Robin Wilkinson writes: Whenever I came over from London to visit my cousins in Co Meath, long before the M3 cut a swathe through the Boyne Valley, I’d catch the Dublin to Kells bus and have the driver let me off at the turning to Tara. That meant moving up to the front at Ross Cross, where a sign points left to Dunsany. We sometimes took that road when driving over to Trim, and my cousin Mary would slow down slightly to point out a field between two woods, once a cricket ground where Lord Dunsany’s XI played against Clontarf and Phoenix Park and wandering sides with grand names like I Zingari (‘The Gypsies’) or Na Shuler (‘The Rovers’).
Before and after the Great War, my grandfather and his father played for Dunsany’s team, so my early impression of Edward Plunkett (1878-1957) was that of a keen cricketer, an unstinting host, and a titled captain who welcomed all sorts into his eleven. In years to come, I learned that he was also an international chess player, a soldier who had fought at the Somme, a friend of WB Yeats, AE (George Russell) and Bernard Shaw, and above all, a rare master of prose poetry. His more than sixty books encompassed plays and poems, travel tales and memoirs, as well as ‘the most remarkable body of fantasy literature that the twentieth century can claim’ (ST Joshi), admired by writers from JRR Tolkien and Jorge Luis Borges to Michael Moorcock.
Although Dunsany had created his own pantheon of gods dwelling in the mythical land of Pegāna, Yeats still hoped that his contemporary could be drawn toward ‘the old Irish legendary world instead of those magic lands of his with their vague Eastern air’. In 1912 WB edited a Selection from the Writings of Lord Dunsany at the Cuala Press, and in the introduction he praises a poet who has imagined ‘colours, ceremonies and incredible processions that never passed before the eyes of Edgar Allen Poe or de Quincey’. He adds that not all of Dunsany’s ‘moods’ appeal to him for ‘he writes out of a careless abundance’ – a far-sighted remark because at the time Dunsany had written only a fraction of his oeuvre, and because some critics believe, quite simply, that he wrote too much.
In the first decades of the century, Dunsany won plaudits in Ireland and England, but it was in America that his star shone most brightly. Broadway once had five of his plays running simultaneously, film studios offered lucrative contracts, and between October 1919 and January 1920 he embarked upon a highly successful American lecture tour which saw him lionised like a latter-day Dickens. In Dublin, recognition was measured, even churlish. When his Tales of Wonder appeared, The Irish Times warned of ‘the risks incurred by those who are seized in the generous but indiscriminating arms of Transatlantic popularity’.
As an Irish lord and a British soldier, Dunsany was more than an Anglo-Irishman with unionist sympathies; he was English on his mother’s side and Irish on his father’s, in an age when politics compelled so many of his kind to choose between England and Ireland, cricket and hurling, the Haymarket and the Abbey. When dreaming up Pegāna or basking in transatlantic acclaim, he could escape the dilemma of his dual identity. In a poem called ‘Ode to a Dublin Critic’, he composed a sharp answer to those who saw his works as the idle imaginings of a titled dilettante:
From little fountain-pens they wring
The last wee drop of inky spite:
‘We do not like the kind of thing
That lords,’ they say, ‘most likely write.’
That poem would have been written with one of the goose feather quills that Dunsany used for all his writing, be it personal correspondence or theatre, poetry or prose. His many manuscripts, like those today of John Banville, are indeed sights to behold and admire for their penmanship of another age. Out of step with his time and country, Dunsany may have seen something of himself in the sorcerer of his Charwoman’s Shadow (1926) – a master of magic and writing who agrees to demonstrate the latter art to the narrator of the tale: ‘And this the magician did, withdrawing a cork from a horn that hung from his girdle and that was filled with ink, and taking a goose-quill and writing there in the wood upon a little scroll that he took from a satchel.’
In his fantastical short stories, Dunsany often wondered at the tricks of time and ironies of fate, telling of the demise of gods and civilisations once held to be eternal, hinting too at the vagaries of his own situation as a poet and playwright whose star waxed or waned when new genres and media (film, radio, paperback fiction) gained sway on either side of the Atlantic. As so many of his books went into and out of print, he became acutely aware of transient fame and doubtful posterity. His collection of Fifty-one Tales (1915) includes ‘The Assignation’, a prose poem whose style and stately rhythms owe much to the author’s boyhood familiarity with the King James Bible:
Fame singing in the highways, and trifling as she sang, with sordid adventurers, passed the poet by. And still the poet made for her little chaplets of song, to deck her forehead in the courts of Time: and still she wore instead the worthless garlands, that boisterous citizens flung to her in the ways, made out of perishable things.
And after a while whenever these garlands died the poet came to her with his chaplets of song; and still she laughed at him and wore the worthless wreaths, though they always died at evening.
And one day in his bitterness the poet rebuked her, and said to her: ‘Lovely Fame, even in the highways and the byways you have not forborne to laugh and shout and jest with worthless men; and I have toiled for you and dreamed of you and you mock me and pass me by.’
And Fame turned her back on him and walked away, but in departing she looked over her shoulder and smiled at him as she had not smiled before, and, almost speaking in a whisper, said:
‘I will meet you in the graveyard at the back of the Workhouse in a hundred years.’
When Fifty-one Tales appeared, Dunsany had just served as an army captain ‘in the deserts of the Somme’, but ‘The Assignation’ leaves the battlefield to lament another aspect of human mortality – second-rate entertainers finding public favour while poets go unrecognised, with posthumous acclaim no more than an enticing promise. Having experienced some neglect as well as the American Dunsany craze, the writer might have seen his reflection in either mirror. He certainly feared that his finest work might be missed for many years, and could hardly have imagined the resurgence of interest brought about by internet communication and online publishing.
Nearly half a century after Dunsany’s death, I was living in France and happened to spend a Christmas holiday in the Gard department, west of Avignon. One afternoon I visited the medieval city of Uzès with a friend who was shopping for Provençal fabric: hence my relief in finding a second-hand bookshop. I began to browse and noticed a top shelf with an assortment of odd books in English, one of which caught my eye – a dark green hardback entitled The Curse of the Wise Woman, which I knew to be an out-of-print novel by Lord Dunsany. Pasted inside the front cover was a hand-written letter on blue headed note-paper, dated November 21st, 1956.
Dear Mrs Harvey,
Here is one of the last available copies of the book in which my late publishers seem to have lost interest. And I am throwing in as a makeweight a book of which I have several copies, in case it might amuse you.
The italics hardly do justice to Dunsany’s idiosyncratic handwriting. The inside cover was also signed by the author, and Mrs Harvey had added her own name, very neatly, in pencil. I closed the book and took it to a monsieur busy reading a newspaper and smoking at the back of the shop.
Had the work been signed by a French author with a famous name and an ordinary fountain pen, the seller would doubtless have been more attentive, and priced the book rather differently, but thanks to the goose’s quill and Dunsany’s antique script, I landed his 1933 novel for the price of a plat du jour.
Another of the Fifty-one Tales likens writers worth their salt to sailors hastily making rafts upon doomed ships. Against the backdrop of World War One, the image of cities and empires sinking into oblivion was much more than a literary conceit, but the author of ‘The Assignation’ and ‘The Raft-Builders’ was suggesting, I think, that poets and artists are especially vulnerable to fashions that fade ‘in the courts of Time’. Notwithstanding the lukewarm support of its first publisher, The Curse of the Wise Woman (recently re-edited in America) is perhaps the most seaworthy of Dunsany’s many rafts. The novel was actually undertaken in direct response to Yeats’s decision to exclude Dunsany from his newly founded Irish Academy of Letters. Instead, he was invited to become an associate member, like TE Lawrence and Eugene O’Neill, even though no one disputed his standing as a writer or his Irish ancestry. After all, he and his forebears had lived at Dunsany Castle, on the edge of the Pale, since the twelfth century.
He was not invited to join the Academy, Yeats explained, because he had never written about Ireland. As he withdrew from otherworld fantasy, Dunsany achieved great success, beginning in 1931, with successive collections of short stories in which he drew upon his global travels to compose the tall tales of ‘a whiskey-cadging old man called Joseph Jorkens, with a reputation at his [London] club of being by far its greatest liar’. Did Yeats suppose that the Irish poet had packed his bags for good? In any event, Dunsany was piqued and wrote his first Irish novel in a few busy months.
Its title seems to announce a return to the fantasy genre, and the narrator loses no time in introducing the Wise Woman. Charles has returned from boarding school in England to spend the summer holidays on the family estate in Tipperary. At every opportunity he escapes his father’s supervision to range the countryside and indulge his passion for shooting wildfowl. He is initiated into the secrets of nature by Marlin, his father’s bog-keeper, who lives with his old mother on the edge of the heathery wilderness. Marlin confides to Charles that his mother is a ‘Wise Woman’:
The accent was equally on the word Wise and on the first syllable of Woman. It was not that he said that the woman was clever. It was nothing less than a warning that his mother was a practising witch.
The nature of the wise woman’s curse remains obscure until late in the story, when English workers from the Peat Development Syndicate arrive with their machines and their detailed plans for draining and civilising the bog. A dramatic climax sees Mrs Marlin brave a fearsome storm to call down her curse, but in the end both Charles and the readers are left wondering whether the ensuing havoc is caused by supernatural forces or a simple twist of fate. The fantastic dimension is reduced to a vanishing point. Interestingly, Dunsany reveals in the second volume of his memoirs (The Sirens Wake, 1945) that it was only when his story was nearing completion, and after attending a performance of Beethoven’s stupendous Ninth Symphony, that he realised ‘what the novel was all about, the thread that ran through the whole of it, and what the title must be’. I take that thread to be not so much the uncanny as the need to halt, even reverse, the encroaching spread of industrial progress.
The Curse of the Wise Woman has as many layers of meaning as the bog has strata. For the first time in his fiction, Dunsany engages with Irish politics and the past. Charles James Peridore and his father, James Charles, share Jacobite forenames and a heritage stretching back generations; like Dunsany’s own family, they can best be described as Anglo-Catholic. The fateful opening scene is set in the 1880s, when Charles is about sixteen. On a winter evening, father and son are sitting in the library, quite late, when ‘four dark men from the other side of the bog’ find their way into the shuttered house. Following his father’s carefully rehearsed instructions, Charles turns his back to the room and gazes at a Dutch painting near the door – just as his father vanishes, inexplicably, and the four strangers enter. (Dunsany uses a clever variant of the ‘locked room paradigm’ that Poe introduced in ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’.) Questioned by the armed intruders, Charles understands that they are political enemies of his father, whom they have come to execute. He hears the faint sounds of a horse being led out of the stables and over the grass, so he speaks loudly and attempts to stall the gunmen: he fetches a ‘piece of the true Cross’ known to be kept at High Gaunt, and swears that his father is still inside the house. Politics and history, murder and devotion, high drama and wry irony compose a scene that echoes the not so distant Irish past.
All the characters of the novel have their quirks and complexities. The strangers cover Charles with their pistols as they kneel before the holy relic. Their leader gives him a parting tip about how to bring down a wild goose, and the same ‘man in a long black coat’ later becomes the benefactor of the boy whose father he planned to murder. The illiterate Marlin, who reads the bog and the skies like a book, fears that his dreams of Tir-nan-Og will keep him from going to heaven. And Charles is as passionate about nature as he is about shooting snipe and woodcock and curlew.
Living out his days somewhere on the Continent, Charles calls to mind his most vivid memories of ‘an Ireland that they tell me is quite gone’, and he wonders about the local girl that he might have married:
We were engaged for several years. But Laura, who is a Protestant, would not give up what after all is only a heresy. She was never asked to give it up for herself, but only for possible children. God help me, and all the blessed saints help me, I believed that in spite of all Laura would go to Heaven. And, God help me, I believe it yet.
Star-crossed lovers, blighted souls, beset with the contradictions of the age. And yet, Dunsany’s Irish novel has no real villains of any creed or confession, not even the gunmen who came to kill a blameless man.
There are many obvious parallels between Dunsany’s own world and that of his central character – the English-Irish background and education, the passion for shooting and fox-hunting, the early loss of a father, even the cricket ground at High Gaunt. Dunsany maintained that his novel was not in any deliberate sense autobiographical, but he does use his narrator to play occasional peek-a-boo through the curtains of the fiction. Nearing the end of his reminiscence, Charles mentions two particular men of whom he cannot write – because each of them ‘belongs to another writer’. One is his uncle, who belongs to Jerome K Jerome, and the other is Pecksniff, who (truly) belongs to Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit. Dunsany was the nephew of Sir Horace Plunkett, who did indeed figure in one of Jerome K Jerome’s satirical tales, so Dunsany seems to be suggesting that his lately departed Uncle Horace was something of a Pecksniff.
That little red herring aside, there remains more to Dunsany’s double identity than meets the eye. If Charles James is the mirror image of James Charles, both father and son reflect the duality of Lord Dunsany, quintessentially English and unmistakably Irish, for as bilinguals and binationals know, identity is not a zero sum game – more of one need not mean less of the other. Throughout his life, it seems, Dunsany saw double, not because he shared Jorkens’s fondness for whiskey, but because he was constantly faced with the doubleness of his own experience. In his life as in his writing, he moved between London and Dublin, Kent and Meath, Dunstall and Dunsany, the English fens and the Irish bog, although only the latter inspired him to write at his enchanting best.
In his autobiographical Patches of Sunlight (1938), Dunsany recalls the day he discovered the tales of Edgar Allan Poe in the school library, and straightway read them all, enthralled by ‘the haunted desolation and weird gloom of the misty mid-region of Weir’. He salutes his American cousin once again in The Curse of the Wise Woman, which includes Poe’s description of ‘soulless dissipation’ at Eton, the English boarding school that Poe himself did not attend, although as it happens both Charles and Dunsany did. The passage he quotes is taken from William Wilson, Poe’s doppelgänger tale of a young man of noble ancestry haunted by his unrelated twin, a second self who follows him everywhere, much as Charles follows in the footsteps of his creator.
By the time he composed the finest of his four novels about Ireland, Dunsany’s writing blends the early King James style with an Irish musicality, reaching new heights as he sketches the changing skies and abiding landscapes, or captures in flight the teeming birdlife of the bogland:
And at last I heard those notes that a golden flute might play, in the hands of an elf or anything small or anything small and magical, and the white shapes of the green golden plover flashed by on their pointed wings, going out of sight at a hedge, rising and pouring over it like a wave over rows of rocks.
In case anyone imagines that Dunsany’s ‘careless abundance’ led him to dash off titles without so much as a backward glance, I indicate the place in my book, the copy found in Uzès, where the author has used his quill pen to correct an erratum, a minor one except that mistaking one variety of plover or lapwing for another would have certainly irked such a keen ornithologist.
Either in spite of or because of his passion for hunting and shooting, Dunsany was, in his own way, an ardent environmentalist who might well commend the nature reserve now established at Dunsany as well as the bold project undertaken by the current bearer of the title, Randal Plunkett, to re-wild large parts of the estate. Just a stone’s throw from its edge is ‘the spot from which one can see most of Ireland’. Dunsany begins and ends My Ireland (1937) – a book whose title would apply equally well to The Curse of the Wise Woman – on the Hill of Tara, because that timeless site stands in the centre of Irish history, and because its proximity surely played a part in nurturing his own fascination with myth and fantasy in the land of Time:
When I came to Tara and looked over the plain of Meath there was a storm like a little lost thing, in the West, going before a South wind with the sunlight chasing it. Green fields turned silvery under it as it came. The skirts of the rain went before it, and intensely bright fields flashed where the storm had not yet come. It shadowed a county, with silvery-green parishes standing out here and there, and went away to the North, where hills were gleaming in sunlight; for storms over this plain seem to pass like travellers, like dark men walking rarely along a wide road that forgets them.