Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

The Adulterous Muse

Maude Gonne, Lucien Millevoye & WB Yeats
Adrian Frazier
Publisher
The Lilliput Press
Price
€20.00
ISBN
9781843516781
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EXTRACT COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL

From the Introduction

There are a number of assumptions in most accounts of Maud Gonne (1865-1953) and her love affair with W.B. Yeats (1865-1939). This book probes those suppositions by means of the discovery and narration of previously untold stories. She was a glamorous 'Irish' rebel who roused great crowds in Ireland against the injustice of the British dominion; but both her mother and father's families were English, going back at least several genera­tions. So why was Maud Gonne either anti-British or pro-Irish?

It is taken as known that Maud Gonne had an affair with a Frenchman and bore him a child. That too is true, but why has no one found out all that can be known of this man, Lucien Millevoye, the Boulangiste? And what exactly is a Boulangiste? Did Millevoye, or Boulangism, have any influence on Maud Gonne? Why did she prefer Lucien Millevoye to William Butler Yeats, who loved her for so long, so eloquently, so publicly?

Throughout the time that Maud Gonne was having an affair in Paris (1887-1898), and giving birth to children, how is it that Yeats never found out? He saw her very frequently in Dublin and London, and kept up a correspond­ence with her. His friends were often in Paris; sometimes Yeats was too. Or did he know of the liaison with Millevoye? It is a given that he was utterly fooled, but maybe he was not, not utterly.

It is taken as true, because it came from Maud Gonne herself, and was reported by Yeats, that the great beloved had a 'horror and a terror of physical love'. But then she bore not one but two children of Millevoye's before she made this statement in 1898, and a son by John MacBride followed in 1904. Were those the outcomes of forced, or dreaded, or unpleasant intercourse? Is it even possible to ascertain the answer to such a private question?

Yeats is inclined to depict Maud Gonne as divinely beautiful and apocalyptically charismatic, but imprudent and even dangerous in her politics. Thankfully, he often reflects, she was never more than a woman who wasted her life screaming to ignorant crowds. What were the results of her oratory, fund-raising, political journalism, conspiracies, newspaper ownership, agitation and continuous subversive activities?

Information that can shed light on some of these presuppositions is now easier to find, thanks to the digitalization of books and newspapers. What has been missing from accounts of Maud Gonne is a close investigation of her years in France, which was, after all, her primary residence from the age of twenty to her early fifties. It is as if her biographers have been standing on Dawson Street in Dublin, or in Bloomsbury in London, and we see Maud Gonne coming to one or the other only from the shadows of another life in another country, romantic and unknowable.

But, in fact, not unknown then, or very difficult to know now. The Bibliotheque Nationale has an electronic portal, Gallica, and the search terms 'Gonne' and 'Millevoye' are not common words or names in France. They turn up hundreds and hundreds of hits. Neither Gonne nor Millevoye were publicity-shy. They sought out newspaper reporters and photographers and became celebrities, whose comings and goings were regularly reported, if they boarded a ship, or arrived at a spa, for example. One can follow their move ments almost day by day. Furthermore, their friends and associates in France tended to be activists in politics, literature, or society; they too left footprints in the digital record. Maud Gonne's secret life in Paris was never really secret at all, but now one can return to it along a broad documentary road. It is as if someone has put on the lights in one of history's dark rooms. For one so long regarded as an Irish personality, it is amazing to see Maud Gonne lit up in her full Parisian flower.

Readers who come to this book out of an interest in Yeats, or in Maud Gonne as la sublime vierge de la liberation irlandaise, may at first regard the turn of the narrative into the history of General Boulanger and the right republicans in France as a digression. How can such out-of-the-way matters be important? The point of this book is that Maud Gonne did not simply have an affair with Lucien Millevoye; she was part of a political team with him. The 'Secret Alliance' with Millevoye may have begun partly as a euphemism for an adulterous affair, but it became an ongoing mutual political commitment to bring about nationalist revolutions in France and Ireland, sometimes by secret means. In the course of their life together, Millevoye influenced Maud Gonne, and Maud Gonne influenced the Irish national movement. How much a single individual can do to bring about change in a country is debatable, but a reader should be prepared to find that Maud Gonne, although a woman, and an English woman too, achieved a great deal more than one might expect. She mattered not just to W.B. Yeats but to modern Ireland.

Knowing the truth about Maud Gonne in Paris forces one to read Yeats's poetry differently. Yeats himself said that a poet's 'life is an experiment in living and those that come after have a right to know it' because poetry is not 'a root­less flower but the speech of a man'. We cannot really know his life without knowing hers, the primary inspiration, subject, and audience of so much that is great in the poetry of Yeats. Was the relationship of poet to muse founded on fantasies, lies, ignorance? That would be a flower without a root.