constance wilde and frances chesterton

You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade

                  You who were sceptered with thistle’s bloom,

God’s thunder! What have you to do with these

                  The lying crystal and the darkened room?

As a biographer who has published books on Oscar Wilde and G.K. Chesterton, I have always been fascinated by their respective spouses. These women, Constance Wilde and Frances Chesterton, about whom relatively little is known, were important figures in the lives of their famous husbands, whose influence was potent and perhaps even pivotal. Chesterton described William Cobbett’s wife as being the “powerful silence” in Cobbett’s life and, at the very least, the same could be said of Mrs. Wilde and Mrs. Chesterton. It is, therefore, a great gift to literary scholarship that biographies of both of these women have recently been published. What was especially intriguing was the fact that both women flirted with the occult, dabbling with diabolism even whilst professing to be Christians.In Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (Pegasus Books, 2012), Franny Moyle uncovers Constance Wilde’s brief flirtation with the notorious Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which would count the notorious Aleister Crowley amongst its members. Like many Victorians, Constance was fascinated with the occult, the so-called “New Age” being as seductive in the nineteenth century as it is today. Theosophy was all the rage in late Victorian England, with séances commonplace amongst the “educated” classes. Moving in this world of spiritualist shadows, Constance was one of the thirty-two members who joined the Golden Dawn in 1888, its inaugural year, of whom nine were women. Apart from pledging secrecy about the Order’s rituals and practices, and promising to study the Occult with zeal, new members were required to choose a Latin motto as the name by which they would be known to other members of the Order. Constance chose “Qui Patitur Vincit” (“Who Endures Wins”).

constance wilde with child chestertonDuring the initiation ceremony in which she was blindfolded and wore a black tunic and red shoes, she was required to call down a deadly curse upon herself should she ever betray the secrets of the Order, submitting herself “to a deadly and hostile current of will set in motion by the chiefs of the Order, by which I should fall slain or paralysed without visible weapons, as if blasted by the Lightning Flash!” Years later, following the wrecking of her life and that of her sons in the wake of her husband’s recklessness, members of the Golden Dawn intimated that it was their curse that had brought about her downfall.

Initially at least, Constance seemed genuinely enamoured of the Golden Dawn, spending a whole year acquiring the working knowledge of Hebrew that the Order required, as well as becoming familiar with alchemical and kabbalistic symbols. By November 1889 she has passed through all the grades of the Outer Order of the Golden Dawn, attaining the status of Philosophus, before apparently losing interest, or perhaps losing her nerve, declining entry into the even more secretive Second Order.

Her distancing herself from the Golden Dawn did not, however, indicate a disillusionment with the Occult. In 1892 she became an associate member of the Society for Psychical Research, becoming a full member two years later. At the same time, paradoxically, she became more devout in her Christian beliefs, her daily church attendance prompting the poet Richard Le Gallienne to describe her as being “almost evangelical.” For the next few years, she flirted with High Church Anglicanism and even with Catholicism, lighting candles to the Virgin in the London Oratory and discussing the possibility of conversion with her husband, while simultaneously and incongruously continuing to dabble in spiritualism.

Constance Wilde’s desire for the divine, coupled with her dabbling with diabolism, would be echoed by Frances Chesterton fifteen years later. A devout and practicing Anglican, Frances succumbed to the temptation to make contact with her dead brother in the traumatic aftermath of his suicide.

frances chestertonNancy Carpentier Brown, in The Woman Who was Chesterton (ACS Books, 2015), her biography of Frances, alludes to the fashionable dalliance with the Occult which had formed part of the backdrop to Frances’ upbringing in the bohemian London suburb of Bedford Park. Frances’ cousin Margaret had an intense interest in the Occult, and Brown surmises that Mrs. Chesterton, in the days before her marriage, “must have been familiar with crystal gazing and planchette boards.” Indeed, Chesterton had himself experimented with the planchette as a young man, recoiling in horror from the demonic reality which lay beneath its apparently harmless surface. This earlier experience, coupled with his Christian orthodoxy, led Chesterton to feel both dismayed and angered by his wife’s decision to seek a spiritualist to help her connect with her recently deceased brother, prompting and inspiring him to write “The Crystal,” one of his finest poems. As for Frances, she would come to her senses, describing this episode of crystal-gazing, her final flirtation with the devil, as “an old and ugly practice… powered by evil.” Since, however, Mrs. Chesterton’s moment of brief, grief-stricken madness had inspired her husband to rare heights of poetic brilliance, even as he plumbed the depths of her despair, we’ll allow the words of “The Crystal” to crystallize and conclude our thoughts on Mrs. Wilde’s and Mrs. Chesterton’s walk on the dark side:

I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,

And round that holy hair, round and beyond

My Frances, my inviolable, screamed

The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.


Close to that face, a window into heaven,

Close to the hair’s brown surf of broken waves

I saw the idiot faces of the ghosts

That are the fungus, not the flower, of graves.


You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade

You who were sceptred with thistle’s bloom,

God’s thunder! What have you to do with these

The lying crystal and the darkened room.


Leave the weird queens that find the sun too strong,

To mope and cower beneath Druidic trees,

The still, sweet gardens of the dastard’s dream.

God’s thunder! What have you to do with these?


Low fields and shining lie in crystal-land

Peace and strange pleasure: wonder-lands untrod,

But not plain words, nor love of open things,

Truth, nor strong laughter, nor the fear of God.


I will not look: I am a child of earth,

I see the sun and wood, the sea, and grass.

I only saw one spirit. She is there

Staring for spirits in a lump of glass.

Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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