Irish poet, playwright,wit, design critic, and controversialist Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was one of the giants of the literary scene in the late Nineteenth Century — not only in the U.K. where he lived and worked most of his life, but on the continent and in North America, which he visited twice. An international celebrity in his time, and an enduring presence through his legacy of writings and commentary, Wilde conducted a major tour in Canada and the United States, spending almost all of 1882 in the New World, during which he delivered some 140 lectures on design, aesthetics and “The House Beautiful” in venues from Nova Scotia to San Francisco, and met with several of the contemporary titans of American letters including poet Walt Whitman, with whom Wilde hit it off, and journalist/author/lexicographer Ambrose Bierce, with whom he didn’t. The trenchant Bierce considered him an insufferable poseur, delivering a prolix and withering critique, calling the Irishman’s lectures “verbal ditch water–meaningless, trite, and incoherent.”
No less controversial was Wilde’s enigmatic death in 1900 from causes that are unclear while living in exile in France following his 1895 trial, conviction and incarceration at Reading Gaol for engaging in homosexual activity (“gross indecency “) with his longtime lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas and others, behavior which was illegal in Britain at the time.
Less well known and discussed is that Wilde’s wife, the former Constance Lloyd (1859-1898), an author, critic, and journalist in her own right, and her husband’s sometime professional collaborator, with whom Wilde had two sons, also died relatively young in 1898 at age 40, following nine-year struggle with illness, the nature of which has heretofore been something of a mystery, predeceasing her husband by two years.
Speculation over the cause of Mrs. Wilde’s death has ranged from lingering effects of a fall down stairs, to syphilis caught from her philandering husband, but recently details found in family letters by biographer and editor Merlin Holland, son of Vyvyan Holland and Constance and Oscar Wilde’s only grandchild, including a 20-year, 130-letter correspondence between Constance and her brother Otho, conducted between 1878 until her death while residing near Genoa, Italy, point to reported symptoms that could be consistent with Multiple Sclerosis, and to complications of botched gynecological surgery by an Italian doctor who imagined neurological diseases and mental illness could be cured by such procedures, as well as possibly the effects of several other medical nostrums of the time.
Last Friday the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a paper co-authored by Mr. Holland and Ashley H. Robins of the University of Cape Town medical school citing and discussing excerpts from these letters that they say should end speculation about the cause of Constance’s death.
The Lancet paper, entitled “The enigmatic illness and death of Constance, wife of Oscar Wilde,“ (DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(14)62468-5), notes that Constance began experiencing lameness in her right leg in 1889 which waxed and waned, which would be consistent with symptomology of Relapsing-Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS). From 1891 on, she was frequently bedridden with severe pain in her arms, and later head and back as well which she attributed to rheumatism and neuralgia respectively.
Constance also complained of genitourinary dysfunction (also possibly a manifestation of multiple sclerosis), and in the winter of 1894-’95, she suffered a major exacerbation when she began having difficulty walking, possibly catalyzed by stress over her husband’s trial and imprisonment which were ongoing at the time; she had moved to Italy and adopted the family name Holland for herself and sons Vyvyan and Cyril to escape and dissociate themselves from the scandal. She also eventually developed facial palsy.
Based on content in the unpublished letters, Holland and Robins note that the first seven years of Constance Wilde/Holland’s illness were characterized by divers pains, right leg weakness, right arm tremor, profound fatigue, and paralysis in the left side of her face, all of which would be consistent with RRMS. The last two years of her life were spent with a steady and permanent deterioration in health and capability, indicating a transition from RRMS to Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis (SPMS), but the direct cause of death would have been a postoperative infection after unnecessary surgery to remove fibroids — benign tumors of the uterus — even though her symptoms were almost certainly neurological and not , over which Holland and Robins say Otho Holland considered malpractice litigation, but stood down based on legal advice.
For readers interested in the backstory of the Wildes’ fascinating lives and tumultuous marriage, your reporter highly recommends Richard Ellmann’s Pulitzer Price-winning 1988 Biography “Oscar Wilde,” which is one of the finest biographical works of the late Twentieth Century. The book is available here in both print and electronic formats.
Oscar Wilde (1988 Biography by Richard Ellmann)
Oscar Wilde In America