Maud Gonne, beautiful woman, La Patrie, M. Millevoye, Felix Faure, know how he died?
Maud Gonne’s name appears in Ulysses’ third episode, Proteus, as Stephen rummages through his recollections of his brief sojourn in Paris. Though Gonne did reside in Paris in the early 1900’s, she never met James Joyce (or Stephen Dedalus), but their non-meeting had long lasting effects on James Joyce, though he may have never realized it.
The life of Maud Gonne is often told in close proximity to the men she knew, and since my blog is about James Joyce, her story will be framed by its brief overlap with Joyce’s. However, before we dive into that, I’d like to give space to her biography, warts and all.
Joyce and Maud Gonne never met, though Yeats provided her contact information to Joyce before he left for Paris in 1902. She was living in the city at the time and could be a helpful contact there. Joyce called on her, but was turned away by the concierge. Gonne was nursing her niece who was sick with diphtheria and was under a quarantine as a result. She wrote him a gracious apology letter and offered to meet him post-quarantine. Joyce, ever prickly, took this as a slight and never followed up, though it may have been due to embarrassment about his shabby appearance due to the extreme poverty he experienced during those months. It seems like an episode barely worth mentioning, but as we’ll see, it may have had some long-term consequences.
So, who exactly was Maud Gonne and why are we talking about her?
Born in England to a family with Irish ancestry, Maud Gonne dedicated much of her life to fighting for Irish independence. She reminds me a bit of Dermot Chenevix Trench (the model for Haines in Ulysses). Gonne was a member of the Protestant upper class. Her biographies sometimes note that she became “financially independent” after her father’s death, which would go the other way for those less fortunate. In any case, Gonne used her independence and her wealth to pursue political and social causes. For instance, she was so moved upon seeing an evicted family sitting on the side of the road while on her way to a ball in Donegal that she began campaigning for famine relief and against evictions in the 1890’s.
Gonne’s biggest political accomplishment was founding Inghinidhe na hÉireann (sounds like in-yee-nyeh na herin), a revolutionary organization far ahead of its time. Meaning “daughters of Ireland,” Inghinidhe na hEireann is often described as a women’s literary society, but it was much more than that. Gonne tried to join or take part in several nationalist organizations, including the Irish National League, the Fenian “organization” and the Celtic Literary Society, but was turned away because she was a woman. Due to what she called “the almost unbelievable anti-feminism of the 19th century,” she had no other choice but to start her own group.
In addition to providing space for women to write about their own ideas regarding Irish independence, Inghinidhe na hEireann had a strong social conscious. They encouraged their members to buy Irish goods and support Irish industry rather than imported goods (a conviction also held by Chenevix Trench that was much lamented by his Martello Tower roommates Gogarty and Joyce). Inghinidhe na hEireann lead campaigns to feed and educate children living in Dublin’s slums, at that time some of the poorest in Europe, so that they had better options for their lives as adults. Poor Irish boys at that time had few career options beyond becoming cannon fodder for the British army. The group lasted for 14 years until they were absorbed into Cumann na mBan in 1914, a women’s republican paramilitary organization.
Maud Gonne’s story is often told through the lens of the men in her life, in part because that is the fate of many strong women. Gonne had the (possibly) dubious honor of being widely regarded the most beautiful woman in Ireland during her youth and for having almost as many suitors as Queen Penelope. She was indeed striking, and at 6 feet 5 inches tall, an imposing figure as well. Let’s face it – she was hot, smart and fiercely independent, the full package. Gonne paired herself with men just as passionate about politics, who, unfortunately, weren’t always the best people.
Gonne’s first love, for instance, was right-wing politician and (married) journalist Lucien Millevoye, whose name appears in Ulysses wedged between the name of a French president who allegedly died during a clandestine sexcapade and La Patrie, Millevoye’s anti-semitic newspaper. Millevoye was another French journalist (along with Édouard Drumont) who used his platform to promote false treason accusations against Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army captain. Author Adrian Frazier referred to Millevoye as “a bizarre, detestable, larger-than-life human monster”. He and Gonne both hated the queen though, so they worked as a couple, for a time. Though Millevoye was the father of Gonne’s children Georges and Iseult, they never married and eventually parted ways after a decade of on-again-off-again.
Such affairs were irresistible to gossip rags of the day (as insinuated by the line taken from Ulysses above). Gonne was a celebrity after all – a wealthy Irish beauty and political rabblement rouser. Her affair with Millevoye didn’t exactly escape their “corridor gossip,” as Gonne called it.
The best known among Maud Gonne’s suitors is, of course, William Butler Yeats, whom Gonne and her daughter Iseult referred to as “Poor Willie.” Most biographies of Gonne describe her as “Yeats’ muse,” which is a description I personally loathe. Yeats’ unrequited love for Gonne inspired quite a bit of beautiful love poetry (and a mention in The Cranberries’ song “Yeats’ Grave,” which previous to writing this is how I knew Maud Gonne’s name). However, this description reduces her to a pretty thing sitting around radiating inspiration onto the master of Irish poetry. More appropriately (and equally icky), I think the kids would say Yeats found himself in the “friend zone.”
If anything, I think their relationship must have caused Yeats immense emotional distress, as Gonne certainly kept him on the hook for years and years. He wrote in a notebook in 1908, “She believed that this bond is to be … the means of spiritual illumination between us. It is to be a bond of the spirit only.” Heartbreaking. Yeats proposed to Gonne four times, and she turned him down every time. Not to be daunted, after the fourth rejection, Yeats proposed to Gonne’s daughter Iseult, whom he had known since she was a baby. Iseult also wasn’t feeling it and turned him down.
Yeats and Gonne’s lives intertwined in many other ways, though. Artistically, she was not only a muse, but an actress, playing the titular role in Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihan. Yeats wrote the play The Countess Cathleen with Gonne in mind for the lead, though she to take the role. The play was simply dedicated to her instead and staged as the inaugural performance of Yeats’ Irish Literary Theatre, a performance attended by a young James Joyce. Politically, Yeats and Gonne both used their talents and influence to campaign for Irish independence, including organizing protests against Queen Victoria’s trip to Dublin in 1900.
Spiritually, Gonne and Yeats shared an interest in spiritualism and the occult, and Gonne, along with Yeats, was briefly a member of the magical organization The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in the 1890’s. Gonne was particularly intrigued by the idea of reincarnation, and, in one of the more salacious stories from her life, attempted to tip the scales of reincarnation in her favor. Her first son, Georges, died as a baby, the pain of which never left her (she was buried with his baby shoes). Gonne wanted him back, and through metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) attempted to have her wish. She accomplished this by sneaking into Georges’ crypt with Millevoye (remember him?) and having sex at the child’s graveside. The idea was Georges’ soul would transmigrate into a new child conceived in such a way. Gonne did reportedly conceive her daughter Iseult that night, but whether or not she was the reincarnation of her younger brother is outside my expertise to determine.
I mention this episode because I have only encountered the term “metempsychosis” twice – in this story and in Ulysses, when Molly Bloom asks Leopold how to pronounce “metempsychosis.” The Blooms are also a couple who never recovered from the loss of a young son. I am not suggesting that Joyce knew about Gonne and Millevoye’s graveyard rendez-vous (it was a detail that came to light after all parties involved were long dead), nor am I suggesting that Molly and Leopold would have ever attempted a similar tactic to transmigrate the soul of Rudy Bloom. However, in his youth, Joyce had a brief interest in the occult, and an especial fascination with reincarnation. He regularly discussed these ideas with George AE Russell, as did Maud Gonne. I wonder if both Joyce and Gonne’s ideas about the transmigration of the soul of a deceased child, one fictional, one real, came from the same source. That’s my crackpot theory for the week.
In 1901, Gonne married fellow revolutionary John MacBride, against the advice of their friends. She had her third child, Seán, with MacBride, but they filed for divorce a few years later. Their separation was noted by James Joyce, who remarked, “I have read in the Figaro of the divorce of the Irish Joan of Arc from her husband, Pius the Tenth. I suppose they will alter the Catholic Regulations to suit the case…” Gonne had converted to Catholicism to marry MacBride, and their divorce was not granted, despite charges of abuse. MacBride returned to Ireland, where he lived until 1916, when he was executed alongside James Connolly for his role in the Easter Rising.
So, you may be justifiably asking yourself right now, what does this all have to do with James Joyce, the topic of this blog?
Fast forward to 1941. James Joyce dies and is interred in Zurich, Switzerland. His wife Nora Barnacle wanted her husband’s remains to be repatriated to Ireland. Ireland’s government at that time under Éamon de Valera was famously pious and not terribly interested in the remains of a famed heretic. The secretary of external affairs in Dublin wired to their man in Bern, “Please wire details about Joyce’s death. If possible find out if he died a Catholic”. As Joyce had long ago abandoned the Church, written a famously blasphemous novel and questioned the very premise of Irish nationalism, they decided that the Artist would be just fine staying in Zurich. It’s worth remembering as well that the Jesuit schools Joyce had attended and written about in his novels were not acknowledging him as a former pupil at this stage, either.
In 1948, Nora made a second attempt to repatriate her husband’s remains. This time the minister in charge was a man who had been instrumental in repatriating Yeats’ remains from France that same year – Seán MacBride. He turned down Nora’s request. Nora was furious, so much so that she donated the manuscript of Finnegans Wake to the British Museum rather than the National Museum of Ireland. It was a final F— you from the country and religion that had caused Joyce so much turmoil in his youth. I’ve never read anything directly from MacBride about whether Joyce’s snide remarks and huffy attitude toward Maud Gonne was the cause of the refusal, but it has been speculated by others that it affected his decision. MacBride was a devout Catholic and most likely was not interested in repatriating the remains of a loud and proud blasphemer. Ulysses, after all, wouldn’t even be published in Ireland until the early 60’s.
I do know that Joyce had an ironic sense of humor. I like to imagine he would approve of the cosmic joke of being trapped in exile beyond the grave.
Dwyer, J. (2008, Jul. 20). Yeats meets the digital age, full of passionate intensity. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/arts/design/20dwye.html
Ellmann, R. (1959). James Joyce. New York: Oxford University Press.
Haverty, A. (2016, Dec. 10). The adulterous muse – Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and WB Yeats review. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/the-adulterous-muse-maud-gonne-lucien-millevoye-and-wb-yeats-review-1.2889474
Jordan, A. J. (2018, Dec. 13) Come back to Erin? The Dublin Review of Books. Retrieved from https://www.drb.ie/blog/writers-and-artists/2018/12/13/come-back-to-erin-
Joyce, S. (1958). My brother’s keeper: James Joyce’s early years. New York: The Viking Press.
Marlowe, L. (2013, Oct. 29). A lasting impression: George Moore in France. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/a-lasting-impression-george-moore-in-france-1.1573499
McNally, F. (2018, Oct. 4). Bones of contention – Why the remains of James Joyce are still in exile. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/bones-of-contention-why-the-remains-of-james-joyce-are-still-in-exile-1.3651912
O’Connor, U. (2011, Jan. 30) Joyce should join Yeats in the Irish soil. The Irish Independent. Retrieved from https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/joyce-should-join-yeats-in-the-irish-soil-26619115.html
Schofield, H. (2015, Jan. 31). Ireland’s heroine who had sex in her baby’s tomb. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31064648