Monday, September 19, 2011
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
The reappraisal of one Protestant Irishman puts me in mind of the reappraisal of another, although in spirit and achievement W.B.Yeats is a world away from the New Zealand prime minister.
There’s a part of me that shouldn’t really enjoy the various books that have been written by Brenda Maddox.
Maddox is a new-style feminist literary biographer. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with that. The most illustrious people can stand being scrutinised over matters of how they responded to men, women and sex. But a certain sameness creeps into some of Maddox’s output. You soon start tripping over passages that suggest such-and-such a noted writer wasn’t all that hot after all, because he didn’t treat his wife well or (more commonly) because in fact the woman in his life was the really creative person.
Sometimes this comes close to forgetting that the only reason we recall writers is because they wrote well – not because of what pleasant or unpleasant people they were, or how well-adjusted their sex lives were or, for that matter, who inspired them.
Thus it is in Brenda Maddox’s A Married Man (about D.H.Lawrence) and in her Nora (about the wife of James Joyce).
I love the gossip Maddox uncovers but feel a little queasy about what seems a covert belittling of the writer in her sights. A modern feminist judges them and finds them wanting because their social perspective isn’t hers. Lawrence was a wimp, obsessed with sex but scared of his own homosexual impulses, who found stability only by putting himself under a domineering wife. Joyce lacked a backbone until he found the lusty West-of-Ireland peasant girl Nora Barnacle who let him defy convention and whom he married. Thus speaks Maddox.
But the malicious reader in me has no misgivings about Maddox’s delightful George’s Ghosts, if only because parts of it are so dotty.
It is subtitled A New Life of W.B.Yeats, but the subtitle is a little misleading. This is really an account of Willie Yeats’ late marriage to Georgina Hyde-Lees, whom he called “George” or “Georgie”. Yeats married her when he was 51 and she was 25. He had recently begun to get over his long and rather pointless crush on the more glamorous Maud Gonne.
Willie was well into being the famous poet. “George” was a spirit medium. They were both deeply enmeshed in the occult, séances, automatic writing, table-rapping, various odd forms or Masonry and other cultish and somewhat elite forms of belief.
These were perfect forms of escapism for people who fancied themselves as aristocrats, especially at a time when the rough and rude Irishry were grabbing back their country from the likes of Yeats’ Anglo-Irish gentry friends. Join hands in a Magic Circle, listen to voices from Beyond, and you could see yourself as infinitely superior to those grubby people outside your windows who were now in the driver’s seat.
None of this is new. Yeats’ mystical crankiness has long been known, as has the assumption of aristocratic airs which led him, in the 1930s, to cuddle up to Fascism. What is new is the intimacy with which (drawing on diaries and other previously unpublished material) Maddox shows Yeats being manipulated by a very canny young wife.
Maddox reveals “George” as an astute woman whose spirit voices just happened to tell Willie when she had a headache and when the astral spirits said it wasn’t propitious for them to sleep together. And Yeats dutifully obeyed the astral spirits. Some such details of superb hoodwinking are at once sad and extremely funny.
There is nowhere in this book any suggestion that Yeats was anything other than a very great poet – one of the 20th century’s greatest. There is also the clear suggestion that he was gullible and fell for more than one ridiculous political scheme. In one scene Maddox has him trying to talk high philosophy with the dull “bachelor cop” O’Duffy, who headed Ireland’s tiny home-grown “Blues Shirts” Fascist movement and who didn’t have the faintest idea what Yeats was talking about.
When I first read George’s Ghosts ten years ago, I didn’t lose any of my respect and admiration for the great poet who wrote Sailing to Byzantium and Easter 1916 and the Crazy Jane poems and even that melting, sweet Late Romantic “Celtic Twilight” stuff that he began with. But I was forcefully reminded that literary genius can live in the same body as plain silliness. And a literary genius may be the veriest dolt when it comes to recognizing what is going on in his own house and bedroom.
It’s a lesson worth remembering whenever admirers make the mistake of elevating literary giants to the status of universal sages.
Helpful hint to get another viewpoint: Type the words “George’s Ghosts Maddox” into your search engine, and the first thing to come up will be a thoughtful review by Ann Skea. It is worth reading. Like me she basically admires the book, but she is a little more sceptical about Maddox’s tendency to psychoanalyse her subjects.