If anyone thought that academics sharing their enthusiasm for the landscape, writers and artists associated with Coole Park, Co Galway, would be boring and stuffy, they had a surprise last weekend. There were some jaw-dropping moments when Lady Augusta Gregory’s secret love affair was revealed; and when WB Yeats went off the rails in the years following her death, and had a series of love affairs.
If one could understand the quest of a romantic poet seeking a muse in his later years, the behaviour of Lady Gregory, usually portrayed as a prim Victorian matron of virtue (albeit with a great sense of humour ), comes as a shock. Barely two years into her married life, and a young mother, she fell totally in love with a serial seducer, Wilfrid Scawn Blunt. The affair lasted a year, and ended by a mutual pact in the summer of 1883. On the morning after their last night together she gave him 12 perfectly composed sonnets outlining her utter passion and complete surrender to him. Yes, she was tormented by guilt, by consciousness of sin; but she never regretted having loved:
But come what may, come weal or woe
I love thee......
Lady Gregory died in May 1932, and her secret should have died with her. But in 1952 Blunt’s ‘Secret Diaries’ were opened for the first time, and hurriedly closed again. Not until Blunt’s official life, based on his ‘Secret Diaries’, was published 17 years later was the true story revealed.
Lucy McDiarmid, professor of English, Montclair University, New Jersey, expertly sketched in the background to Lady Gregory’s secret last Saturday at the 18th Autumn Gathering, at Coole.
Wilfrid Scawn Blunt (WSB ), was considered one of the most handsome men in England, and seemingly irresistible to women. Lady Gregory and her husband Sir William, met Blunt and his wife, Lady Anne Noel, grand-daughter of Lord Byron, in Cairo in the winter of 1881. They had arrived just after a revolution, led by an army officer Ahmed Arabi Bey, had been quashed. Arabi faced execution. The Gregorys and the Blunts (WSB dressing in Arab robes ), immediately launched a campaign in Cairo and London to save Arabi from execution. Working closely together, petitioning influential people, writing letters to newspapers, they succeeded.
Blunt, described as‘ tall, lithe and strong, with wavy chestnut hair and passionate brown eyes,’ already had a formidable reputation as an adulterer. He had seduced one married lady many years younger than her husband, fallen passionately in love with another, lived with a third in South America, helped to ruin the marriage of a fourth in Sussex, and been himself drawn from the arms of a little Madrilena by the Anglo-Irish courtesan, Catherine Walters, infamously known as ‘Skittles’.
“ A prolific corridor-creeper” suggested Professor Mc McDiarmid.
Lady Augusta hadn’t a chance. She was young wife, aged 28 years, recently married to a former governor of Ceylon, a kind and humane man, 35 years her senior. Their adored baby boy was left behind in England. She ‘ was married in a grey dress and hat, as if her husband had conferred a vicarious maturity on her. Slight of stature, with a dignified oval face not unlike Queen Victoria’s, Augusta was in fact a small volcano hiding its secret fires.’
If the past year were offered 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?....
Nine years after their affair, Blunt, who regarded himself as a poet, asked Gregory if he could publish them with a selection of his own poems. Lady Gregory agreed provided they appeared anonymously. They were included in a slim volume Lyrics and Songs of Proteus by Blunt. They were well received. But no one ever guessed the true author of the love sonnets, until it was revealed in 1972.
‘A deed once done’
By allowing WSB to publish her poems, Anne Fogarty, professor of James Joyce Studies UCD, portrayed a longing by Lady Gregory for her ‘intense experience’ to be known. It was almost too glorious to be kept totally secret. Fogarty quoted Colm Tóibín imagining the thoughts of Gregory after Blunt: ‘’Memory, which was once so sharp and precious for her was now a dark room in which she wandered for the light to be switched on and the curtains held back.’ ( from The Empty Family ).
But Gregory did find outlets for her secret. Her numerous plays were very popular in the early days of the Abbey Theatre, and with students today despite their rare performances. Gregory was an experimental playwright, writing for only a few actors on stage, a foretaste of Samuel Beckett’s minimalist plays.
“ I may have gone too far,’ she wrote, “ and have I think given up an intention I at one time had of writing a play for a man and a scarecrow only, but one has to go on with experiment, or interest in creation fades..”
In her play Dervorgilla, the heroine, pleading for God’s forgiveness, says: ‘ And there is come upon me this day all the pain of the world, and its anguish, seeing and knowing that a deed once done has no undoing, and the lasting trouble my unfaithfulness has brought upon you and your children for ever...’
Liberation for Yeats
Following her third operation for breast cancer, Lady Gregory died in the early morning of May 23 1932. Although Yeats had spent much of her declining months with her, he was not there at the end. He arrived at Gort station that afternoon where he was met by Gregory’s grand-daughter Catherine. Even though he was expecting the news, he was distraught when Catherine told him. Sitting back to back on the ‘trap’ on their way to Coole, ‘ Yeats sobbed like a child.’
Yeats described her in a letter as ‘ the only person I could tell every thought.’ ‘ She was more than a mother , friend, sister or brother’ to him.
James Pethica, Irish literature professor, Williams College, Massachusetts, told the Autumn Gathering that not only had Yeats lost the woman who had collaborated with him, given him space to develop his talents, administered the Abbey Theatre which they both had founded, was his confidante and his friend, but her death meant that he would also lose his access to Coole, which was his home during his formative years.
But, according to Pethica, who is acknowledged as the principle authority on Lady Gregory, and is currently writing her biography, her death was also a source of liberation for him.
When he recovered from her loss, Yeats, now 67 years of age, indulged in a series of affairs safe from the scoldings Lady Gregory had meted out over his previous dalliances.
Like her husband before Yeats referred to her as an ‘aged woman,’ the ‘sound of a stick upon the floor.’ She could be, and was, severe with him when he made a fool of himself. When he fell ‘too obviously’ for a young actor, Florence Darragh, at the Abbey, she told him ‘with relish’ how Darragh had mocked the way he‘ trotted all over the theatre after her like a little dog.’
Another woman, Mabel Dickinson, had accused Yeats of making her pregnant. Marriage was the only solution. But it was a false alarm. Lady Gregory was relieved: “ Thank God you are free! It has been a terrible time - I don’t think you felt it more than I did”...
Later she wrote: ‘ This unpleasant business has troubled my thoughts of you. From the beginning to the present, it has not been worthy of you.’
Now, following her death, Yeats was free from the judgment of a woman he regarded as his closest friend, but thoroughly Victorian. He was now free to indulge in sexual affairs including his flirtation with Fascism and the Blueshirts without fear of reprimand.
His wife, George, was ‘remarkably indulgent.’
Catriona Crowe, head of special projects, National Archives of Ireland, and responsible for putting the 1911 census on-line, used that resource to go behind the doors of the small homes in the Kiltartan area. This was Lady Gregory’s ‘emotional heartland’ which was predominately rural, agricultural, and Catholic. Compared with the slums of inner Dublin at the time, where the mortality rate for new born babies was a staggering 50 per cent, new born mortality was rare in Kiltartan. Many households had large numbers of children, even three generations living in two or four rooms; but mothers had access to clean water, eggs, and milk.
Voices from the past
The celebrated radio broadcaster, John Quinn, brought the Gathering to a close with his interesting taped interview with Lady Gregory’s two grand-daughters, Catherine and Ann.
Following the publication in 1970 of the girls’ memories of growing up at Coole ( Me and Nu, published by Colin Smythe ), John was surprised to hear that they were both hale and hearty in their eighties. Ann lived in Devon, while Catherine lived in Mitchelstown. He invited them to return to Galway and made his historic recording of their memories at Coole, Mount Vernon ( the Gregory Summer home on the ‘flaggy shore’ ), and at the Gregory townhouse 47 Dominick Street.
It was first broadcast on RTE radio St Stephen’s Day, 2002. It is a completely absorbing broadcast. Their voices carry the listener back into their childhood world. They loved their grandmother totally. No matter how busy she was, whether she was writing, discussing Abbey theatre business, or resting, she came immediately when they called her. She laughed at their misadventures, and loved them openly. Because of the immediacy of their voices, Quinn’s tapes cast their spell. It is a moving testament to this extraordinary Galway woman, with her intelligence, energy, passion, and great vision.