First Impressions on Maud Gonne’s Letters

I got a book of Maud Gonne’s letters. It’s called The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893- 1938 but there’s only 30 of his, most of which date from 1927 to 1938. In fact few of her letters appear in that section. I’m also expecting her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, which I hope will come some time in the next month.

We only ever think of Maud Gonne and Augusta Gregory in relation to Yeats, filling subordinate roles in his life when in fact each of them was a real person with lives distinct from his. Consequently they are deprived of their status as commanding personalities and creative forces in their own right. I’ve decided to collect and read their own writings so I can get insight into who they were.

The collection itself has two editors, one of whom is Anna MacBride White, Gonne’s own granddaughter, who also edits her autobiography. I was glad to see this. I had assumed that the collection would have been supervised by Yeats scholars who were more interested in the insight she could give into him. Her co-editor is A. Norman Jeffares, a Yeats scholar who is identified as the joint owner of the work alongside Anna on the copyright page. Her name appears before his on the cover and throughout. Maud Gonne’s letters and illustrations that appear are identified as belonging solely to her. She writes the prologue which begins with a beautiful account of the time she spent with her grandmother. It pleases me to see that Maud is the primary subject of this book. In the prologue as in the rest of the book, she is the main character, with Yeats as an obviously important but supporting character.

From the prologue alone, I have drawn so much delight. It is a rich source of insight into who Maud Gonne was, especially since Yeats was dead at this point. We can be sure that MacBride White’s interest lies in her grandmother. Most of what is written about historical figures is done by academics and though I have no cause to doubt their integrity, I am happy to see someone from her family involved.

I can’t yet give an in-depth analysis but I’d like to share some thoughts. I was interested in certain periods when I decided to get the book. The letters from 1905 written around the time of her divorce are naturally quite harrowing. I am in no position to render judgement on John MacBride but their union and separation were bitter and deeply unpleasant and her writing on the subject shows clear signs of intense distress. I have not spent much time reading the letters from this period and I admit I’m not too enthusiastic about delving into it. She and her children suffered greatly.

April 1916 is also really sad. It’s one thing to read about events in history schoolbooks written long after the event and quite another to read the primary sources. Maud was in France at the time and in her letters asks Yeats to send her the London papers because “I am fearfully anxious for my friends & for news of what really took place”. In a letter dated May 1916 she writes “I am overwhelmed by the tragedy and the greatness of the sacrifice our country men & women have made. They have raised the Irish cause again to a position of tragic dignity.” The following letter, one of the few with an exact date of Tuesday 9th of May 1916, contains this: “I am ill with sorrow- so many of my best and noblest friends gone-” Though she was sad to have lost friends she intuitively understood their motivations in offering up their lives. She saw its value as an engine for incredible artistic expression. In a letter from May of 1916 she writes “Pearse’s poem, written the night before his execution is beautiful. He was a great spiritual power, & his love of Ireland is so very great.” Yeats was working on his poem Easter 1916 and he sent it to Maud. A letter from November 1916 begins “No I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you & above all it isn’t worthy of the subject… You could never say that MacDonagh and Pearse and Connally [sic] were sterile fixed minds, each served Ireland”. She did not appreciate his characterisation of their late friends.

I was also interested in Yeats’ proposal to Maud’s 22-year-old daughter Iseult in the summer of 1916. Throughout the text there are passages amidst the letters which lend additional context since, quite aside from having so few of his letters, they haven’t got all of hers either. It is in one of these passages that the proposal is addressed. For years, I had assumed that his proposal to Iseult was made in haste and anger but I was surprised to learn here that he asked Maud’s permission first and what’s more, she “gave it, but warned him it was unlikely that she would accept. Iseult, with mixed emotions, was honoured, moved and yet amused, and does not appear to have given a clear answer”(pg 383). He had corresponded with Augusta Gregory on the subject and she was also in favour. The letters continue unabated. There was no great falling-out over the proposal. His correspondence with both Gonnes continued in both directions.

I am forced to admit the situation is quite beyond my understanding. I came to the book with pre-conceived notions about everyone involved. Maud, Iseult, Yeats, Gregory… I can only conclude that the truth is more complex than we might expect. In fact, that’s really how I feel about the subject on the whole. I think our perspectives tend to be simplistic. I’ve only ever seen their relationship portrayed as a story of unrequited love but having so far read twenty to thirty of the letters from over forty years, my overriding impression is that the two were friends above all. Their friendship was complicated, no doubt, but I think that speaks to its intensity and depth. I think friendship is underrated compared to what are typically considered the higher passions.

I may comment on the letters again after spending more than a few days with them. In addition to Maud’s autobiography, I’d also like to get my hands on writings by Augusta Gregory. Sadly her work is hard to come by. It’s not hard to find her plays and her collections of mythology, folk tales, etc, but I really want to read her autobiographical material. I know of at least one autobiography called Seventy Years of which only a very few copies are available .

Gonne and Gregory were two of our country’s greatest minds, equal to Yeats, Joyce, Moore and the rest. I don’t deny that these men deserve to be held in high regard but I dearly wish as much effort had been made to preserve the writing of such equally eminent thinkers. Each of them lived a fascinating life apart from Yeats and wrote extensively. I chose to study Irish Literature for the same reason I chose to keep learning French. I wanted to read beyond the English classical canon and access works we so frequently overlook in the course of a conventional education. I fully expect and hope to have my assumptions challenged by my reading. Maud makes reference to loads of French works over the course of the letters so quite by accident I’ve found myself with a forty-year range of French authors’ names, curated by a sharp and refined intellect.

For now, I’ll finish with some quotations from from my favourite paragraph in Anna MacBride White’s prologue (pg. 5):

“Nowadays Maud Gonne is looked upon as an adjunct of Yeats and is marginalised in history. Because she was a woman she could not be considered part of the mainstream…”

“…so she has been compartmentalised as a scarlet woman who betrayed the hero MacBride or a frigid goddess who led the famous poet by the nose unwillingly through politics, or some bizarre eccentric combination of the two, and not simply what she was, a remarkable person.”

“As a woman she can be better appreciated today than in her own time because she was too advanced to be understood properly by her contemporaries, but she pursued her objectives not as a woman but as a person.”

I really wish she were more seriously considered and that this book was more widely available. I got my paperback copy on Amazon and it features a beautiful though indescribably abstract cover. I also found one in the Cork City Library on Grand Parade, though this was a hardback and had a cover with bad pictures of Maud and Yeats awkwardly placed together. On getting home, I found that my paperback had arrived that morning.

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4 thoughts on “First Impressions on Maud Gonne’s Letters

  1. This is really interesting James. It’s good to see Maude Gonne appreciated in her own right as an intellectual and activist, not just a footnote to Yeats. I studied her role in Inghinidhe na hÉireann as well.

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