Oh father, where art thou?
Lewis Jones is charmed by Colm Tóibín’s study of the wayward fathers of three Irish literary greats
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