Monday, February 22, 2010

Oscar Wilde... Malmaison... and French Empire Style...

Oscar Wilde would have to be one of Britain's most notorious literary and social figures. - for no other reason than being himself. He was jailed, although he committed no crime, and was forced to live in exile upon his release, in Paris - which I think probably suited him quite well, except for his hovel accommodation (though Wilde did say " A man who lives within his means lacks imagination").

Wilde was born in 1854, the son of a prominent Irish doctor, whose mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, wrote writing revolutionary poems under the pseudonym "Speranza" for a weekly Irish newspaper, The Nation. He had an older brother, William, and a younger sister, Isola, who died from a sudden fever in infancy. Oscar was profoundly affected by the loss of his sister, and for his lifetime he carried a lock of her hair sealed in a decorated envelope.

Both the Wilde boys attended the Portora Royal School at Enniskillen, where Oscar excelled at studying the classics, and was awarded the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin. Again, he did particularly well in his classics courses, placing first in his examinations in 1872 and earning the highest honor the college could bestow on an undergraduate, a Foundation Scholarship. In 1874, Oscar crowned his successes at Trinity with two final achievements. He won the college's Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek and was awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College in Oxford.

Oscar's father died in 1876, leaving them hard-up. Henry, William's eldest son, paid the mortgage on the family's house and supported them until his sudden death in 1877. Meanwhile, Oscar continued to do well at Oxford. He was awarded the Newdigate prize for his poem, “Ravenna,” and a First Class in both his "Mods" and "Greats" by his examiners. After graduation, Oscar moved to London to live with his friend Frank Miles, a popular high society portrait painter. In 1881, he published his first collection of poetry. “Poems” received mixed reviews by critics, but helped to move Oscar's writing career along.

In December 1881, Oscar traveled to New York and across the United States to deliver a series of lectures on aesthetics. The 50-lecture tour was originally scheduled to last four months, but stretched to nearly a year. In between lectures he met with Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman.

When he returned from America, Oscar spent three months in Paris before setting off on a lecture tour of Britain and Ireland.

On May 29, 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd. Constance was the daughter of a prominent barrister. She was well-read, spoke several European languages and had an outspoken, independent mind. Oscar and Constance had two sons, Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886. With a family to support, Oscar accepted a job writing for a women's magazine, where he worked from 1887-1889. The next six years were to become the most creative period of his life. He published two collections of children's stories, “The Happy Prince and Other Tales” (1888), and “The House of Pomegranates” (1892). His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in an American magazine in 1890 to a storm of critical protest. He expanded the story and had it published in book form the following year. Its implied homoerotic theme was considered very immoral by the Victorians and played a considerable part in his later legal trials.

I particularly like this clip from the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which is a story cobbled together about fictitious characters coming together to save the world. In this clip we meet Wilde's character Dorian Gray, get to see his fantastic bachelor's pad, and hear the priceless line at the end of the clip "I'm complicated".

Dorian Gray was made into a film last year...

Wilde's first play, “Lady Windermere's Fan,” opened in February 1892. Its financial and critical success prompted him to continue to write for the theater. His subsequent plays included “A Woman of No Importance” (1893), “An Ideal Husband” (1895), and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). These plays were all highly acclaimed and firmly established Oscar as a playwright. Here are the trailers for the film adaptations of these plays...

An Ideal Husband

The Importance of being Earnest

A Good Woman (Lady Windermere's Fan)

In the summer of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas, the third son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Bosie was well acquainted with Oscar's novel “Dorian Gray” and was an undergraduate at Oxford. They soon became lovers and were inseparable until Wilde's arrest four years later. In April 1895, Oscar sued Bosie's father for libel as the Marquis had accused him of homosexuality. Oscar withdrew his case but was himself arrested and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. Constance took the children to Switzerland and reverted to an old family name, “Holland.”

Above and Below: Oscar and Bosie

Upon his release, Oscar wrote “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a response to the agony he experienced in prison. It was published shortly before Constance's death in 1898. He and Bosie reunited briefly, but Oscar mostly spent the last three years of his life wandering Europe, staying with friends and living in cheap hotels.

He died in Paris, of meningitis in 1900
and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery. I visited his grave in 2002:

Numerous books and articles have been written on Oscar Wilde, reflecting on the life and contributions of this unconventional author since his death over a hundred years ago. A celebrity in his own time, Wilde’s indelible influence remains as strong as ever.

...And for every little boy who found (much to their chagrin) that their rapier wit was not enough to cut a school yard bully to their knees, there is the Oscar Wilde Action figure (One couldn't make these things up if One tried!)...

Wilde's favourite scent was Malmaison by Floris, which is the scent I wore on my wedding day.

Floris of London, is the oldest perfumery in the world founded in 1730.

The main scent in Malmaison is, of course, the Malmaison Carnation. It was created in the 19th century, in an era when Malmaison Carnations had become all the rage within the elegant circles of society since their introductions from France in the early 1860s. Named afterJoséphine de Beauharnais’ residence of La Malmaison , they soon intoxicated England. They were commonly displayed by the fashion-conscious as a buttonhole or corsage accessory whose heady spicy scent was but another mark of refinement and distinction. Oscar Wilde is famous for having had a fetish for the bloom, which he liked to dye each day anew in green. Apart from the carnation, it has top notes of Cinnamon, Clove, Lemon, Midtones of Rose and Yland, and base notes of Cedarwood, Musk, Patchouli, and Vanilla.

Here is how the experts describe it...
Malmaison eau de toilette is a rich carnation scent that through the interplay of different layers of secondary notes imposes its main character nevertheless as being carnation throughout. The scent is therefore linear in that sense. But there is also the sense that it rests upon a more complex bouquet of flowers and woods, hence a rather rich feel, if not openly complex. Complexity has in this manner a supporting role rather than a main role. The scent opens on an impression of spicy carnation that is powdery, softly sweet and woody with marked clove nuances bordering on the medicinal, but not quite.There are subtle almond-y undertones, reminiscent of heliotrope, on an aqueous and green background. The progression of the perfume is not dramatic although there are shifts in nuances as next, the powdery character fades into a creamier heart where the piquancy of sandalwood comes more to the fore. Fresher floral notes of narcissus and lily of the valley seem to escape inadvertently from the rich, warm concoction revealing in fact the restrained and balanced personality of the fragrance containing fresher notes in its core. The woody and powdery-musky dry-down is the surprise of the scent. With time, this stage becomes more and more distinctive. It is extremely seductive betraying a dark purple and dark red tonality, an overripe fruity-floral nuance, and a deep sensuality that one did not expect to encounter. For this reason, we would be tempted to classify Malmaison as one of those “closet-musk” scents that we find particularly attractive, as they reveal their deeper and very efficient erotic personalities only after some patient waiting. It mimics in this sense the dynamic of a well-regulated courtship. It makes one feel each time like waiting for that moment of rejoining with the loved one and introduces a structure of secrecy and anticipation in the perfume that is very alluring and sexy.

I think it may take more than a Malmaison carnation to make some people alluring and sexy

Although the Malmaison carnation originated in France, its cultivation was perfected in Great Britain. ‘Old Blush’ or ‘Souvenir de la Malmaison’. so called because it resembled the flowers of the Bourbon rose of that name, first came to this country during the I860 s. By the end of the century a number of cultivars were being grown and they had become the flower of fashion for the London Season. All have a distinctive fragrance of cloves and their natural flowering time is from June to August.

Chateau de Malmaison

Josephine Beauharnais (below) bought this manor house in 1799 while Napoléon (then a general) was away fighting in the Egyptian campaign. Malmaison was a run-down estate, eight miles west of Paris that encompassed nearly 150 acres of woods and meadows.

She had paid well over 300,000 francs for the house, which needed extensive renovations and cost her an additional fortune.

Joséphine endeavored to transform the large estate into "the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation". She actively sought out flora and fauna along with rare and exotic animals from around the world. In 1800, Joséphine built a heated orangery large enough for 300 pineapple plants. Five years later, she ordered the building of a greenhouse, heated by a dozen coal-burning stoves. From 1803 until her death in 1814, Josephine cultivated nearly 200 new plants in France for the first time.

The property achieved enduring fame for its rose garden. Empress Joséphine had an artist record her roses. She grew some 250 varieties of roses.

Above: Josephine in her Rose Garden

Birds and animals of all sorts began to enrich her garden, where they were allowed to roam free among the grounds. At the height of her days at Malmaison, Joséphine had the company of kangaroos, black swans, zebras, sheep, gazelles, ostriches, chamois, a seal, antelopes and llamas to name a few.

After her divorce from Napoléon, Joséphine received Malmaison in her own right, along with a pension of 5 million francs a year, and remained there until her death in 1814.

The Gardens are still well maintained today...

The decor and landscaping of Malmaison made it the archetype of the Empire style. Napoleon engaged two fashionable Neoclassical architects, Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine, in the renovation and decoration of Malmaison. Influenced by the recent discoveries of artifacts at Pompeii and Herculaneum, the architects proposed to base their redesign on a Roman style decor reminiscent of the days of Caesar, combined with contemporary military motifs, like tents (an example of which can be seen in the design of the entrance of the house in this print), an idea that appealed to Napoleon.

The Empire style...

Above and Below: Two Drawing rooms at Malmaison.
In the drawing room above there is a painting showing Tsar Alexander I with Josephine and her two children by her first marriage to Count Alexandre de Beauharnais.

Above and Below: Interior photographs of Malmaison

Above: Josephine's Bedroom

Above: Napoleons Bedroom

Below: Napoleon's Library

Chairs in the Empire style at Malmaison...

Napoleon's Throne (The Louvre)

Details of French Empire Furniture...

A modern take of the Empire Style...

After her divorce from Napoleon in 1809, because she was unable to bear him an heir, Josephine retired to Malmaison, but the couple still remained on friendly terms. In 1814, after the comprehensive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the allies entered Paris and the Russian Tsar Alexander I, who had personally led his troops into battle, visited and became friendly with Josephine. More may have come of this friendship, but Josephine died suddenly after catching a chill while out walking.

For my abridged biography of Napoleon and Josephine, see my post tomorrow...


  1. what a gorgeous and full bodied post. I am constantly looking at Oscar Wilde for post inspirations. I reread Dorian Gray recently and always think as it ends-I will pick it up again in a year or two. Peeling back the Oscar layers is "complicated" thank you for the inclusion of the movies. I am working through a post now with an Oscar Wilde twist and would like to link yours to it-if I may.-la

  2. Super post.

    I spent a full day at Malmaison house and gardens a few years ago, and had a great time. I thought you were going to say that Oscar Wilde spent some happy hours in Josephine's beautiful garden after he was released from gaol and exiled onto the Continent.

    There is a sadness about both Oscar Wilde and Josephine Beauharnais, I think. Both made a contribution to their societies and yet both were cut down in their prime. What a waste :(

  3. Of course you can Little Augury. Thank you. D.

  4. It's been a tough day at work, but it's just disappeared. I scrolled down this marvellous post & stopped dead at the Duchess of Cornwall's image. Your comment has caused much laughter (& agreement!) across the ditch. Humour is the best medicine - every inference meant!
    Millie ^_^

  5. A year ago I wrote about Oscar Wilde's politics after he arrived in France for his final exile. Thank you for an excellent link



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