WB Yeats's most uncommon marriage
LETTERS: ADRIAN FRAZIERreviews WB Yeats and George Yeats: The LettersEdited by Ann Saddlemyer Oxford University Press, 578pp. £30
YEATS’S FIRST extant letters to his 24-year-old fiancee, Georgie Hyde Lees, were written from Coole. The 52-year-old suitor had travelled there from London to gain Lady Gregory’s blessing on his wedding plans. Ballylee was already his, but it still had no roof, and he still had no wife.
He keeps asking for a letter. She has never written to him. He anxiously awaits each post. What will she say and how, he asks himself, will she begin? He is eager to be a “student of [her] soul”. The poor girl. She must have been terrified. She appears not to have written to him for the next eight months.
But the appearances deceive. When, about two weeks after those first letters from Coole, Yeats suffered his attack of wedding-night incompetence, George suggested they instead try a little automatic writing; Lady Lyttleton had fascinated Yeats a few years before with her efforts in that line. To say the technique worked is an understatement. He went mad for it. Over the next three years he put her through 450 sessions, in which he posed 8,672 questions, and she wrote out 3,627 pages of answers.
These nearly unreadable, backwards, blind scribblings are the real, and the really strange, love letters of WBY and George Yeats. As his medium she got him sufficiently over his problem to father two children. At that point the otherworldly “Control” informed her husband that a family of four was the perfect number; any further offspring would bring the vision project to a crashing collapse; the whole affair was based on fours. So he kept working at A Visionfor the next eight years, and she minded the growing children and the various households: Ballylee, 82 Merrion Square, 42 Fitzwilliam Square and, finally, the old farmhouse in Rathfarnham, Riversdale.
WBY is usually elsewhere. Senator Yeats spent most of the Civil War at the Savile Club, in Piccadilly. Maud Gonne, George warned him, had falsely put out the word that Yeats was not even a Free Stater: he wanted the English back. Senators were being shot at and having their homes burned for less. Best to stay alive and stay away. By February 1923 George writes to persuade him it was then safe to come home, and utters for once her love: “If I do not fear for you when you are my whole world surely my instinct is right?” That one sentence, Yeats wrote, “filled my heart full”.
It was a big heart to fill. He reports gaily from London that he is “lonely, bored, tired, be colded in the head, toothachy, out of temper, Saturnian, noise-distracted, eczema-ish, bathless, Theatre-hating, woman-hating, but otherwise well cheerful”. Other people frequently bore him, with their “streams of irrelevant anecdotes, collected through long lives as fly-papers collect flies”. He begrudged his endless evenings with such people – “shere non-being”. But he was good enough to remain at Coole with Lady Gregory, by then tediously forgetful, through the long last year of her life.
Often he travelled about to get the Mediterranean sun or to give lectures. Then he had “talked myself tired drunk port wine been paid compliments what else is fame”. Yeats effortlessly throws off epigrams that add to the total wisdom of the ages. “Is not love being idle together happy in it. Working together being happy in it is friendship.”
BY THIS DEFINITION his relation with George passed after about six years from love to friendship. She remained the Dublin manager of Yeats Industries International. The responsibilities of the position were wide-ranging: director of Cuala Press, unofficial minder of the Abbey, house-mover, house-furnisher, single parent, typist, proofreader, secretary for correspondence with the publisher, outfitter supplying by post extra vests and drawers when he ran short, shopper for new shirts and suits, and constant troubleshooter.
There was a fair bit of trouble to shoot. She summed up her marital situation by saying she was like a child of five left in charge of a tiger in a cage, and had grown tired of being sent for when the tiger escaped.
Yeats reports that a Mrs Philamore asked him why he could not read Bertrand Russell. Why, I could no more read Bertrand Russell, he replied, than I could make love to a bald-headed woman. “Why can’t you make love to a bald-headed woman?” Mrs Philamore persisted. Perhaps because he had found a large number who were not bald-headed. Lady Ottoline Morrrell led him to Lady Dorothy Wellesley. There was lovely, young and unhappily married Margot Ruddock. The Marxist Ethel Mannin, the journalist Edith Shackleton Heald. His mind was an aphrodisiac for intelligent women. Yeats writes from their houses, and mentions them offhandedly to George. She is content to confide him to their care; don’t hurry home is her regular advice.
Her own letters in the later years relax into a vivid, gay, anecdotal style, when she is not simply being businesslike. She writes really well of dogs and cats, of the childishness of the Yeats sisters, and of books. For instance, she complains that Virginia Woolf seems “to write with the astonished eyes of an imaginary child”, and prefers Maria Edgeworth. Yeats frankly admired the “unstrained animation” of her later communications.
Gradually, she took charge of his literary estate, and organised his letters and manuscripts for posterity. After 48 hours of research in his files to answer questions for a scholar, she told him she was not complaining; those investigations were not dull; they “quickened my memory of the strange, chaotic, varied and completely unified personality that you are” – a magnificent appreciation.
The couple loved to trade gossip about Abbey actors. In March 1937 WBY was delighted to be in a position to explain why the actor Aideen O’Connor was in “such tears” at the Abbey. Arthur Shields had an “impossible wife”, so he started an affair with O’Connor. A “virtuous member” of the company informed her father and his wife. The father turned O’Connor out of the house, and Mrs Shields came to the theatre and slapped her. Thus the tears.
A year later George wrote to WBY, then with Edith Heald in Sussex, that Frank O’Connor’s departure with another man’s wife had put ideas into the heads of others. They were either doing likewise, or divorcing their spouses “after years of – shall we call it ‘toleration?’ ”
No: in the case of the Yeatses we have to call it by a better name than toleration, though it was no common marriage.
Adrian Frazier’s Hollywood Irish: John Ford, Abbey Actors, and the Irish Revival in Hollywoodwill be published by Lilliput Press next month