Letters unravel mystery of the death of Oscar Wilde’s wife
Grandson of Irish dramatist has unearthed medical evidence in private family letters which points to likely cause of death
The sudden death of the wife of Oscar Wilde at the tender age of 40 has long been a mystery. In the 116 years since she met her tragic end, speculative theories have ranged from spinal damage following a fall down stairs to syphilis caught from her husband. Now the mystery may have been solved.
Constance Wilde in Heidelberg in 1896. Photograph: Merlin Holland Archive
Merlin Holland, grandson of the Irish wit and author of The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan, has unearthed medical evidence within private family letters, which has enabled a doctor to determine the likely cause of Constance’s demise.
The letters reveal symptoms nowadays associated with multiple sclerosis but apparently wrongly diagnosed by her two doctors. One resorted to dubious remedies and the other conducted a botched operation that days later claimed her life.
The letters detail symptoms that progressively robbed her of the ability to walk, riddling her body with pain and leaving her with excruciating headaches and extreme fatigue.
Although multiple sclerosis was by then certainly known within the medical profession, the seriousness of her condition went unrecognised. She turned to an unnamed German “nerve doctor”, whose eccentric treatments involved baths and electricity, and to an Italian, Luigi Maria Bossi, who believed that neurological and mental illness could be cured with gynaecological operations.
Days after Bossi undertook a gynaecological procedure – having previously conducted an operation which failed to improve her health – she lapsed into unconsciousness and died. Some 20 years after her death, he faced unrelated accusations of unethical behaviour and professional misconduct, only to be shot dead by a patient’s jealous husband.
Constance’s brother, Otho, contemplated legal action, but realised its futility. She had agreed to go under Bossi’s knife – against the advice of other doctors.
“It cost her her life,” Holland observed. “Ultimately, both Bossi and the hapless Constance met their ends tragically – he by the bullet of an assassin and she by the knife of an irresponsible surgeon.”
The Lancet, the leading medical journal, has taken the evidence seriously and will publish a paper on Friday jointly written by Holland and Ashley H Robins, a specialist at the University of Cape Town medical school in South Africa.
Holland said he hoped that having the evidence peer-reviewed in the Lancet would put an end to speculation about his grandmother’s death.
It brings closure, he says, for Constance, who died less than a year after her husband’s release from prison.
Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned for homosexual acts in 1895.Photograph: Merlin Holland Archive
Hers was a troubled life. Constance and her brother were brought up by their grandfather after their mother remarried. She married Wilde in 1884 and, after his imprisonment for homosexual acts in 1895, fled with their two boys to Europe, changing their surname to Holland, an ancestral family name, eventually settling near Genoa.
The papers include around 130 letters between Constance and her brother, dating from 1878 until her death.
Holland said: “While my mother was alive, she didn’t particularly want anyone to have access to letters … She [was] frightened of what, in an age of sensationalising everything, someone might do with them.”
One biography refers to spinal injury caused by a fall at her home, while another records a gynaecological operation, but there were few details.
Holland said: “People somehow never put two and two together and thought: ‘Why is a gynaecologist operating on her spine?’”
The letters reveal that Bossi undertook surgery that involved removing fibroids, or benign tumours. Holland said: “He had totally wrongly diagnosed what was the matter with her – although the fibroids were there, even today, operating on fibroids … is dangerous. In those days … it was an extremely dangerous operation.”
The Lancet paper includes passages from her letters. In 1894, she wrote: “I am alright when I don’t walk.” By 1895, her walking had deteriorated, and she reported that Bossi “undertakes to make me quite well in six weeks and I shall be glad to be able to walk again”. But her hopes were dashed. She wrote in 1896: “I am lamer than ever and have almost given up hope of ever getting well again.”
In closing this chapter of his grandmother’s life, Holland said: “I rather feel it will put Constance to rest, poor thing.”