I’d started reading The Mystery of Love in February for LGBTQ+ history month. Although, I didn’t really get very far. I just wasn’t in the mood for it and I had plenty of other books to finish first. So, I decided that Pride month was the perfect time to finish it. I ended up listening to the audiobook on my lunchbreaks so it took a few days to actually get to the end but I managed it just in time for the end of June. I actually think getting the audiobook made a big difference to how easy this was to read. Whether it was the narrator, the book or both, The Mystery of Love was the perfect thing to listen to.
Oscar Wilde is certainly a well-known writer but he also remains a fascinating figure in history. His private life and subsequent incarceration have been discussed at length. However, one of the figures involved in his life has largely been pushed into the background. In May 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd and the couple had 2 sons. Andrew Meehan’s The Mystery of Love aims to recount the story of their marriage through Constance’s eyes. The book starts after Oscar has been sent to prison and sees Constance and her sons living in Italy going by the name Holland. She reflects on their relationship and retreads the path that brought her to where she is now. You see inside Constance’s head as she questions her decisions. She will often add in Oscar’s answers to those questions as she punctuates the narrative with his witty asides. It’s something that works really well in the audiobook.
Though it is a story about love and marriage, this isn’t a sentimental and romantic book. We know that the Wildes’ marriage was no fairytale but there is something quite disconnected about the way it is presented here. Constance isn’t exactly presented in the way you’d expect of a woman who has just seen her husband arrested for indecency. She isn’t the broken and frail little thing hiding away from the world. She is pretty cold and cynical. Many will go into this novel wanting to sympathise with her but they might end up finding it difficult to warm to her. If you prefer to read about characters that you like, The Mystery of Love might not be for you. Though he doesn’t write her as a particularly charismatic person, Meehan creates a complex character in Constance and I enjoyed finding out more about her. The more you learn of her background then the more her attitude makes sense.
Constance comes from a strict family and is unable to act as she wishes. She sees marriage as her only means of escape and, after attending his lecture, she sees Oscar as the opposite of her buttoned-up relatives. She expects their married life to be full and free. Though she has her doubts about the man she intends to marry, Constance puts those fears aside and the pair enter into a fairly happy marriage. Constance is one of the few people who sees both sides of Oscar’s personality. She sees the man he presents to society and the man behind closed doors. She is blown away by his way with words and her discourse in the public sphere. Yet, as her husband, she sees him a much less intimidating. He is soppy and soft. She loves him but she won’t let him get away with his nonsense. When his outer self starts to move into caricature, Constance refuses to let him get away with it. She is both his biggest fan and his harshest critic.
In the same way, Constance often finds herself getting tired of her children. At times you get the idea that is playing her the idea of motherhood and acting the part well. Then, she will remain indifferent and even irritated by their behaviour. They remind her of their father and the love that she will always hold for him. More than anything, this book shows that Oscar and Constance were a unit. They were both complicated figures and were using each other for their own gain. It’s what made their marriage work for so long. I guess what The Mystery of Love does so well is to explain the concept of marriage. The ups and downs of being partners. It is not all sweeping romance and sentimentality. More often, it is based on mutual respect and shared goals. Constance and Oscar may have had a dysfunctional and turbulent but their bond lasted throughout.
It was always going to be tricky for Andrew Meehan to take on the Oscar Wilde story from Constance’s perspective, but I think he gets it right. Oscar is a constant presence throughout the narrative and his little asides really do bring to mind his wit. Though there can be no denying that this is Constance’s story. You see Oscar from a different perspective and see the timid figure behind the bravado. It’s also just great to see Constance as more than a footnote in this story. To show the other side of the coin. This is an engaging and interesting read that I think will work for anyone interested in Wilde’s life.
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