Summer Talks in the National Library of Ireland 2016: Eleanor Fitzsimons – Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women in His Life.

Wilde's Women: How Oscar Wilde was Shaped by the Women in His Life



Oscar Wilde's life is characterised almost exclusively in terms of his relationships with men. The intention of my talk is to reframe his life in the context of the women who influenced, inspired and collaborated with him right up until his death, an aspect that is often neglected. First among them was Lady Jane Wilde. Oscar admired his mother’s considerable intellect and, through her example, understood that women could be just as creative and intelligent as men. At fourteen he lost his sister Isola. He mourned her deeply and she haunted his life, and his work, until his death. His wife Constance was highly accomplished, politically active and hugely supportive, both emotionally and financially. Throughout his life, Wilde was attracted to a coterie of free thinking, influential, enterprising and intelligent women, who challenged conventional gender roles and operated in the public sphere. Many were writers, actors and artists. Women funded and informed his plays, poems and stories. They gave him access to vital publicity. He in turn acted as a conduit for their ideas and used his social comedies to expose the deep-rooted hypocrisy towards women that prevailed inpatriarchal Victorian society. He traded witticisms with women, promoted their work, collaborated with them on theatrical productions and drew inspiration from their lives. He harnessed their epigrammatic language and based his most outspoken and memorable characters on women. He wrote plays with specific actresses in mind, sometimes at their request. He delighted society women with his stories, which he later dedicated to them. As editor of The Woman’s World, a proto-feminist magazine, Wilde insisted that it deal, ‘not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel’. He allowed his contributors to write about women in the public sphere. He facilitated the introduction of female-centric European culture to a London audience by collaborating with Polish actress Helena Modjeska and American actress Elizabeth Robbins, who brought the plays of Ibsen to England. He encouraged and gave practical assistance to young actresses and writers, including E. Nesbit. He confided in women and relied on their kindness when his life fell apart at the end.


Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer and journalist who specialises in historical and current feminist issues. She has an MA in Women, Gender and Society from University College Dublin. In 2013 she was awarded the Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and was runner-up for the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. Her work has been published in a range of newspapers and journals including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, History Today and The Irish Times, and she is a regular radio and television contributor. Her book Wilde’s Women was shortlisted for the Tony Lothian Prize in 2014 and was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. Her biography of E. Nesbit will be published in 2018.