I first heard of Maud Gonne in 1960 when I was 17. She seemed like someone from the far past and I’m astonished now to realise that at that time she had been dead for only seven years. The introduction came from Charlie Richardson, one of my A level English teachers, who told the class that she was the muse of WB Yeats with whose poetry I had just fallen in love (an infatuation that continues to this day). He also told us that: she had refused several marriage proposals from Yeats; that he had also been turned down by her daughter Iseult; and that we should all be grateful to Maud and her daughter because without this unrequited love Yeats’s poetry would never have reached the heights it did. He did not tell us: that Maud married a right-wing French politician; that the son she bore him died; that she then made her husband (from whom she had been estranged since the death of the child) make love to her by candlelight on a freezing cold night in the funeral vault where their son lay buried so that the dead child’s soul would migrate into the child she would conceive there; or that most of us, on meeting her, would have decided that she was as mad as a hatter. In Her Secret Rose, Orna Ross fills in these gaps to great effect.
The title of the book comes from Yeats’s collection of short stories, The Secret Rose, which in this edition is bound with Ross’s story. What I admire about Ross’s work (I have previously given a good review to her novel Blue Mercy) is her ability to put you into the minds of her characters so that you feel as well as see – you have the why as well as the what – and to structure a book in the best way to bring out what she wants to say. In this case, we watch proceedings through the eyes of a female Irish domestic servant who sees people (and especially Gonne, Yeats and the French politician, Millevoye) with a clarity and at the same time a lack of judgmental bias possibly not available to people of her own class.
At the end of the book, did I feel any deeper understanding of Yeats’s poetry? No, probably not. But I had had an exhilarating read. An excellent book by a writer of the first rank. I recommend it strongly.
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