Out from Willie's shadow

The Yeats Sisters, by Joan Hardwick, Pandora, pounds 8.99; Patricia Craig reads a worthy attempt at rehabilitation

Lily and Lolly sounds like a music-hall duo, but in fact the lives of WB Yeats's sisters, Susan and Elizabeth, weren't especially abundant in gaiety. They were the dogsbodies of the Yeats family; indeed at one point, as their biographer is at pains to stress, it was only the income they supplied that kept things going.

The story of their father's improvidence is pretty well-known: how he abandoned the Bar for a career in portrait-painting, and shunted his family back and forth between Dublin and London, as each of these settings appeared more auspicious to him when he was out of it, while his wife (born Susan Pollexfen) withdrew increasingly into her own discontent. Of her four children, two - the boys - were destined to become famous, while the other two were merely hard-working and enterprising. Lily (as Susan was always called to distinguish her from her mother) first began earning money in 1888, as an embroiderer for May Morris, daughter of William. Lolly, the younger sister, wasn't far behind her, once she'd gained a Froebel Teaching Certificate, and acquired the confidence to produce some painting textbooks. However, the two are remembered (if at all - the most frequent descriptive term applied to them is "unsung") for setting up the Cuala Press and allied industries in Dublin in 1908, the Press which produced many first editions of their brother William's work.

The Yeats Sisters shows the overbearing, disputatious side of W.B. Joan Hardwick can't forgive him for failing to value these industrious siblings more highly, though he thought well enough of Lily. Between himself and Lolly, indeed, there was constant friction: they were too alike, self- willed and difficult to form any kind of alliance. The superficially more docile Lily was his ally, while he lived at home; Jack Yeats - the youngest of the four - hardly shared in the others' precarious upbringing at all. At a time when money was particularly tight, Jack was packed off to his grandparents in Sligo; and then he married a fellow art student in London at the earliest possible moment. The Yeats girls never married at all, and indeed the entire sexual dimension in their lives is a blank, at least as far as this biography is concerned. The author hasn't come up with any more convincing suitors than an unforthcoming Trinity don (for Lolly), and the rich New York collector John Quinn (Lily) - though the latter was always on the lookout for mistresses as well as manuscripts and works of art, and didn't have to look too hard (Joan Hardwick speculates) to spot Lily Yeats's unsuitability for the role. Nevertheless, he remained a patron of the entire family until his death in 1924.

For all their talent and practicality, Lily and Lolly were never exactly New Women or even Girls of the Period, both these tags implying up-to- date views and a measure of social assertiveness. Even their stand on any issue of the day can't be called enlightened, if you leave aside the question of women's employment - and that was a matter of necessity, not choice. Given the choice, we gather, they'd infinitely have preferred to be married. Their biographer can't avoid judging both of them, especially Lily, "conventional": church-going, anti-drink and shocked to the core by May Morris's carry-on with GB Shaw.

Although they settled permanently in Dublin in 1902, a time of considerable cultural and revolutionary activity, the sisters never took a firm, or a prescient, line on Irish affairs, and were at one in considering Constance Markievicz insane to wear men's clothes and involve herself in politics. And as for Maud Gonne - they'd taken against this muse of their brother's from the very first moment when she came to call on WB at Blenheim Road in London in 1888, and looked down her nose at them, wearing a "sort of royal smile", intensely irritating. They fared no better with Lady Gregory, who took no notice of them whatever.

Joan Hardwick's aim is two-fold: to bring the female Yeatses from under the shadow of their brothers and father, and to stick up for Lolly, the more spirited, recalcitrant and denigrated of the two. Lily, the author tells us, must take some blame for the unadmiring view of her sister which has persisted through various writings about the Yeats family; living longer (until 1949) enabled her to cast herself, without fear of contradiction, in the better light.

Hardwick has made a good job of reinstating Lolly, whose prickliness and impatience strike a contemporary note; but she hasn't shown any special insight into the background or psychology of her subjects. However, it does bring home to us the extent of the sisters' achievement in the face of such obstacles as a shaky education, uncertain social standing, superior brother, gadabout father, and no outstanding personal attractions. The Yeats Sisters is a workmanlike account of two workaday women.

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