Sutton Publishing, €30
The image that most Irish schoolchildren have of Lady Augusta Gregory is of a grand stiff old lady, dressed in black and looking rather like Queen Victoria. Although she was co-founder of the Abbey Theatre and, together with Yeats, Synge and O'Casey, a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival during the early years of the twentieth century, her reputation has remained very much in the shadows. But now a new biography by Limerick-based architectural historian Judith Hill shows Lady Gregory - called Augusta throughout - in a very new light.
Born to a Galway landowner in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, and landowner herself at Coole Park, Lady Gregory, despite her Anglo-Irish identity, gradually became a nationalist. An intelligent and able woman, her interest in the stories of the Galway countryside led to her becoming a pioneering folklorist. Much of what she collected was used in the plays that she wrote for the Abbey and these plays defined the identity of the theatre, kept audiences coming back for more - and kept it solvent.
One of the more surprising things to emerge from this book is Lady Augusta's passionate nature. In 1882, two years after her marriage she had an extra-marital affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. This was only discovered when Blunt's Secret Memoirs were opened in 1972. When she was 60, she fell head-over-heels in love with New York lawyer and art dealer John Quinn.
'Lady Gregory: An Irish Life' is a well-researched and valuable biography. Wonderfully readable, it gives fascinating insights into the life of a woman making her way in the turn-of-the-last-century man's world. Well worth investigating for anyone interested in Irish theatre, art and history of the early 1900s.