Guns and poses

Roy Foster admires the style of an Irish political mistress Hazel: A Life of Lady Lavery 1880-1935 by Sinead McCoole, Lilliput, pounds 25 Michael Collins: A Life by James Mackay, Mainstream, pounds 17.50
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The "art of biography" has been replaced by the selling of Lives, and these two books provide an instructive contrast. Michael Collins arrives landed with hype, "under strict embargo", "remarkable...hitherto unpublished material", "an important bearing on the solution of the present [Northern Irish] dilemma". In fact it says nothing substantially new, and says much of that inaccurately. The first biography of Hazel Lavery arrives unhyped, but turns out to be new in every way, containing material which radically changes perceptions of several important figures from the early 20th century - including, as it happens, Michael Collins.

Hazel Lavery effortlessly attracted publicity all her life. Yet previous attempts at biography were foxed by the apparent disappearance of papers, recovered by Sinead McCoole, many of surpassing political interest. One of the great beauties of the early 20th century, she stares out of society portraits and early Beaton photographs swathed, turbaned, bejewelled; most famously, as the personification of Ireland on the bank notes of the new state in the 1920s. Beaton's description captures it: "that goatish Luini mask...the ravishingly chiselled, rabbity nose, ruby lips cloven into a pout, wistful hare eyes, pink lids..."

The mystique was facilitated by being married to an influential painter, John Lavery, who possessed a good eye for a "public" subject but also remained fascinated by his much younger wife and painted her obsessively until (and on) her death-bed. It also owed much to her own genius for reinvention. Born into the self-made Chicago bourgeoisie, her Irish connections were distant. It is a Jamesian story: the "original" American girl who falls in love with Europe and acts as a catalyst for upheavals which end in ultimate disillusionment. But her importance in Irish history is established by this book.

Her salon, her love affairs, her political nationalism have long made up one kind of myth behind the achievement of Irish nationalism. Because this hinted at liaisons with heroic figures like the IRA guerrilla supremo Michael Collins, a countering myth swiftly grew up: Hazel Lavery as a self-deceiving fantasist, who invented love affairs with glamorous revolutionaries as soon as they were safely dead. Faced with scraps of documentary evidence, the more pious authorities were unabashed: Hazel had fabricated letters to herself, or interpolated passionate passages into them. But this, along with a good deal else, is firmly contradicted in McCoole's unassuming but decisive treatment of her life.

In fact she never really lived in Ireland: her London salon at Cromwell Road was the centre of her life. As a hostess she used lack of money to stylish advantage. She could also, like Diana Cooper, cash in on her fortunate face by advertising Pond's Cold Cream or driving a free Armstrong Siddeley. Intelligent as well as witty, she wanted more: she found it in Ireland. After the 1916 Rising, as the political situation radicalised, she and her husband supported the radical nationalist side. Lavery, though knighted for his services as a war artist and very much part of the establishment, was by origin a Belfast Catholic; Hazel rediscovered her Irish roots. During the edgy weeks of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, Collins met Winston Churchill off-duty at Cromwell Road, while Lavery painted portraits of most of the Treaty delegates for his "Irish Collection", a project suggested by Hazel. She threw her weight behind the Treaty: an adroit social fixer, after independence she longed to run Ireland from the ex-Viceregal Lodge. Still, her private relationships remained obscure.

But she kept her letters, enabling McCoole to recount matter-of-factly several affairs with leading political figures. Hazel's relationship with Collins may not have been fully consummated - she seems to have been keener on admiration than sex - but it is clear from the notes and poems to "Dearest Hazel" that he was deeply smitten; they were almost inseparable just before his death in 1922; and her passionate mourning for him now looks like reality, not self-deception. Just as telling is the solicitude with which his old comrades (and his sister) treated her afterwards sending her the mementoes he kept of her and assuring her of his love. There are further surprises, including a garrulous amitie amoreuse with Ramsay MacDonald, unrecorded by his biographers. But the real revelation in this book is her subsequent affair with Kevin O'Higgins, the strong man of the Free State government and national leader-in-waiting, who was also gunned down by Republican opponents. His besotted letters are at utter variance with his puritanical image (and with the letters he simultaneously wrote to his wife); there is no question that this was a grand obsession. Much as with Parnell's secret letters to Mrs O'Shea 40 years before, they show a longing to be "free" and a private reaction against politics which would have appalled his associates.

This would also have appalled posterity in Ireland - at least until quite recently. Not the least important thing about this book is the extra dimension it adds to national heroes - and the fact that Irish public opinion has been able to take this in its stride. It also gives a memorable portrait of Hazel herself. McCoole is judiciously unafraid to show that her subject could be at times foolish bigoted, self-obsessed and tedious, as well as brave, imaginative and in the end independent. Her political involvements, and the violent deaths of so many close to her, accentuated a certain seriousness. She knew her face was her fortune; a merciless small boy noted that when she cried, her tears made "tunnels" down the make-up on those spectral cheeks. But she mockingly described her own appearance during her last illness as "the imaginary child" of Gandhi and Margot Asquith. As for Lavery, he painted her throughout, finally producing a macabre study of her coffin.

Given this high-voltage material, McCoole's understated but sympathetic approach is exactly judged. Mackay is correspondingly unfortunate: heroic biography leaves little room for additions to Tim Pat Coogan's racy but widely-researched treatment of Collins six years ago. Mackay adds some details about his early employment in the Post Office and that is about it. The author's lack of familiarity with Irish conditions is constantly betrayed (the Collins family inhabited a "tiny farm 90 acres in extent"). His effusions are suggestive of a previous work, William Wallace: Brave Heart. "The true Celtic temperament" counts for much; the hero "moves with the grace of a ballet dancer" and his "generous mouth tightened dourly" at the sight of Dublin Castle. Historical background is crude and inaccurate; religion has nothing to do with the "twisted logic" of Ulster Unionism, the complex contingencies of the shift to armed resistance after 1916 are blithely ignored, staggering speculations are presented (if Collins had lived partition would probably "have been nipped in the bud", by the simple expedient of "leading a strong army into the North"). One unsubstantiated anecdote follows another in a style that alternates genteel gush with flaccid cliche ("Quite frankly, Cathal [Brugha] was jealous as hell"). The relationship with Hazel Lavery is dismissed in two glancing references. Collins was much more interesting, and much more complicated than this; so was she; so, for all the alternative reality of publicity writers, is history.