The Art of Being Found Out

Colm Tóibín

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.

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