Constance Mary Holland (2nd January 1859 – 7th April 1898) was buried at 4pm on the 9th of April 1898 in the Protestant section of the Campo Santo cemetery in Genoa. The ‘Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno’ is a cemetery based in the hillside in the district of Staglieno of Genoa, Italy, and is a beautiful resting place, noted for its monumental sculpture.

The Monteverde Angel (which guards the tomb of the Oneto family and was installed in 1882) is one of the famous sculptures at the cemetery, Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno, where Constance is buried

In her own way, and within the limitations and confines of a woman’s role in the nineteenth century, Constance was (or at the very least attempted with great gusto) the roles of embroiderer, seamstress, interior designer, theatre reviewer, actress, children’s author, and mother, although her most difficult role was that of wife. Inevitably though, despite her best efforts, her role in history is accessed via her marriage to Oscar Wilde, playwright, aesthete, and outrageously selfish narcissist. Constance’s life was far shorter than it should have been, and after the initial flurry of popularity and social prominence as one half of society’s darling couple, she was subject to a life of instability and a kind of exile brought about after Wilde’s own fall from grace. Constance’scharacter, like her name, demonstrated a constancy in all things, but most particularly in her kindness and generosity of spirit, even after Wilde’s downfall. Wilde on the other hand was a complete fool.

Her brother Otho, summoned to her bedside from Switzerland on the 5th April had not arrived in time, despite his best efforts and a day’s travel. He had not known Constance was undergoing surgery for long running health problems and as such was not anticipating her death, he was merely responding to her rather panicked request for him to come and to come quickly, coupled with her assurance she would pay the hotel.[1] On Otho’s own death in 1943, there was a newspaper cutting found in amongst his papers detailing the death of a surgeon, Signor Bossi. He had been shot. This was the same surgeon who had treated Constance and whom Otho had blamed for her early demise. The self-same surgeon who had promptly disappeared for a time in the immediate days after Constance’s death, no doubt only adding to Otho’s grief. At the time, Otho lamented the loss of Constance, writing that ‘where there are only two, just brother and sister, part of oneself is dead when she dies’.[2]

In order to commemorate his sister, who had lovingly supported him, he chose a plain cross with ivy leaves which is a symbol of eternal life. The ivy is also a plant with the ability to thrive even within the harshest of environments: a reflection of Constance’s own ability to maintain dignity and grace where others would have crumbled. Her headstone said simply ‘Constance Mary, daughter of Horace Lloyd QC’. She left beyond not only her beloved brother, but her two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Cyril, the favourite child, would die at the hands of a German sniper in 1915, and Vyvyan lived until 1967.

Related image
‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’

Wilde turned up at Constance’s grave the following year, in February 1899. He wrote to Robbie Ross how he was ‘deeply affected – with a sense also of the uselessness of all regrets’.[3] Wilde’s treatment of Constance was abominable, and unforgiveable. However, despite occasional flashes of anger, frustration, and practical cessation, we should remember Constance’s own capacity for kindness when assessing Wilde. She may have been flighty, flirty, sometimes stubborn and hot-headed, but Constance displayed a level-headedness, an intelligence, and an emotional kindness, albeit coupled with naiveté, that probably saved Wilde on many as many occasions as it did indulge him.

Otho’s family continued to connect to Constance and her story, adding ‘Wife of Oscar Wilde’ to the headstone in 1963. Whilst this sounds like a reproach, perhaps one from beyond the grave, it also smacks of some of the narcissism that effected both Constance and Wilde. I wonder if she would approve of such an epitaph?

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Images via Wikipedia, MOMA, The Guardian, NY Times, Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011) who was granted access to family photographs

[1] Otho Holland quoted Constance’s telegram in his letter to Lady Mount Temple, 9th April 1898. BR 57/23/1. Constance had written ‘I want to see you at once. I am very ill. Will pay journey and hotel’. Constance had suffered for years with various complaints, which she referred to as neuralgia on occasion, but Constance certainly suffered with mobility and nerve issues. She is now thought to have had Multiple Sclerosis.

[2] Holland to Temple, 9th April 1898. BR 57/23/1

[3] Wilde to Ross, c. 1 March 1899, Complete Letters, p. 1128