Oh fa­ther, where art thou?

Lewis Jones is charmed by Colm Tóibín’s study of the way­ward fa­thers of three Ir­ish lit­er­ary greats

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - BOOKS -

A192pp, Vik­ing , £14.99, ebook £9.99

fa­ther, muses Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses, is “a nec­es­sary evil”. If Colm Tóibín’s in­trigu­ing new book had an epi­graph, that would be it. Com­bin­ing bi­og­ra­phy, lit­er­ary crit­i­cism and psy­chol­ogy, it looks at the re­la­tion­ships with their fa­thers of Joyce, WB Yeats and Os­car Wilde, and ar­gues for the creative im­por­tance of par­ri­cide.

Tóibín says that Wilde “be­gan to be­come him­self ” in the year after his fa­ther’s death; that John B Yeats “man­aged, fig­u­ra­tively, to kill his son by go­ing into ex­ile”; and that James Joyce “man­aged to kill his fa­ther by leav­ing him to his fate in Dublin”. The sec­ond and third of those propo­si­tions are frankly dodgy, but Tóibín presents his the­sis with great en­ergy and spo­radic bril­liance.

Sir William Robert Wills Wilde (1815-1876) was an au­ral and oph­thalmic sur­geon. Ge­orge Bernard Shaw re­mem­bered him as “dressed in snuffy brown”, with “the sort of skin that never looks clean”, and seem­ing to be, “like Fred­er­ick the Great,

Beyond Soap and Wa­ter, as his Ni­et­zschean son was Beyond Good and Evil”.

He wrote a num­ber of books, most no­tably about Ir­ish folk­lore, as did his wife Jane, un­der the pen name “Sper­anza”. In 1848 she re­joiced in The Na­tion that “The long pend­ing war with Eng­land has ac­tu­ally com­menced.” Its ed­i­tor was charged with sedi­tion, and was suc­cess­fully de­fended by Isaac Butt, Ire­land’s best-known bar­ris­ter and later a politi­cian. Butt crops up re­peat­edly in this book. Men­tioned twice in

Ulysses, and once in Fin­negans Wake, he coined the phrase “Home Rule”, and was a no­to­ri­ous phi­lan­derer, “heckled at pub­lic meet­ings by the moth­ers of his il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren”.

In 1854 Wilde ac­quired as a pa­tient Mary Travers, who was 19. He over­saw her ed­u­ca­tion, gave her money, in­vited her to Christ­mas din­ner and so forth. In 1863 she pub­lished a pam­phlet, bizarrely signed “Sper­anza”, about the rape of a young lady by a sin­is­ter doc­tor, with a fly­sheet con­tain­ing ex­tracts from

William’s com­pro­mis­ing let­ters to her. Jane Wilde ac­cused her of at­tempt­ing to ex­tort money, and Mary sued for li­bel. Rep­re­sented by Butt, she won her case, with dam­ages of a far­thing.

Tóibín points out the ob­vi­ous sim­i­lar­i­ties with Os­car Wilde’s li­bel ac­tion against the Mar­quess of Queens­berry, such as the “tur­bu­lent” sex­ual re­la­tion­ship be­tween both Wildes and a young per­son (in Os­car’s case with Queens­berry’s son), while also not­ing the dif­fer­ences, above all the con­trast be­tween Os­car’s ruin and his fa­ther’s ap­par­ently un­dented re­spectabil­ity. Both must have echoed hor­ri­bly in the mind of the mar­tyred son.

Of the three fa­thers Tóibín con­sid­ers, Wilde’s was the most suc­cess­ful, but the least in­ter­est­ing, while Yeats’s was the most at­trac­tive. John B Yeats (1839-1922) came from Co Down, and fol­lowed his cler­gy­man fa­ther to Trin­ity Col­lege, Dublin, where he had been such a friend of Isaac Butt that he named his youngest son after him. John of­ten dined at the Wildes’ house, as his son later would at Os­car Wilde’s house in Lon­don. John had two school friends from Sligo, Charles and Ge­orge Pollexfen, whose sis­ter Su­san he mar­ried in 1863.

The Pollexfen ge­nius, he later ex­plained, was “for be­ing dis­mal”, and “it was be­cause of this I took to them and mar­ried my wife. I

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