Portrait of a scandal
What links Sherlock Holmes, an Oscar Wilde play and the House of Windsor? The scandal behind Sir Edward John Poynter’s painting, ‘Helen’.
When we look at Poynter’s oil painting ‘Helen’*, we see a portrait of the mythical Helen of Troy, whose fatal beauty sparked the Trojan War. Helen exists for us only as an imaginary character. However, when the Victorians saw Poynter’s work exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881, they saw a double portrait: one of both Helen of Troy and Society beauty Lillie Langtry, who had posed for Poynter. The implication was clear: Lillie was not only a beautiful woman, but an adulteress. It was common knowledge in Society circles that although Lillie was married to Edward Langtry—a man who wasted his life and fortune on drinking and gambling—she was also the mistress of Flirty Bertie, the Prince of Wales and future King Edward VII.
Over the years, Lillie Langtry had affairs not only with the Prince but with several men, including Prince Louis of Battenberg and the Earl of Shrewsbury. Lillie then had a child, possibly fathered by Arthur Jones or Prince Louis, but she kept her daughter Jeanne Marie hidden away and in ignorance of her parentage.
Both Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were inspired to use Lillie Langtry as a scandalous, strong, and elusive fictional character in their works.
Early in his career, when he was a famous personality with little writing to his name, Oscar Wilde became one of Lillie Langtry’s most public admirers and friends. Langtry and Wilde had met in 1876. With his knack for generating publicity, Wilde recognised that publicly paying tribute to Lillie Langtry would be beneficial for his career and hers. Wilde had dedicated his poem ‘The New Helen’ to Lillie, whom he addressed as “Helen, formerly of Troy, and now of London”. The poem was published in The Times in 1879, a year before Poynter asked Lillie to pose as ‘Helen’, establishing the idea that Lillie Langtry was the greatest beauty of her time. Wilde enthused that Lillie’s appearance conformed to the classical Greek ideals he upheld and Victorian artists and photographers clamoured to capture her likeness.
Lillie attracted Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s attention as well. The 1891 Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia takes inspiration from Lillie’s life as a royal mistress. In the story, opera singer Irene Adler uses a photograph to blackmail the King of Bohemia, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein, over his affair with her. Like the Prince of Wales, Cassel-Felstein’s official bride is a Scandinavian princess. Cassel-Felstein hires Sherlock Holmes to thwart Irene, but she eludes Holmes and earns his lasting—if reluctant—admiration as The Woman, the only one clever enough to fascinate and outwit him. The King, dazzled by the ingenuity of his former lover, says that Irene Adler would have made “an admirable queen”.
When Lillie Langtry’s husband was close to bankruptcy and her role as royal mistress had ended, Oscar Wilde convinced her to become an actress. In one of those fateful connections that appear in his life, Wilde introduced Lillie to the actress Henrietta Hodson, who began coaching Lillie in 1881. Henrietta was at this time romantically involved with, and later married to, Liberal MP Henry Labouchère, the man who instigated the legal changes—the Labouchère Amendment—that later led to Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’. (Under Labouchère’s amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill of 1885, any kind of sexual activity between men became a crime, although the original purpose of the Bill had been to raise the age of consent for women from 13 to 16, not to criminalise all forms of male homosexuality.)
Having helped Lillie establish an acting career, Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1891 and asked her to play the leading role of Mrs Erlynne. One of the characters says of Mrs Erlynne “Many a woman has a past, but I am told that she has at least a dozen, and that they all fit.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Play About Good Woman, is Wilde’s tribute to Lillie’s resilience, courage and élan. Wilde’s plays expose society’s hypocrisy and Lady Windermere’s Fan turns conventional morality on its head. Mrs Erlynne, who is viewed by Society as a fallen woman and a shameless, heartless adulteress, turns out to be a self-sacrificing mother. Publicly, Mrs Erlynne is a charming, frivolous cynic. Privately, she reveals a seriousness and desire to do good, particularly for her illegitimate daughter Margaret. Only the audience discovers that Mrs Erlynne is in fact the Good Woman of the play’s subtitle; Society goes on viewing her with disdain.
Lillie Langtry, however, was not equal to Wilde’s challenge of playing a character so close to her true self. In her memoirs, The Days I Knew, Lillie recalled:
“He [Oscar Wilde] called one afternoon, with an important air and a roll of manuscript … and said: ‘There is a play which I have written for you.’
‘What is my part? I asked …
‘A woman,’ he replied ‘with a grown-up illegitimate daughter.’
‘My dear Oscar,’ I remonstrated, ‘am I old enough to have a grown-up daughter of any description?’ … And, in spite of his entreaties, I refused to hear the play.”
Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew
Wilde went away disappointed, and wrote these lines for Mrs Erlynne: “Besides, my dear Windermere, how on earth could I pose as a mother with a grown-up daughter? Margaret is twenty-one, and I have never admitted that I am more than twenty-nine, or thirty at the most.”
Lady Windermere’s Fan was first performed at the St James’s Theatre in London on 20 February 1892. Mrs Erlynne was played by Marion Terry. Towards the play’s conclusion, Mrs Erlynne says “I lost one illusion last night. I thought I had no heart. I find I have, and a heart doesn’t suit me, Windermere. Somehow it doesn’t go with modern dress. It makes one look old. And it spoils one’s career at critical moments.”
*I cannot reproduce Poynter’s ‘Helen’ in this post as the Art Gallery of New South Wales retains copyright, but you can see it on their site.
- ‘Deathless Beauty: Poynter’s Helen, Lillie Langtry and High Victorian Ideals of Beauty’ by Alison Inglis in Love and Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria, Art Gallery of South Australia
- Lillie Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals by Laura Beatty, Chatto and Windus, 1999
- Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction by Angela Kingston, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
- Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, Hamish Hamilton, 1987