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Oscar Wilde’s family trip to Worthing in 1894 - extract from Antony Edmonds’ new book

PUBLISHED: 10:53 20 January 2015 | UPDATED: 10:53 20 January 2015

The Lifeboat Demonstration held at Worthing on 22 August 1894, at which 'Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about

The Lifeboat Demonstration held at Worthing on 22 August 1894, at which 'Mr Oscar Wilde was one of the occupants of a small rowing boat busily flitting about

Archant

During a family holiday in Worthing, Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, and spent most of his free time with Lord Alfred Douglas and three local teenage boys – while his wife, as Antony Edmonds explains in this abridged extract from his new book, was lonely and unhappy, and briefly fell in love with another man.

On 7 August 1894, Constance Wilde travelled down to Worthing with her two young sons. Her husband followed three days later.

Oscar’s holiday was both productive and enjoyable. He wrote the play that came to be regarded as his masterpiece. Lord Alfred Douglas, always known as Bosie – the handsome but difficult young man who was the love of his life – came to stay three times, and they went out daily in a sailing boat with three local boys. And Wilde had a sexual relationship with one of them, 16-year-old Alphonse Conway. (An account of this affair appeared in the December 2011 issue of Sussex Life.)

Constance’s holiday was very different. Although she was still a beautiful woman – the photograph above/right was taken a week before she went to Worthing – sexual relations between her and Oscar had ended some eight years earlier, and by this time he was emotionally neglectful as well. On holiday with a man who was not only her husband but the best conversationalist in Europe, she wrote to a friend to say: “I have had no-one to talk to, and I have been rather depressed.”

Starved of companionship and affection, Constance briefly fell in love with another man. This was Arthur Humphreys, a bookseller and part-time publisher who was shortly to publish a collection of Oscar’s witticisms, Oscariana. Constance was 35 at the time of the Worthing holiday, and Arthur was five or six years younger.

On 11 August Arthur spent the day in Worthing with the Wildes. Towards the end of his visit Constance found a few minutes to write him an extraordinary love letter, whose complete text is published here for the first time:

Bon mots

“My darling Arthur,

I am going to write you a line while you are smoking your cigarette to tell you how much I love you, and how dear and delightful you have been to me to-day. I have been happy, and I do love you dear Arthur. Nothing in my life has ever made me so happy as this love of yours to me has done, and I trust you, and will trust you through every-thing. You have been a great dear all the time quite perfect to me, and dear to the children, and nice to Oscar too, and so I love you, and I love you just because you are [underlined twice], and because you have come into my life to fill it all with love and make it rich. Your love will make me good so that I shall know my-self to be good, as I certainly do not at present even with all your sweet flattery.

Now the line must stop for fear of interruptions; I shall try and give you this; and if I can’t I shall post it. I shall come up on Thursday, so let me have a letter when I arrive please [underlined twice].

Your always devotedly loving Constance”

Although Arthur’s day in Worthing with the Wildes had been a conventional occasion, his charm and kindness appears to have acted as a catalyst. There is, however, no evidence that he and Constance ever had an affair, and indeed the terms that Constance uses in her letter suggest they did not. She was a very religious woman with a strong moral sense, who always set herself the highest of standards. How could Arthur’s love make her “good” if it were expressed in an adulterous relationship?

The way that Constance uses the word “trust” is of significance too. It occurs also in a letter to Arthur of 10 weeks earlier: “But if we are to be friends, as I hope we may be, you must trust me. Indeed I can be trusted, as I believe that you can be.” Constance is not here invoking the kind of trust that those in inappropriate relationships require in order to prevent discovery. The trust in question is something deeper – to do, among other things, with the risk inherent in sharing one’s inner thoughts with another person, and the attendant danger of being hurt.

There is a second passage in the earlier letter that runs counter to any likelihood that Constance would have contemplated an affair with Arthur. She describes him – using the title of a play that Oscar had recently completed – as “an ideal husband”, adding, “Your marriage was made for the sake of good, was the result of your character, and so was ideal.” Constance would not have intruded upon such a marriage.

Five days after Arthur’s visit to Worthing, Constance went to London to see Oscar’s elderly mother, Lady Wilde, and to discuss the printing of Oscariana with Arthur. We do not know what passed between them, but it is likely that Arthur spoke seriously to her about their friendship, and counselled restraint.

Two days later Arthur and his wife left for a holiday in Europe, and by the autumn Constance’s tone towards him was very different from on the day of his visit to Worthing. A letter of 22 October is far from lover-like. Gone are “My darling Arthur” and “Your always devotedly loving / Constance”. In their place are “My dear Arthur” and “Yours afftely [affectionately] / Constance Wilde”. Constance’s use of her surname in her signature is telling.

She and Arthur had recently had a disagreement about social deprivation,

and in her letter Constance describes a conversation with a carpenter who spoke to her “with grief” of cases of “thoroughly competent artizans” who could not get work and had to “swell the rank of the unemployed” or work as labourers for sixpence an hour. “But please do not let us speak of it again,” she says; “it is a subject that I feel most deeply on, and that is not serious [i.e. of importance] to you.”

Although the cool tone of this letter was partly dictated by Constance’s distress at Arthur’s lack of compassion for the unlucky poor, it is unlikely that this alone would have caused her to alter the way she began and ended her letter. By this time Constance and Arthur were no more than conventional friends, and Constance’s fit of emotion had subsided. The impulsive letter that she wrote in Worthing on 11 August had, in all likelihood, been an isolated event, and indeed possibly one that caused embarrassment to both.

Eight months after the Worthing holiday ended, Oscar Wilde was in prison. After his release, Constance never saw him again, and she died on 7 April 1898, following an unsuccessful back operation.

Arthur and Constance remained friends, and in her last letter to him, written a month before her death, she said of her husband: “His punishment has not done him much good, since it has not taught him the lesson he most needed, namely that he is not the only person in the world.”

***

Oscar Wilde’s Scandalous Summer: The 1894 Worthing Holiday and the Aftermath is out now in hardback, price £20.

The photographs of the Royal Hotel and Montpelier Terrace are reproduced by courtesy of West Sussex County Council Library Service

(www.westsussexpast.org.uk)

***

READ ON

Awards and rewards for Worthing’s young swimmers

Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson on life in Steyning, helping others and inspiring a generation

Walking Football to launch at Worthing Leisure Centre

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