Lily and Lolly

Sarah Rigby

  • The Yeats Sisters: A Biography of Susan and Elizabeth Yeats by Joan Hardwick
    Pandora, 263 pp, £8.99, January 1996, ISBN 0 04 440924 9

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.

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