What to make of Constance Markievicz? Three biographies reviewed

Sisters Against the Empire by Patrick Quigley; Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, by Lindie Naughton; and Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary, by Anne Haverty

 

This autumn saw the opening in London of Undated Fragments on Unofficial Paper, an installation and archive by the artist David Blackmore that examines the absences and representations of Constance Markievicz in the collections of University College London and its Slade School of Fine Art. Markievicz was a student at the Slade from 1893 to 1897, when she was still a Gore-Booth, and 20 years later was imprisoned in Aylesbury, about 65km away.

The journal that she kept in 1916-17, during this period of internment, is the basis for Patrick Quigley’s double biography, Sisters Against the Empire: Countess Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth, 1916-17 (Liffey Press, €19.95).

Rather than attempt a full study of both figures, who have been so extensively reappraised, Quigley focuses on the year that was the most intense phase of the sisters’ relationship. Visits from Eva Gore-Booth and her partner, Esther Roper, were crucial to supporting Constance through periods of depression and physical illness during her incarceration; between visits the sisters’ psychic connection and their poetic collaborations provided spiritual nourishment.

Quigley’s book reproduces hand-drawn cards with poems from Eva to Constance and drawings from Constance’s journal. At times one wishes the author had discussed the fascinating illustrations in deeper detail. Markievicz’s letters to her sister frequently mention William Blake, for example, but the importance of Blake’s mysticism to the sisters’ spiritualism, in particular the significance of his poem The Sick Rose to the Rosicrucian imagery that appears in both sisters’ work, goes unelaborated. About Eva’s poem Survival, and its lines “In the darkness I planted a rose / And it withered and died”, Quigley writes that Jacqueline Van Voris, one of Markievicz’s biographers, “believed the poem was inspired by a failed attempt to grow a rose in her cell”. The striking drawing Constance, Tending the Rose suggests layers of meaning beyond the literal.

Nonetheless, more than 100 images are reproduced from the journal, showing Markievicz working in different genres and serving as further proof of her enduring skill.

Lindie Naughton’s Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel (Merrion Press, €19.99) begins with the outrageous claim that “Countess Constance de Markievicz has received remarkably little attention from biographers”. Eight biographies of her are then listed, in addition to Patrick Quigley’s pathbreaking biography of Count Casimir Markievicz, The Polish Irishman.

Naughton’s book is a poorly digested version of this scholarship, with neither the historian’s commitment to detail nor the novelist’s sense of plot and character. She makes recourse to stereotypes that do a disservice to a popular readership that keeps pace with the latest in Irish history writing. For example, “Middle- and upper-class girls from a Protestant background were fortunate to have role models such as Anna Parnell and her sister Fanny . . . Catholic girls had few such role models; their choices in life were between a good marriage or retreat to the convent.”

Statements like this one, of which there are many, depict an Ireland of two civilisations rather than the more nuanced social strata portrayed in recent books, such as Ciaran O’Neill’s Catholics of Consequence, which includes a chapter on elite education for girls. Naughton’s claim that the Bolshevik and French revolutions were “part of the prevailing tradition of romantic nationalism” is similarly confused.

Markievicz’s interest in the nationalist movement is depicted as a volte-face rather than as a gradual process of radicalisation that was typical of the revolutionary generation, as eloquently portrayed in Roy Foster’s Vivid Faces. It is surprising, then, that Naughton comes close to revoking Markievicz’s republican credentials: “After the Treaty was accepted, she stressed that order and peace were needed; disruption and disagreement would have serious consequences. These conciliatory words of hers are often unacknowledged.” Just what “these conciliatory words” were, and when they were uttered, is unclear.

The assertion that the question of the oath of allegiance “produced much arcane argument” is a similar affront to Markievicz’s stridency on the subject. Such a skewed depiction of republicanism in 1922 invokes questions about how the Civil War will be commemorated by the State, the public and academe.

Markievicz’s feminism is also tempered. In early March 1922 she delivered a speech in the Dáil advocating the extension of the electoral franchise to women on the same terms as those enjoyed by men. She said, “There has been less physical restraint on the actions on women in Ireland than in any other country, but mentally the restrictions seem to me to be very oppressive.”

Naughton summarises, “As a member of the privileged class, however reluctant, she did not always grasp the problems facing ordinary women in a changing society.”

Yet in this speech Markievicz is challenging the structural impediments to the equality of the sexes – most immediately the vote but also other “mental restrictions”. This aspect of Markievicz’s political thought is perhaps the most important for the present day: limitations that the State imposes on women are sometimes physical, such as abortion legislation, but are even more ubiquitously manifested as a vice grip on women’s mentalities, as in the underrepresentation of women in public life.

The interpretive lacuna is odd in light of Naughton’s concluding lament for the 1937 Constitution and its destruction of the “gains made by strong, brave women like Constance Markievicz”.

It is fitting that this centenary year is the occasion for a revised edition of Anne Haverty’s biography, first published in 1988 as Constance Markievicz: An Independent Life and now reissued under the title Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary (Lilliput Press, €16). The alteration invokes Seán O’Faoláin’s dropping of the subtitle Or the Average Revolutionary from his biography – the first of Markievicz – for its second edition. And it was O’Faoláin, Haverty reminds us, “who perhaps did her the most damage.”

In this case the change in name also comes with a change in attire: a handsome black jacket depicts Markievicz in Citizen Army uniform, with the book’s title superimposed in vibrant red type, restating her relevance. Although the reissue includes an updated bibliography, little of this work has made incursions into the narrative, but that seems inconsequential; Haverty’s book remains a classic in Irish biography and a rollicking good read.

Lauren Arrington teaches at the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. Her latest book, Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz, was published by Princeton University Press earlier this year

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