Author and academic Adrian Frazier explores the genesis of his revelatory new biography of Maud Gonne, The Adulterous Muse.
I had a thought in 2010 - ‘Maud Gonne in France.’
That was the germ for my book, The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye, and W. B. Yeats. Many had written about Gonne as the love of W. B. Yeats, and more recently, as a ground-breaking feminist and Irish republican. But Paris is where she took up residence in 1888 when she was twenty-two, and lived for the next thirty years.
In France she met her long-time lover, Lucien Millevoye, a slightly monstrous married man, like a moustache-twirling villain out of a 19th century melodrama. And Paris is where her two children by Millevoye were born. And when she married John MacBride in 1903, that was in Paris too, as was the divorce case that followed soon after.
Altogether, one would have to say Yeats was mighty lucky in his Muse.
It was, it seemed to me, a fresh idea, but it wouldn’t have been possible to execute but for two facts. The first is that the French passed a Law on the Freedom of the Press in 1881. This made it much easier to start a newspaper, and harder to shut one down on the grounds of slander. The number of newspapers tripled. There were sixty in Paris alone. These papers covered the lives of politicians and celebrities in detail—when they got off a train, what party they attended, what dress they wore at the party, and sometimes what they could be overheard saying. The papers supported hundreds of talented writers and gossip artists. One of their favorite subjects was the nearly two-metre tall Maud Gonne, who presented herself as ‘the Irish Joan of Arc.’ Details of Maud Gonne’s once-celebrated Parisian life — mistress of a member of Parliament, and haranguese giving lectures on British perfidy for Irish charities — had lain unnoticed in the brittle, flaking pages of old newspapers for over a hundred years.
They would have continued to go unnoticed were it not for a second fact: the Bibliothéque nationale de France recently digitized many of these newspapers. Unlike many other projects of digitalization, this one was free, with open public access. The website of the French national library also has efficient search tools: I typed in the name ‘Gonne’ and all sorts of things came up, scores and scores of articles. She was a favorite interview subject. Her sometimes flirtatiously coy, sometimes righteously eloquent, words were reported verbatim. She was what was called a ‘Professional Beauty.’ Her studio photographs were printed en masse on carte-de-visite. Newspapers rejoiced in reprinting her image. Everyone in Paris knew Maud Gonne, and many knew about her alliance with the flamboyant, neo-Fascist Millevoye.
Many in Paris, that is. In Ireland, no one could be permitted to know. A magnificent virginity was part and parcel of Maud Gonne’s impersonation of Cathleen ni Houlihan. A few in Dublin must have known. Sarah Purser, the painter, did. She had studied art in Paris herself, and often returned; indeed, she did a nearly life-sized (and that is big) portrait of Gonne. But Sarah Purser was discrete, although she did try to explain things privately to Yeats.
And as for Yeats, did he remain in the dark? The primary residence of Yeats in the 1890s was London. He was often in Dublin, but rarely in Paris. And he did not speak French. So he was not directly confronted with the existence of Lucien Millevoye, or with Maud Gonne’s children. She herself did not tell him until December 1898, after her affair with Millevoye hit the rocks. But as I studied the complex web of evidence, and Yeats’s poetry and fiction from early and mid 1890s, I came to believe that Yeats pretty soon came to understand that he had a rival, that Maud Gonne was leading a double life, and that she had been a mother. Certainly, there are poems from the summer of 1893 that force one to this conclusion.
Yeats was a preternaturally insightful person; he was not easily hoodwinked by anyone, by anyone except himself. It was his misfortune, however, to have grown up on Tennysonian and pre-Raphaelite love poetry. Such verse schooled men in a style of love-making as if they were knights of Round Table, and had taken King Arthur’s vow:
To ride abroad redressing human wrongs,
To speak no slander, no, nor listen to it,
To honour his own word as if his God's,
To lead sweet lives in purest chastity,
To love one maiden only, cleave to her,
And worship her by years of noble deeds,
Until they won her; for indeed I knew
Of no more subtle master under heaven
Than is the maiden passion for a maid,
Not only to keep down the base in man,
But teach high thought, and amiable words
And courtliness, and the desire of fame,
And love of truth, and all that makes a man.
To be an English gentleman was to be a knight in modern dress. Of course, not many men of the time were actually gentlemen of this kind. They were rare birds. Yeats was one of them. While gossip about Maud Gonne was hard to avoid as time went on, he had taken a deep-sworn vow to ‘love one maiden only’ and ‘To speak no slander nor to listen to it.’
She was huge and beautiful and outrageously rich. Her moral passion was vast.
It was hard work, loving in this way. And in his 1902 poem Adam’s Curse, Yeats says that is just what it was, work, worse than breaking stones or scrubbing the kitchen floor. To ‘love in the old, high way of love’ makes one weary-hearted in the end. And he got over his stilted, hampered manner of approach. He won his way in the end to Maud Gonne’s Paris bed. And then, in a ‘laughing weeping fit,’ he cast all that paraphernalia of Arthurianism ‘into the pit,’ and for a short time, clung closely to her body.
Altogether, one would have to say Yeats was mighty lucky in his Muse. No one else would have been equal to him; or equal to her. She was huge and beautiful and outrageously rich. Her moral passion was vast. She was ten times as brave as he was. Her alarmingly treasonous and violent words and deeds toward her own countrymen, the English people, made her a figure that was, within his poems, hard to manage. He compared her not just to a family-wrecker, but to a civilization-wrecker, Helen of Sparta and of Troy. And, if Maud Gonne did not particularly lust after him, or a man of just his type, she loved him dearly. In his play The Countess Cathleen, Yeats depicts himself self-deprecatingly as ‘Aleel,’ the charitable countess’s court lyricist, almost a toy poet, off to the side of the action, wringing his hands, and praying that the Countess not do anything too sudden or dangerous. But he was much more than that to her. In return, she brought him all the trouble he required to write the greatest love poems of the century.