The story of a young woman’s affair with a pillar of society

Now I write this diary, my only place to speak freely,’ confesses Mary Travers in Eibhear Walshe’s historical fiction, which mixes fact with literary flourish.

Walshe, an English lecturer at University College Cork, takes us back to the streets of Victorian Dublin with his first novel, the imagined personal diary and letters of one Mary Travers, a writer in her fifties who leads a seemingly quiet life with her sister in Cork. Mary, it turns out, was not always so good.

When she was a young and impressionable woman she had been involved in a scandal with a married man and philanderer, Dr William Wilde, the eminent physician and serial seducer who was also Oscar Wilde’s father.

Walshe’s novel retells this true chapter in the life of the older doctor and his young lover using the forms of communication of the day – pamphlets, diary entries and personal correspondence.

It begins with Mary reading newspaper reports about the libel trial of Oscar Wilde as the playwright faces disgrace and imprisonment.

Distressed by the press’s unsympathetic and brutal treatment of Wilde, Mary recalls how she also experienced public shaming herself following the bitter end of her love affair with Dr Wilde three decades earlier.

With a growing sense of agitation, she is forced to look back on the libel trial she was involved in herself, an action for defamation she took against Oscar Wilde’s mother.

Mary Travers had been a longterm patient of Dr Wilde and was the daughter of a colleague. Naive and in love with this charming older man – who was by then already the father of three children outside marriage – she and the noted eye surgeon began an affair that lasted for some time, but which the doctor finished when his wife became pregnant.

Heartbroken and looking for revenge, Mary circulated a pamphlet in which she crudely parodied Dr Wilde and his wife Lady Jane Wilde as ‘Dr and Mrs Quilp’. The pamphlet claimed Dr Quilp was the rapist of a woman patient whom he had drugged with chloroform. She distributed these outside the building where Dr Wilde was about to give a public lecture.

Lady Wilde, who wrote poetry and stories under the pen name Speranza, made accusations in a letter to Mary’s father, Robert, a colleague of her husband’s, and as a result Mary sued the Wildes for defamation.

When the case was heard, with Isaac Butt, one of Lady Wilde’s old flames, representing the Wildes, all Dublin was agog at the scandal. William Wilde refused to give evidence, an action that ultimately ruined his reputation, but his wife did and she argued that his philandering had no bearing on the case. Lady Wilde’s generosity towards her husband and her brilliant performance on the witness stand made all the difference.

Although the court found Lady Wilde’s letter to be libellous, they awarded Mary the derisory sum of one farthing in damages — ridiculing her in the process. Years later, a more mature Mary comes to realise the true impact of her actions and is full of regrets.

Sir William Wilde, one of Ireland’s greatest eye and ear surgeons, who established Dublin’s Eye and Ear Hospital, was humiliated by the public exposure of his many affairs and the children he had fathered – and supported – throughout his life. He withdrew from public life and spent his final years at his Galway home.

Another casualty was Robert Travers, Assistant Keeper of Marsh’s Library in Dublin – in 1872, in the wake of the scandal involving his daughter, he was passed over for the position of Keeper of the institution. Stung by the snub, he left Marsh’s. Walshe’s Mary Travers emerges as a very modern and human character. Credible and fully rounded, she will no doubt speak to readers. Presented with fragments of her letters and diaries, the reader is invited to assume the role of historian in order to weave together a coherent narrative and decide who is responsible for Mary’s sorry fate – though Mary herself does not hesitate to take her share of the blame.

‘Years later, Mary comes to realise the impact of her actions and is full of regrets’

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Mathilde Frot, The Irish Mail on Sunday, 2014.