Mrs Constance Mary WILDE, unlucky wife of Oscar, was initiated into the Golden Dawn very early in its proceedings, in November 1888, and took the Latin motto ‘Qui patitur vincit’. At that time she and Oscar were living at the address most associated with them as a couple, 16 Tite Street Chelsea. An undated note in the GD’s administrative files said of her membership that it was “in abeyance”; almost certainly NOT because of Oscar’s trial but because of the much earlier uproar caused by his novel The Portrait of Dorian Grey.
It’s always difficult to separate the wife of a very famous man from her husband so that she can shine in her own light for once, but there are several biographies of Constance. The latest is
Constance: the Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle. London: John Murray 2011 and now also in paperback. I shall only add some references which show that Constance knew various people who are THE PEOPLE SHE KNEW IN THE GOLDEN DAWN, though I think the GD member most likely to have put Constance up for membership was W B Yeats.
Collected Letters of W B Yeats Vol I 1865-95 show that W B knew both Constance and her husband. He probably visited them on a regular basis, because there are no letters from him to Constance in volumes I or II. Constance’s biography shows her setting up on the ‘at home’ circuit once she and Oscar had moved into Tite Street and I expect W B was one of her guests at these functions which were more like a public performance than chatting with friends. Moving in the same social circles, the Wildes and W B tended all to be invited to the same kind of social function - for example W B, Constance and Oscar were amongst 300 guests at a ‘home rule party’ in May 1888 at which Mrs Gladstone made a speech.
Reforming Women’s Fashion 1850-1920: Politics, Health and Art by Patricia A Cunningham. Published Kent State University Press 2003. This book has references to GD members Dora de Blaquière and Mary Eliza Haweis, both of whom were involved the rational dress movement in which Constance was also an important figure. On p116 Cunningham explains that a more common-sense approach to dress was very much a part of what the aesthetic movement believed in. The Wildes were leaders of the aesthetic movement. Other people involved were Frederick Leighton; G F Watts; William Morris and May Morris. Cunningham DOESN’T specifically say that Constance, Dora and Mary Eliza all knew each other before they became GD members.
It’s possible that Constance also knew GD member Isabel de Steiger in the years before GD existed. In Isabel’s memoirs she mentions attending Lady Wilde’s Saturday afternoon ‘at homes’ in the 1870s and 1880s. Consequently Isabel knew Oscar Wilde and his brother Willie, and may have met Constance as well although she doesn’t specifically say so. Memorabilia: Reminiscences of a Woman Artist and Writer by Isabelle (sic) de Steiger. London: Rider and Co. No publication date but there’s a British Library stamp dated “27 May 27". Page 81: Isabel going to “Lady Wilde’s on Saturday afternoons”. Knowing Oscar and Willie Wilde, p85; but Willie better because he (but not Oscar) was a member of the Theosophical Society.
I will also say - because I doubt if it figures in the biography I’ve recommended - that Constance was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, which she joined in October 1892, after she had stopped being an active member of GD. Evidence of her continuing membership: Journal of the Society for Psychical Research volume V 1891-92 number XCIII issued October 1892 p297 the list of new members since the last issue includes p298 Mrs Oscar Wilde of 16 Tite Street Chelsea. She is still listed as a member in Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research volume XI 1895 p624 has her as a full member, still calling herself ‘Wilde’ (she later took another surname, for the protection of her sons) but living in exile now, at Hotel du Parc, Glion sur Montreux, Switzerland. Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research volume XV 1900-01 no longer lists her in its members; she was dead by then.
BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.
Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986. Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation. All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden.
Family history: freebmd; ancestry.co.uk (census and probate); findmypast.co.uk; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families; thepeerage.com; and a wide variety of family trees on the web.
Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.
Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.
Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources. I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.
Copyright SALLY DAVIS
27 April 2012