Thursday, March 15, 2012

Yeats very charming

Isabella Augusta Persse Gregory, an Irish playwright and key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, sometimes nicknamed the Celtic Twilight, was born 160 years ago today. For about ten years, from the death of her much older husband to the flowering of her own literary talent, she kept a diary which is written in a staccato style and thus often dull; but, it is revealing about herself, and her political/literary circle which included W. B. Yeats and Horace Plunkett.

Isabella was born on 15 March 1852 at Roxborough House, near Loughrea in County Galway. Aged 28 she married Sir William Henry Gregory, a 63 year old widower, who was an MP, a former Governor of Ceylon, and a trustee of the National Gallery. They lived in London, where she met famous writers and painters of the day, and they spent their summers at Gregory’s estate, Coole Park, in Galway. They had one child, Robert, born in 1881 who died while serving as a pilot in the First World War.

Sir Gregory died in 1892, after which time Isabella became more interested in Irish affairs, learning Irish and the Hiberno-English dialect of Kiltartan. In 1896, she met Yeats and, with him, collected Kiltartan folklore. With Yeats and Edward Martyn, she helped established the Irish Literary Theatre (later, this became the Abbey Theatre Company, and Lady Gregory its manager). She published books of poetry, translations of short plays, and then began to write her own plays, the first of which was Twenty Five. Many others - such as Spreading the News and The Workhouse Ward - followed.

Although in the 1920s she was probably the most performed playwright in Irish theatres, it was also a difficult time for her. During the Irish Civil War, she was physically threatened and Roxborough House was burned. In 1926, she discovered that she had cancer. She remained at Coole Park, though it was sold to the government, until her death in 1932. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, A Celebration of Women Writers, or FemBio.

Starting in 1892, Lady Gregory kept a diary. This was only published fairly recently, in 1996, by Colin Smythe, Gerards Cross, in an edition edited and introduced by James Pethica: Lady Gregory’s Diaries - 1892-1902.

Written in staccato style, the diary lists people met, places visited, etc. and most of it is not much of a read. That said, though, it is revealing about Lady Gregory’s own transformation from a relatively young widow to a central figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and provides interesting glimpses of those in her social circle - literary types like Yeats, Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson and Henry James; painters such as John Everett Millais; and politicians such as the Irish unionist Horace Plunkett.

The diary peters out after 1901. Pethica says: ‘The process of keeping the diary may have itself contributed significantly to the process of artistic self-discovery for her, in her early years of widowhood providing her with an unrecognised creative forum at a time when aspirations to write were generally unfocussed, and in later years serving more self-consciously as record of her own remaking as a literary figure. Her success in finding a new creative focus indeed probably largely accounts for her abandonment of the diary, as she was becoming too busy, and was now sufficiently secure of her part in the Irish literary world, to feel the need to keep a record of the important events she was participating in.’

14 February 1897
‘Westminster Abbey - Eyton - Dinner here - W. B. Yeats - Sir H. H. & Lady Johnston - Sophie Lyall - Alfred Cole - Barry O’Brien - Sir A. Clay - Very pleasant, at least I enjoyed it myself very much, liking them all - & they got on well - An argument at dinner as to who Conan Doyle had meant in a speech the night before by “the greatest man this century has produced.” B. O’Brien was for Napoleon, Sir H. Darwin - Yeats for Goethe - A. Cole stirring them all up - but as none wd agree on the premisses, I had to intervene at last -’

17 February 1897
‘Dined Leckys - Sat next to Lord Loch - who had been to hear Cecil Rhodes examined by the [South African] Committee [investigating the Jameson Raid] - & thinks he came badly out of it - his answers not straight & he had not even read the Blue books - & Lord L. is very down upon Miss Flora Shaw who seems to have precipitated the revolution - Have had 2 bicycling lessons at the Queen’s Club - The first simple torture, like sitting on a skate balanced on a cartwheel - I felt as if the machine was an “infernal” one - trying to compass my destruction - The 2nd, sat more comfortably - but can’t yet get the balance -’

28 February 1897
‘[. . .] Yeats very charming, I feel quite proud of my young countryman [. . .]’

21 March 1897
‘Got to church, & had a quiet afternoon typing from Froude - only the Birchs - Dinner, Rt. Hon. Horace Plunkett [an Anglo-Irish unionist, MP, and an agricultural reformer], Mr Barry O’Brien, W. B. Yeats - some very interesting talk - Mr O’Brien arrived first - & said he wd be so glad to meet Mr Plunkett - as all sections of Nationalists of late have been agreeing that he is the only possible leader to unite all parties - Yeats, just back from Dublin, corroborates this - He has been trying to reconcile conflicting committees re the ’98 Centenary [events to mark the centenary of the 1798 uprising] - but there is a great deal of squabbling - He says “every man who has time on his hands & a little industry has a secret society of his own” - Then Mr Plunkett came & we went up to dinner - a little tentative conversation at first - Then Mr Plunkett [said] his grudge against Parnellism is that Parnell so mastered & dominated his followers as to crush national life instead of developing it, as has happened when there has been a national awakening in other countries [. . . Mr O’Brien] says “I would make Mr Horace Plunkett our leader & follow him” - Yeats agrees enthusiastically & says “we all want it” - Mr Plunkett reddens & is evidently touched, tho’ his quiet restrained manner is unchanged - Yeats asks him how far he would go - he says, to a large measure of local Government - but not seperation - & not yet Home Rule they are not ready for it. [. . .]

The party did not break up till 12 - Mr Plunkett going first - Mr O’Brien looked at Yeats when he left & said “We could go fast with that man as leader” - but is a little sad that he doesn’t go in more for Home Rule - yet confesses he is wiser to stick to agricultural co-operation for the present -’

8 April 1899
‘The Jack Yeatses arrived yesterday - He is too good an artist to leave to Devonshire, I want to keep him to Irish things - [Yeats and his wife were living near Dartmouth.]’

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