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The diary of Elizabeth Dillon moves from a Victorian girlhood in the higher echelons of London’s Catholic society to independence of mind and marriage to the nationalist John Dillon, says Mary Leland
ONE of the great pleasures of the letters of Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie as edited by Victoria Glendinning in Love’s Civil War (2009) are the page-notes. These provide a gazette of references which identify people, places, and themes mentioned in the letters themselves, a vivid picture of the times and their personages enhancing every page.
Not only can much the same deepened enjoyment be found in Brendan Ó Cathaoir’s editing of The Diary of Elizabeth Dillon, his meticulous research, obviously over a number of years, has brought to deserved prominence a woman whose name, even in the nationalist circles she embraced, does not come readily to mind.
It should, and will from now on, for Ó Cathaoir expands into social and political significance a record of the experiences and responses of a woman at ease in the society of her day.
Elizabeth Mathew Dillon accepted that her youthful journal might not be as acclaimed as that of Pepys, but acclamation is deserved nonetheless. The beguiling opening chapters reveal her day as high Victoriana (1865–1907) when a well-brought up girl was popularly expected to do little more than arrange the household flowers until an appropriate man brought her flowers of her own. Although frilled with the trivia of a socially active girlhood, it is clear that Elizabeth, born into the higher echelon of Catholic society in London, was different from the start.
Her father, a native of Lehenagh near Togher in Cork, was the Anglo-Irish lawyer Sir James Mathew, who became a judge of the King’s Bench in London. Given that Fr Mathew, the ‘Apostle of Temperance’ was his uncle, it might be expected that James would have entered readily the ranks of those upwardly mobile Catholics making their name in the only place that mattered.
But even for this aggrandisement there is a background later reclaimed by Elizabeth: Those years of his early career came hard on the heels of Catholic emancipation.
The culture and security of the Mathews’ London home had been established from a hinterland of injustice, agitation, and religious persecution.
With this awareness, it may take time and patience from the reader before the 14-yearold girl is transformed into the adult, but the reward is great. From the start she is ardent and observant, with a growing introspection; the compelling velocity of this transitional process is the immense value of Ó Cathaoir’s work, resulting as it does in a living portrait through a crucial phase of Irish history, seen from a viewpoint both domestic and public, with the imprisonment of friends discussed across the breakfast table.
Probably unusually for a Victorian father James Mathew made sure his daughters were as well educated in private as his sons at college, but there are no early hints in Elizabeth’s first pages that she was moving in circles to which her right had been achieved, not inherited. However, and here is one of the almost incidental delights of this book, one learns that Elizabeth’s mother — also Elizabeth — was the daughter of an English clergyman. So perhaps there is some element of inheritance, and of conversion. Conversion certainly applies in the later chapters, but it is political conversion in which Elizabeth, initially influenced by the speeches and personalities of Irish representatives in the House of Commons and drawn towards the issues of Home Rule, eventually meets her ideal man.
Filtered by Ó Cathaoir’s editorial skills the progress of Elizabeth Dillon’s life amounts to rather too many pages (714 without the biographical appendix) but that extends its fascination. One wants to know what happens, and not only to the diarist herself, a fervent scribe is ever there was one. This is not a Victorian version of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood; there are no doubts about young Elizabeth’s wellbeing in a routine crammed with masses — sometimes three in one morning, with Benediction to round off an ordinary day and with priests, bishops and the occasional cardinal in every vacant space. Yet this is devotion without coercion Elizabeth, even at 19 and 20, is a diligent and enthusiastic observer, somehow escaping any impression of pietism. Her growing independence of mind allows her to meet her sister’s decision to enter an enclosed Carmelite convent with “feelings of horror and distress”.
Despite overloading her comments with superlatives to equal those of “poor old”
Queen Victoria herself, her life in these years is richly varied, shared with sisters, brothers, and parents; she goes to the theatre, the opera ( The Barber of Seville ‘with Patti’) and the pantomime but finds an oratorio ‘a stiff affair’. She studies at academic lectures, reads Homer and Macauley and that most difficult of George Eliot books, Romola, attends salons and exhibitions and the grand opening of the Brompton Oratory as fashionably as she sits in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons. She travels with her father on circuit and listens to Georgina Weldon represent herself in a suit against the doctors who fraudulently tried to confine her to a lunatic asylum. She takes judicious part in charitable work and goes to ‘magnificent’ balls with lots of partners, while dining at home is enlivened by a guest-list of barristers, scholars, and artists which must have kept her mother in throes of anticipation and exhaustion.
There are novelists too, although having met Mrs Walter Besant she decides that “the wives of literary people are anything but intellectual as a rule”. Apart from a life-long affection for Mrs Anne Deane, a founder member of the Ladies’ Land League and cousin of John Dillon, Elizabeth is surprisingly unmoved by reforming women; finds the philanthropist
Sophia Sturge “plain, provincial and very quaker-ish”. Maud Gonne is disliked and feared as a rival and Browning “wasn’t a pleasant old man by any means”. Her feeling for Cork is warm as she visits Vernon Mount in all its beauty, but Killiney and Connemara are the pinnacles of her pleasures in Ireland.
Radiantly enjoying a visit to Paris or delighting in the effect a seaside holiday has on her father’s health, Elizabeth’s existence is almost entirely absorbed by the Church, the law, family affairs, her music practice and a swathe of titled friends and acquaintances.
It is no surprise then, that she is also something of a snob. During long family holidays in Ireland she doesn’t want to get caught up with “the Persses, Blakes and Bellews of Galway county society”. Nor does she want her family represented by “a Protestant spalpeen”.
However, while early chapters suggest an ambience mingling Gilbert and Sullivan with Oscar Wilde and tempered only by High Mass, their variety and vivacity sharpen the prolonged drama of her later life in which Elizabeth’s personal integrity and spiritual confidence emerge as her bedrock.
In an introduction which reads like an exemplary executive summary, Ó Cathaoir guides the course of the journals to the developments by which the entire foreground of the diarist’s perceptions change as she encounters the leaders, lieutenants, and families of the Irish party in England and Ireland. She is not at all devoid of humour, relishing the comic ironies even of nationalism when, for example, she reports the farce of prisoners on day parole hunting around Dublin for their warders.
Rhapsodising about the Irish landscape and Irish visitors, she engages more and more deeply with the revolutionaries and parliamentarians among whom at last she meets the “honest and melancholy desperado” John Dillon.
He is, she admits, “the first person who has awed me”. From this relationship, in which he was the more cautious partner, she follows the long retinue flowing from Young Ireland, the Fenians, the Nation, Parnell, William O’Brien, Tim Healy, Gladstone, the Plan of Campaign, the Wyndham Acts, Charles Gavan Duffy, Michael Davitt, and every priest, friar, bishop and prelate with an impact on Irish affairs. She rates the landlord and tenant agitations from Belfast to Skibbereen, follows the trials and sentences from Kilmainham to New Zealand, provides interpretations of Lord Ashbourne’s Act and keeps determined tabs on John Dillon until finally and fondly advised by Anne Deane that it would be wiser, in love, to be the one that is sought, rather than the seeker.
She lands her man in a wedding performed by a bishop and two priests. The honeymoon includes an audience with Pope Leo XIII and their first formal dinner at home in Dublin involves 15 priests. John emerges through her words as ardent and faithful, fulfilling her dreams of married life without quelling her political or intellectual perceptions. But even a loving husband could be a woman’s nemesis. It was in the hands of an arrogant, incompetent doctor that Elizabeth died, aged 42, after a stillborn daughter, the seventh child in 11 years. Of those seven, James Mathew Dillon was twice a Fine Gael cabinet minister.