Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know

A Book Review by Steve Carey

Colm Toibin: Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers oWilde, Yeats, and Joyce. Picador, 2018.

RRP: $29.99 [price at Readings]


Originating as the 2017 Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University, Tόibín’s little book is a meditation on three very different Dublin dads and their literary lads. At a nonthreatening 200 modest pages it makes a great little present for your own father – or son – though the near-translucent paper stock smacks of Scrooge, and the book badly wants illustration. Tόibín writes eloquently of John B. Yeats’ tender portrait of Rosa Butt, for example, yet we never get to see it. He begins the chapter on JBY with a lovely little story about the self-portrait he spent the last decade of his life working on, and we don’t get to see that, either. References would have come in handy, too, even if relegated to a website.

The Byronic title is more neat than convincing. Certainly Oscar Wilde’s father was dangerous to know if you happened to be his young patient Mary Travers, when things got out of (or into) hand resulting in a scandalous court case, including an allegation of rape after the administering of chloroform. She won a farthing – plus £2,000 in costs, about a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money. The trial has many echoes of Oscar’s own, not least the unwise decision of Lady Wilde to be flippant in the witness box. The Wildes seem not to have suffered at all beyond the financial cost. Oscar would pay a higher price.

James Joyce’s father is presumably the ‘bad’ dad of the trio. ‘We walk through ourselves,’ says Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s Ulysses in the Dublin’s National Library of Ireland, ‘meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves.’ He doesn’t mention his father, unless he’s subsumed in that ‘old men,’ and at the very end of a long day after much perambulation, when Bloom reports meeting Stephen’s ‘respected father’ and asks where he is living, Stephen answers ‘unconcernedly’ that he is living ‘somewhere in Dublin.’ Yet despite the omission and the unconvincing dismissal, the ghost of Stephen’s father ‘Simon’, blurring into Joyce’s substantial father ‘John’ haunts Joyce’s Ulysses and the rest of his fiction and indeed his life. (As Tόibín observes, it’s easy to confuse the two: when Joyce commissioned Patrick J. Tuohy to paint a portrait of the artist’s father as an old man, it was mistitled Simon Joyce.)

Despite not seeing him for the last two decades of his life, Joyce lamented his father’s death lavishly and it prompted his best poem, Ecce Puer: ‘O, father forsaken,/Forgive your son!’ And the old widower was indeed forsaken, not just by Joyce but by all his many children, living and dying alone in a rented room, with a copy of Exiles as company. As if he hadn’t suffered enough.

Joyce had more reason than his siblings to mourn his father, for he was the eldest surviving child – the son and heir, as The Smiths put it, of nothing in particular, his once wealthy father having drunk his inheritance. As such the young Joyce was treated as special, an estimation he took very much to heart. One could get all ‘Jung and easily Freudened as Finnegans Wake puns, speculating about the role this played in his own curious mixture of needy haughtiness, in his ability like some Victorian gentleman to run up debt and regard demands for repayment as impertinent and, above all, in his utter self-confidence which was, at least for the first two dozen or so years, completely untroubled by any evidence to justify itself. Still, is it still arrogance when you grow up to be a genius and really do show them all, just like you threatened?

Tόibín sees in Ulysses a transubstantiation of Joyce’s experience of his real father into art, in which the bloody awful John Joyce becomes the fondly memorialised Simon Dedaluscommon or garden daddy issues transformed into great art. Well, maybe. But as Mark Twain said (or is said to have said – on the internet, who can you trust?), ‘When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.’ Don’t all our fathers go through a similar transubstantiation as we grow up, without us having to go to the immense trouble of writing Ulysses? As William Goldman argues in The Season, ‘Examine any work of art down to its bone and you find cliché.’ Critics like to ‘reveal’ the father theme in Ulysses as if that’s the book’s ‘real,’ ‘underlying’ ‘message.’ If so, it’s a long way to go to fetch something so mundane. Indeed, that’s partly why Joyce works so hard to avoid Bloom and Stephen falling into each other’s arms with a tearstained recognition of the son Bloom lost and the father Stephen needs. ‘I love you dad/I love you too son’ is hardly Joyce’s style.

By contrast, Oscar’s father, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, is pretty much invisible in his son’s world – indeed, Bosie’s old man, the dreadful Marquess of Queesnberry, plays a far greater role, if mostly in the downfall rather than the works. Wilde in that sense was a self-made man who worshipped his creator in London, as his parents had largely invented their own selves back in Dublin. Tόibín finds uncanny parallels between the rape trial, well-known then but largely forgotten now, which one might have expected to ruin Sir William but which he survived apparently unscathed, and Wilde’s own public martyrdom. Wilde senior was extraordinarily industrious, something of which his son could never be accused, and made his reputation through immense labours on the Irish censuses. He made a virtue of hard work, just as his son made one of (illusory) indolence: father with sweat through revealing the hidden demographic truth within all that data, son with wit through twisting received wisdom inside out and revealing hypocrisy in conventional thinking.

Which, by process of elimination, unsatisfyingly leaves Yeats Senior as the candidate for the ‘mad’ epithet. WB’s old man, like Joyce’s, had a talent for creating a small fortune, with the same fly in the ointment of having started with a substantially bigger one. Having trained as a lawyer and married Jane, who must have assumed that she was marrying well, he discovered that really he was a painter. So he abandoned Jane and two young children and buggered off to London to enrol in the Heatherley School of Fine Art. When he complains of his wife’s talent for being dismal, it’s hard to take his side or take him seriously: ‘I don’t think she approved of a single one of my ideas or theories or opinions,’ he later wrote, cluelessly. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he proved spectacularly incapable of finishing work, or when he did, of doing so for people who actually had money or inclination to pay him. With those that did, he was careless – both Browning and Rosetti showed interest: he didn’t get back to them. He talked a good talk, of course, like so many Dubliners, and often enough expressed self-pitying remorse, but lacked Oscar’s gift for at least occasionally converting Lordship of Language into either art or ready money. One imagines him reading Dubliners, had he lived long enough, and recognising paralysis when he saw it…

In 1907, aged 68 and his career still stalled on the starting block in Dublin, John B. Yeats took a trip to New York, and discovered a whole new world in which not to finish his paintings or get paid. He spent the remainder of his life spongingobsessively painting a self-portrait, scraping off what he’d done, like Penelope weaving and unweaving a father (in law)’s shroud, and dying in 1922, the day after Joyce took delivery of the first copy of Ulysses. Joyce fled Ireland as a young man and found himself as an artist, turning exile into art through hard work (and the canny ability to find saintly patronesses); Yeats skipped out on his responsibilities as an old man, met only his failing self, and couldn’t quite complete the self-portrait.

In the meantime he became a long-distance acid-inked commentator and critic of his children, WB in particular, all of whom were too busy working and actually getting things done to pay him the attention he felt he deserved or the financial support he couldn’t provide for himself. He also conducted a long-distance epistolary affair with Rosa Butt (daughter of Isaac), his side of which has survived because she kept his letters despite their agreement to destroy them when one of them died. It’s a curious correspondence, full of an older man’s idea of sauciness (‘How nice you look, the big crinoline and the white drawers peeping underneath’) and, characteristically, all talk and very little action: all mouth and no trousers, as they say. Rosa may have resisted, of course, which may have been part of her charm – had she reciprocated he might have had to break the habit of a lifetime and actually do something. She was the ideal romantic target, alluring but fortunately out of reach.

As you’d expect with anything by Tόibín, who couldn’t write boring if he tried, Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know is a great read, whether or not you know the literary or the bricks-and-mortar Dublin. Yet I’m not sure it reveals anything profound about literary sons in particular or sonhood in general. And that’s because there is no general, certainly not between Wilde and Yeats and Joyce and their remarkably individual fathers. What they have in common, apart from Dublin and the fact of their fatherhood, is their striking individuality… and the literary fame of their sons. Without the latter we might well never have known the former.

Steve Carey

Steve is a Joycean and one of the key players in Bloomsday in Melbourne.