Friday Fiction: Yeats-Gonne Series: An Unequal Marriage

Each Friday, I publish an extract from my work in progress, currently Dancing in the Wind (Book 4 of the Yeats-Gonne series), based on a true story about the controversial love triangle between WB Yeats, his longtime muse Maud Gonne, and her daughter Iseult. As three talented mavericks try to redeem their past against a background of escalating war and revolution, can they rise to what they truly need from each other?

This novel is narrated by Rosy Cross, a working-class Irish woman and is set in France, England and Ireland, during the first world war and Irish Easter Rising. This extract comes at the beginning of the novel. Maud Gonne, having long insisted that she will never marry, appears to have changed her mind. But her chosen husband is not to be the poet WB Yeats, who has pursued her for so long and made a career out of his undying love for her. So who is it?


Miss Maud Gonne, who some time ago became a Catholic, will be formally received into the Catholic Church on Tuesday next, at the Chapel des Dames de St. Thérese, Laval. Her marriage to Major John MacBride will take place before the end of the month.
The United Irishman, Feb 21 1903

For us, the coming together of the two great patriotic figures of Madame Maud Gonne and Major John McBride was an event and a half. The best day nationalist Ireland had seen this long time. And why wouldn’t we see it so? Wasn’t the bride a beautiful and rich English heiress, who’d turned from a life of ease and pleasure to fight the cause of Ireland? Wasn’t the groom a rebel soldier who’d raised an Irish brigade in South Africa and helped win a David-versus-Goliath victory against the British Empire there? Weren’t they a couple as devoted to Ireland as it was possible for a pair of people to be?

Thanks to Maud Gonne, we Irish girls long shut out of nationalist societies by the men now had our own association, the Daughters of Ireland. Thanks to MacBride, young lads up and down the country no longer played cowboys and Indians but Boers and Brits. Those two together would be a force, and do marvellous things for our country.

And there was a right big rumour going round, not mentioned by the newspapers carrying the story of the wedding. Their wedding and honeymoon had been organised around a proposed action in the south of Spain. And their target was to be no less a person than the new English king, Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions and Emperor of India, himself.

Their target was to be no less a person than the new English king, Edward VII, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions and Emperor of India, himself.

Bertie, by nickname. Blobby Bertie to us, the man being as fat and spoiled a monarch as that inflated throne had ever seen. After 59 years in waiting, old Blobby had finally become king on the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, and was now styling himself “the uncle of Europe”. Well he might. He had nephews and nieces ruling over Russia, Spain, Sweden, Romania and various German duchies. His in-laws were on the thrones of Norway and Denmark. His cousins on those of Belgium, Portugal, Bulgaria, the Netherlands and more German duchies. And he loved nothing more than scooting around Europe visiting the relations, having his hand kissed by continental dignitaries.

His next jaunt was to Gibraltar, that tiny British territory down in the south of Spain. Due to arrive by royal yacht on April 8th 1903. The plan was to throw a Gonne-MacBride reception to greet him.

Blobby Bertie had already been victim of one attempted assassination. In Belgium two years before, a young lad called Sipido shot him, in protest against the Boer war. The boy got off, because he was only 15 years old, underage. If Maud Gonne were to pull the trigger in Gibraltar, she’d have a chance of being acquitted in the same way, as a woman. Or such was the hope, anyhow. John MacBride had written to the highest ranks of the IRB man, informing them that should his services be required for the job, they could be trusted to see the deed done.

We were all watching to see how it turned out.

The marriage was unequal. True the groom had helped Dutch settlers in the Transvaal win what seemed like an impossible victory over the British in the Boer War. And his friend Arthur Griffith—who’d spent years out in Africa with him—had bigged him up in the newspaper he founded, United Irishmen, when he came home, so we all knew his name as a hero. But the bride was Madame Maud Gonne.

Maud Gonne. The most beautiful woman in the world, no less, according to the newspaperman William Stead, and the poet WB Yeats, who made a career out of it, and many other men besides in Ireland and America and France and Russia, and wherever else she went. Baronets and dukes, scholars and kings, artists and politicians were all drawn in, including blobby Bertie himself when he was still prince-in-waiting. She knew how to play them but she didn’t need or heed any of them. She was that rare specimen at this time (we’re talking the turn of the 20th century): a woman of independent means.

A woman of shocking wealth, actually. Her father’s people were prosperous English importers of Portuguese wines, with fine business and living premises in London and Oporto, but it was her mother’s side that was really soaked. The Dictionary of Irish Biography says they were drapers, which is a bit like saying the Guinnesses are publicans. Maud Gonne’s grandaddy, Sir Francis Cook, was actually an industrialist, Britain’s largest clothing manufacturer, the third richest man in England when England was the richest nation on earth.

In his mansion on Richmond Hill overlooking the Thames, which her uncle inherited, Maud and her sister Kathleen used to play running games up and down the 125 foot long gallery built to house Sir Francis’s collection of Rembrandts and El Grecos. That house was in the English papers last year, on sale for a hundred million.

Not that you’d know any of this from Maud Gonne. She never mentioned it, and not just because she wanted to dissociate with her English heritage. She was one of those few in this world who met people as people, and never lorded it over anyone. For her, the value of her money was that it gave her independence. Those of us who shared her interest in independence and equality for the little people—the Irish, the women, the poor—got the best of her.

She had her reasons, as we found out after. Her life as a single mother had become intolerable. Paris was the most cosmopolitan of all the cities at that time and the loosest in its morals. But even in Paris, it was one thing to have an illegitimate child if the father was offering his protection. When he’s running around town chasing ever-younger chanteuses and midi-nettes, it made you a persona non grata. The double standard was different to the more po-faced English and Irish, but just as Janus faced.

Maud Gonne had annoyed an awful lot of people by being so beautiful and intelligent and independent. Two out of those three they might have forgiven, but the whole lot was too much to swallow. As well as herself, she had a daughter she passed off as a niece, taught to call her Moura, an anagram of amour, but never Maman. And now, sharing her house also was her father’s illegitimate daughter, her half-sister but said to be her cousin.

A house full of women of dubious conception, and not a man in sight. It wouldn’t do. And while Maud Gonne would ignore them all and go her own way if it was just about gossip, since the end of her alliance with Iseult’s father, Millevoye, and his loss in power, the disapproval was getting in the way of her work. The intellectual and political circles of Paris were closing her out.

As for Ireland, there was rumour galore. Nothing solid, but if the men were to find out the truth of it, she’d be out in an instant. How long before something blew her cover? And what use was wealth and beauty if it didn’t win influence for Ireland?

She needed a man. Preferably an Irishman, with strong nationalist credentials. Major John MacBride would do her very well.

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