- Oscar Wilde & Family
CALLING HER BOOK “a piece of biographical storytelling,” Emer O’Sullivan traces in an accessible style the history of two generations of the Wilde family. The principal figures, besides Oscar, are his parents, Sir William Wilde and Jane Elgee Wilde, his older brother Willie, and his wife Constance, though other persons, including Bosie of course, [End Page 538] are treated as well. O’Sullivan has two main intentions. “In many biographies of Oscar Wilde,” O’Sullivan claims, “Jane and William are not given their due. This does not square with the eminence Jane and William enjoyed in Ireland.” One of her aims is to increase our appreciation of Jane and William. Her second intention is to show that this fuller appreciation of Jane and William enhances our understanding of Oscar’s life and works. She has more success in pursuing the first intention than the second. To put this differently, while the book seems primarily written for a general audience, rather than readers of ELT, readers of the journal may well find the book’s account of Wilde’s family rewarding; they are less likely to find its treatment of Wilde himself illuminating.
Since William has not been given his “due” by scholarship, we are all, in effect, general readers in his case and so profit from O’Sullivan’s detailed account of his life and works against the background of Irish history. Some of this account takes the form of running summaries of his works with commentary: for example, her nine-page discussion of his early Narrative of a Voyage to Madiera, Teneriffe, and along the Shores of the Mediterranean, including a visit to Algiers, Egypt, Palestine, Tyre, Rhodes, Telmessus, Cyprus, and Greece (1840). As O’Sullivan shows, the book is much more than a travelogue, since William “was a man of Enlightenment; he thus turned every observation into an item of knowledge. His stated aim was to extend knowledge into all directions—geology, natural science, archaeology, ethnology—and to open up the possibility of new disciplines.” What emerges from these summaries plus her tracing of William’s life is the remarkable energy and intelligence with which William pursued his many interests—and did so in addition to his distinguished medical career as an eye and ear specialist. O’Sullivan calls particular attention to the political dimension of William’s work in archaeology and ethnology. He recognized “the capacity of colonialism to separate the individual from the instinctual life, breaking the generative lineaments of the cultural identity,” and thus his works in these areas are “attempts to restore the geographical and historical identity of the land, to repeople the territory with its heroes, histories, myths, and battles.” He understood that the recovery of a people’s cultural identity can be an important stage in their struggle for political freedom. O’Sullivan regards William’s recovery of Ireland’s “imaginative culture” as the actual beginning of the Celtic Rival usually taken to begin later with the activities of Yeats, Synge, and Lady Gregory. [End Page 539]
While Jane Wilde may have also been slighted by scholars, she has received more attention than William, and thus in reading O’Sullivan’s account of Jane, one has more a sense of her drawing together materials available elsewhere, such as in Joy Melville’s Mother of Oscar (1994) which O’Sullivan cites several times. Perhaps because she does not see herself as writing primarily for academic readers, O’Sullivan is not concerned, with a few exceptions, to indicate how she is advancing existing commentary. In any case, this constructing a narrative by selecting from other sources is itself a kind of service to a reader. And to this narrative, she often adds her own apt commentary. The defining event in Jane’s life was her contribution to the Nation of an essay strongly supporting the failed Irish insurrection of 1848. Charles Duffy, the Nation’s editor, was put on trial for treason, with Jane’s essay being part of the indictment. To help Duffy...