MOORHEAD - Two years of research and 800 pages of letters later, Amy Watkin still doesn’t know all there is to know about Constance Wilde.
Watkin, an associate professor of English at Concordia College, is writing a historical fiction novel about Oscar Wilde’s little-known wife, and the project has become one of the biggest in her academic career.
“There’s so much written about Oscar, and most people don’t know Constance even existed,” she said.
Watkin was writing another book – about how to write about the literature of Oscar Wilde – when she came across Constance’s name, and it was a surprise. She had no idea that he had been married.
In the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde was sent to prison for “homosexual behavior,” so Watkin’s first thought was how did that affect his wife?
She immediately wrote two pages of questions, which she still has and is still trying to answer.
“What do you do when you find out your husband is gay? When did she know that her husband was gay? How do you deal with your family who hates him but you still love him?”
Although she has accumulated 800 pages of Constance Wilde’s letters from libraries across the world, answers remain elusive. And in her attempt to make a cohesive novel, she has had to toe the line between perfect accuracy and educated guessing.
“It’s been a little bit of a struggle because it’s really important to me that this book is historically accurate but … what matters here is the emotional content of the story,” she said.
Watkin’s obsession with accuracy is obvious. Over the summer, she had two student assistants who studied everything from divorce laws of the era to patterns that would have been on Constance’s wallpaper.
One day, junior Jacey Mitziga spent eight hours searching for the first name of one of Constance’s physicians, a man Constance referred to as “Mr. Bossi.”
“They say everything’s on the Internet, but you actually have to dig for it,” Mitziga said.
The more Watkin learns about Constance, the more she feels a kinship with the socially awkward, pants-wearing, introverted writer.
“Sometimes I think she and I are really very similar, and I wonder if it’s because I’ve become more like her, or I’ve made her more like me,” she said.
It makes sense that Watkin would feel a connection.
Constance was 40 when she died; Watkin is 39 years old. Constance’s boys were 9 and 10 when their father went to prison; Watkin’s son is 10 now.
But Watkin also believes that the story of a woman torn between her work as a feminist lecturer and her role as a mother speaks to countless others.
“She wanted it all and wasn’t sure how to get it,” Watkin said. “Not only myself, but a lot of women can relate to that.”
She is taking a sabbatical in the spring to finish and revise the book, after which she will look for an agent and publisher.
She will be presenting on Constance Wilde with Mitziga and James Hakala, also a student assistant, Tuesday evening on the Concordia campus.