The Sacred Cause of Idiom
- 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.
Marriage to a man born in 1817 and, in his time, so eminent, must have improved Lady Gregory’s knowledge of history. In his youth her husband had turned down Peel’s offer of the post of Irish Lord of the Treasury, and Peel thereafter ignored him, but is said to have prevented him from fighting what would have been the last duel in England. Gregory was later a Trustee of the National Gallery and Governor of Ceylon. She read the books in his excellent library and met at his table such great men as Browning, Tennyson and Henry James. Gregory was regarded as a fair landlord, and it has been conjectured that this regrettably unusual reputation was later responsible for Coole getting off so lightly in the desperate days of the Civil War. He believed in Catholic emancipation, thinking it wrong that a religious minority should have all the power in Ireland. Yet he was responsible for a political act he came to regret – the so-called Gregory Clause, an amendment inserted in a Poor Law Bill enacted by the Westminster Parliament in 1847. It was a well-meant attempt, in the aftermath of the great famine, to relieve Ireland of the burden of an excessive number of smallholdings, few of which provided a living to the occupants. But the remedy came down, in practice, to a choice of workhouse or emigration, and he had apparently not foreseen or wanted this.
Lady Gregory was not moving out of her class when she went to live at Coole. The Persses were related to the Percys of Northumberland, and, as Tóibín remarks, ‘she was a landlord’s daughter . . . steeped in the attitudes of her class.’ At least one product of those attitudes, a sense of duty, remained, and she was attentive to the workers and their families, in the manner of benevolent ladies of quality. Yet she transcended these pious gestures to become a nationalist and a cultural leader in the Irish state that was struggling to emerge. She learned Irish; she also became a woman of business, a patron of artists and a close friend not only of Yeats but of Shaw and O’Casey, both of whom were to see their plays given a turbulent reception at her theatre.
Dressing herself in a manner that was bound to evoke comparisons with Queen Victoria, she allowed herself liberties unthinkable at Windsor. There survives a series of competent love sonnets to her husband, and, a year or two into her marriage, she had a passionate affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who was, as Foster observes, a professional philanderer. Much later, when Yeats was prematurely describing her as a woman stricken with age, she had a delirious affair with John Quinn, the American lawyer who was the great, almost indispensable, patron of the Yeats family. Foster, noting that her son, Robert, unlike Sir William, was short, allows himself (hiding the news in a note at the back of his huge book) to report local gossip suggesting that Robert’s real father was the village blacksmith. That Sir William had no issue by his first marriage and commenced fatherhood in his late sixties no doubt lent some colour to this scandalous notion.
It is easy to underestimate the distance Gregory and some of her Protestant friends needed to travel from the relative security of their social position to the world of indigenous politics. Quarrels, to quote Yeats, were blown up upon that head. Should one stand up for the British national anthem? Should the theatre close to mourn the death of Edward VII? Yes, Gregory thought: after all, she said, her husband had been a personal friend of the King. Could one preserve the manners of one’s class and still work for Home Rule? Perhaps it was not really possible to do both without arousing suspicions of treachery. Douglas Hyde, translator from the Irish, author of ‘The Necessity of De-Anglicising Ireland’, founder and first president of the Gaelic League and later President of Eire, was a man who knew Greek, Latin and Hebrew as well as French, German and English, and also liked to hunt; but he spoke Irish, in defiance of the assumption that no gentleman could or would do so. To establish solidarity with the people it might be essential to eliminate such assumptions.
It became a matter of importance to encourage and support a native, un-English, indeed Anglophobe culture. Augusta Gregory, who was later to cast off the remnants of her loyalty to the Crown, first played her part in the Irish Renaissance as a collector of folk-tales. Tóibín, with her toothbrush in mind, remarks that she applied ‘the same zeal to collecting her folklore as to collecting her rents’. This was work for her, not Yeats, who had no ear for native speech, and had, in any case, somewhat to his annoyance, been born not into the Ascendancy but into the slightly upper middle class; he hated the bourgeoisie (his tormentor George Moore professed to wonder how he had come so to dislike his own kind). The peasants he left to Gregory, who supplied him with the right kind of dialogue on request.
She was apparently not an infallible folklorist: Elizabeth Coxhead, editor of the modern edition of Gregory’s Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, notes that ‘some of the tales may have been bowdlerised for her ear, and the wicked landlord, who loomed large in peasant experience, is notably absent from her accounts.’ In those accounts, fairies, sometimes called ‘the gentry’, have a prominent part, ‘playing and dancing and having their own games’, like the real gentry at their grand balls. Gregory records occasional Dantesque moments: one man has a vision of Purgatory, and goes to help a friend suffering in the flames; but the fire is too hot, and rescue is impossible. ‘Well,’ the penitent says, ‘help me with your prayers.’ It is interesting that the folk memory, of which Yeats made so much, incorporated images not only of Purgatory, long banished from Protestantism, but also of the expensive pleasures of the masters. Anybody curious about the Banshee, and its predilection for certain families, will find much necessary information in Lady Gregory’s book. It also records certain serious warnings. Married couples ought to be buried in the same grave, or one of them will come looking for the other, ‘and when there’s one of them passing on the air you might get a blast of holy wind you wouldn’t be the better of for a long time.’
Yeats was slow to recognise that she had talent as a writer. Despite his many splendid acts of homage, he habitually took the boss position. But they ran the Abbey together, rather haughtily and perhaps without enough regard for the actors they had such luck to recruit and whom, perforce, they paid so badly. Gregory detested Miss Horniman, the Manchester tea heiress, a difficult woman but the source of generous subsidies: ‘I think it is a mistake treating tradespeople as if they had one’s own table of values.’ She disliked The Playboy of the Western World and its author, but defended them despite the famous uproar, during which J.B. Yeats, father of the poet, derided the Catholic puritans in the audience and called Ireland a land of plaster saints. Later she was O’Casey’s champion. She was more often in Ireland and so more accessible than Yeats, who professed to be sick of ‘theatre business, management of men’, and spent much time in London. He repaid her for her trouble with poems about her house, her friends and herself that are none the less impressive because, as Foster remarks, it was rather absurd to treat Coole as if it were Urbino. George Moore offers a satirical vision of aristocratic life at Coole: Yeats waiting outside a cottage while Gregory braves ‘the suffocating interior for the sacred cause of Idiom’; or standing ‘lost in meditation before a white congregation of swans assembled on the lake, looking himself in his old cloak like a huge umbrella left behind by some picnic party’. Yet Coole was a centre of Irish writing when such a centre was needed. Most authors were glad to be invited there, though some declined. The case against the Gregory circle was most emphatically stated by the youthful James Joyce, who, as Tóibín puts it, would have pointed out that ‘there was a whole world under Lady Gregory’s nose – of clerks and servants and lower middle-class Catholics and Dublin loungers and layabouts – which she never noticed.’
Gregory had a busy domestic life outside politics and theatre, and showed herself a woman of courage. Yeats celebrated that quality in his poem ‘Beautiful Lofty Things’:
Augusta Gregory seated at her great ormolu
Her eightieth winter approaching: ‘Yesterday
he threatened my life.
I told him that nightly from six to seven I sat
at this table,
The blinds drawn up.’
Her only son, Robert, killed in 1918 on the Italian front when a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps, was gifted, though probably not as gifted as Yeats makes him in his great elegy. To his credit, he laboured long over the poems prompted by Robert Gregory’s death, even though there had not been much love between him and the young heir, who thought the poet was usurping his place in the house, and drinking too much of the wine laid down by his father. Lady Gregory looked after Coole for Robert, and, after his death, for Robert’s son; but she had a pained though seemingly polite disagreement with Robert’s widow, who wanted to sell Coole and eventually did so.
The best account of her day-to-day life is in the journals rather than in the autobiography which turned up years after her death. They can be read in full in two large volumes of her collected works; formerly there was a selection by Lennox Robinson, a book as irritating as Robinson was himself reputed to be. He decided to carve the journals into sections – ‘Coole’, ‘The Abbey Theatre’, ‘Politics’, ‘The Lane Pictures’, ‘Odds and Ends’. One is denied any sense that in Gregory’s life, as in those of most busy people, many interests and activities went on simultaneously.
Still, it is true that the fate of the Lane pictures, for instance, was an obsessive interest, and Robinson’s book amply documents it. There was a family involvement, for Hugh Lane, drowned on the Lusitania, was Gregory’s nephew, and, more urgently, there was a nationalist interest, for she rightly thought the unsigned codicil to Lane’s will made it clear that he finally wished to leave his paintings not to London but to Dublin, provided a suitable gallery was built. Negotiations and appeals went on for the rest of her life and beyond, and if she needed encouragement in her growing distrust of Westminster (soon to be strengthened by her loathing for the despicable Black and Tans), the Lane bequest provided it.
Elsewhere in the journals she records her response to such events as the Easter Rising. Like Yeats, she first reacted with dismay: her son, after all, was a British soldier. The feeling was that the episode was politically inopportune, if not a dreadful folly. Yeats and Gregory would have accepted the judgment of James Stephens, in his little book The Insurrection in Dublin (1916), that ‘if there was an idealist among the men concerned in this insurrection’ it was Patrick Pearse, ‘and if there was any person in the world less fitted to head an insurrection it was he also’ (odd to say he was less suited to the job than himself, but one sees the point). In time, however, they came to see the event as having great symbolic force. Yeats’s poem on the Rising, ‘Easter 1916’, which did so much to give currency to that position, did not appear until some years after the event.
This holding back was not characteristic of Gregory. In 1925 O’Casey submitted his play about the Rising, The Plough and the Stars. At a performance I saw as late as the 1950s there was something close to a riot in the theatre. At the time the actors protested, saying their confessors had forbidden them to speak certain lines. Other objections were that the Tricolour was carried into a pub, and one character was a prostitute. But, as Tóibín says, the main objection was the failure of the play to glorify those who fought for freedom in the Rising. A government official demanded certain changes, with the threat that the state subsidy would be withdrawn if they were not made. Yeats went to Coole to discuss the crisis, and Gregory wrote in her journal that ‘our position is clear. If we have to choose between the subsidy and our freedom it is our freedom we choose.’ The riot duly occurred, and Yeats made a famous speech from the stage: ‘You have disgraced yourselves again . . . Is this . . . going to be a recurring celebration of Irish genius?’ He was inaudible, but had providently sent his remarks on ahead to the Irish Times. The indomitable pair prevailed, kept the play on and retained the subsidy. By this time they had learned a lot about theatre business, management of men. Affection and admiration for O’Casey did not prevent them turning down his next play, The Silver Tassie.
Before Gregory died she had lost Coole. ‘The days of landed gentry have passed. It is better so. Yet I wish someone of our blood would after my death care enough for what has been a home for so long, to keep it open.’ The house was pulled down long ago, but you can still count the swans on the lake, like Yeats. And you may well leave Coole with a measured admiration for Lady Gregory, and forgive her the joke about the toothbrush.