The Sacred Cause of Idiom

Frank Kermode

  • Lady Gregory's Toothbrush by Colm Tóibín
    Picador, 127 pp, £7.99, September 2003, ISBN 0 330 41993 5

The possession and use of a toothbrush was a mark of the difference between us and them, gentry and peasant, or so Lady Gregory suggested when she made the remark – jocular, perhaps, and not the sort of sally she would have chosen to be remembered by. Colm Tóibín makes more than one allusion to it in this essay, gently hinting that his sympathies are with the toothbrushless, though there is no place for anger in his elegant little study of the great lady.

Her close association with W.B. Yeats, with nationalist aspirations, and with certain stormy evenings at the Abbey Theatre, made her famous in her day, but it seems that her day has passed. The twenty-odd volumes of her works – dramas, folklore collections, journals – are not often disturbed. She wrote 27 plays as well as four adaptations of Molière, but I gather it is many years since the Abbey revived any of them. She specialised in the imitation of dialect and the rhythms of Irish speech, somewhat in the manner of J.M. Synge, and nowadays this style may sound archaic or affected. She is still remembered as the part author, with Yeats, of Cathleen ni Houlihan, a propagandist play of 1902 – a vehicle for Maud Gonne, who played Cathleen – that has not lost all its patriotic force. The old rows, chiefly over plays by Synge and O’Casey, are not forgotten, but I’m told that politics has more or less disappeared from the Abbey’s repertoire, though there is still violence enough.

The fading of Augusta Gregory’s reputation is in part a consequence of her devotion to the sometimes overbearing Yeats, who included her in his great aristocratic fantasy, glorifying her as a presiding genius of the Irish literary renaissance. He represented her house at Coole as a modern Urbino, with Lady Gregory as the counterpart of his admired Duke Ercole. There was an element of truth in this myth, and it inspired some great poems, but it hardly did justice to Gregory’s powers, and her industry, as a writer. There is inevitably a good deal about her in Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats, but it is, in all its extensive splendour, a book about Yeats, and Gregory can be no more than a secondary character. Tóibín’s is a little book, but it does keep her at its centre, and its gentleness probably reflects the mood of the Irish when they remember to think about her, as they sometimes do.

Augusta Gregory, née Persse, was born in 1852, 13 years before Yeats, and brought up in the grand family house at Roxborough to be unquestionably Protestant, ‘with much Bible reading and devotion to duty’. The workers on the estate were of course almost all Catholic, and that religion marked their status and determined their wealth; Protestantism was the badge of the Ascendancy. At 28 she married a neighbour, Sir William Gregory, 35 years her senior. Gregory had been at Harrow with Trollope, who, as a schoolboy, was thought grubby and generally pretty hopeless, but they remained friends, and Phineas Finn is said to be partly based on Sir William.

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