Saturday 21 September 2019

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, Colm Toibin, Viking €18.99

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know - the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

Jonathan deBurca Butler

As Colm Toibin guides you through Dublin in the opening pages of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, every corner drips with ghostly presences. As Dante saw the bowels of hell through Virgil, we see Dublin through Toibin as he portrays the "isolated individuals" who lived in a "poor, down at heel" city that was nonetheless influential as, what Joyce termed, a 'centre of paralysis' in which "every writer had to invent a world as though from the very beginning".

Like their famous sons, many of the fathers who are the focus of this history simply don't fit well in the city.

Many of them exiled themselves from Dublin or remain exiled within it.

When we first meet the intellectually "omnivorous" William Wilde, he is on one of his many scientific voyages having a "dolphin dragged on board" a ship which he "dissected over three days... for a scientific paper".

A doctor by profession, he founded the eye and ear hospital but also "gave lectures on any subject that interested him". Evidently, pleasures of the flesh were of particular interest to William. He sired three illegitimate children before meeting his wife and Oscar's mother, Jane Elgee - an eccentric of no small note herself who is rightfully given due consideration in these pages.

Her husband's lack of same led to a scandal involving a family friend, Mary Travers. Jane mentions her "disreputable conduct" in a letter to Mary's father which a jury later concluded was libellous. Although it seems clear that the disreputable conduct was very much William Wilde's, the case, unlike his son's, did little to damage his lofty reputation.

He earned his knighthood for his work on the Irish census and was happiest traipsing through bogland looking for ancient ruins and monuments. He would sometimes enlist his son on these excursions. The young Oscar seemed to enjoy his days out on the far-flung outposts of rugged beauty and later even courted the idea of studying Archaeology at Oxford.

"This picture of him wandering on a remote island in the west of Ireland with his father... is a new version of him, far away from the London he moved to…" writes Toibin. It is a poignant image.

John Butler Yeats, who "often joined his parents to dine at the house of Sir William…" could have done with some of his host's persistence. John was given to 'entertaining talk', according to the young James Joyce, but seems to have been somewhat sloppy.

According to Lady Gregory, he "left his socks lying about" when he visited Coole and though he was given a decent start - an inheritance and some land - he squandered most of it. He was a gifted artist but, his famous son noted, was 'never satisfied... that any picture is finished' and thus rarely finished one.

His relationship with Willie was, at times, fraught. There were "threats of mild acts of violence". They moved in the same circles but John viewed his son's growing fame with a mixture of jealousy, pride and the cold eye of the critic.

Willie, himself, could be damning of his father but he acknowledged 'how fully' his philosophy of life 'has been inherited from [him] in all but its details and applications' - a typical backhanded Yeats compliment.

In his late 60s, the artist moved to New York where he spent much of his time not finishing paintings, and writing letters. The 15 years he spent in New York "saved him" which makes it all the more disappointing that we don't really find out what he did there.

Letters are examined in great detail and tell us much about his mindset, and his apparent fixation with Rosa Butt, the widow of Home Rule politician, Isaac. But we learn little of his life in New York.

While John B was somewhat careless, John Stanislaus Joyce was a sleeveen. His famous son 'was very fond of him always... and even liked his faults' which included 'an extravagant licentious disposition... I got from him'. Toibin notes (also quite generously) that Joyce's father was "perhaps unlucky that he lost his job" and that he had "so many children to feed" - nine in total.

But John's second son and self-appointed family-historian Stanislaus is probably closer to the truth when he suggests that 'he was quite unburdened by any sense of responsibility towards them'.

Joyce's father was more at home away from home, socialising with associates.

Toibin's analysis of Joyce's The Dead is quite superb. In Gabriel, Joyce "merged his own spirit with that of his father... banished his scrupulous meanness and performed an act of generosity". In seeing the good in his father, Joyce was perhaps mining his own soul for something worthy.

Joyce stayed away from Dublin, preferring to think of both his city and his father as he shaped them in his own mind.

The last time Joyce saw his father was in a portrait he had commissioned and sent to him by Patrick J Tuohy. In a rather sad irony that underlines Toibin's idea of merging fact with fiction, the portrait was mistitled Simon Joyce.

Though there is at times a little too much of Toibin himself, particularly in the first 35 pages, this a thoroughly accessible and enjoyable read - one which fans of Dublin and its literary history can glide through at their leisure.

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