ADRIAN FRAZIER, The Adulterous Muse, Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and W.B. Yeats, Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2016. ISBN 9781 8435 1 678, Price: Euro 20.
There have been many biographies of Maud Gonne*, Irish revolutionary and feminist, famed for her beauty and her role as the muse of W.B. Yeats, but not one that concentrates so extensively upon her life in France. In that country, as a result of her relationship with Lucien Millevoye, she had another political dimension, moving amongst the far right in the turbulent political atmosphere of the Third French Republic. This is not a full biography of Maud Gonne, ending with the watershed of the Easter Rising, the execution of John MacBride, Yeats’s marriage and the death of Millevoye in 1918. By then Gonne, as Madame Gonne MacBride, was over fifty and no longer of interest to an author whose primary interest revolves around how Gonne impacted upon the lives of the men in her life.
It is hard to get past one’s irritation at the title of this biographical study – ‘The Adulterous Muse’ – inaccurate, yet eye catching. If there was an adulterous muse in these tales of love encountered, love spurned and love lost amongst multiple political adventures, it is Millevoye, married lover to the unmarried Maud Gonne. Her brief consummation of her relationship with Yeats only occurred after the collapse of her relationship with Millevoye. When married to John MacBride she was not unfaithful to her husband. There is something of a double standard running through Adrian Frazier’s discussion of different love lives; evident for example in his acceptance of the sexual relationship between Yeats and the married Olivia Shakespear – indeed, Frazier castigates Gonne for coming back into Yeats’ life, thereby making it ‘difficult’ for his new relationship to develop (p.138) Readers’ attitudes towards this book may well be gendered. I suspect many will find the tone of the following statement unfortunate, if not downright patronising, ‘a reader should be prepared to find that Maud Gonne, although a woman and an English woman too, achieved a great deal more than one might expect’ (p.5).
While Frazier describes previous works on Gonne written as if her biographers were standing on Dawson Street or in Bloomsbury, his focus is Paris and numerous French spa towns, with Irish nationalist issues receiving a much more cursory glance. He acknowledges the fact that the digitisation of French newspapers has made the life of the researcher very much easier – as has the digitisation of Irish newspapers, enabling him to use entries in the Freeman’s Journal as a means of tracking Gonne’s movements in Ireland. Readers will learn more of the Boulangist right in France than they might ever have wished to. However, the welter of detail and the roll call of generally unpleasant conspirators provides a powerful picture of Millevoye as a key figure in French politics; a detestable figure, an incompetent duellist, a tiresome and useless conspirator playing a shameful role in the Dreyfus affair and exerting considerable political influence on the young Maud Gonne. In reversing the usual way in which Gonne’s life has been understood, with France as the epicentre, her stature as a significant political figure is enhanced, but she is placed firmly on the side of the anti-semitic far right. Does Frazier treat Gonne too harshly in this judgement? He repeatedly mentions her close friend, the French feminist Ghénia Avril de Sainte-Croix, who often looked after Maud’s children when she was away and with whom she shared many holidays. Not only was Sainte-Croix a leading figure in the French feminist movement (which would have been antithetical to the misogynistic right), she was a strong supporter of Dreyfus. She was also anti-Catholic and a free thinker, all attributes absolutely at odds with the values espoused by the Catholic Millevoye, yet Frazier does not consider the significance of this friendship and its impact on Gonne’s political thought and practice. Feminism is outside of his frame of reference.
Within Ireland, the formation of Inghinidhe na hEireann is described in a couple of paragraphs, its significance as the first Irish women’s nationalist organisation disregarded. Inghinidhe’s affiliation to Cumann na nGaedheal, historic in terms of women’s acceptance on equal terms in an Irish political organisation, is ignored because all that matters is both Gonne and Yeats were officers of Cumann na nGaedheal and the new Irish National Theatre Society.
Frazier is merciless in criticising Gonne for inaccuracies in her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, to the extent that it becomes wearing. Like Conrad Balliett, whose loathing for Gonne is evident in many articles – published and unpublished – and to whom Frazier thanks for his support, the implication is that such inaccuracies are indicative of a manipulator of the truth. However, there is no mention of the fact that A Servant of the Queen was written in 1938, after a lifetime of moving home, raids and the burning by the British forces of many of her personal and political papers. This is referred to in her Bureau of Military History Witness Statement, parts of which Frazier uses, while ignoring what does not fit in his critique. Other witness statements are used in the text, but not referenced in the bibliography.
Hostility to Gonne results in certain infelicities. We are told that she ‘appears to have had the lungs of a healthy horse’ (p.77) and yet, ten pages later, we find she is she is being nursed by Dr Sigerson because of a cough, and being warned of the dangers of consumption (p.89). When Gonne writes her famous polemic against Queen Victoria, ‘The Famine Queen’, Frazier asserts her ‘venom for the queen as a bad mother runs so deep it makes one ask if it arises from a well of self hatred’ (p.195). Really?
The tone changes as Frazier becomes more sympathetic to Maud after the drama of the divorce case and what he sees as her humbling at the hands of the lawyer who defended Dreyfus. Now comes Maud’s long exile in France, her devotion to her children, her role in nursing the wounded in the First World War and her new horror of bloodshed. Does she now conform to a more appropriate role for women? He is also sensitive to Maud’s position when Yeats considers marriage proposal to her twenty year old daughter Iseult.
The greatest strength of the book arises from Frazier’s expertise as a literary critic, which enhances his reading of Yeats’s poetry. His discussion on ‘Easter 1916’ in the last pages concludes, rightly, that Gonne wanted ‘a proper memorial…not another covert love-hate poem that took her to task for her politics’ (p.261).But now the woman too was changed, politically recharged, her ‘daily domesticity’ at an end. She was desperate to resume her political life in Ireland. For Frazier, referring to one of Yeats’s late poems, the ‘arrogant’ Maud Gonne, the war goddess, has reappeared, and her story is no longer his to tell.
* I declare an interest. My biography Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc (London: Pandora Press) was first published in 1990.
Dr Margaret Ward
Visiting Fellow in History, Queen’s University of Belfast