BOOK REVIEW / At home with the greats

THE YEATS SISTERS by Joan Hardwick, Pandora pounds 8.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
SUSAN AND ELIZABETH YEATS, always known as Lily and Lolly, were born in 1866 and 1868. The forgotten sisters of the famous Jack and the very famous William, they formed the nucleus of an extraordinary family whose warring members strove for space and distance, but never disentangled themselves from their primal web of love, anxiety, exasperation and loathing.

Their mother, Susan Pollexfen, was raised in bourgeois comfort but found all hopes of material security blighted in marriage to John Butler Yeats, who abandoned his legal career and became a painter, moving his family back and forth between Ireland and England, uncertainty and poverty. Susan suffered three strokes and died in her fifties. She spent her last years silent and immobile in an upstairs room, her eyes, one blue, one brown, fixed unblinking on the sky.

Unlike their brothers, Lily and Lolly had little education and as they grew up, confined to the house by their mother's illness and domestic exigency, their pleasure in meeting visiting writers and painters was sadly qualified by a sense of intellectual inadequacy. When they met Maud Gonne, she totally ignored them, concentrating on the men. "I could not see her well as her face was turned from me," observed Lily; Lolly remarked on Gonne's slippers, worn with the insouciance of a woman who would not be setting foot on muddy pavements. In London Lily at last found work with their neighbour William Morris, embroidering and transferring designs to fabric; Lolly meanwhile combined household responsibilities with a Froebel training course. William took a dim view of his sisters' attempts to broaden their lives: "They came out with no repose, no peacefulness, and their minds no longer quiet gardens full of secluded paths and umbrage- circled nooks."

Lily's health was poor, and Lolly suffered acute exhaustion and anxiety as she combined household duties with teaching and writing a series of manuals on watercolour techniques. Yet the affection and the success of her pupils gave her a satisfaction which she could not find at home, where her tenseness, volubility and impatience irritated her family to distraction.

Their small earnings, supplemented by the occasional contribution from William and Jack, who had now moved out, kept the household going and supported their brilliant, extravagant and feckless father. As William and Jack became increasingly well-known, John too achieved success, exhibiting in Dublin and undertaking commissions which, however, he often abandoned. In London the girls wistfully revelled in news of these triumphs. But 1902 saw them all back in Ireland, with Lily and Lolly at last wholeheartedly involved in a venture which would stretch their energies, talents and imaginations for the rest of their working lives. With Evelyn Gleeson they set up an all-women embroidery workshop and printing press, committed to producing beautiful and functional objects made from Irish materials; they employed only Irishwomen. Lolly looked after the press whose first volume was William's In The Seven Woods. Lily was commissioned to embroider banners for the new cathedral outside Dublin. Jack designed for them and William recommended books for printing. This ambitious project became celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic and James Joyce referred to it (albeit left-handedly) in his round-up of notable events for Bloomsday: "5 lines of text and 10 pages of notes about the folk and fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind." Success brought travel, professional respect and hordes of visitors, but financial problems persisted, and Lolly, working fanatically, became obsessed by the fear of losing her mind. A remarkable number of Pollexfen relatives had been put away in asylums.

The Dun Emer workshops, later known as Cuala Industries, were the sisters' proud creation and it is sad that today they are mentioned only occasionally in specialist catalogues. For almost 40 years they kept going, through feuds and squabbles with family and backers, through the Troubles, through the war. For Lolly they were perhaps more satisfying than for Lily, who yearned for a family of her own. Both sisters had hoped to marry, and found spinsterhood a sad and disregarded state, but it would be foolish and presumptuous to see their lives as impoverished. They had many friends, their days were crammed with incident; they saw their work valued and their family remained close. In old age Lily developed an intense hostility to Lolly, but after her death in 1940 she wrote a loving memoir. They were buried together in Dundrum.

Joan Hardwick writes with fairness and lucidity. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of Sligo and Rosses, the many family houses and the gallery of powerful relatives, as well as Synge, Pound, Lady Gregory, Parnell, O'Casey, Morris, Chesterton. What a novel could be written, what speculation might there be on the shaping powers of character and circumstance. Hardwick rightly turns her back on these temptations. She has produced a rarity, a biography of admirable understatement.