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
To the Reviews Editor, Women’s History Association of Ireland, 5 April 2017
May I reply to Margaret Ward’s review of my The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye, and W. B. Yeats? Margaret Ward, as she informs your readers, herself published a biography of Maud Gonne; that was twenty-seven years ago. Its focus is on Gonne as a leader of the women’s movement in Ireland, not as the muse of Yeats, nor primarily as an agitator for physical force, anti-parliamentarian political action in Ireland. While her book does not cover in detail Maud Gonne’s life in France (my stated subject), or her precise role in Yeats’s poetry, and thus does not appear in my footnotes or discussion, it is a lasting contribution, along with Ward’s other publications, to Irish women’s history and to public opinion. I’ve nothing against it to say.
Her review objects in the first instance to my title, The Adulterous Muse, as not being respectful of Gonne, or true about her. The adjective is judged to be politically incorrect, and perhaps the noun too.
The book, anticipating such an objection, devotes its first pages to explaining that the sense of the title is that in the courtly love tradition of poetry in which Yeats enrolled himself, and in which Maud Gonne consciously and proudly played a creative part, a love poet requires a muse, and the muse always belongs to someone else other than the poet. The muse was, in that tradition, another man’s wife. If it is said, still, Maud Gonne was not herself, in the literal sense of the word, adulterous, then one is overlooking the facts that, in the case of Millevoye, he was married to Adrienne Millevoye when Gonne bore two children by him, and she was married to MacBride when she finally became the lover of Yeats. In short, she was in three ways adulterous: figuratively, passively, and actively. But why is there a need to rush to someone’s defense for a complication in her private life a hundred years after the fact, as if anyone now shared the values of the Victorians? I don’t, and I don’t imagine Margaret Ward does. The point of the title is that the book explores a triangular relationship, with Maud Gonne in the center.
Still, I have to concede that a title shouldn’t require explanation, or leave itself open to misconstruction. If even for a portion of potential readers, it has proved off-putting, as a title, it is not doing its job.
Margaret Ward accuses me of a sexist point of view for saying that readers of The Adulterous Muse should be prepared to find that Maud Gonne, in spite of being a woman, and an English woman, had a significant impact on Irish history. This statement is to be understood in the context of by-laws of nationalist societies preventing female membership, and others reserving leadership positions to those actually born in Ireland. Doesn’t Gonne’s measure of effectiveness, in spite of these obstacles, cause one to credit her own personal force, determination, and charisma? This tribute to her individual power is the point of that sentence, and a fairly clear one.
Everyone’s perspective is innately limited, but sexism is a serious charge to level against a scholar and teacher of the young. It shouldn’t be made lightly, or on such weak evidence as this…really, no evidence at all. Whether it’s a charge or just an insinuation, I must protest. As a matter of fact, the several hyper-conventional and old fashioned attitudes attributed to the author of The Adulterous Muse, I reject; they are mistakenly attributed.
The author of The Adulterous Muse is also tarred with guilt by association, in this case, with Conrad Balliett. This scholar, now in his nineties, did primary biographical research on Gonne in the 1970s, travelling to France, England, and Ireland where he looked up survivors with things to say about Gonne, or in possession of archival traces of her life. It is to Balliett that scholars owe, for instance, the archive and recollections of Thora Pilcher, Maud Gonne’s niece, Iseult’s age-mate and dear friend. Many of Balliett’s papers were obtained by Emory University Library. Perfectly normal scholarly industry caused me to contact Balliett to see if he had further archival materials not in Emory, and he did. Thus he is thanked in my acknowledgements.
But Balliett’s name has been mud with those scholars who admire Gonne unreservedly, in particular on account of one early paper, ‘The Lives, and Lies, of Maud Gonne.’ He reveals in this paper what anyone who scratches the surface of historical research into her life will discover: her public statements, and in particular, her autobiography, are often unreliable. There are many reasons for Gonne not to have always told the truth: out of concern for the well-being of her children born out of wedlock, to protect her own viability as a public figure in puritan Ireland, to abide by the terms of a secret conspiracy, to build up her own reputation (which was vital to her efficacy), to substantiate her claim to be Irish, to make a better story, or to dramatize her role in history. Dissimulation is also a practice that comes with adultery. In fact, all these reasons apply, at different times. They are a part of the story of her daily life. While Margaret Ward may have found my persistent accuracy and ‘fact-checking’ fatiguing, it is important for a scholar not to pass along as true Gonne’s false statements, and it is fundamental scholarly work to distinguish where possible what really happened from what she said happened when the two are different. The book also takes pains to point out occasions when certain seemingly far-fetched anecdotes in A Servant of the Queen are supported by contemporary evidence.
I am not sure what is insinuated by saying that Maud Gonne’s friend Ghenia St. Croix, a prominent French feminist, was a Dreyfusard. Does this call into question the mountain of evidence now available that Maud Gonne herself was an anti-semite, an anti-Dreyfusard, and an affiliate of anti-parliamentarian right republicans in France? It is not my aim to put Gonne (or Yeats) in a bad light, or a flattering light, but just a clear one. Apart from their importance as figures in Irish history and literature, the rise of right-wing, populist ethnic nationalisms is itself, given recent events in Europe and the USA, worth a careful look.
It is customary to think of equal rights for women as proceeding coherently in step historically with other progressive causes, such as the labor movement, democracy, secularism, anti-imperialism, and the rejection of anti-semitism—liberalism on the march. But in the life of Maud Gonne, they are not so aligned. A supporter of Hitler in World War II, she is right wing as well as left, if always an extremely anti-English English person. Yeats’s assortment of beliefs and personal attributes similarly present a challenge for those who admire his poetry: even his family sometimes found his conduct ‘repellant,’ and his views (the occultism, the sectarianism, the eugenics) get worse as the poetry gets better. As for Millevoye, the challenge to empathy for a modern liberal is even greater, though for Gonne he was indisputably the love of her life.
It makes a tidier story to omit mention of Maud Gonne’s anti-semitism, or the political aims she shared with far-right French friends, but wave after wave of women’s history later, is it not possible to permit fair consideration (not ad hominem) of narratives that are politically untidy, if they prove to be true? Maud Gonne lived her life as best she could, and in the end it’s an astonishing and important life; she lived it not as a storybook heroine, but as a being living in the particular circumstances into which she was born, and in those further circumstances she helped to create.
Basically, what I wish to reply to Margaret Ward is, I know this narrative of Maud Gonne in France includes troubling new information which complicates matters, but it does not invalidate the important case you made years ago for the creative and progressive impact of Maud Gonne on the Irish women’s movement in the twentieth century; that case stands up, and, though it doesn’t need it, is clearly endorsed in my book. I am not your enemy, just a scholarly colleague working in the same field, or a cognate one– literary history—trying to add to what is known, especially about the complexities of the real-life basis for Yeats’s early love poems.
Adrian Frazier, MRIA
Response from Margaret Ward:
“The male view may see Gonne rescued from obscurity by this biography, but feminists never regarded her as overshadowed by the reputation of Yeats as we recognised her as an agent in her own right, and as a woman who made a significant contribution to Irish revolutionary events.”
This concludes correspondence on this matter.