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IRELAND’S FORGOTTEN MUSES

In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.

portrait

Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.

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Violet Hunt: The Sweetest Violet in England

Violet Hunt, born in 1862 in Durham in the north of England,was the daughter of Pre-Raphaelite landscape painter Alfred William Hunt and his wife, Margaret Raine Hunt, bestselling novelist and translator of the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Her parents took her to live in London when she was just three-years old and she grew up in Pre-Raphaelite circles. Violet was bright, vivacious and very beautiful. At thirteen, she was writing poetry for Century Magazine. Ellen Terry described her as ‘out of Botticelli by Burne-Jones’.

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Violet Hunt from The Flurried Years (1926)

On one occasion, when Letitia Scott, wife of Margaret’s art tutor, William Bell Scott, invited Margaret, to come and meet ‘a wonderful young Irishman just up from Oxford’, she brought seventeen-year-old Violet along. Oscar Wilde, for it was he, flirted outrageously with Violet:

Beautiful women like you hold the fortunes of the world in your hands to make or mar,

he told her, adding conspiratorially:

We will rule the world – you and I – you with your looks and I with my wits.

Little wonder she thought herself ‘a little in love’ with him.

In her memoir, The Flurried Years (1926), Violet insisted that she had ‘as nearly as possible escaped the honour of being Mrs. Wilde’, adding:

I believe that Oscar was really in love with me – for the moment and perhaps more than a moment for Alice Corkran told me quite seriously that he had said to her quite seriously, “Now, shall I go to Mr. Hunt and ask him to give me little Violet?”

Oscar, who considered her, ‘the sweetest Violet in England’, called on the Hunts almost every Sunday for two years. When he went to America, Violet sought his mother out, hoping for news of her son:

Lady Wilde sits there in an old white ball dress, in which she must have graced the soirees of Dublin a great many years ago,

she wrote; she was not quite as sweet as she looked.

When Oscar returned from America with his hair freshly coiffed and curled, Violet decided he was, ‘not nearly so nice’ after all.

Although she adored the company of men, and described her life as ‘a succession of affairs,’ Violet Hunt never married. She would ‘snub eligibles on principle’, preferring married men since ‘no one could imagine that I wanted to catch them’. She could be terrifying: ‘I rather liked her,’ D.H. Lawrence admitted, adding: ‘She’s such a real assassin’.

Her many conquests included H.G. Wells, with whom she had an affair lasting a year when she was forty-four, and Somerset Maugham, but her most enduring love was for Ford Madox Ford; at thirty-six, he was eleven years her junior when they embarked on their lengthy affair. Violet’s once good opinion of Oscar may have been tainted by Ford’s dismissal of his writing as ‘derivative and of no importance’, although he did acknowledge ‘as a scholar he was worthy of the greatest respect’.

Violet Hunt & Ford Madox Ford

In later years, Violet remembered Oscar as:

…a slightly stuttering, slightly lisping, long-limbed boy, sitting in the big armchair at Tor Villa, where we lived then, tossing the long black lock on his forehead that America swept away, and talking – talking…

Oscar had always encouraged Violet to write. In time, she enjoyed an enviable reputation as a novelist, biographer and hostess of a thriving literary salon. Among her guests were Rebecca West, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Wyndham Lewis, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry James. Her interest in furthering the cause of women is reflected in the themes of her novels, the first of which, The Maiden’s Progress, was published in 1894. She joined the Women Writers’ Suffrage League in 1908, the year she helped Ford establish the English Review. Although she never published her memoir My Oscar, she did fictionalise him as fickle suitor Philip Wynyard in her semi-autobiographical novel Their Lives (1916).

When she died of pneumonia, aged seventy-nine, she left behind collections of poetry and short stories, seventeen novels, her memoirs of her time with Ford, a biography of Lizzie Siddal, six collaborations, two book translations, and numerous critical articles that were published in London newspapers and magazines.

Unlike that of many of her literary conquests, none of her work remains in print, although some of it is available to read online. Truly, she is one of Wilde’s Women.

Further Reading:

Violet: the story of the irrepressible Violet Hunt and her circle of lovers and friends – Ford Madox Ford, H.G. Wells, Somerset Maugham, and Henry James by Barbara Belford (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1990)

‘Aesthetes and pre-Raphaelites: Oscar Wilde and the Sweetest Violet in England’ by Robert Secor, Texas Studies in Language and Literature,  Volume XXI, number 3 (Fall 1979)

The Flurried Years by Violet Hunt ( London, Hurst & Blackett, 1926), p.173

Also:

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