I FIRST HEARD of Maud Gonne when I enrolled in a graduate seminar in the poetry of William Butler Yeats. This 6-foot tall beauty - some called her "the most beautiful woman in Ireland" - had been Yeats great passion and the inspiration for many of his poems and plays. She had also been the source of his greatest suffering ("I was twenty-three years old when the troubling of my life began," he wrote in his autobiography, recalling their meeting), for, although she would be his friend throughout his life, she did not return his passion and chose instead to devote hers to the cause of Irish independence. It annoyed me that the literary critics who wrote about Yeats always referred to Maud Gonne with a certain condescension, unable to understand why she wouldn't marry "Willie" and settle down to find fulfillment as his muse.
Reading of Yeats repreated pleas that she "give up the tragic stuggle and lead a peaceful life," his frequent criticisms of her for neglecting her beauty and wasting it on what he felt was a hopeless cause, I had no trouble understanding why the spirited Maud Gonne refused the self-dramatining young poet. It was clear from the bits and pieces of her life and character that I put together from various sources, including her own less-than-can-did autobiography, A Servant of the Queen , that she was much more than Yeats- muse, that her impact on the formation of the Republic of Ireland had been great. The history in which she participated, the fascinating cast of literary and political figures with whom she was associated and, more important, her unconventional spirit in a Victorian society made her a potentially fascinating subject for an enterprising biographer.
And Nancy Cardozo has certainly been enterprising. Lucky Eyes and a High Heart (an unfortunately vapid title that comes from one of Yeats' poems) is a generally well-written, lively account of a life that needs no embellishment. The author has done a thorough job of scholarship and has brought a sense of order to the facts of Maud Gonne's tumultnous life, even at times uncovering new, previously unavailable information (such as evidence, thanks to the help of Yeats scholar Richard Ellmann, that Willie and Maud probably did become lovers for a brief period).
One of the difficulties in writing a biography of Maud Gonne has been the absence of material for research.Many of the most important documents and letters, including most of Yeats' letters to Maud, have been lost, many in the ransacking of Maud's house by the Black and Tans during the Irish Civil War in the early 20s. But Cardozo was apparently privileged to have the cooperation of Maud's surviving friends and relatives, particularly her son, Sean MacBride, founder of Amnesty International and winner of the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize (a chief concern of his mother's was the plight of political prisoners). One can only surmise that much information was not available to Samuel Levenson, whose Maud Gonne , published last year, learned heavily on Maud's autobiography for its information and had no index or documentation.
Yet what is occassionally lacking in Lucky Eyes and a High Heart is the kind of reflection and psychological investigation that would explain Maud Gonne, that would make her seem both more and less than the legend she became, the mythic "Woman of the Sidhe," a supernatural figure and symbol of Ireland with whom Maud was sometimes identified by the Irish peasants she tried to save from Eviction.
Maud Gonne actually was not even Irish by birth; her father was a British military officer stationed in Ireland. When she was four, her mother died of tuberculosis, and one of her earliest memories was of her father kneeling by her mother's bed and telling his young daughter, "You must never be afraid of anything, even of death," an admonishment that remained with her throughout her life. Traveling the continent, she was without friends her own age, and an extraordinarily close relationship grew between the widowed officer and his oldest daughter. Maud, who called her father "Tommy," became mistress of the house as a young teenager and hostess to the army officers and their wives who visited there.
It became a source of great amusement to both father and daughter that they were sometimes mistaken for a honeymoon couple during their travels in Switzeraldn or Italy or France. And Cardozo points out that their relationship "circumvented sexuality," leading Maud to "look on men as she looked on her father, as equals and comrades." But this seems to me a notion worth more than a paragraph, having more significant influence on Maud's relationship with men throughout her life than Cardozo allows. Indeed, one wonders how much of her passion for Ireland was related to her feelings for her father, who died of typhoid in 1886, shortly after deciding to resign his commission and support Irish independence by standing for Parliament as a Home Rule candidate.
She was, in fact, always looking for some higher cause to give herself to. In 1887, while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis, she met and fell in love with Lucien Millevoye, a French journalist and Boulangist. In their mutual hatred of England, they quickly formed what Maud thought of as an "alliance" - no matter that Millevove's politics and his support of Royalists, Bonapartists and the Catholic clergy, were the opposite of her own.As Cardozo notes, "They would help each other, the hopes she had once had for herself and her father were coming true." She remained Millevoye's mistress until 1900, bearing him two children out of wedlock, one of whom died as an infant. But during that time Maud saw him only at infrequent intervals, she devoted her energy primarily to the Irish cause, for which she tried to raise money and support.
When, in 1899, Maud told Yeats about Millevoye, she spoke of ther "horror and terror of physical love," and her relationship with the ardent Yeats was no doubt an attempt to channel her sexual energies into something she saw as more noble - what Cardozo aptly describes as a kind of "spiritual eroticism," not uncommon among Victorians struggling between two worlds. Cardozo suggests that Maud needed Willie's admiration because he "held the miraculous mirror in which she saw herself reflected noble and complete," but that she feared to draw too close for fear "her reflection would become distorted." Yet she also speaks of Maud's deep need for the understanding and sense of identity Willie alone could give her," a rather grandiose claim, it seems to me, given the evidence that Yeats did not understand Maud Gonne very well at all, that he saw only one aspect of her - the beautiful woman, "la belle Iriandaise" - and that he wanted her identity to be only that.
When Maud Gonne did marry, she married primarily out of a desire for respectability for herself and her daughter, Iseult; but perhaps she chose the man she did - John MacBride, a hero of the South Africas' Boer War against the British - because she saw marrying him as an extension of her commitment to Ireland. The conventional Macbride and his unconventional wife were doomed from the start, as their friends had predicted, and the marriage ended in divorce after the drunken MacBride "assaulted" Maud's half-sister, Eileen (information I had not read elsewhere). Actually, the "unconventional" Maud Gonne proved herself a woman of some convention by immediately arranging for Eileen to marry her brother-in-law, Joseph MacBride, as a way of saving the girl's reputation. John MacBride went on to become one of the Martyrs of the 1916 Easter Rising.
What comes across most strikingly is the complexity and contradiction of Maud Gonne. A woman of gentleness and kindness, she actively promoted violence against the British; she had, in fact, a fanatic's heart, and always an anti-Semite, she even went so far as to side with Germany against England in World War II, an act of political naivete, even gross stupidity, which Cardozo passes over too hurriedly. Yet later she speaks of Maud's conviction that "humanitariansim was indivisible," and her equation of "the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the annihlation of Jews in Nazis' gas chambers and the genocide of the Famines." It is such contradictions which ultimately make Maud Gonne fascinating, and Cardozo's failure to deal with them adequately, to make some sense of them, severely weaken this readable, well-researched biography. It is, nevertheless, a good place to begin for anyone interested in Maud Gonne, Yeats or Ireland, and we can be greatful to Nancy Cardozo for having provided so much information.