Irish writers, women, and tragedy

'Tis a soft day thank God

‘Tis a soft day thank God

The rain, even paced and misty, falls steadily today. It reminds me of Ireland.  Maybe that’s what made the great classical Irish writers sit down with pen and paper and write; the rainy weather.

I have been thinking about Ireland, the writers and heroes she produced over the years; or more precisely the wives or women connected with Irish writers and heroes.

To be married to a writer, hero, or soon to be legend is no easy task. In fact, there are times when I wouldn’t like being married to me at all. I would hate it. 🙂

When I sit and type the stories in my head, the people around me must be quiet, and that’s impossible with a teenage son and a husband whose hearing isn’t what it used to be. So I write when I am alone in the house. No music and no television, just me, a keyboard and a screen. We’re a finicky bunch, us writers, that’s for sure.

F Scott FitzSomething my husband said a while ago promoted me to write this post, in conjunction with a quote I just read on Facebook. The quote, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an Irish name by the way, is this:

“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

That quote struck me. My response to it on Facebook was, “Behind every great hero, is a suffering woman. Behind every great heroine is a suffering man. When I think of all the heroes of the Easter Rising in 1916, I think of the families left behind, when I think of Bobby Sands, I think of his wife and son, when I think of James Joyce, I think of Nora his wife and the same goes for W B Yeats and his spouse. Heroes have families whose lives were impacted by their actions. OK I’m rambling, so I’ll shut up now….Gandhi, that was the last one, I promise.” I try to be funny, but fail miserably.

Writer at WorkMy husband once told my mother-in-law, “Be careful what you say, she might write about it.” And that’s true, I probably would if I found a place for it in a story. So I’ll stop rambling and get to the point.

Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce

Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce

I couldn’t live with me because, like Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, I would be afraid that there would no longer be such a thing as my “private life.” Would my every little action and utterance become part of a book?

Take for example Joyce’s book Ulysses. The character of Molly Bloom is based on Nora Barnacle. Sounds flattering, at first, but Molly Bloom is described as a woman who has an affair with another man, after living celibate for ten years within her own marriage.

Nora’s letters to Joyce during the earlier part of their courtship were used by Joyce to create Molly’s soliloquy at the end of the book. So far, the idea of having a writer/husband base a character in his next novel on me isn’t all that flattering.

Was it a tragic relationship between Joyce and Nora Barnacle? No, not really. But it was far from dull. It probably did provide him with a lot of writing material.

Georgie Yeats on the left, with her husband, 26 years her senior, W.B. Yeats on the right.

Georgie Yeats on the left, with her husband, 26 years her senior, W.B. Yeats on the right.

Or how about the wife of William Butler Yeats, Georgie Hyde-Lees?That’s her with the jaw of granite and the floppy black hat in the picture on the left. Who says make-up can’t be an improvement?

Not only did Georgie have to deal with Yeats’ extensive volume of love poetry to Maude Gonne, there she is, down there on the left, but Georgie also had to endure his love affairs with other women!

Yeats was 26 years older than Georgie, they had two children together. Where did he get the energy for love affairs in his sixties? Viagra hadn’t even been invented yet!

Maude Gonne

Maude Gonne, the woman Yeats kept proposing too, even when she became “less than desirable” in his eyes.

This might explain why Georgie said to him that upon his death people would talk of his love affairs, but she would not, for she knew he was “proud,” and this also would explain why she tinkered with contacting spirits to help with “automatic writing.” Reality was hard to deal with, the spirit world was easy in comparison.

Maude Gonne had inspired Yeats to write beautiful poetry, plays, and propose multiple times. The last proposal coming after she buried two husbands and told everyone that the daughter she had with Sean McBride was really her niece.

Was the relationship with Yeats, Georgie Hyde-Lees and Maude Gonne tragic? No. Complex? You betcha. But we got a lot of poetry out of him because of it.

Constance Payne Townshend, the wife of George Bernard Shaw

Constance Payne Townshend, the wife of George Bernard Shaw

Then there is the great George Bernard Shaw.

His wife, Constance Payne-Towneshend, and he never consummated their marriage, because she wanted it that way.

Shaw allegedly had numerous affairs with married women. Shaw was 42 years old when he married Constance, and she was 41. Yet, despite what most people might think as a strange marriage, when Constance died, Shaw kept her ashes until his own death, whereby he was cremated and both of their ashes were spread around a garden and statue that was significant in their lives together.

Was Shaw’s and Constance’s life together tragic? Unconventional, definitely, but not tragic.

Constance Wilde and her son Cyril Wilde

Constance Wilde and her son Cyril Wilde

Or how about the wife of Oscar Wilde? Constance Lloyd was the wife of the great Oscar Wilde before he discovered he was homosexual. In the meantime though he had fathered two young boys.

When Constance, due to Oscar’s imprisonment because of his homosexuality, could no longer deny that her husband was gay she changed her children’s last name to Holland and left Wilde behind as she moved away, with sole parental rights, to mainland Europe. Was Oscar and Constance’s life tragic? The only tragedy here, in my opinion, is that homosexuality was then considered a crime and grossly indecent behavior.

I started off thinking about that quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald and how the wives of the great classical writers of Ireland suffered because of their husbands’ calling to write. But the more I read about these women, the more I understood that they made a choice. They stayed or left because of their own free will. There’s no tragedy unless free will was not an option.

So, tragedy, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. Only those who lived with Joyce, Yeats, Shaw, or Wilde can attest to whether or not their lives with their writing husbands were tragic. And that’s a tough thing to do. To look back on a marriage and say it was tragic because he wrote so much, he wrote about our private lives, he loved me but had multiple affairs, he chose me because his true love said no, he married me but loved men.

But still, I wouldn’t marry me, I’d date me maybe, but marriage? Nope.


8 thoughts on “Irish writers, women, and tragedy

    • NO way!!!!!! Well the ould divil!


      “One April day in 1934, at the age of 69, William Butler Yeats entered the Harley Street clinic of an Australian sexologist, Norman Haire. Sunk into gloom, convinced that his inspiration and his sexual potency were decaying together, the poet had heard about an operation that promised to rejuvenate old men.

      Although the procedure was called a Steinach operation (after its inventor, Eugen Steinach, a Viennese doctor), it was, in effect, a vasectomy. It took 15 minutes. From a scientific point of view, it shouldn’t have worked. But Yeats, who had dreaded the effect of age on his virility since he was young, wanted so hard to believe in it that he was, mentally at least, given new energy. Six months later, he embarked on a close new friendship with a beautiful 27-year-old actress, Margot Ruddock. His late poetry – he lived and wrote until 1939 – burned with fresh fire, and some defensiveness. The Dublin papers started calling Yeats “the gland old man”.

      The poet wrote “The Spur,” a four-line verse: “You think it horrible that lust and rage/Should dance attention upon my old age;/They were not such a plague when I was young;/What else have I to spur me into song?”

      The Steinach operation didn’t always renew its beneficiaries. Sigmund Freud had it done in 1926. He said it did nothing for him. Another Steinach patient, Albert Wilson, was so enthusiastic about the benefits of the operation that he booked the Albert Hall to deliver a lecture entitled How I Was Made Twenty Years Younger. On the eve of the lecture, he died.”

  1. love the warning sign….I say, anyone and anything near a writer is fair game and potential writing material… 🙂

  2. I also believe W B Yeats had the monkey gland injections pioneered in the 1930s to increase virility. He was rather obsessed with growing old, or should I say, he longed for eternal youth as opposed to longevity. Aren’t such men usually attracted to younger women? I love the quote attributed to Joyce’s father when his son informed him about Nora Barnacle ‘Ah well, at least she should stick to you.’ This is a nicely composed blog – thank you – I enjoyed reading it.

  3. What a great post. So interesting to learn more about those great authors.

    As writers, it is hard not to live in our heads. I’ve dated a couple of writers, and loved that we had that in common.

    • I could date a writer, but I really don’t know if I could live the rest of my life with one. You’re absolutely right though, we do live our lives in our heads. That’s what I mean at the very end of the post. We observe, think, write, rewrite and all of this is happening silently in our noggins. I’d be just like Nora Barnacle, terrified that my writer spouse was writing about private stuff!

      • I’ve dated a couple of writers, and liked it because we had that in common: a love of writing, of quest for the perfect turn of a phrase. Yes indeed, we live in our heads a lot.
        Oh boy, then it is good that you are not married to a writer!

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