When Oscar Wilde first visited her in 1881 she was 'shaking with fright'. Just over two years later Constance Lloyd wrote to her beloved brother: 'Prepare yourself for an astounding piece of news. I'm engaged to Oscar Wilde and perfectly and insanely happy.'
Otho Lloyd congratulated his prospective brother-in-law by the next post: 'If Constance makes as good a wife as she has been a good sister to me, your happiness is certain. She is staunch and true.' And indeed she was.
But no one could possibly have imagined what future heartbreak and shame Oscar Wilde presented to his wife within the heart-shaped engagement ring he designed himself.
Last week I was sitting next to a distinguished historian at lunch who, on hearing that I was reviewing this book, quipped: 'Oh, is there enough to make a whole book on Mrs Oscar Wilde?'
|'Beloved Oscar': But Constance must surely have been turning a blind eye to his behaviour
Thus are the wives of famous men consigned to the shadows. In the case of Oscar Wilde, popular belief sees the gay man marrying for convenience (and children) before reverting to his true sexuality. Even his work has been over-shadowed by the image of a precious, witty, man-about-town, sporting a green carnation.
No wonder his wife seems a mere cipher - an object of pity, but not a person in her own right. Franny Moyle's terrific biography sets the record straight.
I have no doubt that Oscar Wilde genuinely loved her - at least, at first. And with good reason. Pretty, energetic, intelligent and talented, Constance Wilde is portrayed by her biographer as a thoroughly modern woman.
Rebelling against her dreadful mother and espousing radical causes - from supporting striking dockers to arguing that women should wear less cumbersome clothes - Constance was certainly somebody worth knowing.
She spoke French, read Italian, painted with skill and went to college to study Shelley.
An early feminist, she had bold, innovative ideas about fashion and interior design and wrote children's stories, too. This young woman was perfectly equipped to become half of a celebrity couple.
Ironically, the author of The Importance Of Being Ernest, and so many other works of genius, was once thought to be rather a ladies' man.
But that was before the green carnations, the monstrously egotistical affectations, the rent boys and Lord Alfred Douglas.
It would be wrong to think of Oscar's marriage as a cover-up of his real self. Seven months after their wedding in 1884 he wrote to Constance from Scotland: 'I feel your fingers in my hair and your cheeks brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours.'
So - love there was and frustration at the separations 'that keep our lips from kissing'.
But this fashionable couple embarked on a dangerous path, believing in freedom and independence as much as any self-consciously 'cool' partnership of the Sixties in our own time. Right from the beginning they spent too much time apart. Then, just one year after writing the passionate letter above, Wilde confessed to a friend that the romantic feelings he once held for his wife had shifted into 'a curious mixture of ardour and indifference'.
|The constant wife: Constance Wilde with favourite son Cyril
It is a strange experience to read this book, like watching a car crash in slow motion and longing to cry out: 'Stop!'
Intelligent and imaginative as she undoubtedly was, Constance must have observed that her husband was inordinately fond of the company of young men. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) raised eyebrows because of its focus on male beauty, but Constance was (as Moyle puts it) 'immune to the insinuations'.
By now she had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, travelled a lot, spent weeks at a time in Devon with an older woman friend, tried to juggle their perilous finances, but still delighted in her husband and took pride in his work. It is one of Franny Moyle's missions to emphasise 'the commitment the couple continued to have to one another in the first years of the 1890s'.
Nevertheless, I can only see Constance as a woman in denial, constantly on the move to avoid subconscious awareness of what her husband was up to and her own incipient depression.
She doted on her eldest son, neglected Vyvyan and ignored the chasm opening up within her marriage. Even her closest friend - perhaps scenting danger - told her to slow down.
Which is not to blame Constance in any way for the tragedy that befell her family. That was left to the poisonous Lord Alfred Douglas, who dragged Oscar Wilde into the depths and then (years later) had the insolence to reproach the wronged wife for what happened.
'Bosie' was a spoilt, effete young aristocrat who entered Wilde's life as a fan and became his lover and destroyer. Wilde was smitten by the beautiful young man, but his passion turned into a fatal addiction.
On the one hand he frequented expensive hotels, lavishing money he didn't have on Bosie, as well as entertaining 'renters' and behaving with increasing recklessness.
On the other hand, Constance's 'beloved Oscar' could dedicate his second book of fairy tales to his wife in loving and uplifting language. Wilde was pulled in two directions, but it was the manipulative, demanding, greedy, selfish Bosie who won.
|Poisonous: Oscar Wilde with the architect of his downfall, Lord Alfred Douglas
The facts of the notorious libel case against Bosie's father, the Marquess of Queensberry and the subsequent trial of Oscar Wilde for gross indecency - resulting in two years' hard labour - are well known.
But here we focus on poor Constance - well-named for all she tried to do for her husband, but forced in the end to flee abroad and change her name to Holland.
Later Vyvyan remembered his mother 'in tears, poring over masses of press cuttings'. So-called celebrities caught in the spotlight today can't even approach the public disgrace that was faced by anyone associated with Oscar Wilde - including his innocent wife.
The drama ended sadly, madly, badly. The love that once existed between Constance and Oscar was reduced to a fight over money and mutual recrimination.
Constance died a miserable death aged 39 after an operation in Genoa. Wilde followed her two years later, having visited her grave (then omitting his name) and writing sorrowfully: 'Life is a terrible thing.'
As for the beastly Bosie, his judgement on Constance takes your breath away: 'If she had treated him properly and stuck to him, after he had been in prison, as a really good wife would have done, he would have gone on loving her to the end of his life. Obviously, she suffered a good deal and deserves sympathy, but she fell woefully short of the height to which she might have risen.'
Franny Moyle does not gloss over Constance's failures as a mother, nor her wilful blindness as a wife, but leaves us with a picture of a brave woman who married the wrong man - but loved him just the same.
© Daily Mail, London