How the fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce influenced their sons

by Brigid Feehan / 13 February, 2019
John Joyce. Photo/Supplied

John Joyce. Photo/Supplied

RelatedArticlesModule - Mad Bad Dangerous to Know book review

Prominent Irish writer Colm Tóibín ponders the question of paternal effect in Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know.

In this hugely readable book, Colm Tóibín tells the story of “three prodigal fathers” and the ways their prodigious sons wrote about them. He also vividly evokes the Dublin of the time, walking us through the streets and pausing where these families lived.

The fathers followed no path. There was only, Tóibín notes, “waywardness and will, hard frenetic work in the case of Sir William Wilde, and wit and indolence in the case of John B Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce”.

Oscar Wilde’s parents were a ‘‘mixture of formidable intelligence and unmoored strangeness”. William was a famous eye and ear doctor, folklore collector and archaeologist. His knighthood was awarded for census work. Oscar (the subject of a new biography by Matthew Sturgiss) might later quip that nature was a place where “birds fly around uncooked”, but he spent boyhood holidays on remote islands with his father, looking for sites of legendary events.

Tóibín imagines an alternative career for Wilde in archaeology; he once applied for work noting “[archaeology] is a subject of intense interest to me”. Wilde’s respect for the way his father had earnt his place in society by hard work – as opposed to the Marquess of Queensberry’s inherited privilege – shines through, Tóibín shows, in De Profundis (which he wrote in 1897).

Sir William Wilde. Photo/Getty Images

Sir William Wilde. Photo/Getty Images

John Yeats trained in law, but escaped to art school in London, leaving his wife, Susan, and their children behind. John had married because he thought he needed her “family genius ‘for being dismal’”. Returning to Dublin, he mainly talked in his art studio (“the best talker I ever met”, CK Chesterton said).

After Susan died, John, 68, left his ‘‘serious … industrious” adult children and headed to New York, where he lived until his death at 82. There, he sketched and painted, but mainly … talked, and wrote letters. He wrote to his son “WB” about “art, life, poetry and religion”.

He also wrote to Rosa Butt, a friend from his youth, whom he was now free to court from afar. The Butt letters brim with a delightful teasing intimacy. As Tóibín notes, reading the letters it is easy to be reminded of WB’s poems about old age.

On his father’s death, WB said, “More than any man I have ever known he could live in the happiness of the passing moment.”

Next is James Joyce’s father, John. Joyce Sr’s second son, Stanislaus, charted “with bitterness and in some detail” what happened to the family of 10 children. The problems were drink, money and, to an extent, personality. John was born wealthy and had many opportunities but squandered them all.

James, “reading in his room … paying no attention to his father or anybody else”, missed much of what happened. He was generous, though, in his writing, allowing his father “to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family”. Joyce had the most difficult father of the three, which makes his generosity the more impressive.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know: The fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, by Colm Tóibín (Pan Macmillan, $29.99)

This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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