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24 October 2018updated 25 Jul 2021 5:45am

Testing paternity: Colm Tóibín on the fathers that shaped Wilde, Joyce and Yeats

How the complicated relationships between three writers and their fathers left its mark on Irish literature.  

By Fintan Oâ?TToole

“All women become like their mothers,” says Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.” Left hanging there, of course, is the implication that the son’s tragedy is that he becomes like his father instead. In Oscar Wilde’s own case, that might not have been such a terrible thing, at least for his creative productivity. Colm Tóibín’s sparkling little book on Sir William Wilde, WB Yeats’s father John and James Joyce’s father John Stanislaus, seems originally to have been called “Prodigal Fathers” – the phantom title appears on the inside flap of the cover. It may have been dropped because of Sir William, for whom the word – with its implications of wasted talent – is a poor fit. But it certainly works for John Butler Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce. And yet the joy of Tóibín’s erudite, subtle, witty and often deeply moving biographical essays is that one generation’s paternal prodigality can become the next generation’s powerhouse of neurotic energy.

The Oedipal force is at least as strong in Irish male writing as it is in Star Wars. It is not, of course, uniquely so. Oedipus, so far as we know, did not come from Dublin and nor did Turgenev, Edmund Gosse or Edward St Aubyn. But if parricide is an imported taste, it is, like tea-drinking, one that appealed greatly to the native palate. In the quintessential Irish play, John Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon kills his father twice and, at least the first time, is idolised for his boldness. Bernard Shaw had such contempt for his father that he dropped his own given name George because it was a paternal inheritance. “I don’t want to be a father,” says the Dauphin in Saint Joan, “And I don’t want to be a son.” Shaw spent the insurance money from poor George Shaw’s death on a new Jaeger suit and a packet of condoms. George Moore, in Confessions of a Young Man, expresses a similar sense of liberation on his father’s death. Indeed, one of the many things that makes Samuel Beckett stand out from his peers among the Irish modernist immortals, is that he loved his father and might, at least at times and at least in his imagination, happily have killed his mother.

WB Yeats couldn’t leave Oedipus alone, making two superb translations of Sophocles’s play. His most powerful play, Purgatory, has tangled, nightmarish visions of both parricide and filicide. James Joyce’s alter ego in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, goes even further and abolishes genetic paternity altogether: “‘A father,’ Stephen said, battling hopelessness, ‘is a necessary evil’… ‘Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man. It is a mystical estate, an apostolic succession from only begetter to only begotten… Paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?’”

Yet if paternity is a legal fiction, it is still a fiction – and for writers like Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, fiction is no bad thing. The young Telemachus in the Odyssey, questioned as to whether he is really the son of the great (and absent) Odysseus, replies: “My mother says I am his son, but I don’t know myself; I never heard of anyone who did know whose son he was.” Services such as Ancestry DNA and 23andMe are now profaning this sacred mystery, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was intact. In all three cases, the fathers in question were at once magnetic and deeply problematic. They punched useful holes in their son’s lives.

At one level Sir William Wilde is the exception. While the other two were prodigious wasters, he was a man of astonishing accomplishment as a surgeon, demographer and antiquarian. He was the pioneering statistician of mortality in Ireland. He published the first significant textbook on surgery of the ear – an incision used in aural operations is still named after him. He founded a world-class ophthalmic hospital, St Mark’s in Dublin. In his spare time, he was a folklorist (his Irish Popular Superstitions (1852), opened the way to Yeats and Lady Gregory) whose interest in Transylvanian legends probably inspired his young friend Bram Stoker to think about Dracula. Along with George Petrie, he is the founder of Irish archaeology.

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He is also exceptional in that his influence on his son cannot be separated from that of his wife Jane, a potent personality famous in Ireland as “Speranza”, the author of flamingly seditious nationalist verse. Between them, as Tóibín astutely notes, William and Jane were adept at living simultaneously in two worlds, a loyal Victorian one on the one side and a passionately Irish one on the other: “In the soirées that [Oscar’s] parents gave, the idea of loyalty, whether to the crown or to Victorian sexual mores, was never stable.” What he calls “the ambiguity of their position their ability to draw power from two opposite sides without having fully to obey a set of rules to which either of these two sides adhered” is, of course, a prefiguring of Oscar’s national and sexual amphibiousness.

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And William also played out a version of his son’s drama: the sexual scandal that shadows what should be the zenith of success. Tóibín retells with novelistic zest the story of Mary Travers, a patient of William’s and a daughter of a medical colleague. She became very close to the Wildes, fell out with them and then published a pamphlet making sexual accusations against him. In a subsequent libel trial, she directly accused him of raping her while she was being treated under chloroform. Travers won the case but was awarded only a farthing in damages. Yet it is hard not to see Oscar’s own disastrous libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry as motivated in part by a need to escape a shame inherited from his father.

For Yeats, the case is very different. His father is less an influence than a cautionary tale. In Purgatory, it is, in the end, not the son who kills the father but vice versa – the fear for WB is perhaps that his father might end up leaching off him both financially and psychically. The painter John Butler Yeats, in Tóibín’s marvellously sympathetic portrait, is a kind of genius of comic reversal. For him, age brings, not gravity and achievement, but a delighted immaturity. He becomes poor WB’s reckless teenage son, running away to live in New York (John Quinn called him “the playboy of West 29th Street the youth of 80 without a care”), writing passionate letters to the lost love of his youth, Rosa Butt, praising her breasts (“I would like to make a portrait of them with the little pink nipples”) and working, year after year, on a single self-portrait than could never yield an income even if he ever finished it.

While WB is becoming ever grander and more grave, John B is keeping his own feet out of the grave with sexual longing, brilliantly intelligent letters to his son (essentially urging him to lighten up) and a relish for radical politics: “I am”, he writes to Rosa, “a radical socialist anarchist Home Ruler.” Against his son’s growing devotion to power and authority, he writes of the artist’s essential weakness as the alternative to the narrow drive of strongmen: “They are mighty men with strong wills. We are weak as water, our weakness is our raison d’être.” Art, he warns his son, is created out of “disgrace [and] pain and humiliation”.

It is impossible not to love the old man’s defiant embrace of “profitless idleness”. But it is also, as Quinn complained, “eternal self-indulgence”. The son’s great discipline, and in particular, the extraordinary effort of will that allowed him to create his greatest work late in life, are galvanised by his old man’s wonderfully contrary case for idleness. Perhaps the only way to kill such a lovable father was to be as unlike him as possible.

Tóibín’s explorations of the Wildes and the Yeatses are deeply and constantly engaging but it is in his evocation of the imaginative connection between the Joyces that the psychological probing of subtleties and intimacies so familiar from his novels yields a classic of biographical criticism. This is partly because, of the three relationships, this is the one readers seem to know the best. One can read almost all of Wilde’s artistic work without paying any attention to his father and the same is broadly true of Yeats. But John Joyce looms large in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

If paternity is a fiction in Joyce, paternity is also in his fiction. It is the shifting centre of Stephen Dedalus’s search for a self and the sorrow at the heart of Leopold Bloom, whose son is dead and whose father in an act of auto-parricide, killed himself.

John Joyce was the perfect bad dad. Intelligent, eloquent, charming, a lovely tenor singer, great company in the pub, he wasted his talents, drank away his money, and plunged his family into ever-deeper travails of poverty and insecurity. As James’s younger brother Stanislaus so tartly expressed it: “In Ulysses Simon Dedalus, for whom my father served as model, is a battered wreck in whom even the wish to live carefree has become a vague memory, but if the facets of his character that are presented make the figure an effective and amusing literary creation, that is possibly only because the tolerance of literature greatly exceeds that of actual life.”

Yet the tolerance of literature is precisely the terrain that Tóibín inhabits and it is the very existence of Simon Dedalus as a fictional character that allows him to test, as he cannot really do with Wilde and Yeats, the way the son gives way to the artist, the way James Joyce transforms “actual life”. To return to Stephen Dedalus’s musing on the transfer from “only begetter to only begotten”, Joyce the artist can become the “only begetter” of John Joyce by making him into Simon Dedalus. Instead of killing his father, he can, in a sense, give birth to him. We can thus, in Toibín’s words, “watch as his son set about making art from the threadbare and often miserable business of what he knew, what he had experienced, and who his father was [Joyce] allowed a complex imagination to shine its pale, unsettled light on what had already passed into shade.”

His own watching of this process makes for a highly original and convincing reading of Joyce’s artistic development. He argues that Joyce’s decision not to be bitter about his father, not to be content with satirising him as he does in the early, merciless story “Grace”, published in Dubliners, is crucial to that development. Joyce decides that art needs a different mode so that the father-son relationship can become “oddly mysterious and painful, evoking a tone that is melancholy, puzzled, almost poetic”. He forces himself to see his father from the outside, not as the feckless bully he is a home, but as a figure in the world of Dublin: “He allows him to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family. He sees what can be done by dramatising the friction between Simon Dedalus and a world he enjoys somewhat but does not fully control.”

The light that Joyce shines on his father’s ghost becomes, in Toibín’s richly illuminating reflections, a light cast back on Joyce himself. In it we see afresh the Joyce who wrote, when his own grandson was born shortly after John Joyce’s death, his beautiful little hymn to the cycle of fatherhood: “A child is sleeping:/An old man gone./O, father forsaken,/Forgive your son!”

Fintan O’Toole writes for the Irish Times. His books include “Judging Shaw” (Royal Irish Academy)

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 186pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash