Publishing a new biography of W B Yeats was always going to be a risky business. First there is the matter of R F Foster’s opening slice of ‘authorised’ life, which came out as recently as 1997. Then there are the many newish and specific studies that view the silly, grand old man in the context of his gifted family, his long-time yearning for Maud Gonne and, finally, his belief in spirits, eugenics, and all manner of sloppy nonsense. Brenda Maddox knows all this of course, but she also understands that a jostling field can sometimes produce a book with clearer edges and a sharper spine. And this, indeed, is what she achieves in George’s Ghosts, a book of odd and astonishing accomplishment.
The oddness starts with the title, which is not about Yeats at all. ‘George’ refers to the twenty-five-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees whom the poet married in 1917 at the age of fifty-two. The courtship had been swift, Yeats having already proposed to another woman earlier that year. His compulsion was not a craving for affection – he already got that from a gang of nervy, clever lovers – but the effect of an approaching astrological moment which he considered crucial. Given his haste in picking Georgie (or George, as she was mostly known), it was either lucky or inevitable that the girl turned out to share his interest in the misty world of Spirit. Maddox maintains that luck had nothing to do with it, suggesting that George, unable to discuss her needs with a man old enough to be her father, used the device of ‘The Communicators’ – astral guides who grasped her pen during daily bouts of automatic writing – to get her message across. Starting as early as their honeymoon, George channelled instructions from bossy entities with names like ‘Thomas of Dorlowicz’ and ‘Isabella of the Rose’ whenever she felt entitled to more rest, love or sex. With Yeats as a rapt and receptive witness, George delivered messages from the unseen world to assert her most material needs.
Although it is George Yeats whose name appears in the main title, and although Brenda Maddox is famous for writing about Nora Joyce, this is not the biography of another literary wife. In fact, George’s presence in her husband’s life faded after five years, with the arrival first of a daughter and then of an important son. Although Yeats believed that his babies represented the reincarnated spirits of old souls, their earthly arrival signalled the end of the conversations with the spirit world which had bound him so tightly to their mother. With the earthly Yeatsian succession now assured, the steady stream of conmand and counsel from ‘Thomas’ and ‘Isabella’ no longer seemed so engrossing. When George’s role as a medium became redundant, she faded into a kind of ghost herself, haunting the background of the old poet’s life as he moved from lover to lover. She was a useful ghost, though – the kind to provide tactful administrative and literary back-up and then disappear without a fuss. At times her generosity was positively heroic. Rushing to nurse her dying husband on the Cote d’Azur in 1939, George found herself greeted by a gaggle of his old flames, not to mention the news that his current mistress was expected at any moment. Instead of flouncing off, George sensibly shared the prized sickroom duties and allowed Edith Heald, Yeats’s last love, to mourn alongside her.
Since Yeats was a man who liked to keep the different parts of his life separate, Maddox is entirely justified in organising her narrative into four discrete sections, dealing with his astrologically driven marriage, the years of the Automatic Script, the emotional background to his choppy love life, and the years as a public man, Nobel laureate and opponent of de Valera. Indeed, by refusing to pretend that it is possible to integrate these parallel strands into a seamless master narrative of Yeats’s life, Maddox makes explicit her own dialogue with the biographical protocols. What emerges is not simply the best account we have of Yeats’s tricky private life, but an extraordinarily illuminating rereading of his poetry. Maddox uses his work with the lightest touch, never falling into unthinking autobiographical interpretation, but always paying due care to its formal properties. The result is a complex, elegant delight.