A mixture of Bovril and champagne

LADY GREGORY'S DIARIES 1892-1902 ed James Pethica, Colin Smythe pounds 35
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The Independent Culture
Augusta Gregory's early life could have been dreamed up by Trollope. In 1880 the plain, intelligent daughter of the Philistine, horsy Persse clan in County Galway, on the shelf at 27, astounds local society by marrying Sir William Gregory of the neighbouring Coole Park. He is a 62-year-old liberal-Conservative grandee, retired governor of Ceylon and ex-MP for the county, familiar with London salons, a friend of Tennyson and Browning: he may, in fact, have been one of the inspirations behind Phineas Finn. Augusta exchanges a life spent trailing around estate cottages with her frantically evangelical mother for a house at Hyde Park Corner hung with Velzquez paintings, long sojourns in Venice and Egypt, and the fulfilment of motherhood. She also begins to write, but discreetly. The Galway estate does not figure much (and nor does the memory of Gregory as originator of disastrous tenure legislation during the Famine 40 years before). Then in 1892 he dies, leaving her less well-off than expected, forced to retrench on her London life and return to Coole to preserve her son's inheritance.

Here a more ambiguous narrative begins, and another transformation. This story might have been written by her friend (and future enemy) George Moore, or Somerville and Ross at their best. After a period of lethargy and depression she organises a life between a small London flat and the woods of Coole, which rapidly possesses her affections. She continues to write, and to meet people. Most momentously, she encounters the young W B Yeats and they find in each other a perfect partnership. She provides a peaceful retreat for him to write, a listening ear, sound advice, and a novel sense of Ascendancy noblesse oblige. He gives her a literary point d'appui, and introduces her to what will be called the Irish literary renaissance. They collaborate, not only on collecting local folklore (she learns to speak Irish, he does not) but also on what will become the Irish national theatre, immortalising them both as playwrights and impresarios. Early on she sheds the Unionism and Toryism of her early incarnation and becomes a nationalist; eventually, she will end as more of a republican than the ex-Fenian Yeats.

Throughout that long friendship he wrote to her as "Lady Gregory" though she called him "Willie"; he memorialised her as a great lady who yet achieved the perfect manners and direct address of the country people. Her widow's weeds, dumpy appearance and indomitable will suggested Queen Victoria, especially to her enemies. But her self-presentation was itself a disingenuous creation, as James Pethica indicates in his subtle and penetrating introduction to these utterly absorbing early diaries.

True, both she and Yeats ruthlessly centralised themselves in later accounts of the formation of the Abbey Theatre. But his poems about Coole, and her own expurgated diaries and careful memoirs, conceal a good deal. Her marriage, liberating on one level, was restrictive on another; she found solace in a passionate affair with Wilfred Scawen Blunt, and later enjoyed a secret liaison with Yeats's American patron, John Quinn. Her private reflections (and unpublished letters) show a bitter sarcasm and mockery which only occasionally surfaces in her successful but mechanical little plays, as well as a powerful political will. Increasingly anti- English, her real attitude to the Ascendancy conventions in which she had been reared remained ambiguous, and so did her views about Catholics. Though Penguin recently published an excellent Selected Writings, she has not been well served by conventional sentimental biography.

That is one reason why these diaries are so important. Transcribed with devotion and scholarship and beautifully annotated, they constitute a record kept before she was turned into the "Lady Gregory" we think we know; emblematically, the cover illustration is a little-known drawing of a strong-featured, eager young woman. The diaries cover the second transformation: those years when she mourned her husband, began to detach herself from one kind of London life, met Yeats and his friends, helped found the Irish literary theatre, wrote much of the inspirational nationalist play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (though she allowed Yeats claim it). The entries peter out after 1902: just before the Abbey, long before Easter 1916, but she has found her role. Her son Robert has come of age, but she does not think of relinquishing Coole. No longer just the centre of her personal life, it has become the summer salon for something like a cultural revolution.

The entries are often simply quotidian events, visits, weather, but her powerful personality dominates, and her wish to shape the lives of others: whether her son, old friends like the historian Lecky and the agrarian reformer Horace Plunkett, or a favourite nephew whom she detaches from one engagement, marries off to a niece of her own, and then disapproves of. She takes up the whole Yeats family, pushing the paintings of father and brother and doling out a sustaining (and characteristic) mixture of Bovril and champagne. She invades the poet's London flat, notes his breakfast habits, provides him with furniture. She records him at a literary meeting, sunk in boredom before suddenly scribbling a few notes and leaping to his feet with an electrifying speech about James Clarence Mangan. Her elliptical style is particularly good at conveying table-talk:

"WBY was excited by Miss [Flora] Shaw's dogmatic commonplace ultra English mind - & let off fireworks all the evening ... Yes Parnell was a representative Irishman he lived for an idea - Englishmen will only live for an institution - Sir Frederic Leighton ought to have been King of England, & the Queen President of the Royal Academy - 'Oh' says Miss Shaw seriously - 'but do you not confess she is an excellent constitutional monarch?' "

Her powerful affection for Yeats, compounded with reverence and exasperation, comes through clearly as he confides the ups and downs of his relationship with Maud Gonne: when Gregory finally meets the enchantress she records "a shock to me - for instead of beauty I saw a death's head". In early 1898, when Gonne called for a policy of attacking the landlords by "killing their cattle for food", Gregory forcefully reins him in:

"I was aghast, & spoke very strongly, telling him first that the famine itself is problematic, that if it exists there are other ways of meeting it, that we who are above the people in means & education, ought, were it a real famine, to be ready to share all we have with them, but that even supposing starvation was before them it wd be for us to teach them to die with courage [rather] than to live by robbery ... He was very much struck & said he had only thought of the matter as it wd affect her - not as it would affect the people, (which I fancy is her point of view also) but that now he saw how wrong such a line would be & he would try to dissuade her from it -"

Yeats dominates one side of her life; the other is centred on her love for her son, and her passion for Coole. The wonderful grandmother inmortalised in Anne Gregory's classic memoir Me and Nu is not yet apparent, but the lineaments are apparent. Like many powerful parents, her relationship would be easier with grandchildren than with her children. But the shattering loss when Robert was killed in action in 1918 is foreshadowed in every line she writes about him, from schooldays onwards. At the same time, her ability to survive that loss was probably forged in the years covered here, when she built a new world around her. By 1902 she was already distanced from many of the Establishment friends of her husband's generation, though she retained hope that her own landlord class would make common cause with moderate nationalists - as, indeed, seemed to be on the cards. In April, her mythological narrative Cuchulain of Muirtheimne was published to great acclaim, with its celebrated preface by Yeats ("I think this book is the best to have come out of Ireland in my time"). "How it did," her diary remarks with laconic pride, "let newscuttings speak -"

The newscuttings take over from that point, and her immobilisation into the great heroic frieze of "The Literary Revival", constructed by Yeats's autobiographies, the Abbey mystique, and the heady shift to nationalist politics. The more elaborate journals which she kept in later life consciously contributed to that process. But these diaries monitor her early development with marvellous immediacy. They deserve to stand with Beatrice Webb's My Apprenticeship and a select few other texts as the record of a quiet personal revolution which illuminates a wider change of consciousness, and prefaces the transformation of a generation and a culture.

The first volume of R F Foster's authorised biography of W B Yeats, 'The Apprentice Mage', will be published by Oxford University Press early next year.