of the Young Ireland movement, Jane made her name as a poet, intellectual and supporter of women’s rights. Her salons gathered together the key thinkers of the day — W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Robert Browning and Eleanor Marx (Karl’s socialist daughter). Jane walks right off the page in The Fall of the House of Wilde, and I wished for more of her, especially when it came to her many publications and how they colored Oscar’s writing. “Listening to their mother’s reading and embellishing the lyrics,” O’Sullivan writes of Jane reciting Whitman to her sons, “would have created in the boys a visceral bond between the maternal and the word, a place of storied memories of desire, loss and sensual pleasure.”