Frank Kermode

Yeats avowed it more often and more impressively, but he was not alone in his belief that Maud Gonne’s beauty was of ‘a kind not natural in an age like this’. Shaw called her ‘outrageously beautiful’ and W.T. Stead, who could no more than Yeats isolate his admiration for her looks from an appraisal of her politics, described her as ‘one of the most beautiful women in the world’, going on to point out that ‘she is for the Irish Republic and total separation, peacefully if possible, but if necessary by the sword, that of France and Russia not excepted.’

It is, though vaguely unchivalrous, not unusual for commentators to endorse Stead’s account of her politics while doubting that photographs testify to ‘Ledaean’ beauty, the kind that makes a stranger’s eye distraught. They lack charm, and also miss ‘that eagle look’ which, according to Yeats, ‘still shows’ in the Municipal Gallery bust. Perhaps she needed to be seen in the context of life, a heroic six-footer, ‘Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head’, or, as what she was often called, ‘the Irish Joan of Arc’.

Her patriotic achievements, like her beauty, are now largely celebrated in commentaries on Yeats, as indeed she expected: but she was independently well worthy of notice. Her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, stops around the time of her marriage to John MacBride in 1902, when she was 36. (The queen in question is of course Cathleen ni Houlihan, not Victoria.) There are two biographies, by Samuel Levenson (1976) and Nancy Cadozo (1977), and, like the excellent notes and introductions in the present volume, they help one to get a clearer notion of what she achieved in her own right, in so far as that can be isolated from a virtually lifelong ‘spiritual’ but still not entirely trouble-free ‘marriage’ with Yeats.

She early decided that the poet was a great asset to Ireland, but only as a writer. He was too cautious, too compromising, to serve her more violent purposes, and his later performance as man of the Irish theatre, and then as Free State senator, gave her no cause to change her opinion. She, not the poet, really had a ‘fanatic heart’. Yeats repeatedly accused her of being inspired only by hatred. What animated her politically – and not less because she was, as she hated to be reminded, at least as English as Irish – was a deep loathing for England and its empire: ‘famine in Ireland, opium in China, torture in India, pauperism in England, disturbance and disorder in Europe, and robbery everywhere’. As a young woman she worked to relieve the potato famine of 1898, and later spent most of her fairly ample fortune in attempts to alleviate the routine cruelties of British rule.

Francis Stuart, who at 17 married Maud’s daughter Iseult and was himself a fair hater and rebel, disliked his mother-in-law, attributing her political passion to sexual repression; and she often told Yeats she had an aversion to sex. Her youthful liaison with the French politician Lucien Millevoye produced two children – this was, incidentally, an affair of which Yeats knew nothing at the time he met her and first proposed marriage – but whether this means she was prevaricating, or merely indicates that she found Millevoye’s dislike of the English irresistible, it is impossible to say. He was also anti-Dreyfusard, and she followed him in that too.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in