Who was Jane Wilde? Mother of Oscar Wilde born 200 years ago today
Life & Style

Who was Jane Wilde? Mother of Oscar Wilde born 200 years ago today

MUCH LIKE today, historical figures the world over began their lives learning from the best - their mothers.

That rule is no exception for one of Ireland's most celebrated poets and playwrights, Oscar Wilde.

Best remembered for his epigrams, plays and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde became one of the most popular writers in London in the early 1890s.

However, he didn't pick up his skills from nowhere as his mother, Jane Wilde, was also an accomplished writer who wrote under a pseudonym.

Born Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee on 27 December, 1821, in Wexford, Jane was the last of four children of Charles Elgee, a solicitor, and his wife Sarah (neé Kingsbury).

Charles died when she was just three years old, leading to Jane being largely self-educated. She is said to have mastered ten languages by the age of 18, perhaps fitting as her great-grandfather was an Italian who had moved to Wexford in the 18th century.

As she grew up she became increasingly involved in nationalist matters, particularly in support of the 'Young Ireland' movement - an all-Ireland struggle for independence and democratic reform.

She soon took on the name 'Speranza' to write pro-Irish independence themed articles and poems in the 1840s which were published in a weekly Dublin newspaper called 'The Nation'.

When she called for armed revolution in Ireland in one of her commentary pieces, authorities shut down the paper and brought its editor, Charles Duffy, to court.

He refused to name who was behind the commentary, and so Jane confessed, however her confession was ignored and the paper was closed.

She was also an advocate of women's rights, invited the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to her home to speak on female liberty. She praised the passing of the Married Women's Property Act of 1883, which prevented a woman from having to enter marriage 'as a bond slave, disenfranchised of all rights over her fortune'.

In November 1851, she married Sir William Wilde, an eye and ear surgeon. They went on to have three children, William (1852), Oscar (1854) and Isola (1857).

At a time when her fortunes should have been on the rise both tragedy and social scandal followed during the next few years. A successful court case was brought by a young woman who claimed that Sir William had seduced her, resulting in damages against the Wilde family.

Their daughter died of the fever shortly afterwards and this was followed by the death of the two illegitimate daughters of her husband.

When her husband died in 1876, the family discovered that he was virtually bankrupt. Now Lady Wilde (her husband had been knighted in 1864), she joined her sons in London in 1879 and made a name for herself in literary circles.

She lived with William and supplemented their income by writing for fashionable magazines and producing books on Irish folklore.

She wrote several books including 'Ancient legends, mystic charms, and superstitions of Ireland' (1887), and her poems are said to have influenced her son Oscar's own work. For example, his 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' has been compared to her poem 'The Brothers' (based on a true story of a trial and execution in the 1798 Rebellion).

In her later years, Jane suffered ill health and, early in 1896, she caught bronchitis. Fearing that she may not recover she made a request to see her son Oscar who was serving a term of imprisonment. Permission was denied and she died shortly afterwards.

Lady Jane Wilde died at home in Chelsea on the 3rd February 1896 at the age of 74.  She was buried in an unmarked grave as both of her sons could not afford a headstone.

In 1996 she was memorialised in the form of a plaque on the grave of Sir William Wilde in Dublin as 'Speranza of The Nation, writer, translator, poet and nationalist, author of works on Irish folklore, early advocate of equality for women, and founder of a leading literary salon'.

A Celtic cross monument was also later erected in her memory when funds were raised by the Oscar Wilde Society around the year 1999.