The Awaking of Augusta - The affair

Week III

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in his 20’s - ‘the most handsomest man I have ever met’

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in his 20’s - ‘the most handsomest man I have ever met’

The affair between Augusta Lady Gregory and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the romantic traveller, poet and a somewhat eccentric man addicted to political causes, lasted one year. It carried on almost under the eyes of her husband Sir William. He did not notice it, or if he did, he chose not to notice it.

On their last night together, in Blunt’s magnificent home and stud at Crabbet Park, Sussex, she left him a sheaf of poems, complaining that he was at times indifferent to her love, when she had given him her all. It was her first out-pouring of her emotions in writing. Yet through the years she remained steadfastly loyal to him.

She and Sir William were away when four years after their affair ended, Blunt was imprisoned in Galway gaol, for addressing a banned Home Rule meeting in Woodford. When Augusta returned to Galway she got permission to visit his cell, where she stood, and must have imagined his frustration, a man of action confined to a little space. She sketched a picture of the gaol.

Sir William and Augusta met Blunt in a hotel in Cairo in the weeks leading to Christmas 1881. Sir William had seen him previously in Madrid, when Blunt was in the bullring fighting a fearsome bull. This time Blunt swept into the hotel, a striking figure in Bedouin costume. He presented a marked contrast to the ageing Sir William with his worries about his health. Their friend Emily Lutyens recalled that Blunt was ‘the handsomest man I have ever met, and I think the most physically attractive.’

’Settling the affairs’

Blunt had become besotted with the struggle by a Egyptian army officer, Ahmed Arabi Bey, who faced execution following the failure of his anti imperialistic revolution. Blunt’s excitement drew the Gregorys into his plan of campaign. They saved Ahmed’s life by sending a series of letters to London newspapers justifying his cause, and pleading his innocence. Once Sir William realised that the Ahmed rebellion was against British policy, he withdrew his support, but allowed his wife and Blunt to continue their campaign.

According to Augusta’s diary, her husband remarked: ‘You and Wilfrid talk more nonsense than any two people settling the affairs of the world.’ By the following summer Augusta and Blunt were lovers.

‘A losing game’

Blunt was married himself at the time, and notorious womaniser. His enthusiasm for Arab nationalism owed much to his inspiration of Byron’s efforts for Greek independence in the 1820s. He viewed Byron as a model in matters of sexual freedom. He even married Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Noel.* Blunt could be petulant, and difficult at times. He was scathing of Sir William whom he described in his diary as an ‘Irishman of the old school of Liberal politics..an habitual diner-out.’ He implied that ‘the older man had only himself to blame for his wife’s disloyalty’. He added rather dismissively that the affair ‘was a new experience in her (Augusta’s ) quiet life.’ Augusta fed him bon bons to soothe him when he was out of sorts.

Despite her passion for Blunt, however, she grew to recognise that although her husband’s political judgments were cautious and unshowy, they were judicious and well-informed compared to Blunt’s impulsive and reactive excess.

Her last poems to Blunt, that final morning, tell of her regret and some bitterness at the unequal terms of their relationship. Her biographer James Pethica observes the double-standards that existed at the time. The social and personal risks in becoming his lover had been almost entirely Augusta’s. She anticipates ‘shame’ and ‘scandal’ falling on her if the affair was revealed; but makes no mention of any likely consequence for him for his ‘victory’ in having ‘conquered’ her heart.

Pethica observes: ‘How small a part’ she had been in his life, whereas he had been her ‘all’. ‘I staked my all upon a losing game/ Knowing the nature and the ways of men.’

And yet….and yet, she wonders:

‘If the past year was offered to me again,

And choice of good and ill before me set

Would I accept the pleasure and the pain

Or dare to wish that we had never met?

Ah! could I bear those happy hours to miss

When love began, unthought of and unspoken

That summer day when by a sudden kiss

We knew each other’s secret and awoke?’

Next week: A thoughtful and creative time at Coole.

NOTES: *Lady Anne Noel may have played a role in the breakup of the affair. Blunt and Augusta’s last night together August 7 1883, was at his home at Crabbet Park. Although the affair ended by ‘mutual pact’ the risk of discovery and ‘dishonour’ must have finally compelled Augusta to withdraw. Lady Anne announced the affair was the last straw, and that her marriage was ‘over’.

Correction: I inadvertently gave the wrong date for Sir William’s death last week. He was born 1817 and died March 6 1892 at his London’s residence, St George’s Place. Augusta was his second wife. He previously married Elizabeth Clay 1872, who died one year later. He married Augusta Persse 1880, the youngest daughter of Dudley Persse of Roxborough, Co Galway. They had one son, Robert Gregory (1881 - 1918 ).

For the past few weeks I have been leaning heavily on Lady Gregory’s Early Irish Writings 1883 - 1893 by James Pethica, recently published by Colin Smythe.

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