The Yeats Sisters: A Biography of Susan and Elizabeth Yeats 
by Joan Hardwick.
Pandora, 263 pp., £8.99, January 1996, 0 04 440924 9
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Shortly before he died in 1922, John Butler Yeats wrote an angry, defensive letter to his eldest son William. W.B. Yeats had published a memoir in the Dial and his father objected to the almost parenthetical mention in one episode of an ‘enraged’ Yeats family. The remark unleashed in him a long-restrained irritation, prompting an impassioned defence of his daughters. ‘As to Lily and Lolly,’ John Yeats wrote,

they were too busy to be ‘enraged’ about anything, Lily working all day at the Morrises, and Lolly dashing about giving lectures on picture painting and earning close on 300 pounds a year, and one year more than 300, while both gave all their earnings to the house. And besides all this work, of course, they did the housework and had to contrive things and see to things for their invalid mother – and all this while quite young girls ... They paid the price of having a father who did not earn enough.

The letter had little effect on his son, who half-heartedly offered to change the offending word to ‘troubled’ when the piece, entitled ‘Four Years’, was published in book form, but it is an accurate description of the family’s circumstances at the time.

The ‘four years’ described in the memoir began in 1888, when the Yeats family were living in Bedford Park, a self-contained, rather bohemian artists’ community, between Hammersmith and Acton in West London. William was 23, Susan Yeats (or Lily, as she was known within the family) was 22, Elizabeth (Lolly) 20. Their father, who had given up the law shortly after he married in order to paint, had very little money; their mother, who had been a pretty, indulged, Sligo girl, and had expected to be comfortable, was disappointed. She gave birth to six children in ten years, fell into an irreversible depression, and had two strokes by the time she was 47. Lolly, the only child never to be sent to school, became responsible for the house and for her mother from the time she was 11 until her mother died, 21 years later. Despite these pressures, she and her sister both had jobs – something which always embarrassed their father – and for many years provided most of the family’s income. In 1888 John Yeats was painting to commission, making a small and erratic living, and William was working on his second volume of poems. He had become heavily involved with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society; he was courting new friends, including Maud Gonne, and writing a few reviews. According to Richard Ellmann, William too was offered a job at this time, but turned it down because it was on a Unionist newspaper. Jack was at art college.

At the end of that year, Lily took a job with William Morris’s daughter, May, who taught her to embroider the complicated Morris patterns and to transfer designs to fabric. She was friendly with May, and often ate with the family, but she was not encouraged to make her own designs, and quickly found the work monotonous. She gave the job up in 1894, partly because she was ill, and partly because she discovered that May (who was by then married to Henry Sparling) was having an affair with George Bernard Shaw. Shaw moved into the couple’s house, which shocked Lily; she resigned and never saw May again. Meanwhile, Lolly began training as a Froebel teacher in 1889, and proved very successful: six years later, her first book Brushwork, which outlined her methods of teaching watercolour painting, was brought out by her brother’s first publisher, Lawrence and Bullen.

The sisters’ real achievement – and the one for which Joan Hardwick feels they ought to be remembered – came about much later, after they had moved back to Ireland, where they set up and ran a printing press, and workshop. They made and sold hand-printed books and embroidered goods, and made enough money to continue to support their father. But though Lily and Lolly lived and worked together for most of their lives, long after their brothers had left home, and after their father moved to New York, they never got on. As they grew older, they disliked each other more and more, but as unmarried women, with limited resources, and with such constraining obligations towards their family, they were forced to stay together.

Lily was John Yeats’s favourite, and to begin with, at least, she was close to her brother William. Lolly was thought to be difficult and unstable, and at one point it was repeatedly suggested that she might be going mad. A maternal aunt and uncle had been committed to institutions for the insane, and John Yeats often told his children that mental illness ran in their family – which explained all their mother’s problems. Hardwick wonders whether Lolly escaped being sent to a hospital only because she was indispensable as a wage-earner, though there seems to be no proof of this. In any case, she tended to be excluded from family affection and intimacy, while her brother Jack seems deliberately to have kept some distance from both.

John Yeats was often absent when his children were very young, but the letters he wrote to his wife, while she was living with her parents in Sligo, and he was penniless and painting in London, are dense with discussion of the children’s personalities and development. His letters, then and throughout his life, whether he is discussing art, poetry or people, have an oddly epigrammatic tone. Judgments are reached and scaled within a few lines, and are then treated as dependable facts, or explanations for what is to come. The children are appraised: their strengths are hotly claimed as Yeats qualities, and their weaknesses are quickly attributed to the influence of the Pollexfens, their mother’s rich, ambitious family, which John Yeats came to dislike intensely.

In 1872, William, seven, and still unable to read (which caused great alarm among the Pollexfens), is said to be ‘sensitive, intellectual and emotional – very easily rebuffed and continually afraid of being rebuffed’. Lily causes some anxiety because she is so often ill, and Lolly and Jack are viewed with distrust: ‘Take care of Johnny. His turning cross may forerun some ailment – you remember that was the way with Lolly – all your family’s ailments begin in the mind – a sort of nightmare takes possession of them and then they lose their appetites and get ill.’ Only the ‘robust, hardy’ Robert, older than Jack, and two years younger than Lolly, is never attacked. ‘Bobby has sensibility,’ his father wrote, ‘will love ideas and have enthusiasms, ardours, and will go through more emotional experiences in a month than another in ten years.’ Robert died unexpectedly, less than a month after this was written, and before he was three, of heart failure triggered by croup. In 1874 John Yeats took his family away from the Pollexfens to London. A sixth child, Jane, was born the following year, on Jack’s fourth birthday, but died within months. Five years later, when money was very short, Jack was sent to Sligo, to be brought up by his grandparents.

When Susan Yeats died on 3 January 1900, her daughters were in their mid-thirties, and still unmarried. Sarah Purser, a friend of the family, organised a successful exhibition of John Yeats’s work in Dublin, and he and his daughters moved there permanently the following year. A rich American, John Quinn, later T.S. Eliot’s patron, started to show an interest in both John and Jack’s work. William, already in Dublin, founded the National Literary Society. Joan Hardwick tells us all this. One of his first plays opened at the Gaiety. She summarises the familiar story of the Yeats family, their movements, successes and their history, but she is mainly concerned with the lives of the two sisters – and then mostly with the difficult, clever and frustrated Lolly, with whom she sympathises with an ardour and an anger reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s account of what might have happened to a girl as gifted as Shakespeare. Hardwick suggests several times, when adjudicating on family disputes, that Lolly’s personality was just like William’s, but that, being a woman, she was not indulged in the same way as he was. This may be true; if so it is mildly interesting, if unsurprising, and it is certainly the case that most of the family arguments which interfered with Lolly’s running of the Cuala Press started as disagreements between her and William, and that he always singled her out as the most trying member of his family.

When the family moved back to Dublin, Lily and Lolly began to attend meetings of William’s National Literary Society, which were held in their house. They got to know the group’s Secretary, Evelyn Gleeson, and she asked them to help her with a project she had been thinking about for some time – setting up a profit-making, Irish-based Arts and Crafts workshop. Gleeson, who would provide the money and pay the bills, could produce hand-woven goods, tapestries and carpets, but she wanted to widen the scope of the workshop, and Lily agreed to do some embroidery. At first she made banners, designed by Jack and his wife, for Loughrea Church; later she moved on to ornaments, and decorated, practical things like cushions, fire-screens, handkerchief holders, hairbrush backs, quilts and sofa backs. Though she had no experience, Lolly offered to set up a press, where she could hand-print Irish books. William, who had always talked about the need for such a press, offered to be ‘literary editor’. Jack and her father were encouraging. Having made up her mind to go ahead, Lolly advertised in the local press for an Albion printer, went to London, where she attended classes at the Women’s Printing League, and talked to Emery Walker (who had helped the young William Morris). Walker advised her on the fonts and paper she would need. The result was the Dum Emer workshop, established within a year of the first discussions, despite some financial difficulties. The first prospectus stated that its founders aimed to ‘find work for Irish hands in the making of “beautiful things”’, and they employed young girls, straight from school, who were keen to learn a trade. Evelyn Gleeson and Lily started to make sales, and within six months Lolly had published her brother’s collection, In the Seven Woods. Lolly was the first hand-printer to work in Ireland since the 18th century, and William told John Quinn that this new collection was the first of his books to give him real aesthetic pleasure. There was a lot of local interest in the workshops, and things seemed to go well, but then the fact that Gleeson effectively owned the business, and wanted more control than Lolly was prepared to grant her, began to cause problems. After a few years the sisters left Dun Emer and started again on their own with a new workshop, Cuala.

As literary editor, William had promised to keep the new Cuala Press supplied with books to print, but Lolly found him unreliable, and they rowed so violently that their father wrote to William at least once, telling him that he was making his sister physically ill. One quarrel began when Lolly accepted a manuscript which George Russell offered her. She was always anxious about money and the need to keep the press going, and on several occasions she accepted books that William hadn’t approved. ‘Lolly and you must both recognise that I am a man of letters,’ he wrote pompously to Lily, during a disagreement, in which Lily had for once taken her sister’s side, ‘and that as a matter of conscience I will not pass bad work on any financial plea.’ During the printing of one of William’s own collections of poetry, they argued over his insistence on having last-minute amendments incorporated into a text that had already been set. (Lolly, forced by him to include an erratum slip with each copy, began it: ‘These are alterations that our brother made after the book was printed – so are not our misprints.’) Later, when William suggested that Ezra Pound should edit a selection of Japanese Noh plays, Lolly was infuriated by Pound’s sudden decision to include an extra play in the volume after important calculations had been made and some initial work done. When Pound edited a collection of John Yeats’s letters, he deliberately left in mistakes which Lolly had had corrected for him; several errors were included in the finished text. Another argument centred on Lolly’s use of double inverted commas where her brother would have preferred single ones. And so it went on.

Yeats’s father, writing to him after some family quarrel, asked: ‘why do you write such offensive letters? There is nothing fine in a haughty and arrogant temper ... You treat Lolly as if she was dirt.’ In a letter about William to his brother, Isaac, he confided: ‘Like Lolly, he is not always easy to live with ... like her, when the fit is on him he does not in the least mind how he wounds your feelings.’ Their similarity obviously worked both ways, but in her anxiety to prove that Lolly was a tormented, undervalued victim, Hardwick paints William in almost entirely negative colours. While Lolly is analysed and explained, her irrationalities and inconsistencies smoothed over, her good relations with her own friends and with the women who worked for her seized on as proof of an essentially good nature, William (who does seem to have grown more contemptuous and distant from his family as he became more famous) is characterised as a selfish troublemaker, and considered no further.

Hardwick takes sides, retraces rows, and is free with her own interpretations of what went on and who was to blame. She may be one of the first biographers of the Yeats family to pay attention to the sisters, and to challenge William’s well-known view of them – ‘one is an angel, the other a demon’ – but her defensiveness can be tiresome. In any case, she is not the first biographer to think about Lily and Lolly, and her book covers much of the same ground as Gifford Lewis’s The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala Press, which came out in 1994. In her Introduction, Hardwick says that her book will set out to look at the sisters’ background, to create ‘an awareness of how much they achieved in the very difficult circumstances in which they lived’ and to ‘look more closely at the larger questions of women and work and how contemporary attitudes affect them’. But while her account of the Irish troubles and of the background to the Easter Rising is clear and expansive, Gifford Lewis is much better on the political and social position of women, on their rights, on what they were paid, and on the type of work they were allowed to do. He tells us that women had worked as printers before Lolly began – William Morris openly employed women printers, even though the printers’ unions objected. Hardwick is less specific. She states the obvious – that sewing and teaching were acceptable occupations for middle-class women; that few men regarded women as strictly equal to them – but she doesn’t say much more.

Hardwick blames both John and William Yeats for paying more attention to the boys than to the girls, for being suspicious of higher education of women, for seeing Lolly’s volatile nature as evidence of hereditary madness. Their attitude to women should come as no surprise, however. W.B. Yeats was born in 1866, long before women, even over the age of thirty, were granted the vote in Britain. His desire for Maud Gonne had been tempered by disdain for her political ambitions; some of his best-known poems chastise her for them. Lolly and Lily were not interested in politics, unless in an issue that affected them directly. But Lolly, lacking her sister’s tact and compliancy, irritated William: he demeaned her intellectual achievements and his unreliable, unstable relationship with the Press (which he termed a ‘family business’, while complaining about the money he put into it) undermined her efforts to make the best of the opportunities she had. Both she and Lily had been sufficiently influenced by their upbringing – their mother’s passivity and their father’s indifference to their education – to feel that women ought not to be politically active: as far as they were concerned, Constance Marciewicz and Maud Gonne were ridiculous, self-interested figures. Until they moved to Bedford Park and met the women who lived there, and later William’s rich and clever female friends, they had never known women who expressed open political opinions, and all their lives thought themselves too ill-educated to join in the discussions around them. Hardwick quotes a diary entry of Lolly’s in 1888 which describes the visit of some neighbours: ‘L. and I felt dreadfully out of it. I wonder, do all girls feel that way – as if the conversation when men talk was altogether beyond them?’

Socially and publicly, the sisters were barely recognised by William. (His public interest in Jack was manifested by expressions of contempt for his brother’s paintings, and he went out of his way to make sure that a play of Jack’s was never performed, but Jack could and did maintain his independence more easily than his sisters were able to.) The sisters are mentioned in William’s Autobiographies only when he describes their dreams, their premonitions or visions. He felt that Lily, and to a lesser extent Lolly, had strong psychic qualities, and this interested him, just as he later became intrigued by his wife’s ability to perform automatic writing. (According to Richard Ellmann, George Yeats told him that the first time she did this, it was a fake; that she’d only done it to reassure her new husband, who still talked about Iseult Gonne, that he had married the right woman; but she also told him that later, the pencil really did seem to write by itself.)

‘The mistake with my life has been that I have not had a woman’s life but an uncomfortable, unsatisfying mixture of a man’s and a woman’s ... working like a man for a woman’s pay,’ Lily wrote to her father in 1910. She and Lolly watched their friends’ and brothers’ marriages with envy; they wished for children in the family and Lily thought that she was shown in a dream that William would have a son. When his children were born, Lily was naturally encouraged to be closer to them than Lolly. Ruth Pollexfen, their young cousin, also caused jealousy between them. She lived with them from 1899, when her parents split up and her father, Frederick Pollexfen, was refused access to his two daughters. Ruth, the eldest, was made a ward of court and delivered into Lily’s custody. Lolly felt excluded from their relationship, especially when Ruth got close to John Yeats. Sick of her interrupting their conversation and disrupting their evenings by pacing round them, writing letters and working, the three of them encouraged Lolly to stay upstairs. They said that she worked too hard, that it was bad for her mental health, and that she should rest more; after this, terrified of going mad, she spent every evening on her own, reading in bed. Later, when Lily was organising Ruth’s wedding, they kept Lolly out of their preparations by persuading her to spend hours and days of her spare time outside, working in the garden.

Ruth moved to Australia when she married, and hardly ever saw Lily again, but marriage, the conventional escape route from family, was somehow never an option for Lily and Lolly – for years they were too poor and, compared with Maud Gonne, say, seemed too unexceptional to have suitors among the company they mixed in. When Lily fell in love with J.M. Synge, he got engaged to a younger, richer woman; Lolly nursed an affection for Louis Purser, which ended in savage embarrassment. Their friendship had grown so intense that she assumed he felt as she did; then he kissed her goodbye after a visit, and she thought that this meant that they were engaged, and wrote to her English friend Emmeline Cadbury to tell her so, describing all the clothes she wanted to buy for the wedding. Then she realised that Purser had no such plans, and took to her bed. Lily wrote to Purser secretly, asking him either to propose to Lolly or to stay away from them both. Not surprisingly he withdrew, but Lolly, who at the time knew nothing about Lily’s intervention, was left to guess why.

John Yeats went off to take his chances in New York, and didn’t come back, but the sisters never found a more satisfactory life. Lolly died not long after William. Lily, who lived on until 1949, wrote a tribute to her in a Cuala pamphlet: she had managed all this though ‘she disliked machinery and said she was afraid of even a sewing machine. Her helpers were only children who had just left school.’ George Yeats took over the Press when Lily died. Gifford Lewis, who is very good on details of this kind, says that Lolly’s coffin fell from the trestles during her funeral service and that William’s daughter, Anne, whispered to an unamused Jack that at least Lolly had had the last word. ‘All through her life,’ Jack said later, ‘she brought with her the gaiety and the quickly troubled spirit of a young girl.’

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