In 1918, Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons. She did not take up her seat: as a member of Sinn Fein, she believed that Ireland should be independent rather than ruled by the British – and she was in prison at the time. There have been a number of biographies of this iconic Irish figure, but in Revolutionary Lives Lauren Arrington paints a much richer and more nuanced picture, since she links the life of Constance to that of her husband Casimir, a more elusive figure. Drawing on a wide range of sources, including official documents, newspapers, personal letters and diaries, Arrington presents a fascinating account of a European couple immersed in art, politics and revolution.
Constance Gore-Booth was born into the privileged Irish upper-middle class, and as a young woman she developed a deep concern for the poor as well as an interest in Irish nationalism and women’s suffrage. With her sister, Eva, she became active in the North Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association. Restless and a talented artist, she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London before moving to the Académie Julian in Paris.
It was here that she met Casimir Markievicz, a Polish count and a painter, playwright and theatre director. The couple spent their days cycling around Paris, smoking, painting and partying, and married in 1900. A year later a daughter, Maeve, was born, and joined Stanislas, Casimir’s son from his first marriage. When the family moved to Dublin in 1903, the couple felt at home in the city’s avant-garde circles and were drawn into nationalist politics. This would bring Constance into disagreement with the aims of the Irish Women’s Franchise League. She believed that Irish women’s foremost demand should not be votes for women but a parliament to be represented in. Both became active in militant Irish separatism, Casimir much more through the theatre and his paintings.
Constance became a key player in the revolutionary nationalist movement, including the failed Easter Rising of 1916. Although she was found guilty of armed rebellion and sentenced to death, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on account of her sex. After an amnesty was granted, she returned to Ireland a heroine and continued her fight for a socialist republic.
Her support for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution put her at odds with her spouse, who joined the Russian imperial army to support Polish freedom. Yet Arrington is at pains to point out that despite these differences, the Markieviczs remained in sympathy with each other, with Casimir at his wife’s bedside when she died in 1927. Other family members, however, were decidedly unsympathetic.
Maeve resented being left to be brought up by her grandparents while her mother was “permanently in prison”. So furious was she when she discovered that during her mother’s long periods of absence Constance had kept up an intimate correspondence with Eva that she destroyed the letters.
Revolutionary Lives is an engaging book. It not only paints a vivid picture of the diverse public lives of its radical subjects, but also explores the private turmoil of familial relationships.
June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth, and author of Emmeline Pankhurst: A Biography (2002).
Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz
By Lauren Arrington
Princeton University Press, 312pp, £24.95
ISBN 9780691161242 and 9781400874187 (e-book)
Published 20 January 2016