Jane Francesca, Lady Wilde
THERE is no doubt about Lady Wilde being a notable Irishwoman, yet, all the same, it is by no means an easy task to write even a slight sketch of her life. She was a complex and many-sided woman, holding a conspicuous place in Dublin, and afterwards in London society, as well as in the literature of her native country. Like all women of a strong and pronounced individuality, she was most attractive to some people, and equally unattractive to others.
Warm-hearted, enthusiastic, romantic, and generous, she always had an eye to theatrical effect, which was shown by her remarkable dress, by her habit of receiving her guests in partially lighted rooms, and by her style of writing, florid, grandiose, and epigrammatic; yet not without a certain charm of its own. There was nothing small or petty about Lady Wilde. Mentally and physically, she was on a large scale.
Beginning at a very early age as a poetess, with marked Nationalistic opinions, she was also a capital translator from German, French, Danish, and Italian, and an essayist of great merit. A varied life was hers, full of colour and movement; she influenced, or was influenced by, most of the leading men of her time, including the Young Ireland party, of which she was the life and soul.
Her husband. Sir William Wilde, was quite as clever as she was, though in a different way, and their house at Merrion Square was the rallying place for all who were eminent in science, art, or literature. Dr. Shaw, the versatile, sarcastic Fellow of Trinity College, and a brilliant writer for the Press, was frequently seen there on Saturday afternoons; the "Sham Squire," in other words, Mr. W. J. Fitzpatrick, the well-known biographer, seldom failed to show his melancholy, aristocratic face; Dr. Tisdall gave some of his delightful and mirth-inspiring recitations; Sir Robert Stewart brightened the dimly lit rooms with his cheery presence, and among this distinguished throng moved the tall figure of Speranza, a very queen of society, inspiring and inspired.
Writing in one of her essays about the faults of celebrated men of her time, Lady Wilde says with equal truth and eloquence:—
"Of what value to the world are the petty details of their weaknesses and failings? We want to know simply what great thoughts a man has added to the world's treasures, what great impulses he gave to the world's progress. If none, let him rest in peace, we do not need the vulgar gossip of his faults.… Let us gather the eternal treasures, but leave the rest to the waters of oblivion."
It will be well to keep these noble words in remembrance, while we are taking a brief glance at the career of the woman who wrote them. Jane Francesca Elgee was the daughter of a clergyman of the Irish Church (afterwards arch- deacon). She was born at Wexford in 1826. The Elgees were originally an Italian race, descended from the Algiati of Florence. The first that came to Ireland was the great-grandfather of Speranza, and the name finally settled down into its present form. Lady Wilde's grandfather, Archdeacon Elgee, rector of Wexford, played a remarkable part in the days of the rebellion of '98, and on account of his popularity was left uninjured by the rebels of that time. Her mother, Sarah Kingsbury, was the daughter of Dr. Thomas Kingsbury, Commissioner in Bankruptcy, and owner of the well-known mansion, Lisle House, Dublin. Her uncle, Sir Charles Ormsby, Bart., was a member of the last Irish Parliament. Sir Robert M'Clure, the seeker of the North-west passage, was her first cousin, and she was also related to the Rev. Charles Maturin, author of "Bertram." Her only brother, Judge Elgee, was one of the most distinguished members of the American Bar.
She was brought up in an atmosphere of the most intense conservatism, so much so that when the immense funeral procession of Thomas Davis, a leading Nationalist, passed her window in Leeson Street, she did not know who he was. She got hold of a book. The Spirit of the Nation, containing poems by D'Alton Williams, and her imagination took fire from it, and she became a poetess and a patriot. Under the name of Speranza she sent some poems to the Nation, which was founded and edited by Charles Gavan Duffy. This was about the year 1847, when The Nation had been started five years. There was a poet's corner in it, and Speranza, along with "Eva" (Miss ), "Mary" (Miss KellyEllen Downing), and "Thomasine," were the principal contributors to it.
Speranza's poems attracted much attention at the time. They were full of ardour, trumpet-calls to action, not feminine wailings for the past. Many thought that this stately daughter of an Irish archdeacon, with her dark flashing eyes, must be a man, and Gavan Duffy, when he went to see her at Leeson Street, was surprised to find that she was a girl of twenty. Of these much lauded verses hardly one has survived. They used to crop up in street ballads some years ago, but now they are like extinct volcanoes, their day is over, and there is no demand for them. Even the best of them, A million a Decade, and another, with the refrain, Lov'd, Ireland, are difficult to find. A verse from The Famine Year is worth giving: —
Little children, tears are strange upon your infant faces,
God meant you but to smile within your mother's soft embraces.
Oh, we know not what is smiling, and we know not what is dying.
But we're hungry, very hungry, and we cannot stop our crying;
And some of us grow cold and white, we know not what it means.
But as they lie beside us, we tremble in our dreams!
A deep tone of feeling is touched in the poem of Related Souls—
Without human aidance
I cross the river of Life and Fate,
Wake me no more with that voice whose cadence
Could lure me back from the Golden Gate,
For my spirit would answer your spirit's call,
Though life lay hid where the shadows fall;
And the mystic joys of the world unseen
Would be less to me, than the days that have been.
Life may be fair in that new existence
Where saints are crowned and the saved rejoice,
But over the depth of the infinite distance
I'll lean and listen and hear your voice.
For never on earth, though the tempest rages,
And never in heaven, if God be just —
Never, through all the unnumbered ages,
Can souls be parted that love and trust!
Speranza's poems, though often forceful, are never musical; she never wrote a real song, though sometimes she comes near it.
She could not write an ordinary letter like any ordinary person. Here is one, given by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy in his interesting book, "My Life in Two Hemispheres." The letter is addressed to him, and is dated from 34 Leeson Street:—
"My Dear Sir,—I return with many thanks the volume of Cromwell which has been travelling about with me for the last four months, and shall feel obliged for the two others when you are quite at leisure, though not even Carlyle can make this soulless iconoclast interesting. It is the only work of Carlyle I have met with, in which my heart does not go along with his words.
"I cannot forbear telling you, now the pen is in my hand, how deeply impressed I was with your lecture to your club, it was the sublimest teaching, and the style so simple from its very sublimity. It seemed as if truth passed directly from your heart to ours without the aid of a medium, at least, I felt that everywhere the thoughts struck you, nowhere the words, and this, in my opinion, is the perfection of composition, it is soul speaking to soul. …… Truly, one cannot despair when God sends us such teachers.
"But you will wish me away for another four months, if I write you such long notes, so I shall conclude with kind compliments to Mrs. Duffy, and remain, yours very sincerely,
This letter is a convincing proof of the way in which Speranza threw a glamour over the most ordinary things. Of common sense she had not a vestige. When a stone was thrown in Smith O'Brien's face at Limerick, she wrote the following grandiloquent letter to Gavan Duffy:—
"What can be done with such idiots and savages? …… This noble Smith O'Brien who has sacrificed all for the people, and who could gain nothing in return, for no position, however exalted, could add to his dignity, whose life has been a sacrifice to his country, a self-immolation,—and this is the man who has to be guarded by English from Irish murderers! I cannot endure to think of it. We are disgraced for ever before Europe, and justly so. Adieu."
Europe cared little whether a stone was thrown at Smith O'Brien or not, but Speranza viewed the transaction from her own magnifying glasses. According to the advice of Emerson, she "hitched her waggon to a star," she took no heed where the waggon might land her. While she was pouring forth her impassioned verses in The Nation, events were thickening rapidly. Revolution was in the air. The first Irish famine was followed by the French Revolution of '48, and then came the arrest of the Young Irelanders, including Gavan Duffy, who was imprisoned. His arrest paralysed the contributors to The Nation for the moment. In his "Reminiscences," he says:—
"The writers of the National Journals immediately left town, mostly for Kilkenny, by circuitous routes. A few concealed themselves in Dublin.… Martin could no longer bring out his newspaper, Lalor, the leading spirit, was arrested, and the other contributors were in the South, or in concealment. I should have found it equally impossible, but for the generous help of two noble women. Margaret Callan, my cousin and sister-in-law, who had been a contributor from the outset, undertook the editorship, and Miss Elgee (Speranza) promised a leading article suitable to the occasion, and produced one which might be issued from the head-quarters of the national army."
This article, entitled Jacta alea est (the die is cast), appeared in The Nation for 29th July, 1848, and led to the immediate suppression of the paper by the Government. Anything more violent, more inflammatory, more intemperate, could hardly be imagined. The article is couched in the most high-flown style. There is a sentence about "a hundred thousand muskets glittering brightly in the light of Heaven," though where these muskets were to come from, was a problem not touched upon. During the trial of Gavan Duffy, which was adjourned several times, and finally took place in April, 1849, one great point against him was the publication of this article, along with another. The Hour of Destiny, which appeared in The Nation of July 22nd, 1848. Both these articles were by Speranza, and both laid the writer open to a charge of high treason. Mr. Butt, in alluding to them, when making his speech for the defence of Gavan Duffy, said—
"I now hold in my hand a letter from the authoress of these articles, assuring me that Mr. Duffy never saw them before they were published, and that he was in prison at the time. I would not be suffered to give pain to the highly-respectable connections of this lady and to herself, by placing her on the table, but I ask the Solicitor-General as a man of honour, and a man of honour I believe him to be—he knows the lady as well as I do—to contradict my statement if it is not true."
No contradiction could be made. It must have been a keen pang to Speranza's generous mind to know that her violent and seditious articles had done so much mischief to her friends. At the conclusion of the trial, Gavan Duffy was released on bail, and his subsequent successful career in Australia is a matter of public interest with which we have nothing to do. Not only did Speranza write poems for The Nation, she also wrote prose essays on the French Girondists, on Jean Paul Richter, and on other subjects. These essays were afterwards collected, and published under the title of "Men, Women, and Books." They contain many striking sentences, such as "Walter Scott taught reverence, which is the first step to faith;" "Byron spoke to the want of every young heart. His literature of despair was the anguished cry of a God-bereft humanity, seeking its lost hope and immortality. Byron's mission was to awaken, not to teach. He was the poet of doubt."
Lenette, one of Jean Paul's housewifely German heroines, she compares to "an incarnate sweeping brush, an animated floor-cloth, a living, ubiquitous duster." Of a man who marries an unappreciative wife she says, "He cannot resist the fatal miasma of the common-place, he falls into the dull abyss of mediocrity. We are not proof against any of the daily influences, however trivial, that surround us.… Let all genius remain unwed."
Another of Speranza's undertakings was to translate from the German a novel called "Sidonia the Sorceress," and a remarkable philosophical work of German fiction, in three volumes, " The First Temptation." In 1851, she exchanged Nationalism for matrimony, and became the wife of Dr. (afterwards Sir William) Wilde, famous as an oculist and also for his antiquarian tastes. He was born at Castlerea, and was ten years older than Speranza. And now began a new phase of her life, as a leader of society. A rather spiteful view of her is given by Miss Henrietta Corkran, in her lately published book, "Celebrities I have Met." She says:—"I called at Merrion Square late in the afternoon, for Lady Wilde never received anyone till 5 p.m., as she hated what she called 'the brutality of strong lights;' the shutters were closed and the lamps had pink shades, though it was full daylight. A very tall woman—she looked over six feet high—she wore that day a long crimson silk gown which swept the floor. The skirt was voluminous, underneath there must have been two crinolines, for when she walked there was a peculiar swaying, swelling movement, like that of a vessel at sea, the sails filled with wind. Over the crimson silk were flounces of Limerick lace, and round what had been a waist, an Oriental scarf, embroidered with gold, was twisted. Her long, massive, handsome face was plastered with white powder. Over her blue-black glossy hair was a gilt crown of laurels. Her throat was bare, so were her arms, but they were covered with quaint jewellery. On her broad chest was fastened a series of large miniature brooches, evidently family portraits … this gave her the appearance of a walking family mausoleum. She wore white kid gloves, held a scent bottle, a lace handkerchief and a fan. Lady Wilde reminded me of a tragedy queen at a sub-urban theatre."
This is certainly not a flattering portrait, but those who really knew Lady Wilde soon got over her little eccentricities of dress, and learned to value her really fine qualities.
A scheme for the improvement of Ireland—the Small Proprietors' Society—excited her enthusiasm. In her earlier days, she says of it, writing to Gavan Duffy:—
"I read the pamphlet with great interest. If the design can be accomplished, it will make Ireland a garden of the Lord. Nothing so admirable has been yet suggested."
Lady Wilde was always a favourite with the Dublin crowds, who used to cheer her when she was on her way to the Drawingrooms at the Castle. Her husband was knighted in 1864 for his services in connection with the Census, and also for his distinguished ability as a surgeon. He died in 1876, and soon afterwards Lady Wilde left Dublin for London, and took up her residence at 146 Oakley Street, Chelsea, with her elder son, William, who was then on the staff of the Daily Telegraph. Here her literary activity began again. A charming book describing her visit to Denmark and Sweden, with several of her translations from Danish and Norwegian poems, is her "Driftwood from Scandinavia," published by Bentley in 1884, and another work of great interest is "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland." In the preface she says, "These studies of the Irish past are simply the expression of my love for the beautiful Island that gave me my first inspirations, my quickest intellectual impulses, and the strongest and best sympathies with genius and country, possible to a woman's nature."
Another book, "Ancient Cures of Ireland," was also published, and she was granted a pension of £50 a year from the Civil List in recognition of her services to literature. As she herself remarked, it was a strange coincidence that this pension should come through a Conservative Government.
There is no doubt that as years went on, her political opinions, once so violent, became greatly modified. Her style in writing, too, became less inflated, though in her Scandinavian sketches she does speak of "poor, dyspeptic, nervous, depressed, worn-out, hypochondriacal humanity." This habit of heaping adjectives on her nouns was characteristic of her. She also speaks " of a vulgar, blinding glare of gas pouring down on the half-asphyxiated guests."
It was in the winter of 1889, that I first made Lady Wilde's acquaintance. I had an invitation to her Saturday "At Homes," and on a dull, muggy, December day I reached the house. The hour on the card said, "From five to seven," and it was past five, when I knocked at the door. The bell was broken. The narrow hall was heaped with cloaks, waterproofs, and umbrellas, and from the door—for the reception rooms were on the ground floor—came a confusing buzz of voices. Anglo-Irish and American-Irish literary people, to say nothing of a sprinkling of brutal Saxons, were crowded as thickly together as sardines in a box. Red-shaded lamps were on the mantelpiece, red curtains veiled doors and windows, and through this darkness visible I looked vainly for the hostess. Where was she? Where was Lady Wilde? Then I saw her—a tall woman, slightly bent with rheumatism, fantastically dressed in a trained black and white checked silk gown; from her head floated long white tulle streamers, mixed with ends of scarlet ribbon. What glorious dark eyes she had! Even then, and she was over sixty, she was a strikingly handsome woman. Though I was a perfect stranger to her, she at once made me welcome, and introduced me to someone she thought I would like to know. She had the art de faire un salon. If anyone was discovered sitting in a corner unnoticed, Lady Wilde was sure to bring up someone to be introduced, and she never failed to speak a few happy words which made the stranger feel at home. She generally prefaced her introductions with some remarks such as "Mr. A., who has written a delightful poem," or "Mrs. B., who is on the staff of the Snapdragon," or "Miss C, whose new novel everyone is talking about." As to her own talk, it was remarkably original, sometimes daring, and always interesting. Her talent for talk was infectious; everyone talked their best. There was tea in the back room, but no one seemed to care about eating or drinking. Some forms of journalism had no attraction for her. "I can't write," I heard her say, "about such things as 'Mrs. Green looked very well in black, and Mrs. Black looked very well in green.'"
A comparison she made on the spur of the moment, "brief as a telegram," seemed to me singularly good.
One afternoon, an elderly gentleman was beginning to monopolise the conversation by descanting on his favourite hobby—the anti-vivisection movement. He droned on and on; we yawned helplessly. Lady Wilde's eagle eye took in the situation with a glance:—"My dear Mr. So and So," she exclaimed, with one of her most captivating smiles, "excuse me for interrupting you, Miss X—— is going to give us a recitation—The Bishop and the Caterpillar." The Bishop and the Caterpillar proved so amusing that everything else was forgotten, and all went smoothly. No more successful hostess than Lady Wilde could be found, she managed to put people at their ease, and without talking too much herself, she drew out the best in others. What matter that the rooms were small, that the tea was overdrawn, or that there was a large hole in the red curtain that kept out the vulgar light of the day? Here was a woman who understood the lost art of entertaining, and made her house a centre of light and leading. Thoroughly sympathetic, she entered into the aspirations of everyone who ever held a pen, or touched a paint brush, and those who hailed from the Green Isle of her birth were specially welcome to her.
The last years of her life were clouded by family troubles, into which there is no need to enter here. She died February 3rd, 1896, in the seventieth year of her age.
She was buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. It would have seemed more appropriate to have laid her to rest among the glens and hills of her native country that she loved so well. That love was not, perhaps, shown in the wisest and most practical way, but it was genuine, and in the closing years of her life she probably recognised her mistakes, which, after all, were the mistakes of a generous heart. Her judgment was often wrong, but no one could deny that she was a lover of noble things, that her aims were high, though she failed to see the best means of carrying them out for the real good of her country.
When I was at Oakley Street one day, I asked what time it was, as I wanted to catch a train.
"Does anyone here," asked Lady Wilde, with one of her lofty glances, "know what time it is? We never know in this house about time."
This, it seems to me, was a key to the way in which Lady Wilde looked at things. Trifles, every day trifles, she considered quite beneath her, and yet trifles make up the sum of human life. She had a horror of the "miasma of the commonplace," her eyes were fixed on ideals, on heroes—ancient and modem—and thus she missed much that was lying near her, "close about her feet," in her fervent admiration of the dim, the distant, and the unapproachable. Her failings were the failings of a noble nature, and it is in this light that we must consider her.