“A Family, Together” Extract from the novel A Life Before This One

This is an extract from the first book in my Yeats-Gonne series, A Life Before This One, a biographical fiction series about Maud Gonne, her daughter Iseult and the poet, WB Yeats. I’m aiming to have the novel out in June 2022. This extract  introduces Maud Gonne and her father, Colonel Thomas Gonne, in 1886 when he is 50 and she is almost 20. (Featured Image: Father and Daughter by John Lavery).

The young Maud Gonne
The young Maud Gonne

Visitors departed, father and daughter now stretched out in separate armchairs in front of the fire, in the drawing room of Colonel Gonne's official barracks residence. A handsome room, full of dark furniture—renaissance-style walnut sideboard, cabinets, bookcases, and dinner wagon, all of sound workmanship and superior finish. Inset with marquetry, but otherwise sturdy and plain, masculine and military. Maud Gonne had only been living there a few weeks, but she’d introduced some softening touches already: a sunflower painting by a local artist, yellow cushions, and green rugs from the Wicklow wooden mills on each arm of the settee. 

They were each lying under a rug now, enjoying a final after-dinner port and agreeing that they’d had a most successful lunch—they called it “luncheon”–with two other officers of the British army in Ireland, and their wives. Tapioca soup. Whiting in butter. Beef steaks. Salad. Cold slices of luncheon meat. Macaroni cheese. Apple Charlotte.

Hard to believe a stomach could hold it all but the gentry knocked back a rare amount of food in them days. Now they reclined, bellies laden with good food, enjoying the kind of half-sleepy, nothing-much-said kind of talk that is enjoyed only by those who are completely comfortable with each other. For Thomas and Maud Gonne were that rare thing for father and daughter, not just family but friends.

All was peaceful and soft between them, as they lay low in their armchairs, sipping their port, the colonel smoking his cigar, the dogs snoozing before the fire. Maud Gonne had no notion that her father was wondering how to ease her towards a question he’d had on his mind a few days now.

He began with an easier question, one already aired over lunch. “Did you hear Kavanagh say that Ireland needs more right-thinking men in Westminster on the side of Home Rule?”

“Mmmm,” Maud Gonne said, noncommittal, one hand idly stroking the bulldog that lay beside her. She understood the basics of the land war, and that Tommy and his army (she had thought of it as his since she was a little girl) were in this country to prevent or quell Irish revolution. The political table talk earlier had bored her with detail, though. She’d pretended to listen as the men thrashed through it but had actually taken her mind off on an inward jaunt , imagining the performance fundraiser she and her friend Ida were to give the garrison. Especially the end of the show. How she’d receive the applause they were sure to receive, with the proper smile and tilt of her head that would convey the right mix of pride and humility. 

“Now that most men can vote for the first time,” Tommy was saying now, “the Irish MPs might well hold the balance of power in the coming election. The one after this one might well see a swing.”

Maud Gonne loved having her father talk in this confiding way to her, but her interest in his topic ran low, while food-and-fireside torpor was running high. She murmured again, “Mmmm.” 

The next words though—“It would mean moving back to England?”—saw her snap into sitting.

The bulldog lifted his head and opened a sleepy eye to check all was alright. She absentmindedly reassured him with her hand, while keeping her eyes up and on her father’s face, to see if he was serious. “But Tommy, we’ve only just got here.”

“You like it here in Dublin? I thought the old generals might be boring you.”

“Have I done something wrong?”

“My dear girl, no. Not in the least.”

Tommy knew his daughter was fixated on being a success in her new role of running his house. Her English aunts, his older sisters, had come down hard on them both when they’d shared their intentions. That Maud could run his military household! And alone, as Kathleen was still at school in Portsmouth! Live in the military barracks, without a chaperone! And so on! And so forth! 

The two had withstood the pressure of what Tommy called drama and histrionics. Maud Gonne was now installed as his chatelaine and determined to prove the English aunts wrong, and be the best angel in the house the Royal Irish Barracks had ever seen. 

He’d shown her how to keep an engagement book, and a visiting book, and the etiquette for answering invitations, depending on the rank of the inviter. It was one of her duties to call on the officers’ wives of every regiment stationed in Dublin and entertain them, at least once, at a social function where they could make contact with each other. 

This part of the job, he knew, she didn’t love. Aside from Claude Cane’s Maltese wife, who was as young and pretty as herself, with whom she laughed at the dullness of garrison life, every woman in the garrison was twenty years older than her. She’d found the generals themselves more interesting than their wives, and more interesting too than the younger officers with their tedious talk of sport and racing. 

Her popularity with the older officers had already proved useful to Tommy, as he’d tried to bring in a reform, or even a change in how things were run. It was hard for them to make a scene when they were so fond of his daughter. 

Maud Gonne’s intensity as she went about her tasks, having the general's wives to tea, giving orders to the cleaning and cooking staff, reconciling butcher and baker bills, reminded her father of when she was a  little girl, playing with that Japanese tea set he brought back from Singapore for her and Kathleen.

And reminded him, too, of her mother. As she was coming into her womanhood, Maud was looking ever more like Edith. Both girls were but Kathleen was a gentle soul. Maud had her mother’s spirit. And the same flinty frown between the eyebrows when she was concentrating. Tommy couldn’t believe she was now the age Edith had been when he met her. Such beautiful girls, in nature as in face. 

Now her keen hazel eyes were interrogating his, her complexion darkening in confusion, then lightening, then darkening again. It was a curious feeling, watching his daughter studying him, trying to fathom his thought. He felt like she was seeing him, the person behind the father, for the first time.

What exactly was she seeing? He was conscious of his greying hair and moustache, his furrowed skin opposite her glowing

Thomas Gonne 1861
Thomas Gonne 1861, before Maud's birth

complexion. He wasn’t getting any younger, and the army and its equivocations weren’t getting any easier. Disappointment and frustration was turning him into somebody he didn’t want to be. 

Even before he took this post, he’d known it was a demotion. Assistant Adjutant General, one of the top military jobs in the second city of the Empire looked good on paper, but he knew they were finished with him.

“Another duff posting,” he’d said to his youngest brother, Charlie, on his last visit to his house. 

Charlie, leaning over the desk in his library, had tried to reassure him.  “Perhaps they see an easy posting as your just reward. Don’t most officers of your age want a salary and an easy time of it?”

“I’m not ready for that yet, man. I’m only 50, and—”

He’d stopped.

“They’re still underpaying you?” Charlie asked, gently. He was the only one in the family who knew that Tommy had been on half-pay since an accident a few years before, when one of his officers shot him in the knee during training. The injury prevented him from taking up active duty for almost a year and then they gave him a desk job in St Petersburg. Now this offer of another in Ireland. He wanted action, while he was still young enough. That was the rub. In their minds, he was too old already.

“So you’re going to refuse it?”

“I might.”

“Come on man. Resign your commission? They won’t give you early retirement, you’ve been through all that.”

Tommy picked up the sheet of letter paper that was lying loose on the table between them, crumpled it up and flung it at the wall. It fell short of its target, and landed short, with a whisper on the polished floor.

“And the girls. You can’t leave them with William any longer.”

William, their eldest brother, was a different type to Charlie and Tommy. He  expected his nieces to get up early in the morning, to say prayers at breakfast, to behave like well-behaved English young ladies are supposed to behave. Kathleen got on all right with him but Maud and he were head-to-head on everything. 

“And as you said yourself, coming out in Dublin will be far better for them than London, where they’ll be unknowns. In Dublin, with you as AAG, they’ll be at the heart of it all and do a lot better for themselves.” 

Tommy had picked up the sheet of letter paper that was lying loose on the table between them on the desk, crumpled it up and flung it at the wall, as if it were a rock. It fell short of its target, and landed on Charlie's polished floor with a bathetic bounce.

Colonel Thomas Gonne in later life
Colonel Thomas Gonne in later life

He’d done what everyone said was the right thing to do, and taken the job. For the girls, he’d said to himself, ignoring the inconvenient fact that he had no other options. For the girls. For a few years. She saw them settled, he'd make his break. Anyone could do anything for a few years.

Only when he got to Dublin, he saw that he couldn’t. He’d made a terrible mistake. He had no heart for the work of keeping the Irish subsumed. 

Victoria, the old queen, was becoming popular again. The people, who once objected to her long retreat from public life, and who used to ask what she did with her money, and what she did to earn it, had changed their mood. Just by being there for so long, a symbol of stability in a time of great change, she’d become popular, especially with the conservative middle classes. Even in Ireland, where her policies had seen the people starve.

Colonel Gonne was a progressive, not a conservative and the British army in Ireland was reactionary and establishmentarian, as any army had to be. It was killing him. The new politics was where the forward thinking men were to be found. And London was where movements were made. But here he was in the sleepy backwater of Dublin. 

Of late, he’d heard himself, speaking as he heard older men speak when he was younger, in a tone he'd promised himself he'd never take. The tone of a man who finds that life has turned out to be a disappointment, after all. 

His promotion and posting was part of a change of guard in the British representation in Ireland.  A new Lord Lieutenant had just been  inaugurated with the same duties as the old, to keep the Queen's Private Office informed about Irish issues. A jubilee year for the old queen was looming a few years away, in 1867, and the inauguration of the new Lord Lieutenant was an occasion to test the temperature in Ireland.

As Assistant Adjutant General, chief administrative officer, Colonel Gonne was present, uniformed and booted, when the new Lord Lieutenant, or Viceroy as he was also named, was sworn in, pledging his oath of allegiance to Her Majesty under the Sword of State, and invested with a bejewelled collar and insignia as Grand Master of the Order of St. Patrick, to the sound of a fifteen gun salute from across the River Liffey. The people were duly impressed by the pomp. The Brits were—still are—brilliant at these rituals that perpetuate tradition, it.

Maud Gonne
Maud Gonne at 21

Next day, the Colonel brought his two girls moved into the barracks the day after after Lord Caernarfon was inaugurated in the role. Their arrival created almost as much interest in the garrison as the as the investiture the day before. The general’s wives called to see them all day long, with invitations to teas, dinners and balls that piled up on the mantelpiece of the drawing-room, under the picture of their mother that had accompanied them to every house and home they’d had.

“I don’t understand, Tommy,” she was saying. “I thought we were happy here. And my coming out…”

She hadn’t even had her coming out ball yet. He had changed everything in their lives to bring them here and they were happy. For Maud, England was Uncle William and the aunts, respectability and confinement, empire and materialism. Ireland was freedom and autonomy, balls and parties. She was overjoyed to be free of the English contingent, and Kathleen couldn’t wait to be finished her schooling so she could join them in the barracks, and they could sigh together over good-looking young officers.

But wouldn’t it do them both good to lose these notions, to learn while still young, that a sense of freedom and family was something you carried with you, not a thing bound to one place? He struggled to find the right words for her. The grandfather clock ticked in the corner. 

Maud Gonne leaned forward, and touched his sleeve. “Thank you for sharing your thought with me, Tommy. But…”

Then she surprised him by reaching across, almost maternally, to take both hands in his. He felt the soft pressure of her hands on each side of his. She was smiling, her eyes shining. “It is so wonderful to be a family, together, for the first time.” 

His guilt spot. He had promised her mother that he’d keep them out of the clutches of the English aunts and keep them out of spirit-crushing schools, and he had failed.

He felt his tongue clogging in his mouth, like his saliva was thick sludge, and his words made of mud. “Oh not for now, of course,” he said. “In a few years. When you are bored of this place.”

Now he saw how, just a few months into her working life, being his hostess at parties and functions, creating her plays and tableaux with her new Irish friends, Maud had already become a force.

He leaned forward and brushed her cheekbones with his lips, once, and again. His heart was pounding and he felt her heartbeat too, and the warmth of her breath on the side of his face. He felt a rush of emotion so strong, so powerful, he could barely contain it. He wanted to cry but he found he had actually burst out laughing. And his daughter was laughing, too.

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