On 23 January 1894, Henry James entered in his notebook two stories told to him by Lady Gregory, whom he had met first in Rome 15 years earlier. She had given one of them to him, he wrote, as a plot, and ‘saw more in it than, I confess, I do myself’. ‘At any rate,’ he went on, ‘Lady G.’s story was that of an Irish squire who discovered his wife in an intrigue. She left her home, I think, with another man – and left her two young daughters. The episode was brief and disastrous – the other man left her in turn, and the husband took her back.’ James then went on to outline the details, as told to him by Lady Gregory, of the husband taking her back. It came with a condition: that she would stay until the daughters arrived at a certain age, and then she would leave. The husband had fixed a particular date in a particular year when she would be ejected, and when the date arrived, the wife was put out and the story explained to the daughters.
The second story
was that of the eminent London clergyman who, on the Dover-to-Calais steamer, starting on his wedding tour, picked up on deck a letter addressed to his wife, while she was below, and finding it to be from an old lover, and very ardent (an engagement – a rupture, a relation, in short) of which he had never been told, took the line of sending her, from Paris, straight back to her parents – without having touched her – on the ground that he had been deceived. He ended, subsequently, by taking her back into his house to live, but never lived with her as his wife.
By the time Lady Gregory told James these stories, her husband, Sir William Gregory, had been dead two years. Six weeks before his death, their friend, the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whom the Gregorys had first met in Egypt in 1881, a year after their marriage, published in a new volume of poetry a group of what he called ‘A Woman’s Sonnets’. Nobody noticed, or indeed knew, that the poems had been written by Lady Gregory about her affair with Blunt, an affair that began less than two years after her marriage and continued for 18 months. These sonnets, to which Blunt made small adjustments (none of them helpful), were written to commemorate what had happened either in secret or in front of Sir William’s nose, and often both simultaneously. According to Lady Gregory’s diaries, Sir William had said to her during the Egyptian visit: ‘You and Wilfrid talk more nonsense than any two people settling the affairs of the world.’ In his diary Blunt wrote: ‘I have remodelled Lady Gregory’s 12 sonnets, which I heard from her a day or two ago she would like to see printed in the new book, although of course without her name. They are really most touching and required little beyond strengthening here and there a phrase and altering a few recurrent rhymes.’
The first sonnet went:
If the past year were offered me again,
And the choice of good and ill before me set
Would I accept the pleasure with the pain
Or dare to wish that we had never met?
Ah! Could I bear those happy hours to miss
When love began unthought of and unspoke –
That summer day when by a sudden kiss
We knew each other’s secret and awoke?
Ah no! Not even to escape the pain,
Debate and anguish that I underwent
Flying from thee and my own self in vain
With trouble wasted, till my strength all spent.
I knew at last that thou or love or fate
Had conquered and repentance was too late.
The idea of a forbidden love also came to Lady Gregory in another poem, not part of the sonnet sequence, written as she was returning to Europe with her husband from India and Ceylon in 1886, when her affair with Blunt was several years past:
Or if – ah me! she chance to find
One led to her by wayward fate
In whom she learns a kindred mind
Found by her own too late – too late –
Ah pity her – for if she yield
What from remorse her soul can shield –
Or if she conquer the sore strife
May yet have cost her half her life –
The wound that ne’er can be laid bare
May be the sorest scar to wear –
The grief that brings no right to weep
May be the one to banish sleep –
Perchance not so in heaven above –
But here a woman may not love –
The sonnets which Lady Gregory sent to Blunt were highly wrought pieces of work and must have taken a great deal of time to write. She must have worked on them in a place where she could not be easily discovered and been careful about blotting paper picking up the mirrored traces. She must have had a hiding place for these pages, and must have checked regularly that they were not disturbed. And she must have taken them with great secrecy to hand to Blunt and have desperately needed to see them in print. She must have sworn Blunt to a dreadful secrecy, but must have known too that the chances of him telling no one at all were slim. He told his diary.
Lady Gregory was, by nature, a careful and discreet person. She was opposed to exhibitionism and all forms of scandal. Yet not only did she have an affair with her husband’s younger and more glamorous friend, but this woman, a connoisseur of dutiful self-suppression, desperately needed some clue left to the world of her happiness with Blunt and her misery afterwards. It was not enough that it happened. The risk itself and the pleasures involved were not enough. She took one further risk in writing the sonnets and wishing Blunt to publish them in her husband’s lifetime.
When she told James the story of the erring wives, the first thought he recorded in his notebooks was: ‘When the stout middle-aged wife has an unmentionable “past”, one feels how tiresome and charmless, how suggestive of mature petticoats and other frowsy properties, the whole general situation has become.’ The woman he saw as a stout, middle-aged widow told him only two stories which he thought worth putting down from their conversations. They were both about matters which concerned Lady Gregory most, about what she could not somehow keep to herself, what she wanted known and not known, and at once concealed with care and dimly disclosed: women who deceived their husbands and were discovered. The affair belonged to her nightmares, but it also belonged to a dark area in her psyche where she was ready to put herself in danger to have it known who she really was, and what had once made her happy both beyond telling and only too ready to tell.
In these last years of the 19th century, James was one of a number of writers who were in exile in England and to whom such stories as Lady Gregory’s were told. They began, as outsiders, to consider the drama surrounding the brittleness of English manners and morals and the pressures on stability. This offered them an alluring and mysterious and at times evasive subject. James, for example, remained fascinated by the English system of inheritance, in which, on the death of her husband, the widow was cast aside while her son inherited the property. He sought to dramatise this in The Spoils of Poynton, published in 1896, in which there are only English characters. He was also interested, during the same period, in English forms of adultery and unfaithfulness, which he dealt with in novels such as The Other House (1896) and What Maisie Knew (1897). His English characters lack the fluidity and yearning of his Americans; they are practical and rooted in the real world, and only too ready to be treacherous to it should the need arise.
James is at his most powerful not when he is describing open and clear treachery among the English ruling class, but when he is dramatising secrecy among Americans. In The Portrait of a Lady, for example, there is a secret which is held back for almost the entire body of the narrative. Something which has occurred in the past is withheld from both the reader and the heroine. Part of the power of the novel is its forcing the reader to put it down at a certain moment – the moment when Isabel Archer is alone by the fire – so reader and protagonist can reflect on all that has gone before, the levels of subterfuge and duplicity. How much they know now; how little they knew before.
What is astonishing is how close Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond have come to keeping their secret. If you trace Madame Merle’s emotional position in the novel rather than Isabel’s, the movement of her feeling is as interesting and as intense. It is close to that of Lady Gregory when she sent the sonnets to Blunt. Madame Merle needs her secret to be kept and she also needs, at times just as desperately, for it to be known. She moves quietly and insistently from one need to the other. Her welfare depends on secrecy; but her life depends on being found out. It is thus essential for her emotional survival that Isabel, and indeed the reader, should know about her, just as it becomes essential for Charlotte Stant and Prince Amerigo in The Golden Bowl. They need their secret understood not to clear the air, but to have something recorded and known because private life and private acts are not enough; the art of loving and wanting involves, even in the most nuanced way, publicity: it needs words. In Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, the narrator contemplates the words of passion used by Edward Ashburnham to a young girl, Nancy, and his need to speak them, and what happened once these words were spoken aloud: ‘It was as if his passion for her hadn’t existed; as if the very words that he spoke, without knowing that he spoke them, created the passion as they went along. Before he spoke, there was nothing; afterwards, it was the integral fact of his life.’ Without public knowledge, without being told or spoken, feelings, even the most significant and strong, are like books imagined and sketched out but not written or published. They are no use to anybody. This was not only one of James’s and Ford’s major themes, it was one of the themes in English public life in the very years when they were paying it most attention. It was part of the spirit of an age in which ideas of doubleness, secret selves and the possibility of discovery were essential elements.
As 1895 opened, for example, Oscar Wilde could move between intimate family life and, when he grew bored with that, a life in hotels and foreign places. He could mingle with the great and the good and then pleasurably spend time with young men from a different, mostly a lower, social class. By May, Wilde was in prison, abandoned by most of his friends, his reputation in tatters, his name a byword for corruption and evil. His family life was destroyed, he was declared a bankrupt and was about to serve a sentence of a severity beyond his imagination. He had been found out.
In the years that followed, everybody who wrote about him seemed puzzled by the fact that they had known a different facet of him and yet not seemed to know him at all. Yeats, for example, remembered Wilde the married man towards the end of the 1880s:
He lived in a little house at Chelsea that the architect Godwin had decorated with an elegance that owed something to Whistler . . . I remember vaguely a white drawing-room with Whistler etchings, ‘let in’ to white panels, and a dining-room all white: chairs, walls, mantelpiece, carpet, except for a diamond-shaped piece of red cloth in the middle of the table under a terracotta statuette . . . It was perhaps too perfect in its unity . . . and I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his life there, with his beautiful wife and two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition.
Wilde’s younger son, Vyvyan, also remembered those years when his father was ‘a real companion’, with ‘so much of the child in his own nature that he delighted in playing our games . . . When he grew tired of playing he would keep us quiet by telling us fairy stories, or tales of adventure, of which he had a neverending supply.’
Among the writers for children whom Wilde admired, according to his son, was Stevenson, whose The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde appeared in 1886, the year of Vyvyan’s birth. These were the years, as Karl Miller wrote in Doubles, when ‘a hunger for pseudonyms, masks, new identities, new conceptions of human nature, declared itself.’ Thus Dr Jekyll could announce with full conviction: ‘This, too, was myself’ as he became ‘a stranger in my own house’. Jekyll ‘learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.’ Thus as Wilde set to work on the creation of both himself and his character Dorian Gray, he was following an example which was embedded in the spirit of the age.
London, in the years around the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in 1891, was the site where many artists, including Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Conrad, James and Ford Madox Ford, allowed their doubled selves, and their work full of masked selves, secret agents, secret sharers and sexual secrets, to flourish and further duplicate. Wilde in London was both an Englishman and an Irishman, an aristocrat and an Irish patriot, a family man and a man who never seemed to be at home, a dilettante and a dedicated artist. Everywhere he went, he left behind in some attic of the mind an opposite self, recently discarded.
Ford, who at one point had the same lawyer as Wilde, knew about his chameleon abilities and admired his ability, when the crisis came, to exude self-pity in enormous quantities while at the same time being able to see his self-pity as a kind of play, or further self-dramatisation. Ford wrote:
There came a dramatic moment in the lawyer’s office. Wilde began to lament his wasted life. He uttered a tremendous diatribe about his great talents thrown away, his brilliant genius dragged in the mud, his early and glorious aspirations come to nothing. He became almost epic. Then he covered his face and wept. His whole body was shaken by his sobs. Humphreys [his solicitor] was extremely moved. He tried to find consolations.
Wilde took his hands down from his face. He winked at Humphreys and exclaimed triumphantly:
‘Got you then, old fellow.’
In the same article, written in 1939, he remembered Wilde’s visits to his grandfather, Ford Madox Brown. Wilde, once more, arrived as one of his own doubles. ‘Mr Wilde was a quiet individual,’ Ford wrote,
who came every Saturday, for years, to tea with the writer’s grandfather Ford Madox Brown. Wilde would sit on the high-backed armchair, stretching out one hand a little towards the blaze of the wood fire on the hearth and talking of the dullest things possible to Ford Madox Brown who . . . sat on the other side of the fire in another high-backed chair and, stretching out towards the flames his other hand, disagreed usually with Mr Wilde on subjects like that of Home Rule for Ireland Bill or the Conversion of the Consolidated Debt.
Wilde, Ford wrote, continued these visits, ‘as he said later, out of liking for the only house in London where he did not have to stand on his head’.
It is only with the recent publication of the full transcript of the questioning of Wilde by Edward Carson in Wilde’s case against the Marquis of Queensberry that we have an idea of precisely the sorts of risk he was taking in bringing the case in the first place, how he himself was the main agent of his unmasking. It is fascinating to note how few people knew about him, even those who were wise in other ways. In his preface to Frank Harris’s book on Wilde, Shaw made clear that neither he nor his associates, Harris included, knew of Wilde’s homosexuality until he was cross-examined. (This is confirmed by Ford, although he suggested that Wilde was unmasked not at the trial but some months before, at the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest.) Many of Wilde’s friends knew of his decadence, of his flaunting a sort of sexual uncertainty, but they did not know that he was consorting with younger men of the lower class nor that he had actually had sexual relations with Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s London life was a life of secrecy; it came to an end when a part of him decided that he desperately needed it to be revealed, despite the dangers and the consequences. There are other explanations for what happened to him in the early months of 1895, but none as compelling as his own secret need to be found out.
Every man, Yeats pointed out in these same years, has ‘some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life’. Stevenson wrote: ‘I am a fictitious article and have long known it. I am read by journalists, by my fellow novelists and by boys.’ In August 1891, staying at the Marine Hotel in Kingstown in Ireland, James, described by his biographer Leon Edel as someone ‘in search of, in flight from, something or other’, had the idea for his story ‘The Private Life’, in which the sociable writer in the drawing-room could at the same moment be found alone with his other self in his study. Seventeen years later, James wrote his most haunting story of doubles, ‘The Jolly Corner’, in which a man who has been away from New York for more than thirty years but has kept an empty house there, and had it cleaned and cared for every day, sees a figure, his own double, who has never left these rooms, and tussles with him through the night. ‘Rigid and conscious, spectral yet human, a man of his own substance and stature waited there to measure himself with his power to dismay.’ ‘The Jolly Corner’ was, Edel wrote, ‘a profoundly autobiographical tale’. In those years the writer was either two people, or he was nobody.
‘It must not be forgotten,’ Shaw wrote in 1938, ‘that though by culture Wilde was a citizen of all civilised capitals, he was at root a very Irish Irishman, and as such, a foreigner everywhere but in Ireland.’ Wilde’s Irish background remains an essential ingredient in his career, just like Stevenson’s Scottishness, James’s New England origins, Conrad’s Polish birth and Ford’s German heritage. Ford was acutely conscious of his status as both insider and outsider. ‘Throughout my life,’ he wrote in 1915,
whenever I have thought with great care of a prose paragraph, I have framed it in my mind in French, or more rarely in Latin, and have then translated into English; whereas whenever it was a matter of such attempts at verse as I have made, my thinking has been done exclusively in colloquial English. When, on the other hand, it has been a matter of pleasures of the table, of wines and the like, I have been quite apt to think in German.
It is hard to know in what language Conrad did his thinking. Ford described his railings against English as they collaborated on a novel. ‘Then he would launch out into a frightful diatribe against the English language. It was a language for dogs and horses. It was incapable of conveying human thoughts . . . He would groan: “No, it’s no use. I’m going to France. I tell you I am going to set up as a French writer. French is a language; it is not a collection of grunted sounds.”’ In his long story The Secret Sharer, first published in 1910, Conrad joined the great game of dramatising two selves utterly separate and utterly the same. As the narrator, the captain of a ship alone on deck at night, rescues a man from the water he notes: ‘It was, in the night, as though I had been faced by my own reflection in the depths of a sombre and immense mirror . . . He appealed to me as if our experiences had been as identical as our clothes.’ The captain becomes alert to the idea that if a watcher were to ‘catch sight of us, he would think he was seeing double, or imagine himself come upon a scene of weird witchcraft; the strange captain having a quiet confabulation by the wheel with his own grey ghost.’ Later, he feels that the secret sharer owns a bit of him. ‘Part of me was absent. That mental feeling of being in two places at once affected me physically as if the mood of secrecy had penetrated my very soul.’
The Secret Sharer seems, at first, an elaborate fantasy, but slowly, as it is stretched to its limits, much as the elaborate fantasies in The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are stretched to their limits, it moves towards a hard-won and mysterious reality. In the forceful way the fantasy is worked and charged in all three pieces of fiction, something emerges that is not only haunting and suggestive and disturbing, but oddly credible and acute, as though offering an insight which lay hidden from the conscious mind into the psyche of the creators, part of their need to make duality seem unstrange. Wilde could also write in French but, like his homosexuality, his Irishness left him psychically in two places, an outsider in Oxford and London, but much of the time invisibly and ambiguously so. The English upper class he wrote about in his fiction and plays was, as Karl Miller writes, ‘a class exoticised, eroticised, by an outsider’. James shared his fascination with the manners and mores of this class. All of these writers also shared one essential ingredient with the English in whose country they had settled – a command of the English language. And this operated as an alibi for them, allowed them to shine on the page and the stage, allowed them immense possibilities for invention and disguise. The voyage from one self to another gave them their style; their style, in turn, offered them an easy intercourse with the English themselves. They were capable of masquerading, if they needed to, as eminent Victorians, but a part of them, sometimes a central part, belonged elsewhere.
Just as it becomes fruitful at times to read The Portrait of a Lady as the story of Madame Merle, whose need to be found out supersedes a level of discretion the equal of Lady Gregory’s, so too it is useful to read The Good Soldier not as a novel of transatlantic incomprehension – how an innocent American in Europe can be fooled – but as a novel about an Irishwoman married to an Englishman. Ford himself had strong views on the Irish question. Ireland, he wrote in 1911,
is the ruin of good men and great causes . . . There is about Ireland something that causes a madness akin to the African madness. You take a soldier and a gentleman . . . you send him to Ireland and he becomes a robber and a low sneak thief . . . I think we could contemplate Ireland with less humiliation if Cromwell had rooted out every Irishman. It would not matter much; they would be dead and gone and quiet in their graves, which would be much better for their descendants . . . No one can make Ireland pay; then, for God’s sake, as we still have some Irish alive, let us leave them to starve in their own way.
Such views were not unusual. James, in a letter to his old Boston friend Grace Norton, was almost as forthright and equally not amused. Ireland, he felt, could injure
England less with [Home Rule] than she does without it . . . She seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & license. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.
Two years later, he wrote to her again: ‘Here there is nothing but Ireland & the animosities and separations it engenders – accursed isle! Literature, art, conversation, society – everything lies dead beneath its black shadow.’
James was careful not to deal with Ireland in any of his important fiction, but in Leonora, Ford created the most significant Irish presence in an English novel since Trollope. Leonora’s marital problems as recounted in The Good Soldier begin with her views on how a landlord must treat his tenants, and they differ entirely from those of her husband, whose tenants had held contracts for more than two hundred years and whose heritage was one of pure continuity. Her husband’s land steward, for example, who we are told is ‘a moderate and well-balanced man . . . took it upon himself to explain that he considered Edward was pursuing a perfectly proper course with his tenants.’ Neither Leonora nor her father, who comes to visit, agree; they know nothing of English continuity. Her father must have lived through the Great Famine, and the years of eviction and disruption which followed. When Leonora left Ireland, she was leaving a place where, the novel tells us, ‘three times in the course of that year, the tenants took pot shots from behind a hedge’ at her father. Her father had, we are told, ‘tenants on the brain’, and for very good reasons, as these were the years of the Land League, when tenants formed a mass movement to demand fair rents and fixity of tenure. They were also the years of the Land Acts, by which vast estates were being effectively confiscated and distributed to the tenants. ‘Those were troublesome times in Ireland, I understand,’ the narrator tells us. They were indeed, enough to make a landlord’s daughter arriving from Ireland almost a total foreigner in England. Leonora would have spoken like an Englishwoman – much as Wilde spoke like an Englishman, although Ford remembered him as having ‘a singular mixture of Balliol and brogue’ – but she carried with her the shadow of Glasmoyle, her father’s house in Ireland.
The year when scandal first erupted in the Ashburnham family, when Edward consoled the serving-girl on the train by kissing her, is given clearly in the novel: 1895, the year of Wilde’s unmasking. The story which emerged in the Wilde trial is the same story which comes to us in The Good Soldier: one of marital treachery, of an Irish protagonist among the English, of blackmail, of the possibility of divorce and scandal placing decent people outside decent society, of class, of the need, so strange and hard to explain, for secrets to be made public in what the narrator calls a ‘final outburst’ in which the characters became ‘deucedly vocal’.
The Good Soldier and Wilde’s De Profundis are both full of a strange and intense yet oddly meandering tone, full of memory and analysis of key scenes and moments, full of an eloquence brought to a pitch of beauty by misery and pain as a first-person narrator is forced to go over what he has suffered for love and how betrayed he was by treachery, and how much he knows now versus how little he knew then. This is not to suggest that The Good Soldier was influenced by De Profundis, which Ford is unlikely even to have read, but to suggest something more interesting – that something in the very spirit of the age was in both texts, the need to set down in a story what had been up to then withheld, the need to be found out, for the words of disclosure to offer the comfort of meaning and publicity to what was previously an inchoate experience with a desperate need for no one to know about it.
One of the central moments of The Good Soldier, Leonora’s most eloquent outburst, occurs when she says to the young girl: ‘I wish to God . . . that he was your husband, and not mine. We shall be ruined.’ She goes on: ‘That man . . . would give the shirt off his back and off mine – and off yours to any . . . ’ The cause of this outburst is Edward’s handing over his cob to a young man whose recently ruined father he had known all his life. Nancy sees the act as entirely admirable; Leonora does not. In an English novel, knowing a tenant all your life and feeling a glow of generosity towards his son is not only possible but easy to imagine, a part of life. It would happen without comment in George Eliot. But in Ireland it simply could not happen; a landlord handing his horse over without being threatened with violence should he not do so was simply unthinkable. It would be enough to make other landlords boycott him. (The word ‘boycott’ came from the relationship between tenant and landlord in Ireland at this time.) Any Irish landlord who had known a tenant, now ruined, all his life, knew him as a scoundrel, or at best a waster, and wanted him evicted. Thus the clash between Edward and Leonora at its most intense is a clash between being Irish and being English in those years. And the fact that it extends into the sexual realm, where it causes havoc, should surprise no one.
In all of this, another court case, the trial of Charles Stewart Parnell in 1889, also given a full airing in the period when Leonora was moving to England, casts an interesting shadow and an interesting light on the subject of Ireland and England, marital infidelity and secrets and lies. In February 1889 Parnell was in effect put on trial for sedition in the belief that he was as double as any figure out of a novel: as both a Westminster MP and an Irish terrorist leader. The doubleness of Parnell, his ability to move from Ireland to England, and his eventual unmasking and ruin fascinated writers in these years, revealing as it did the dramatic gap between what was done in secret and then revealed as scandal, involving a man whom many felt that they knew, and yet who remained a mystery, a man who was not known at all. This case later fascinated Conrad, after he settled in England in 1894, having published his first novel the previous year. Among the books in his library when he died was the autobiography of Katherine O’Shea, Parnell’s secret mistress.
James, Wilde and Lady Gregory attended, although not in one another’s company, the proceedings of what was called the Parnell Commission. And Burne-Jones, a figure from the world of Ford Madox Ford and his family, was also there. ‘Burne-Jones and I met a couple of times at the thrilling, throbbing Parnell trial,’ James wrote to a friend in March 1889, ‘during the infinitely interesting episode of the letters, when if one had been once and tasted blood, one was quite hungry to go again, and wanted to give up everything and live there. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately, getting in was supremely difficult.’ Wilde’s brother reported the trial for the Daily Telegraph. ‘Parnell is the man of destiny,’ he wrote. ‘He will strike off the fetters and free Ireland, and throne her as queen among the nations.’ Wilde said of Parnell: ‘The greatest men fail, or seem to have failed.’ Both brothers were triumphant at Parnell’s acquittal.
‘On the surface,’ W.J. McCormack has written in his essay on The Picture of Dorian Gray and Parnell’s acquittal,
the two crises differ in every important respect: the one arising from the publication of a short novel, the other from a vote of confidence in a political leader. Yet the common denominator was the recurrent and pervasive Victorian phenomenon of a double life. Parnell was both a bachelor and an undeclared sexual partner of a woman whose husband was politically sustained by the rival. Dorian Gray was an unblemished figure and a hidden icon of corruption and depravity. Moreover the creator of Dorian Gray was himself living a double life . . . At a deeper psychological level, both Parnell and Wilde survived by the projection of exceptional personalities through public performances in which outrage played its part. Both walked the razor’s edge.
But when you consider Parnell and Wilde, and Lady Gregory and indeed Leonora Ashburnham, you realise that something more interesting is happening, something more mysterious and harder to explain. It was as though the move from Ireland to England, from a country where your position, both moral and political, was constantly to be questioned, to Westminster or the drawing-rooms of London, involved a deep reimagining of the self, creating a rich space for sexual duplicity. This idea of a very private and intimate doubleness, which entered the core of certain Irish figures who had tangled allegiances at the end of the 19th century may help us to understand or further appreciate or indeed enjoy how William O’Shea might have both known and not known of his wife’s adultery, and how Parnell and Mrs O’Shea might have become so skilled at pretending he didn’t know, while knowing all the time that he did. This too was how Constance Wilde reacted to her husband’s antics. She thought they were a pose while knowing that they were not. Parnell’s journeys from London to Brighton, where Mrs O’Shea lived, were like his journey from Ireland to England, from being a dull and hesitant speaker to becoming eloquent, a journey in which the very essence of the self could be transformed. So, too, Leonora could pose for many years as the good soldier’s wife, could allow her husband to have an affair with Florence, making sure all the while that she could, when it suited her, pretend that she did not know or that it was not happening. This is what Captain O’Shea did; it may even be how Sir William Gregory decided to behave in the light of his wife’s liaison with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. This is not to suggest that only Irish people were involved in stories of knowing and not knowing, discretion and indiscretion, in Victorian and Edwardian England, but it is one way of explaining why Ford made Leonora Ashburnham Irish, and to suggest that the Irishness of these figures added spice to their predicament and exacerbated a general tendency towards self-invention and a predilection for duplicity and emotional displacement.
This is not to omit the huge significance of American innocence in The Good Soldier, but what American innocence meets with in Ford is something quite precise in the public and private life of England in these years: the dark, dangerous and confusing shadow of Ireland. It has to be emphasised that it is Leonora who is the high priestess of duplicity. Edward she finds easy to read at all times. Florence needs to be found out almost as soon as her affair with Edward begins. It is Leonora who manages things, who makes sure that Dowell knows nothing, who watches day in day out – as Madame Merle watches, as Parnell watches, as Wilde watches, as Lady Gregory watches, as Conrad’s captain in The Secret Sharer watches – to make sure the secret is kept, and it is the keeping of the secret which allows the affair to go on. It is she too, like Parnell and Wilde before her, who is so skilled at one moment at pretending and then so desperate for all to be told. It is Leonora rather than Edward who is the untrustworthy figure, the unfathomable one, the moral outsider in the book, whose motives are most tangled and whose psyche is most damaged. Part of the reason for this is that she comes from elsewhere, but manages this otherness with such care that she almost succeeds in being found out mainly as a Catholic but not as an Irishwoman, the daughter of a landlord, carrying all the darkness and guilt of those years in Ireland with her. She does this so well that the narrator does not think it very important, and most critics have thought it unworthy of comment. It is not only that Dowell and his wife are not in their own country; this hardly matters since they are both so alert to this fact, Dowell all the more so when he comes to narrate the story.
Leonora both fears and desires the lifting of the veil, and that she shares this with certain other Irish figures of the time may help explain some of what happens in The Good Soldier, though not of course all of it. The rest lies in the strangeness of the human personality when placed under certain pressures, in our interest in telling stories, in connecting the rhythms of the human voice with the shape of words on a page, in the lovely mystery of being alive.