The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and W.B. Yeats, by Adrian Frazier, Lilliput Press, 320 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1843516781
Beyond dispute are Maud Gonne’s energy, initiative, charisma, and height. At an eye-catching six feet or more (6’5” is the tallest hero-worshipping estimate I’ve read; Adrian Frazier gives us 6’2”), she was tall but not pointlessly tall, tall beyond utility as Martin Amis claimed of Nicholson Baker. Her height, once she got into her stride, usefully gave her a leg up in a pre-Pathé News, pre-TV era of street politics, of milling crowds, marches, riots and open-air platforms. She was always visible and early came to relish and exploit that visibility (a literal high profile). Adrian Frazier’s new book recreates for me, for the first time, and perhaps without that intention, the sheer physicality of the woman, endlessly on the move from house to house, office to office, country to country (and sometimes lover to lover), cutting a swathe, it seems like, through men shorter than herself and often under her feet, getting between her and the mirage of a free independent Irish republic. She seems to have turned up everywhere in turbulent Ireland from the Land League to the Emergency, a larger-than-life Zelig but far from content with a minor role, instead elbowing her way to centre stage even when she wasn’t invited (which she usually was).
Frazier’s portrait of Gonne in its essential commotion is very different from my previous impression of her as a figure whose actions, such as trying to hurl the little streets upon the great, nonetheless had the static quality of heraldry. For Yeats her beauty was a tightened bow and out of nature, unique for her own day. “She lived in storm and strife,” Yeats may write (“That the Night Come”, 1912), but her “high and solitary and most stern” beauty is the frozen image that prevails. The women she was compared to, Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Pallas Athene, or embodied, Cathleen ni Houlihan, Deirdre and the Countess Cathleen, reinforced for me this heraldic and essentially symbolic condition in which I came to think of her, suspending my moral and even political judgement. Her photographs are to me of a handsome and impressive rather than beautiful woman, but that is no doubt because standards of beauty change, and in any case her handsomeness is in harness with symbolism rather than sexual attraction which always implies incipient movement. In the photographs reproduced of her she is always posing; that seems true even when she is on stage; apparently as Cathleen ni Houlihan she addressed the audience in stately fashion and ignored the other characters. I had remembered Mary Colum as a sharp-eyed memoirist but going back to Life and the Dream (1947) I find a boundlessly admiring portrait of Gonne that admits no reservation, a portrait unmoving in its perfection, despite her memory of Gonne’s “protean personality moving on various planes”. Colum’s last sighting of her is as an elderly woman at College Green addressing the usual assembly in a familiar tableau and described by a writer friend, as though she were a monument, as the most beautiful ruin in Ireland.
The blurb describes Frazier’s The Adulterous Muse as “a captivating book” and if that means merely that it is a page-turner or entertains the reader then the blurb is right. Certainly Frazier unravels the fascinating political intrigues and conspiracies Gonne apparently relished as well as the secretiveness (though mostly the compartmentalism, as it turns out), of much of her personal life. But more seriously this is a liberating rather than captivating book. It liberates us from the Yeatsian image of Gonne most of us have lived with – springs her from the extended and dutiful footnote she inhabited – and gives us instead the autobiographical fiction she herself wrote and inhabited and the real narrative behind that, as Frazier sees it. It gives us the information by which the reader can take the measure of this – all-things-considered – deplorably influential woman; a major theme of the book is the error of underestimating the political influence Gonne exerted.
Frazier’s chief contribution is to shrink Yeats in Gonne’s life and to detail the extent and nature of her political affiliations and actions in France, of which Yeats and her own followers (some of them blind followers) were largely ignorant. As a result, Gonne is liberated (though her shade may regret this) from the Yeats oeuvre to become a larger, more complex and more dangerous figure certainly than I realised. (Refreshingly, Frazier calls his subject “Maud Gonne” throughout, instead of by her first name, in the manner of studies of women by admiring female critics or condescending male critics. Frazier is squaring up to a formidable historical figure.) It would be a mistake to say that she emerges a more rounded figure: her own compartmentalism means her portrait is more like a Cubist depiction, of intersecting planes more violent than Colum implies. The republicanism she embraced, with the surrogate monarchism and soul-mysticism of the Celtic Revival thrown in, we already know about. But what I hadn’t really registered was the ruthlessness of that republicanism she eagerly flaunted with a threatening sexual charisma (readily shaming men for their lack of manliness if they weren’t as extremist as she) and incited others to put into practice. Nor was I aware of her ideologically unsavoury French bedfellows, metaphorically and even literally. The gist of the French connection is accounted for in Nancy Cardozo’s Maud Gonne: Lucky Eyes and a High Heart (1979), but Frazier is more detailed and negatively judgemental in the matter.
Alongside our ignorance of the nature and extent of that connection, Yeats’s image of her has seemed to pre-empt any moral judgement of this woman’s views and actions. Their relationship was highly complex, as Frazier demonstrates (to some extent following Deirdre Toomey in the matter of sex), occasionally having recourse to some elementary Freudianism which conveniently accords with the interpretation of dreams Gonne and Yeats went in for. After all, Yeats admitted that the woman had caused him heartache (“she filled my days / With misery”), that she abused her class and position by preaching violence “to ignorant men”, and that she was an inciter of hatred. Yet, oddly, he blamed those who followed her (who lacked courage) rather than her (who didn’t) and we seem to have followed his cue. For him she occupied a different order of being from mere violence in the real world and so was unaccountable in the ordinary (that is, moral) way. “No Second Troy” (1908) consists of four questions that are rhetorical only in the sense that they are not answered in the poem and are themselves the poem. But they are not rhetorical in so far as they are answered by implication. Why should I blame her? You shouldn’t. What could have made her peaceful? Nothing. How could she have been otherwise than she is? She couldn’t. Was there another Troy for her to burn? No. Similarly, the famous question in “Man and the Echo” (1938) – “Did that play of mine, etc?” – is not rhetorical in so far as the question is simply unanswerable, though the poet has tried night after night to do so, he says. These are quarrels of a kind with himself (out of which he is making poetry) and which he contrasted to rhetoric, which is a quarrel with others.
But we needn’t accept Yeats’s special or intensely personal pleading (powerful and eloquent though it be) except as a figure in his auto-mythography. And Yeats’s familiar and scrupulous broadcast of pronouns (“her”, “this man”, “that woman”, “certain men”, etc), by which he anonymises in the service of legend and drama, authorises us, as it were, to turn to the historical Gonne instead, which Frazier has done. In this biography of Gonne up until 1916, neither Yeats nor John MacBride is the chief man, lover and influence in Gonne’s life but instead Lucien Millevoye, a French politician. (This reconfiguration should of course have its effect on Yeats studies themselves.) Being Yeats’s muse was for most of Gonne’s career a sideline, while she regretted marrying the prudish, violent, drunken (if courageous) MacBride almost as soon as the ink was dry on the marriage certificate. In Frazier’s account, it was Millevoye, whom she met in France in 1887, who gave aim and objective to Gonne’s vague political energies. He came to maturity with a smouldering sense of grievance over the humiliation of the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine. Since he was, as Frazier deems him, a “proto-Nazi”, it is hard not to think of the later German corporal smouldering with resentment over the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. Millevoye threw himself into seeking to overthrow the French government in favour of a right-wing Catholic Bonapartist regime spearheaded by General Boulanger. Gonne was to become Millevoye’s helpmeet in the causes of regaining Alsace-Lorraine and restoring France to glory, in return for which he would help her in the cause of driving England out of Ireland. He professed to loathe England (because England had vanquished Napoleon) as much as she did, though she was in fact an Englishwoman. It does not matter that it may have been only in hindsight (when she published A Servant of the Queen, 1938) that she thought General Boulanger was insufficiently ruthless to lead a French political revolution: that shows that even in her seventies she prized ruthlessness above the gallantry and charm she saw in Boulanger when they met. Her own boldness initially stretched to smuggling proposals from the Boulangist party to St Petersburg that would damage English diplomatic interests, and this apparently generated a thirst for conspiracy, recklessness and treason which she happily slaked for the rest of her life.
Gonne has Millevoye tell her: “At times, the genius of a nation incarnates itself in a man,” and the political corollary of that: “outstanding genius alone gives the right to rule despotically. The greatness of nations depends on their willingness to recognise this.” Hence Napoleon’s France, hence hopefully Boulanger’s France (hence Hitler’s Germany). The logical polity ensuing is what Frazier calls plebiscitary dictatorship. Before long Gonne saw herself as the candidate incarnation, but of Ireland not France. (Yeats’s poems must surely have encouraged her in this self-promotion.) Despite her English birth and family (with some Irish admixture), she took to referring to the Irish as “us” and “our race”. In A Servant of the Queen, Millevoye’s belief is repeated in an Irish context: the “national soul” (always a dangerous figment) “may incarnate itself temporarily in individuals from any class, for the spirit bloweth where it listeth”, and the reference to class may have been meant to obviate any disqualification of herself based on her own moneyed English social status. When Frazier has Yeats criticising her for consorting with the mob rather than working on more rarefied projects with the few, like him, she manages in her retort to have it both ways: “Willie I have always told you I am the voice, the soul of the crowd.” And so A Servant of the Queen has modest observations like these, almost as refrains: “great cheers were raised when they recognised me”; “The hall was packed as we went on the platform and great cheers were raised for Maud Gonne”; “I as the guest of honour”; “I was at the height of my popularity in France”, and so on. There are several episodes in the memoir of minor as well as major contests and she always makes sure she comes out on top, particularly if the competition is English.
The greatest recognition came through seditious and revolutionary views. At one time she teamed up with James Connolly to instruct tenants in time of want to steal the landlords’ cattle and sheep. Lady Gregory, Frazier reminds us, asked Yeats to restrain her from encouraging robbery, knowing that should Gonne go to prison for incitement to crime she would “gain by it the notoriety she wants”, hence her reckless outlawry. (Later, Gonne got some private revenge by attributing Yeats’s turn from nationalist activism to art for art’s sake to Gregory’s influence.) Many contemporaries saw Gonne’s long love affair with notoriety as a primary motive but Yeats’s Gonne, a beautiful and lofty Olympian, has long ago eclipsed them. So too has Gonne’s own “auto-mythification”, a phrase Frazier borrows from Anna Magny. This required a severe rearrangement and blue-pencilling of the life, both at the time and afterwards in memoir (she “ravelled her own story” – Yeats). Even during the fornication with Millevoye, and after, his wife is erased; her own two children by her lover are unknown to Yeats and others in Ireland; in her telling in 1938 neither lover nor children are acknowledged as such. (Her sexual affairs don’t bother me in the least; I am merely pointing out how in her self-portraiture she was parsimonious with the truth.) In the memoir, only French episodes that suggest a parallel between France and Ireland are related, and the murkier aspects of the French right are avoided. Some of these omissions in life and letters are for understandable reasons of reputation and even legality since in France and Ireland in those days an unmarried mother would have paid the price of social dereliction and suffered loss of custody. When MacBride discovered his bride’s past he was shocked irrevocably. Yeats’s mythography was proof against similar personal damage and if anything, in Frazier’s telling, strengthened his idea of their higher spiritual marriage.
The one thing Gonne was not coy or evasive about was the need for violence against England. She was wedded to that idea more than to any man. Even given the hard times that were in it in late Victorian and Edwardian Ireland (those inhuman evictions), and the understandable conviction that parliamentarism was failing Ireland, Gonne’s addiction to violence was deplorable, the more so because, as The New York Times once observed (quoted by Frazier), she was protected by her sex. Frazier is but the messenger in this regard: we need only return to her own words. I had not read A Servant of the Queen for thirty-odd years but when I opened it after reading Frazier, I found it, while still vigorous and insightful (she is a lively storyteller), exasperating and chilling in equal measure. How had I been so blasé about it when I was teaching Irish literature? One reason is Yeats; the other is now obvious to me: the Provisional IRA campaign, bringing the past horrifically into the present, had not yet irrevocably ended my tolerance for bloodshed in the service of Irish nationhood. To Gonne, Parnell had failed because he had repudiated violence. (She was hardly likely to impugn him on grounds of an adulterous private life.) Thereafter, she never discouraged anyone who wished to plant dynamite in the cause of Ireland. She preferred men (“heroic men”) who did so in the House of Commons to those who were merely MPs in the same cause. And those who chose violence could set their own limits: “it was absurd to say that any Irishman, whatever he did, had committed a crime against England or against civilisation” (my italics). She disagreed entirely with the Fenian John O’Leary (he of the “noble head”) who had said that there are things a man must not do to save a nation. One thing that an Irish republican should certainly do is assassinate holders of high English office. And not just once, as unfortunately happened with the killing of Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Henry Burke in Phoenix Park: every English king and every instrument of the state below him should be shot “one after the other”. It is “continuity” of select assassination that is required. This amounts to republican jihadism that Gonne advocates, even in 1938 – and in a book published in England by an English publisher (Victor Gollancz) and republished in 1974 (in the midst of the Provisional IRA onslaught in Northern Ireland)! Gonne’s reputation has been the beneficiary of the peculiar moral bracketing off of Irish terrorism and terrorists from the usual civilised standards of judgement. Yet here she is, delighted to meet one James Tully, renowned for shooting landlords without compunction, looking gratefully into his “dreamy grey eyes” and wishing Lord Clanrickarde could receive a bullet from “the mild-eyed assassin”.
Gonne’s Anglophobia amounted to a monomania which hindered a coherent political belief system, even if she’d had the intellectual equipment to formulate one. In essence hers was a lethal cocktail of cod Celticism and ruthless physical-force advocacy. Still, it sponsored a variety of subtended causes – evicted tenants, Land League demands, prisoners’ rights, the Boers, tenement children, workers’ rights, civil disruption. Many of these were legitimate and just, and her energy was admirable. But the recommendation of “most violent ways” (Yeats) was at the core. She was proud of the fact that she never indulged in self-analysis (which might of course have included ethical self-examination) so it is left to us to supply her political philosophy. Frazier explores its strands: the Anglophobia, contemporary spiritualism (which doesn’t ring true to me in her case), anti-Semitism – and Nazism, beginning as Millevoye’s proto-Nazism and becoming the real thing during the Second World War. As late as March 1938 (this is outside Frazier’s time-frame), when ostensibly weighing the respective merits of Soviet communism and German fascism, she prefers, at much greater length, to find English polity inferior to both. She is contemptuous of Jewish money power but even more contemptuous of the British empire. And in 1938, she claims that Éire, grown flabby, could learn from Stalinism and Hitlerism.
Some biographers, for example Margaret Ward in Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc (1990), have seen Gonne as a pioneering feminist. To be fair, Ward tells us that Gonne never described herself as a feminist. Yet Gonne did champion the rights of women, but under carefully chosen circumstances. Can feminism co-exist with a paramount nationalism? For Ward, Gonne’s apparently can, for Gonne’s feminism consists chiefly of “her insistence on women’s rightful place within the heart of the nationalist movement”; Ward tells us Gonne’s hatred of Britain was inveterate, her republicanism unyielding. The women’s organisation Gonne founded was Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) but surely it can’t be called a feminist body – was it not a women’s auxiliary nationalist movement? And can true feminism be a branch plant of a predominantly male supra-gender movement? And yet, when on those occasions Gonne was denied the comfort of her assumed Irish nationalist identity and was at bay, as she was during the bitter proceedings of divorce from the Catholic republican hero John MacBride in 1905, Frazier believes she fought her corner as a New Woman, attacking marriage from a feminist perspective. (He is also alert to other of her virtues.) Alas, she rarely found herself outside the vicious circle of physical-force republicanism where her feminism might have breathed and developed.
Yet surely an Irish nationalist feminist might have explored avenues of communication with unionist feminists on the island North and South? But I see no evidence that she ever subordinated her Anglophobic republicanism to the cause of feminism in any thought-out way. Now that I mention it, where are Northern unionists, female or male, in Gonne’s world? For her and other republicans, Northerners seem to have been satisfactorily represented by Alice Milligan, Ethna Carbery (Anna Johnston) and AE. Looking back, it is amazing that most Northerners – unionists – were simply invisible. Yeats deliberately ignored them because he found them distasteful but at least as a Sligoman he knew they existed and thought they were best left to their own philistine and materialist devices. What on earth did people like Gonne think industrialised northerners were going to do when the mirage of a separatist republican island began to reify into a likely reality? Like many, John MacBride, when he wrote to John Devoy in May 1914, thought of them as “Home Rule bluffers”. The reality, when it transpired, delivered a shock from which Southerners have never recovered. Gonne of course, when the time came, was oblivious and continued to blow like an angry wind (in Yeats’s phrase); she was a member of the Anti-Partition League but that was simply pro forma stuff, a reflex affiliation from a career irreconcilable.
I am grateful to Frazier not only for rousing me from my contented slumber in the matter of Gonne, but also for sending me back to Yeats’s poetry with a refreshed appreciation of her ubiquity there and the origins of that very real misery that he said filled his days.
John Wilson Foster is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and honorary research professor at Queen’s University Belfast. His recent books include Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (2009), Pilgrims of the Air (2014) and Titanic: Culture and Calamity(2016).