Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce by Colm Tóibín

Reviewed by Rob Spence

Tóibín’s title, of course, comes from Lady Caroline Lamb’s snap judgement of Byron; it’s not clear whether the author here intends the epithets to be applied singly or collectively to his three subjects. But I suppose this is a better title than “The Richard Ellmann lectures” upon which the book is based. This is not, however, an academic work, though it is certainly learned. Tóibín’s examination of the lives of the fathers of three great Irish writers places them in the context of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Dublin, and deftly shows the many connections between them and throughout the wider social and artistic Irish milieux of the time.

In this relatively short volume, the shortness presumably reflecting its origins as a series of lectures, each of Tóibín’s fathers is accorded a chapter, but the whole is prefaced by an important introduction, which not only sets the scene historically, but places the author centre stage in the exploration of these other writers’ lives. We encounter the author as he roams around Dublin, a kind of flâneur whose observations spark recollections of his own experiences, which are then linked to those of the three families at the centre of the study. The introduction establishes how the literary, social and artistic networks to which the Wildes, Yeatses and Joyces belonged intertwined, and how that idea of an intellectual community still obtains today with a new generation of writers, of whom Tóibín is a leading member.

That sense of personal investment in his subject is never far from the surface in Tóibín’s brief biographies, and it is this quality that raises this book above the ordinary. Whether it is reading Wilde’s De Profundis in the very cell in which it was written, or meeting the son of W.B. Yeats, and discovering there the self-portrait that the poet’s father had worked on obsessively over the final years of his life, Tóibín always seeks to present the characters who populate the book as people he’s engaged with, rather than remote historical figures.

The way in which the respective fathers influence the lives of the sons is the theme which links each of the chapters, even though none of the sons had much to do, in their maturity, with their fathers: Wilde’s father, a renowned surgeon and oculist, with a colourful personal life, died when Oscar was a young man; W.B. Yeats had very little contact with his father, who spent the last fifteen years of his life in New York, as his son was becoming known as a leading poet; and Joyce shunned his father, John Stanislaus Joyce, for the last nineteen years of his life. Nevertheless, Tóibín shows through his reading of the diaries, correspondence and literary works of his subjects how the fathers cast a long shadow over the lives of the sons.

In the case of Wilde’s father, Sir William Wilde, it is easy to see how a sense of recklessness might have transmitted itself to the son. Sir William fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage, and was the subject of a sensational court case which had eerie parallels with the downfall of his son years later. John Butler Yeats is forever overshadowed by his more successful sons, W.B. the poet and Jack the artist. Having made a marriage he regretted, his impulse to reinvent himself, especially after the death of his wife, led him to New York and an attempt, very late in life, to become a successful painter. His letters from New York, especially to Rosa Butt, daughter of Isaac Butt, who features in all three chapters, are particularly revealing: they are frank love letters to a woman with whom he has barely spent any time, almost adolescent in their yearning for intimacy. The letters to W.B. Yeats seem almost impersonal in comparison. Joyce’s relations with his father are of a much darker complexion, and his violence, drunkenness and general fecklessness are evoked in the diaries of Stanislaus Joyce. Tóibín then takes Joyce’s literary work and locates the father in them: not just Simon Dedalus in Ulysses, but more subtle evocations of him in Dubliners and Finnegans Wake. This last chapter on Joyce is the most literary-critical of the book, reflecting the fact that John Stanislaus Joyce achieved little in his life. As his son put it, “I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition.”

This book presents the lives of these fathers vividly, with many fascinating details: Wilde accompanying his father on archaeological trips around the west of Ireland, Yeats arguing philosophy by long-distance letter with his father, Joyce holding himself aloof, yet being irresistibly drawn to his. Tóibín is an excellent guide, grounding these lives in the bigger picture of a rapidly changing Ireland, and in the collective consciousness of its inhabitants.

Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk  You can find him on Twitter @spencro

Colm Tóibín, Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce (Viking, 2018) 978-0241354414, 186pp., hardback

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