My dear Miss Persse, I have read over many times the letter which you wrote to me a fortnight since when returning Roderick Hudson. Am I too presumptuous in thinking that there is something more in it than a mere critique on that book? I have thought over and over again on the subject and have at length determined to ask if I may write freely to you - on the most momentous question affecting a man and woman’s life…..’
So began a significant correspondence between the 28-year-old Augusta and Sir William Gregory, some 35 years her elder, in January 1880. They were married the following March much to the astonishment of her family.
It was an affair which began over a love of books. Coming from her home at Roxborough, near Loughrea, with its limited reading matter, Augusta was delighted when her neighbour Sir William opened his library at Coole Park to her. Sir William, a widower, did not farm his estate, or breed cattle or prosper at business as the Persses did; but earned his livelihood as a successful public servant and diplomat. For periods he was a member of parliament for both Galway and Dublin, a trustee of the British Museum and its National Art Gallery, and had just completed a six year term as governor of Ceylon when he met, and gently began to court, Augusta.
He made it plain from the start, however, that she should ‘consider well’ and ’not act lightly’ before committing to marriage to him. In fairness he urged her to ‘pray pray remember that I am old enough to be your father’, and although he enjoyed good health at present, she might have to face the burden of looking after an invalid.
Lady Gregory’s biographer, James Pethica, observes that Sir William makes no pretence to offer passion or romantic love. Instead he acknowledges candidly that what he seeks is ‘companionship’ with a young woman he judges to be intellectually substantial, caring, and appropriately quiet in temperament. On the plus side he pointed out that they, however, both loved art and books and travelling …’it is a great happiness no doubt to see this beautiful world in the companionship that is the most congenial one can select.’
A world of books
For young Augusta marriage to Sir William was a liberation from her expected role as an unmarried carer at Roxborough, and from her overprotective parents. She stepped into a new world of books, intellectual stimulation, travel and status. Sir William had homes in Dublin and London where she met many of the writers and politicians that she most admired. She dined with Robert Browning, Tennyson, James Russell Lowell, Mark Twain among others.
Sitting beside Henry James in Rome, she may have told him the story of her critique of his book Roderick Hudson, and her flirtatious insinuation abut Mr Hudson, which caught Sir William’s eye. No doubt if she had, Henry James would have been amused. She was reading his The Portrait of a Lady at the time, and had the exceptional thrill of discussing the plot with him.*
A disappointing note
For all that, however, there was something missing. Augusta began to see her husband as somewhat selfish. James Pethica writes that instead of the liberty that Augusta longed for, she found that as a wife she was expected to accommodate herself uncomplainingly to his interests and long established friendships. Their frequent travels meant long separations from their only child Robert, born in May a year after their marriage. Robert’s birth was not welcomed by his father. The boy was left in the care of nurses, and by Augusta’s mother who delighted in teaching the boy his Bible.
Augusta dealt with all this with wry humour. ‘We had spent so many months in Italy, months in Germany, a winter in India and one in Egypt that I used to say that if I ever needed to take a trade I would be fitted at least for that of a courier.’
Sir William died in March 1872. In their 12 years together Augusta learned to trust his calm judgment in most matters, which was worldly wise and moderate; his kindness to her, and his good relations with his tenants. She completed his autobiography, and throughout her 40 years of widowhood, dressed in black until her death. Yet in her writings she expresses a disappointing note regretting that during her married years time ‘was squandered on irrelevant friendships’. Nothing worthwhile was achieved. ‘We both had energy - and love of Ireland…we might between us have done some big thing.