Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W.B. Yeats
by Ann Saddlemyer
Oxford University Press, 808 pp., $35.00
Two vignettes. In the spring of 2002 Ann Saddlemyer is giving a lecture at the University of São Paulo on George Yeats and the influence that her gifts as a psychic and medium had on her husband’s poetry. While she is speaking, very loud noises are heard overhead, as if wooden crates are being tumbled violently across the floors in the rooms above us. Shortly afterward, the venetian blinds on the windows at the back of the room suddenly set up a furious rattling, although the day outside is calm and mild. On both occasions, Professor Saddlemyer, paying no heed, continues serenely with her lecture. Later, during questions, a member of the audience rises to say that in the circumstances she cannot let these eerie phenomena go unremarked. Saddlemyer, with the faint, rueful grimace of a long-suffering sorcerer’s assistant, merely shrugs and murmurs, “Oh, George….”
Second vignette. I return home from Brazil, and a copy of Becoming George arrives. As always when I first open a biography, I turn straightaway, with childish eagerness, to the photographs. Here is the young Georgie Hyde Lees, here various ancestors, here the house where she was born, the friends she loved, the man she married. And at the last, above a picture of her grave, is a snapshot taken in 1965 of a reunion in Dublin between the elderly George Yeats and Ezra Pound. Mrs. Yeats wears spectacles and a faintly absurd woolen hat. At once my mind races back, the years flickering like the pages of a calendar, to an afternoon in Dublin in the early 1960s.
At the time I was living in a flat in a decaying Georgian house in Dublin’s Upper Mount Street. The Yeatses’ middle-aged daughter, Anne, a painter, occupied the flat below mine; in physique, Anne Yeats was her mother built to her father’s scale, and had an enchanting smile. We would often meet on the stairs and stop to talk, usually about the dilapidated condition of the house and the perfidy of the property company that owned it. That day, the day that I had suddenly remembered, I was coming up the stairs and saw Anne Yeats about to enter her flat, accompanied by a diminutive, elderly lady. As I passed them by, and greeted Anne, I paid scant attention to the old woman, in her woolen hat and outsize spectacles. She, however, turned to me and—this is what I suddenly recalled, looking at that photograph—gave me a long, searching, cool, but not unfriendly stare.
In her São Paulo lecture, Ann Saddlemyer referred repeatedly to the peculiarly penetrating, compelling quality of George Yeats’s gaze, “those unforgettable dark hazel eyes,” something attested to by practically everyone who had been subjected to it. That day on the stairs, I did not realize that the person looking at me was Yeats’s widow, the famous Mrs. W.B., as she was universally known in the literary Dublin of the day. Nor did I …