‘Behind every great man stands a great woman’, one of my dearest friends declared, a propos Winston Churchill and the love of his life, his wife Clementine, and of Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor. We were lunching at the latest fashionable eatery for ladies who lunch, and I rather lowered the tone by quipping that behind every great man is a woman with nothing to wear!
As I sort through years of accumulation in this house, ready to take my next steps forward, I thought of this conversation, and thought of a much ignored and rather valiant woman who stood behind a great man. Her influence over a hundred years later is behind the room I sit in.
I looked around at this white room, white walls and cream curtains, white French furniture and if not white, then painted white and distressed by me, the guts of the rooms being created by the richness of books, and the colour of china. Only three pieces of furniture are the exception to the reigning white – the pine dresser in the dining area, and the antique round Dutch rosewood table laden with piles of books, and a battered old French bench painted in soft grey and cream.
After years of blue rooms, red rooms and yellow rooms this pale restful room is how I want to live these days. Syrie Maugham, Somerset Maugham’s ex-wife, is usually credited with inventing all-white rooms in the thirties. She bleached and pickled and painted furniture and floors, had carpets specially woven in white, and white on white became all the rage.
But the first white rooms in interior decorative history were Mrs Oscar Wilde’s drawing room and dining room in Tite Street, Chelsea.
The poet W. B Yeats described: ” a white drawing room… with white panels, and a dining room all white, chairs, walls, mantel-pieces, carpets…” The Wildes were leaders of fashion, and the much under-rated Constance Wilde edited the Rational Dress Society’s Gazette, often detailing accidents which had befallen women owing to the restrictions or impracticality of their dress.
Her white dining room may have been impractical, but she was an unusual Victorian parent who allowed her two sons to romp and play in its pristine whiteness – and they also scandalised some – as their unconventional mother allowed them to do this naked.
Though not as talented as the wickedly brilliant Oscar, (arriving in America and being asked what he had to declare, he replied, ‘Nothing but my genius!’) she more than held her own, collaborating with him in many of his projects, writing books for children, as well as writing in, and editing her magazine, while creating the artistic and aesthetic environment which had such an influence on their circle and their times.
Constance was also interested in the spiritual life, and became involved with the famous metaphysical and mystical society The Order of The Golden Dawn, where amongst others, well known personalities like WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, famous mystic Evelyn Underhill and even wicked Aleister Crowley before his fall, used to meet.
After the difficult birth of their second son the Wilde’s sexual relationship dwindled, and it was then that Oscar became involved with the love life (what his lover famously described as ‘the love that dare not speak its name ‘) that ended his career and the happiness of them all.
It’s only recently that it’s been understood that the mysterious and crippling illness which blighted Constance’s life, and probably their marriage in the five years before Oscar’s downfall, was the onset of multiple scelerosis. It was a condition which had only been recognised a few years before, and which Constance’s doctors were obviously not aware of.
This too, must have made a huge difference to the quality of the Wilde’s marriage, though they both obviously loved each other. Constance continued to support Oscar’s achievements after his disgrace and was the first to praise the poignant ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. But his inability to keep at a distance the beautiful but destructive and heartless “Bosie” Douglas, the other half in the scandal, finally drove husband and wife apart.
Constance took her two boys to Italy to escape the scandal, and died there a couple of years later from the dangerous quack treatment she sought for her increasingly debilitating illness.
There’s been much sympathy and rightly so, for Oscar Wilde and his trials and tragedy, but Constance is often the forgotten one in this tribulation which affected them all. Not only does a fine woman stand behind most great men, but behind every disgraced man stands a humiliated and heartbroken wife…
Since I learned her story many years ago, Constance Wilde has always had a place in my heart… I can never resist women who make the best of things, however bad the things … and as Eleanor Roosevelt so memorably said: “A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”
Food for threadbare gourmets
After my grandsons had been for lunch and I had made gallons – as it were – of chocolate sauce, I wondered what to do with all the sauce left over. Luckily I had a friend for supper a few days later, and decided to put the chocolate sauce to good use.
I gently stewed some peeled and cored pears in hot water with maple syrup, ginger wine, a few cloves, star anise and a bay leaf added. When soft I left them to steep in this juice, and later, boiled it away until it was thick and syrupy.
Served with whipped cream, re-heated chocolate sauce, and a little shortbread biscuit, it was wickedly delicious to one who has renounced sugar!
Food for thought
There is that which has always been there,
Which has never left your side,
Which has always been present,
Whatever the feeling, the circumstance.
When you turn your attention to trusting that,
You surrender to yourself.