Secret worlds of Georgie girl

August 30, 2002

In penetrating the smokescreen that the wife of W .B. Yeats created, Ann Saddlemyer discovered the start of a much larger story.

On November 18 1913, having reached the age of admittance to the British Museum reading room, 21-year-old Georgie Hyde Lees presented herself at 9am for what would be the first of many sojourns under the library's great dome. Her application stated that she was "desirous of reading all available literature on the religious history of the first three centuries AD", and it appears from the books still surviving in her library and references in her notes and letters that she came close to achieving that aim. Her reading ranged through explorations of hermeticism, the Kabbalah, alchemy, astrology, ritual magic and even Quietism; she polished up her medieval Latin with 17th-century works on magic, had her own copy of Hermes Trismegistus (in Italian) and, after attending lectures by the theosophist George Mead, advanced to the works of Plotinus, Plato and Iamblichus.

These were the first of many discoveries I made while tracking the elusive George Yeats from birth (christened Georgie, as a young woman she renamed herself) through the literary salons of London and, after her marriage to William Butler Yeats, into their homes in Oxford, London, Dublin and Rapallo, Italy. Cunningly, she covered her tracks, saying little or nothing about her place of birth, education, early life, father, brother or a distinguished ancestry. My job was to penetrate the smokescreen she had set up to try to locate the subversive character behind it.

In the course of searching for public documents, school records, private memoirs and unpublished correspondence, and of interviewing friends and family, I unearthed much more. She had been a nurse during the first world war, could speak five languages, had studied at the same art school in London as her father-in-law, was knowledgeable in theatre and music, and - far more than her husband - was familiar with contemporary European literature. Like Yeats, she was a keen astrologer; it was he who sponsored her membership in the occult Order of the Golden Dawn, where in a remarkably short time she became one of the teachers.

Willy and George married in 1917. They had known each other for seven years, for her widowed mother married the brother of Yeats' former love and lifelong friend, Olivia Shakespear. When Olivia's daughter Dorothy met Ezra Pound, the circle widened; Ezra became George's close friend and self-appointed mentor, even accompanying her to the occasional seance. Inevitably with these close social and family connections, young George was soon immersed in the interconnecting artistic circles of London that included poets T. S. Eliot, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle)and Richard Aldington, artists Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and musicians Walter Rummel and Jelly d'Aranyi.

Yet her own story has, until now, fallen between the cracks of her husband's biography. Admittedly, this silence was her own decision, for she was such a private person that not even her own children knew where she was born (Fleet, Hants) until after her death. She may have been protecting them from overload. But she was also naturally shy, more comfortable directing events and steering the Yeats industry (and Willy himself) indirectly, at times beneath a cloak of mystery. She was also aware that, as the wife of a famous poet, she would come under scrutiny as an appendage, and although witty and empathetic, she was a woman of much dignity and reserve.

There is evidence that in her 30s she wrote at least two plays and was working on a novel, but she seems to have destroyed them. Nowhere was her deliberate concealment more evident than in the automatic writing on which she embarked during her honeymoon and, at her husband's eager insistence, continued for a number of years. Much has been written about the philosophical system that arose from that script and became the source of Yeats' A Vision as well as the underlying basis for much of his later poetry and drama. Now that the script itself has been transcribed and published, it is possible to see that the material revealed and explored there was constructed by George on a foundation of shared knowledge and experience in which Yeats' previous writing and study played no small part. It also drew on her experience with seances, a storehouse of images dependent on her knowledge of early occult works and medieval arcana, and her skills in codifying and organising an extraordinary diversity of material.

Clearly there were strong psychological advantages and equally strong emotional benefits to the role George consciously chose to play in selecting automatic writing as her creative medium: her place in Willy's affections was assured and their marriage forged with a confidence and trust in each other's frank responses that would last until death. In addition, the habit of discussion, of speaking of themselves and others at one or two removes while exploring the philosophical implications of the system they were establishing, encouraged a process Yeats would develop more and more in his poetry - turning themselves and others into images. If poetry was the essence of his creative genius, then the automatic writing, whether consciously initiated or not, became the essence of hers. In helping provide those metaphors for poetry, might not the poet in turn have become her form of creation? And if so, might that partly explain her determined self-effacement?

But even here she was subversive, for during these regular sessions Yeats held a dialogue not directly with his wife but through various guides or instructors, who spoke through her hand, and later while she slept. Not that she did not speak her mind at other times, with a sharp tongue and wry wit; her letters sparkle with insight and humour, and Yeats once remarked:

"You are much the best letter writer I know, or have known - your letters have so much unstrained animation, so much natural joyousness." The correspondence between them, and that between George and two of her best friends, the playwright Lennox Robinson and the poet and art critic Thomas McGreevy, reveal much, not only about her fine critical sense but also the life and work of her famous husband and the literary, political and social situation in Ireland and elsewhere. With Robinson, she was a major strength behind the Dublin Drama League, where her extensive knowledge of theatre was especially valuable in introducing contemporary European playwrights to Ireland.

Some years younger than her husband, she controlled his papers for 30 years after his death in 1939, deciding what would be released (and to whom), what would not, destroying many of her own papers and her artwork, while conscientiously preserving his. Her influence extended beyond that of custodianship: early in their marriage her sister-in-law Lily Yeats fell ill and George took over the embroidery division of the Cuala Industries.

Even before Willy's death she was made a director of the Cuala Press, founded by his other sister Lolly. When Lolly died the year after Willy, George became press editor as well. She continued to publish books until the supply of special paper finally ran out during the war years, then kept the press going until her own death, by printing broadsides, cards and prints designed by her brother-in-law Jack B. Yeats and other Irish artists. She edited her husband's works and, as literary executor, kept a firm hand on what publishers and scholars could and could not do. She collaborated on the first official biography and on the publication of Yeats' letters and bibliography; she advised and supported Richard Ellmann, Norman Jeffares and countless other seekers, including me as a graduate student newly arrived from Canada. Some, such as the young Jon Stallworthy and the established Kathleen Raine, she even chided for working on another's poetry when they should be writing their own; for always, it was the poetry that mattered most. "A poet has no right not to write," she insisted. And she herself was happiest in the company of young authors and artists. Until the deluge of second and third-generation seekers and her own failing health made it impossible, she read and commented on most of the critical manuscripts and editions. Finally, at her death in 1968, she made the munificent gift of Yeats' manuscripts and papers to the nation.

As I pursued the elusive Georgie Hyde Lees it became obvious that I was writing a multiple biography. For George Yeats created many different worlds - at the same time maintaining an atmosphere that enabled her husband to write and her children to develop their own individual careers, and nourishing and advising other writers. And throughout, she maintained her own personal strength and integrity. Can I assume closure? No. The telling of George's story has only begun; the narrative remains unfinished. As long as that is so, so too will be the story of W. B. Yeats.

Ann Saddlemyer is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and author of Becoming George: the Life of Mrs W. B. Yeats , published by Oxford University Press next month, price £25.00.

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