Colm Toibin on the mothers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce
While the fathers left behind letters or diaries, the women in their lives often became the elusive, mysterious ones
James Joyce with his parents in 1888. Photograph: Marka/UIG via Getty Images
As I wrote Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know, an account of the lives of Oscar Wilde’s father, WB Yeats’s father and the father of James Joyce, which began as the Richard Ellmann Lectures given at Emory University, I was aware of ghosts in the doorway, figures moving uneasily and silently in the shadows. All of these were women – the wives, the sisters, the daughters, the lovers. Most of them – WB Yeats’s mother, for example, or James Joyce’s mother – left no diaries or letters. The images we have of them are as long-suffering, disappointed, ready to fade into obscurity, just as their husbands seemed troublesome, noisy, as well as witty and original, and their eldest sons were ambitious, prodigious, determined to finish everything they started.
In these stories the men are all appetite and restless energy. They left enough evidence to become almost fully knowable. Their wives and daughters – especially in the case of Yeats and Joyce – became the elusive, mysterious ones.
It would be easy to see the lives of these three men as examples of rampant masculinity in the few decades before women got the vote. But all three men were impelled by forces more complex and fascinating than any single, simple judgment might propose. Life lit a bright if dangerous fire in all three of them.
Their lives raise complex moral questions. What they had was energy, often a chaotic form of energy. The badness, the madness and the danger, among other things, were part of a richly reckless response to life.
After his wife’s death, when he was living in New York, WB Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, wrote more than 200 letters to Rosa Butt, daughter of Isaac Butt, whom he had known for many years and whose portrait he had painted. She was living in London. They agreed to burn each other’s letters on receipt. He burned hers; she kept his. On her death in 1926 (four years after the death of John Butler Yeats), her niece, the painter Mary Swanzy, had the letters from old man Yeats placed in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, not to be opened until 1979.
While John Butler Yeats’s epistolary style is frank, unguarded, fully personal, from Rosa Butt we get silence. She left only four words, words that we have because they are quoted back to her in one of his letters. She began one of her letters with the phrase “My dear old lover”, which suggests that she tolerated, perhaps even enjoyed John Butler Yeats’ ardent tone.
In the letters, written after his wife’s death, John Butler Yeats paints a depressing picture of his marriage. He chose Susan Pollexfen, he wrote, because of her family’s genius “for being dismal… I thought I would place myself under prison rules and learn all the virtues”. He later wrote: “I don’t think she approved of a single one of my ideas or theories or opinions, to her only foolishness”. And in another letter: “If I showed her my real thoughts, she became quite silent and silent for days, though inwardly furious”.
In another letter to Rosa, he wrote about Susan: “I remember that my wife never failed to tell you bad news. If there was good news it did not seem to her worth talking about”.
Twelve years after Susan’s death, in a letter from New York to his daughter Lily, he wrote: “Had I had money your mother would never have been ill and would be alive now – that is the thought always with me – and I would have done anything to get it for her – but had not the art”.
Just as the main way we can see Susan Pollexfen is through her husband’s eyes, there is no moment when May Joyce, James Joyce’s mother, gets to speak in words she herself has chosen. Nonetheless, there is a wonderful passage in Stephen Hero where Joyce allows his mother to exercise her intelligence and her judgment, as her son gives her the plays of Ibsen to read. “The play which she preferred to all others was The Wild Duck . Of it she spoke readily and on her own initiative: it had moved her deeply.” When her son asked if she thought the plays immoral, she replied: “I think that Ibsen… has an extraordinary knowledge of human nature… And I think that human nature is a very extraordinary thing sometimes”.
In The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, however, the figure of the mother will have no interests other than domestic peace, household activity and religion. Her ability to read and think for herself has been consigned to silence.
A dream nation
There was nothing silent about Oscar Wilde’s mother, who was known for her strong opinions and her grandiloquence. It is very easy to mock Lady Wilde, but it should be remembered that she produced pioneering work on Irish folklore. Roy Foster has written of these books: “Her folklore volumes profoundly influenced the young Yeats… they may also have been read by Bram Stoker”.
The Wildes were part of an unruly ruling class in Dublin. Their power depended on the ambiguity of their position. They offered allegiance to an Irish of the future, a dream nation, but William had no problem accepting a knighthood for his pioneering work on the census returns. In Dublin, the Wildes did whatever they liked. Sir William fathered three children out of wedlock and had a relationship with one of his female patients.
Although Sir William Wilde made a great deal of money as a doctor, by the end of his life he was broke. “How are we all to live?” Lady Wilde asked after his death. So, too, John Butler Yeats never managed to provide for his family and needed the financial support of his son in the last decades of his life. And despite inheriting six tenanted properties in Cork and having a well-paid job as a rate collector, John Stanislaus Joyce could not manage money. His story is one of slow financial decline.
Thus it is possible to see the story of these three men as one of improvidence, with much damage done to others through wilfulness. And to suggest that the discipline and energy and originality Oscar Wilde, WB Yeats and James Joyce displayed were a kind of retaliation against their fathers.
Stanislaus Joyce, James Joyce’s brother, has an interesting explanation for the emergence of these writers of genius in the Dublin of these years. “In Ireland… there is properly speaking no national tradition…When an Irish artist begins to write, he has to create his moral world from chaos by himself, for himself. Yet, though this is an enormous disadvantage for a host of writers of good average talent, it proves to be an enormous advantage for men of original genius, such as Shaw, Yeats, or my brother.”
In his book Dublin 1660-1860, Maurice Craig writes about “the mild melancholy” of Dublin in the 19th century. “For all its mass movements, it is an era of individuals, or occurrences apparently isolated and apparently without meaning.” Sir William Wilde emerges from this world as fully original. His books on the Irish landscape, as well as his work as an eye and ear doctor, show him as a man driven to change the world around him, offer it meaning and order.
John Stanislaus Joyce had no interest in order; his life, the trouble he caused, provided his son James with a challenge. In a story such as Grace, Joyce showed how easy his father would be to mock. Joyce could have devoted his life to dramatising his grievances against his father. Instead, he set about painting his father in a more ambiguous and forgiving light.
Of all three fathers, John Butler Yeats was the cleverest and the most original. In his old age, he became one of the greatest letter-writers of the age. Some of the observations in the letters are outstanding: “I think lots of men die of their wives and thousands of women die of their husbands”.
In another letter to his son, he wrote: “A man with a personality may talk about many things, but in things which touch his personality, he will prefer to be silent”.
In his work as an artist, John Butler Yeats was a great eraser and non-finisher, which allows us a new way to see his son’s ringing and conclusive stanza endings. His father’s radical uncertainty and lack of industry may also have mattered to Jack B Yeats, who did not follow suit. But, in wanting untidiness and spontaneity from art as much as life, John Butler Yeats was fully serious, as he made clear to his son in a letter in 1906: “I think every work of art should survive after all the labour bestowed on it, and survive as a sketch. To the last it must be something struck off at first heat”.
Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce is published by Viking, at £14.99