Last fall, I undertook an independent study on the works of Oscar Wilde with Dr. Alexis Easley. When we began to study his fairy tales, I realized for the first time that one of them, “The Selfish Giant,” was one of my favorite childhood stories that my dad used to read to me. Intrigued, I researched these fairy tales further and discovered one of his wife’s fairy tale collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, a beautifully illustrated book that included five fairy tales and four nursery rhymes. Basic research revealed that Constance Wilde was a writer, editor, and public speaker who was an important voice in late nineteenth-century Britain, and as I learned more about her, I realized her work had been buried for over one hundred years. I knew that I needed to find out more about her.
During this last spring semester, Dr. Easley and I began the application process for the Luann Dummer Center for Women Undergraduate Fellowship Grant opportunity. Constance Wilde’s works have been out of print since she was first published in the late nineteenth century, so part of my application requested funding to travel to London in order to research her works at the British Library. Needless to say, we were ecstatic when I was informed that, out of all the possible applicants, we were awarded the grant. This trip to London was quite possibly my favorite part of the project. In the midst of traveling through the underground train system, getting lost for hours in the British Library pouring over books, letters, and documents from the nineteenth century, I discovered her amazing work for the Rational Dress Society, where she was the lead editor for the Society’s Gazette from April of 1888 to July 1889. Her work centered on the idea of healthy and sensible dress for young girls and women without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of fashion. As editor, Constance Wilde’s work was crucial in getting the necessary health information out to women in order to encourage them to take charge of both their own and their children’s health, especially relating to their habits of dress.
One of the exciting opportunities I have had with this project so far was a presentation of my first research paper on Constance Wilde, focusing on her journalistic career with the Rational Dress Society, at the Streamlines Undergraduate English Conference in Dubuque, Iowa. The conference was a fantastic experience! Presentations were given by students from all over the United States, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to them. I also loved the opportunity to share my own research and to hear what questions people had about it. The unique quality of this particular conference is the wide variety of topics students can present on, such as creative writing (fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction), presentations on films, literary theory, the classics, global issues, identity, women in literature, and even one on handwriting in our culture. It was intellectually rich with all of these topics and more!
Since my paper had to do with a female writer, I was placed in a panel that focused on the subject of women in literature. The other students in my panel had fascinating and excellent papers and it was intriguing to see that all of our papers tied together without our realizing or planning it. After we had all presented our papers, one of the audience members brought that to our attention, and it sparked a fantastic discussion that went in multiple directions. It was an incredible day, as the faculty, students, and everyone listening to the panels were supportive and interested in the work we were sharing. It was truly a worthwhile experience, and I hope to attend the conference again in the future simply for the pure enjoyment of it.
The next step for my research on Constance Wilde will be an article on her collections of fairy tales, which I will be submitting this upcoming May to the International English Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta. In the introduction to one of her collections, There Was Once! Grandma’s Stories, Constance Wilde tells children the story about the way these fairy tales were handed down to her orally by her grandmother. Through this, she draws attention to the importance of women’s relationships in the storytelling tradition. She highlights this process of transmission, honoring her foremother and making her own contribution to the retelling of these classic tales. One of my greatest hopes in carrying out this research project is to shine light on Constance Wilde’s work, highlighting her authorial achievements with more precision and promoting greater understanding of who she truly was – a unique and important writer of the late Victorian era.
Meaghan Scott is a senior majoring in English. Two of her favorite literary eras are the Medieval and Victorian, and some of the authors she’s especially enjoyed studying are Dante, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Constance Wilde, just to name a few. However, she also loves fantasy literature in general, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, who she will be studying in Dr. Martin Warren’s Tolkien: Middle Earth/Middle Ages class. She is currently applying to graduate English programs in Ireland and Minnesota in order to continue her studies in English Literature.