Fathers and (Literary) Sons


Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know:

The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Scribner)

                 In the second half of the 19th century, Dublin was considered a cultural backwater.  Although less industrial and less populous than Belfast to the north, the city was known for its widespread poverty.  But some of the leading lights in modern literature were raised and spent youthful years in Dublin during the half century, among them playwright and critic Oscar Wilde (1854-1900); poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939); and novelist James Joyce (1882-1941).  Yet, the literary careers of each blossomed more in places like London and Paris than in Dublin.  Was there something in the 19th century Dublin air that encouraged youthful literary aspirations? Were these aspirations which could only be realized away from Dublin?

These questions lurk in the background of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, the erudite work of Irish journalist and prolific writer Colm Tóibín.  Tóibín wrestles with these questions through the prism of the “three prodigal fathers” (p.22) of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce, as he calls them.  He does so in what amounts to three separate essays, each bearing  a catchy title: “An Eminent Victorian: Sir William Wilde;” “John B. Yeats: The Playboy of West Twenty-Ninth Street;” and “The Two Tenors: James Joyce and His Father.”  In differing degrees, the three essays combine biographical sketches of the three fathers with an exploration of their relationships with their sons and the impact of those relationships upon the sons’ literary output.

Only thin threads hold the three essays together.  The sturdiest is late 19th century Dublin itself, where the three fathers sought to raise families as part of the city’s burgeoning middle class – upper middle class in the case of William Wilde; precarious middle in John Yeats’ case; and at best lower middle class in that of John Stanislaus Joyce.  Wilde and Yeats were urban Irish Protestants, distinctly different from Ireland’s unloved land-owning Protestant gentry, while Joyce was part of Dublin’s majority Catholic population.  Dublin was growing rapidly when the three fathers were raising their families, Tóibín writes, but was “poor, down at heel,” with an image as a “place of isolated individuals, its aura shapeless in some way, a place hidden from itself, mysterious and melancholy” (p.9).

Dublin and Ireland were then part of what was officially termed the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” governed by Parliament in London, with the central British government appointing most local authorities.  None of the three fathers was on the front lines of the movement for self-government (“Home Rule”) that began to gain serious traction around 1870.  Yet each was sympathetic with the notion of Irish independence from Britain, and the political leanings of the three fathers play minor parts in all three essays.

The Wilde and Yeats portraits revolve less around the two fathers’ relationships with their literary sons and more around their relationships with women who were not their wives. In William Wilde’s case, a significantly younger woman with whom he may or may not have had an intimate relationship sued William’s wife Jane for defamation, precipitating a spectacular public trial.  Yeats’ relationship was with a woman his age that came to light through their exchange of letters in the aftermath of the death of Yeats’ wife Susan, at a time when he had left Dublin and taken up residence in New York.  Linking their two stories is Isaac Butt, a prominent Dublin attorney and political activist credited with being the first to use the term “Home Rule.”  Although a friend of William and Jane Wilde, Butt represented Mary Travers, the plaintiff in the defamation action against Jane Wilde.  Butt’s daughter Rosa, in turn, was the woman with whom William Yeats exchanged letters while he was in exile in New York.

John Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce both struggled financially in a way that William Wilde never did.  But from Tóibín’s account, the senior Joyce was by far the least likeable of the three men, with few professional or personal accomplishments to point to.   Unlike either Wilde or Yeats, Joyce had an alcohol problem that frequently led to violence.  These differences may help explain why Tóibín’s Joyce essay takes a path altogether different from those on Wilde and Yeats, diving far more deeply into son James’ literary output than he does with Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats.  Tóibín demonstrates how, in the aftermath of a fractious relationship with his father as an adolescent and young man, James Joyce managed to recreate his father through his writings, rendering him more benign and nuanced.

The book’s title, Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know, remains for me a puzzle. Tóibín notes that in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce referred to his “cold, mad father” (p.154).  Although undoubtedly a difficult and unpleasant man, it is not clear that John Stanislaus Joyce was anywhere near “mad” in the conventional sense.  And while “bad” and “dangerous” might also fit the senior Joyce, neither adjective applies naturally to the senior Wilde or Yeats.

* * *

                   Of the three fathers, William Wilde (1815-1876) was easily the most successful professionally.  The son of a doctor, William became a noted eye and ear specialist.  But he had plenty of interests beyond medicine.  He was an important antiquarian, topographer, folklore collector and archaeologist, all at a time when the study of ancient Ireland was becoming “both fashionable and politically resonant” (p.39).  He also became  a distinguished statistician who served as Dublin’s Census Commissioner.  Prior to his marriage to Jane Elgee in 1851, William fathered three children out of wedlock.   In addition to their son Oscar, William and Jane had another son, William, and a daughter Isola who died in childhood.

William’s wife Jane, known as “Lady Wilde,” was herself a prominent Irish literary figure, one who was “prone to grandiloquence” and “saw herself in lofty terms” (p.44).  Publishing widely under a pen name Speranza, Jane earned renown through her words and wit in the manner that would subsequently make her son Oscar famous.   With no other aristocracy in Dublin, the Wildes represented what Tóibín describes as a “type of grandeur that they had built with their books and their brains, their independence of mind and their high-toned eccentricity” (p.32).  It was Jane who precipitated Mary Travers’ lawsuit, the core of Tóibín’s Wilde essay.

Mary had been one of William’s patients who at age 19 came to William for ear surgery. Once her treatment ended, she continued to see William.  With  the agreement of Mary’s father, Williams “gave her manuscripts to correct and oversaw her informal education by recommending books to her.  Soon, they began to write to each other. He took her to public events, helped her financially and included her in family outings” (p.55).  But Lady Wilde mistrusted Mary and William seems to have tired of her.

William at one point paid Mary’s fare to visit Australia, where her brothers lived. Twice, she went as far as Liverpool, only to fail in each instance to board the Sydney-bound ship.  But she continued to write William, and he continued to assist her with medical problems. Then she wrote a thinly disguised and highly unflattering portrait of William as a doctor, sent copies to William’s patients and, for good measure,  distributed copies of letters she had received from William — “letters that suggested their relationship had moved beyond that normally associated with a doctor and his patient” (p.58).

Jane sent Mary’s father a letter informing him that his daughter was trying to extort money from the Wildes.  Mary responded by suing Jane for defamation, claiming £2000 in damages, almost a quarter of a million pounds today.  William became a co-defendant because, under the law at the time, a husband was responsible for the civil wrongs committed by his wife.  After the Wildes determined not to settle, a six-day trial took place in December 1864 that, as The Irish Times put it, “shook society in Dublin like a thunderclap” (p.63).

Isaac Butt, Dublin’s best-known barrister, represented Mary at trial even though he was a social friend of the Wilde family. Butt sought to disclaim the idea that Mary might have had an intimate relationship with William.  He portrayed Mary as a young and naïve woman who had been exploited by William.  The most serious allegation against William was that he had raped her while she was unconscious during a medical operation.  The jury determined that Jane’s letter to Mary’s father had defamed her, but awarded only negligible damages. The Wildes were nonetheless liable for court costs in the amount of £2000, the same amount as the damages Mary had sought.

Tóibín notes the similarities between the case against William and Jane and that against their son Oscar three decades later, brought by the Marquees of Queensbury, the father of Oscar’s partner Alfred Douglas.  The two trials were the result of “frenetic, fearless, almost manic activity of both Travers and Queensbury, who sought to embarrass and harass in public and private Sir William and Oscar Wilde respectively, both of whom were becoming increasingly famous and feeling more and more unassailable” (p.64; Oscar Wilde’s trial was the subject of a work reviewed here earlier this year).

But William and Jane were not ostracized and sent to prison, as Oscar was.  His parents’ case “may have nourished the later work [Oscar] Wilde did as a dramatist, but it did not help him once he had to stand in an English witness box, when he, unlike his parents, was facing an actual prison sentence” (p.67-68).  And William rebuilt his life in his 11 remaining years, in a way Oscar was unable to do in the 3-½ years remaining to him after his trial and release from prison.  Mary Travers’ court case “did not seem to affect the lives of the Wildes in any obvious way” (p.66), Tóibín writes.

* * *

                Late in life, John Yeats (1839-1922) achieved a degree of literary success himself and, like his son and the younger Wilde and Joyce, did so away from Dublin, in his case in New York City.  John was the son of a Protestant clergyman whose parents moved easily in the best Dublin society.  They were frequent visitors to the home of William and Jane Wilde, and Isaac Butt was a family friend.  John married Susan Pollexfens in 1863, and the couple had four children together, future poet William Butler, the eldest, called “Willie” within the family, two daughters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, known as “Lilly” and “Lally,” and a second son, Jack Butler.   John appeared destined to serve as an apprentice to Butt on the pathway to becoming a barrister.  But he had an attraction to portrait painting that drew him away from the law.

Throughout married life, John struggled financially, finding it challenging to support his four children. He was haunted by a lingering sense of remorse at having left the law and being unable to provide his wife Susan and their children with the life Susan had imagined when she married.  John studied art for a while in London.  Always gregarious and considered a stellar conversationalist, John was less successful as a painter, with a tendency to leave his works unfinished.  Son William faulted his father for an “infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career” (p.91).

Yeats’ financial circumstances worsened after Susan died in 1900, at a time when his four children had reached adulthood and had established themselves professionally.  Unlike their father, the four Yeats’ offspring “worked and made money . . . [T]hey were serious, determined and industrious” (p.90).  John frequently criticized William, but continually asked his oldest son to send him money.  In 1907, John sailed with his daughter Lily from Liverpool to New York.

John was then 68, a widower for seven years, with little hope for success as a painter.   When Lily left New York for Dublin six months later, John stayed behind, taking  up residence in a boarding house on West 29th Street.  In New York, John evolved into what Tóibín terms “one of the best letter writers of the age” (p.99), writing with “astonishing freshness and seriousness” (p.100) on art, poetry and life.  Far from his children and familiar surroundings, John was able to “let his mind take him where it would, to seek out good company, to study life closely, to put more energy into his talk and his letters than into his art” (p.104).  Exile and distance from his poet son proved in particular to be a gift for John.

Yeats attempted to guide son William from afar by sending him “intelligent and compelling letters about art and life, about poetry and religion, about his own hopes as an artist and his life in the city.  Since the letters were so well written and original, his son would, at least some of the time, come to appreciate and admire his wayward and improvident father” (p.99).  Instead of witnessing first hand his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, the son received letters from his father, “filled with good humor and wisdom and a soaring hunger for life and ideas,” rendering his father’s exile “enabling and inspiring for his son’s work” (p.99).  But as the senior Yeats wrote to his son, he was also corresponding with Isaac Butt’s daughter Rosa.

John had met Rosa when both were about 20. Their correspondence began in the year before John’s wife’s death, but became more frequent once he was in New York.   Some kind of relationship had developed between the two when both were in Dublin, but its nature remains a mystery.  Some of John’s letters to Rosa from New York appear to assume that they their relationship went beyond mere friendship.   John “seemed to enjoy writing openly about his physical passion for her, knowing that she would disapprove of his explicit tone. . . There is the freedom in the letters of someone idly dreaming . . . The possibility of his going home remained a constant theme” (p.111-112).

Tóibín describes John’s correspondence to Rosa as centered on “impossible or dreamed-of love and the imagined loved one” (p.119).  A “foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate, fantastical imagination,” John wrote to Rosa about the life he imagined, and “gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only somehow possible, but almost present” (p.122).  His letters were “filled with defiance in the face of old age” (p.120), embracing one of son William’s major themes as a poet: the “vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages” (p.99),  In his final years before his death in New York in 1922, the “old painter still imagined what could have been” (p.129).

* * *

                      More than John Yeats, John Stanislaus Joyce (1849-1931) squandered his opportunities to realize a comfortable bourgeois life for his wife and children.  The senior Joyce was born into a family of well-to-do merchants and property owners in Cork.  He studied medicine at Queens College in Cork but did not graduate. He had a good tenor voice, enjoyed singing and also became involved in amateur theatre.  At age 25, John Stanislaus moved to Dublin to work in a distillery.  When the distillery went broke, John lost both his job and a significant amount of money he had invested in the enterprise.  In May 1880, he married 19-year-old May Murray, without the approval of parents on either side. Together, the couple had ten children, with James, born in 1882, the oldest.

When John Stanislaus and May started their family, they were well off and could expect a life of comfort.  John had by then found a sinecure job as a rate collector, making good money.  The job required him to be out and about all day long, with little supervision. “It was the perfect job for someone who was social and garrulous” (p.139), Tóibín writes.  At the end of the work day,  John frequently found himself in one of Dublin’s many public alehouses.  When John’s mother died,  he inherited several properties in Cork, bringing him additional income.  But despite a good income from his job and the rents on the Cork properties, from the beginning of his marriage John had difficulty living within his means.  He had to remortgage some of his properties and borrow money to supplement his income.  Nor was he particularly successful in his job.

In 1893, with moneylenders after him, rent due on his house, court judgments against him, and bailiffs seizing his furniture, John had to sell his inherited properties in Cork.  That same year, almost all Dublin rate collectors were dismissed.   Most were offered generous pensions. But because of his poor work record, John received a significantly reduced pension (initially he was offered nothing and had to bargain for even the reduced pension).  With nine children to support (one child did not survive), John was able to find only odd and short-term jobs.  Several years later, John’s son Stanislaus, James’ brother, wrote about how his father’s financial difficulties had poisoned the family environment.  Stanislaus noted frequent drunkenness and outrages, in one of which he tried to strangle his wife.  It would be easy, Tóibín writes, to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of “one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in recorded history” (p.147).

But that’s not what James Joyce did with his father in his literature.  James had escaped his father’s clutches at a boarding school, university and later in Italy and Paris.  Since his father’s presence loomed so large in Dublin, James went into exile “not only to escape the city of his birth but so that both Dublin and the man who had begotten him could move into shadow” (p.135).  As a novelist, James “sought to recreate his father, reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world” (p.135).  Although he resisted incorporating his anger toward his father into his writing, his father remained “raw and present” (p.173).

In Stephen Hero, an early and subsequently abandoned version of the heavily autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James portrayed his mother as “intelligent, open-minded and sensitive, as well as a devout and serious Catholic who pays attention to her priest,” whereas his father was depicted as “hard-hearted and callous” (p.156-57).  In Dubliners, another of Joyce’s earlier works, a collection of short stories published in 1914, his last story was based on an incident when John Stanislaus had fallen down the stairs of a public ale house.

But in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916, Joyce presented his relationship to his father as “oddly mysterious and painful, evoking a tone that is melancholy, puzzled, almost poetic” (p.158).  James rescued his father by moving him “from the private realm, where he clearly is a bully and a monster, into the public sphere.  He allows him to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family” (p.158-60). But he is no “model citizen or a father to be proud of” (p.158-60).

John Stanislaus reappeared as Simon Dedaleus in James’ epic novel Ulysses, not published in its entirety until 1922 (the ordeal to publish Ulysses is the subject of a work reviewed here in August 2016).  Simon is a “complex figure of moods, an unsettled rather than a solid presence in the book” (p.167).   He is a man “whose children do not have enough money for food as he himself moves easily in the city. . . [He is a] man more at home with his companions and acquaintances than with his family” (p.165).

In James Joyce’s fictive world, Tóibín concludes, “fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, becoming more complex, fulfilling theirs sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way” (p.136).  From 1920 to his death in 1931, the real world John Stanislaus lived alone in a Dublin boarding house. He probably did not see James during these years.

* * *

               In this slim volume, Colm Tóibín presents three elegantly styled, thought provoking portraits of three very different 19th century Dubliners. With his razor-sharp perspective on Irish literature, sensitivity to Ireland’s historical ambiguities, and insider’s view of Dublin’s geography and demographics, Tóibín himself supplies the glue that binds the volume together.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

December 4, 2019


Filed under History, Literature

3 responses to “Fathers and (Literary) Sons

  1. David Gross

    Tom, thanks for the information about the three Dubliners. It’s an odd concept for a book to profile the fathers of multiple authors and them put them together. Maybe if we’ve run out of things to say about the authors, we move on to their fathers?

    Although the focus is on the men, I’m glad Toibin reserves some space for Jane Elgee, Oscar Wilde’s mother. I believe I mentioned this in a comment on a previous review of yours, but I will say it again because it is even more relevant to this review. Before Jane Elgee met William Wilde, she was a writer and Irish nationalist. She was a close associate and lover of Thomas Meagher, about whom I read the biography, The Immortal Irishman, by Timothy Egan. Convicted for sedition, Meagher was transported by the crown to Tasmania, escaped from there to the United States, became a Union general in the Civil War, and was murdered in Montana Territory.

    You mention in this review that Elgee went by the pen name, Speranza. In Tasmania, Meagher owned a boat that he named Speranza, showing his continued devotion to the woman from whom he was forcibly separated.

    You write that the movement for Irish self-government gained traction in 1870, but in The Immortal Irishman, Timothy Egan demonstrates that it was significant by 1848.

  2. Thanks, Dave. I subsequently learned that the three essays in the book were lectures that Toibin gave at Emory University. Throughout the book and writing the review, I wondered why he didn’t include George Bernard Shaw and his father; same time frame as the other three; same Anglo-Irish-Protestant milieu as Wilde and Yeats; Shaw’s father was improvident like Yeats and Joyce; and had an alcohol problem like Joyce. Would have been a perfect fit but I’m guessing he had only three lecture spots at Emory.

    I’m less skeptical than you are about fathers and sons as historical subjects; what important people’s parents were like can always cast further light on the important person him or herself and can be worthy of a full scale study.

    On Jane Elgee, another of her boyfriends before she married William Wilde, according to Toibin, was Isaac Butt. Not sure if Issac was then married, but, that didn’t seem to make a lot of difference in the circles they moved in.

    Obviously, Irish nationalism and independence urges go way back before 1870, with Ireland being often neglected in histories concentrating on the events of 1848 on the European continent. But the limited history I read in conjunction with the review seemed to agree that the movement really crystallized into something sustainable after about 1870.

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