The adulterous muse

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Lilliput Press
ISBN 9781843516781

Reviewed by: Anthony J. Jordan

Anthony J. Jordan’s books on the Yeats/Gonne/MacBride triangle are now available on Kindle.

This is a most interesting book by an author who is not in thrall to any of the main participants/protagonists, though he does jib at Maud Gonne’s use of the name ‘Willie’. Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and W.B. Yeats are the main characters. Maud Gonne’s husband, Major John MacBride, plays a minor part in the overall story. Frazier writes: ‘In MacBride’s later life, all the way up to his execution in 1916, there is nothing to show that he was either a serial child molester or an alcoholic’. Frazier puts it on the record that the most serious allegation made against MacBride was raised in court by his defence team, in order to have his name successfully cleared.

One challenge that all writers about Gonne face is to identify which passages of her memoir A servant of the queen are fact and which are fiction. In this area Frazier uses voluminous contemporary sources to assist him, observing that ‘Maud Gonne’s secret life in Paris was never really secret’. She did not simply have an affair with Millevoye; she was part of a political team with him. The author uses official records in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Maud Gonne: realité et myth, analyse d’une presence historique et litteraire’. Their exploits on behalf of the Boulangists, who promoted an aggressive nationalism and opposed Germany, are well documented in French newspapers. Millevoye was the editor of La Patrie, which also promoted Irish nationalism through articles by his mistress, Maud Gonne, with whom he had two children. He was a Catholic politician and was never going to marry Gonne, though they were a well-known couple in public. When she later discovered his affair with an actress and a change in his political outlook she ended their affair.

While Gonne was partnering Millevoye, she was also pursuing a career as a convert to Irish nationalism in Ireland, doing outstanding work throughout the country, plagued by famine and cruel landlords. In this context she encountered the upcoming poet W.B. Yeats. She gladly aligned herself with him, becoming his muse, which she knew would assist her fame, though her primary aim was the freedom of Ireland through unavoidable physical force. The young Yeats lusted after Maud, determined to wed and bed her. She played him along as he aligned himself with her many-faceted nationalist work. He produced beautiful poetry about her, much of which is included in this volume, elucidating his passion for her. Willie had little chance of capturing Maud; he just did not interest her sexually. He could not or would not read the signs and was reduced to fantasising about her for sexual relief. According to Frazier, Willie must have known about her affair with Millevoye. One of her Irish nationalist vehicles was the Irish Transvaal Society, founded in 1900 to send support to Major John MacBride’s Irish Brigade fighting alongside the Boers against the British. When MacBride came to live in Paris, Maud was enthralled to meet an Irishman who had actually fought the British. To Yeats’s horror and everlasting hatred, MacBride married Gonne against the advice of family and friends; her conversion to Catholicism was even worse for Willie. Maud’s third child, Seán MacBride, was born one year later. Though both agreed to separate, they could not agree on custody of the baby and a bitter divorce case ensued.

Maud felt obliged to remain living in Paris but soon resumed her Irish career, in which W.B. Yeats offered her continuing support. Frazier writes that by this stage Willie had acquired a degree of sexual confidence and ‘overcome his former phobia about the intricate complications of female genitalia’ as a variety of women pursued him. But he still thought that Maud was the one he desired. He got the opportunity in Paris in 1908, but ‘nothing could compare with the oft-imagined flesh of the muse; the uncovered body of a 42-year-old mother of three disenchanted him’. Gonne realised what had happened and she soon insisted that they revert to their ‘spiritual marriage’ state, which Willie gladly accepted. He continued to write beautiful poetry about their lot, corresponding by letter. Though her separation from MacBride isolated her from many Irish nationalists, she made infrequent trips to Ireland, working with Inghinidhe na hÉireann, the Women’s Franchise League, School Dinners Committee and such people as Arthur Griffith and James Connolly. She and her daughter Iseult volunteered to assist wounded soldiers at the outbreak of the First World War in France.

The Easter Rising caused great anxiety to Gonne and Yeats, as they knew some of the participants. News of her husband’s execution had a profound effect on Maud, as she rejected Yeats’s acclaimed Easter 1916 as ‘not worthy of you and above all it isn’t worthy of its subject’. Frazier is perceptive enough to complete the significant quotation by including the crucial part, from a devout Catholic: ‘As for my husband he has entered Eternity … and so that in praying for him I can also ask for his prayers and a terrible beauty is born’.


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