Jane Francesca Elgee did a lot of things in her life. She rebelled against her Protestant, Unionist family and became a prolific poet and Nationalist writer. She stood up in court, outing herself as the criminal during a Sedition case to protect the people and the paper she worked for. She spoke at least five languages and translated in each. She threw weekly salons and was known as the most gracious host in all of Dublin. She was a devoted Suffragist and fought for equal rights for women. But what she is best known for is not her prose or her politics. She is best known for being the mother of her children—one in particular—whose works far surpassed those of his mother in a very short time. Indeed, Jane Francesca Elgee will forever be known as Lady Jane Wilde, the woman who gave birth to her son, Oscar.
Before she became Oscar Wilde’s mother, Jane grew up in an affluent Protestant family. She was introduced to the idea of Irish Nationalism through The Nation – a patriotic, pro-Irish weekly newspaper that was founded by Charles Gavan Duffy. She has said that the fiery paper and emotional poetry within it caused an epiphany in her and she “turned Nationalist” immediately after reading it. She was a gifted writer herself and she quickly began writing for the paper under the pen name of “Speranza” (meaning hope). She wrote about poetry and politics, publishing articles on the horror of An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s Great Famine, as it was happening. She publicly accused the British authorities of being to blame for the hunger that was sweeping the land and wrote increasingly scathing Anti-English articles and poems for many years. Eventually her writings culminated in what was essentially a call to arms on the front page of the paper. That article (written without a byline) landed the paper and its founders in court for Sedition. Jane was in the courtroom as the case was presented and when it became clear that the authorities were going to jail those who were protecting her identity, she stood up in court and proudly proclaimed herself the offending author. Eventually the charges against the paper were dropped, and the Crown chose not to prosecute the fiery woman for her editorial piece, probably just because she was female. This only increased her popularity in the Nationalist circles that she now considered herself to be a vital member of.
A few years later, she married Dr. William Wilde, a successful doctor. Despite his many affairs that Jane ignored, their marriage was mostly happy and produced three children. Jane Wilde was tamed by motherhood. Her passion for politics dwindled as her love for her children grew. She embraced the wealthy socialite life and she used her fiery past and fame to begin the tradition of a weekly salon in her home. These gatherings included all the well known intellectuals, authors, and celebrities in the area. Eventually her husband was knighted, and Lady Jane’s inflated ego could not have been more satisfied – they were wealthy, she had a lovely family, and she surrounded herself with the most interesting people she could find. Life was good for the Wildes.
Her husband’s wandering eyes and hands put an end to all that contentment. One of his many affairs resulted in a vengeful lover and a very public scandal ensued. Mary Travers was a sometimes lover of William Wilde and an unbalanced one at that. If you look up the phrase ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned‘ you may find her picture. After another round with the doctor, she accused him of rape and took to impersonating Jane on many occasions. She followed the family everywhere they went, hurling insults and causing embarrassing public confrontations. She even hired local newspaper boys to distribute offensive pamphlets about Lady Jane, which was the final straw for the patient wife. She wrote to the girl’s father to complain about his daughter’s stalking behavior and the letter quickly found its way into Mary Travers’ hands. It was the basis and the proof in the libel case that she brought against the Wildes.
The trial was the talk of the town and people flocked to the courthouse to listen in on the sensational proceedings. Mary actually won the case, but the reward was only one farthing (one quarter of one penny) – a ruling designed to humiliate the girl. She vanished in disgrace while Lady Jane spun the result as a moral victory and a ridiculous waste of time. It was the first of many disastrous and uncomfortable events for the family.
A few years later, their only daughter passed away at the age of nine. Her mother never got over this devastating loss and for awhile, she retreated from public life to mourn. During this time, she wrote massive amounts of poetry and ignored the world outside. Her only exceptions to the hermit life were her salons. She continued to have them in her home, but ceased going out for social functions altogether. During the late 1860s and 1870s, she watched the rise of the Land League and the Fenian Brotherhood with wary disapproval. The revolutionary girl of the past was gone and the self-important socialite wanted nothing to do with Republicanism. At this point she was far more interested in social position than politics and though she was a generous woman who was a supporter of Home Rule, she was not thrilled with the new rebellious organizations.
When her husband passed away in 1876, Lady Jane quickly found out that she was broke. Her philandering husband had mortgaged or sold nearly everything they owned to pay for his lovers’ and his family’s lifestyles. Only three years after his death, Lady Jane moved to London with her older son, Willie, to start a new life. They had almost no money at all and even though she took up writing and translating again, the family never had more than a few pounds at a time. She restarted her salons but they never attracted the quality of people she hoped for and were a mere shadow of those she had thrown in Ireland. Lady Jane was well on the path to obscurity even as her younger son rose quickly to stardom and infamy. Oscar was earning a fortune with his plays and his writings but he never managed to give his mother or his own family any steady income…probably because he, like his father, was lavishly showering his lover with gifts and money.
Interestingly enough, it appears that Lady Jane did not know that Oscar had disregarded polite society and publicly come out as a homosexual – which was a dreadful sin in that day and age. She also never went to see any of his plays. She ignored the fact that her other son, Willie, was a drunk and a lazy man who could never keep a job. She regarded her family as “above respectability” and beyond reproach. It was only after Oscar was on trial for “indecent acts” that she finally looked at reality and saw that the family reputation was in serious trouble. When Oscar had the chance to escape before his trial, his mother sternly told him that she would never speak to him again if he left and he acquiesced to her ultimatum, only to be convicted on all counts. Ironically, they never spoke again anyway, and she died of bronchitis on this day, February 3rd, in 1896, while Oscar was still imprisoned. It is said that her spirit appeared in her son’s cell on the night she passed away. She was buried in an unmarked grave in Kensal Green Cemetery in London and unfortunately both of her sons had joined her in death just a few years later. A little over 100 years after her burial, the Oscar Wilde Society erected a cross shaped memorial stone over the approximate area she was buried in, to commemorate and honor her. She may be best known as the mother of one of the most amazing writers in history, but he had to learn that from somewhere – and in all likelihood, he got it from her.
I rather like her spirit!