While a Fellow at the New York Public Library, author Colm Toibin delved into the papers of Lady Gregory held in the Berg Collection and published this thoroughly entertaining biographical sketch in 2002. It may be a short read, but it reassess the literary contributions of Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin while also having a bit of fun with the mystique of W. B. Yeats’ role in Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival.
Augusta, Lady Gregory’s founding of the Abbey Theatre and her encouragement of Irish playwrights is well known. Her writing, especially her contributions to plays attributed solely to W. B. Yeats, is less known. Although Yeats gave Lady Gregory some public credit for this collaboration, he “never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” which bothered her.
Yet Lady Gregory also let Yeats take the lion’s share of credit for stage management of that production, even though he led just a single dress rehearsal when press were present. In their collaboration on the cycle of Irish legend-plays, Lady Gregory had the better ear for dialogue. She drew on a lifetime of conversations with farmers, trades workers and servants.
Cultural nationalism can’t be the product of one or two persons, no matter how well intentioned or talented. Myriad influences contribute to bonding a culture to a nation or a political stream. Irish authorities thought the plays based on Celtic myths would incite the nationalists to bolder action. Against the advice of cooler conformist advisors such as G. B. Shaw, Yeats and Lady Gregory forged ahead with the Abbey productions. As Toibin explained in an essay for the New York Review of Books (v. 48, n. 13, Aug. 9, 2001, p. 40) written while he was working on this book, the enduring legacy of the Abbey Theater was the nurturing of fresh voices and producing mythic dramas rather than staging political plays that incited hot heads to riot and ruin.
Lady Gregory sustained creative friendships with many writers during her eighty years. The narrative is spiced with anecdotes about the curious habits and behaviors of several icons of 20th century literature culled from Lady Gregory’s letters and diaries. Toibin’s irreverent scholarship sheds light on W.B. Yeats’ inflated sense of self and Lady Gregory’s efforts to edit her public image in order to maintain ties to the Irish aristocracy while supporting revolutionary nationalists.
Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Toibin
University of Wisconsin Press, 125 pages, ISBN: 029918000X
This review by L. Peat O’Neil appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.
Here’s a book I thoroughly enjoyed — a terrific read, a thrilling trip, adventurous women — what more could one want! For this life-long voyager, it offered an historical version of my own round-the-world trips. You don’t have to be a traveler to get a kick out of reading about two enterprising women journalists and their historic global circumnavigation in opposite directions.
Eighty Days takes its title fromJules Verne‘s serialized novelAround the World in Eighty Days, published in book form in 1873.
Eighty Days opens in mid November, 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly is waving farewell to chilly, wet New York City from the deck of the steamship Augusta Victoria. The book tracks her biggest story — a solo global circuit and intrepid race against time — eastward across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe and Asia. The author introduces us to Nellie Bly’s character and achievements as a pioneering investigative reporter adept at “stunt journalism“. She posed as a factory worker. She exposed baby-selling scams. She got herself locked up in an asylum for the insane for nearly two weeks by acting bizarrely so she would be incarcerated as mentally disturbed. Her reports sparked a grand jury investigation of public hospitals for women where conditions were unsanitary and cruel.
Nellie Bly was not a novice traveler. She had lived in Mexico with her mother for company, writing articles about bullfights, coffin manufacturers, political graft and cultural oddities. Proof of her travel saavy was the single small handbag she carried as luggage, now displayed in the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Meanwhile, a competing publication sweet-talked another woman to race around the globe in the other direction, westward across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, committing her to return to New York City before Bly. Elizabeth Bisland, a gently-bred Louisianan, was an accomplished literary essayist and poet, 28 years old in 1889 when the around her world trip began a few hours after Nellie Bly sailed away.
During her years as a magazine essayist and community group leader in New Orleans she had forged a life-long friendship with the acclaimed author Lafcadio Hearn, but she hadn’t traveled beyond the southern and eastern states. In New York City, Bisland was a serious professional writer, stylish and well-dressed, the toast of the New York literary scene of the day. Photographs in the book show a pristine beauty. She traveled with several trunks filled with clothes and accessories for the climate changes anticipated during nearly three months at sea and on the road.
Matthew Goodman does a brilliant job of explaining the travel infrastructure of the 1890s — grand hotels, steamships, comfortable railway carriages in the USA and the rudimentary, poorly heated rail cars in Europe and beyond. The British Empire made such a journey possible with its tightly scheduled steamships moving mail, people and supplies to the colonies with refueling stops strung around the world. At that time, the sun never set on the British empire.
As any true traveler knows, the people in a place show the real story. Goodman explores the city streets, ports, lodgings, restaurants and markets, writing historically accurate scenes of faraway places. Prejudice, injustice and the downtrodden lives of the world’s workers are exposed. Too many travel narratives shy away from tough realities, presenting a distorted rosy view of places tourists pass through insulated by money and tour guides. At sea, headed for China, Bisland writes about the human cargo of Chinese railroad workers forced out of the USA some of them ill and half-dead. Bly made a point of going ashore whenever possible to poke around street markets, ride in human-powered pedicabs or watch port operations and refueling.
Thanks to the British Empire, English was spoken just about everywhere the women put ashore as well as at the telegraph stations . Logistics were complicated to arrange without telephones, mobile phones or online travel sites. For me, an attractive feature of the book is following their route on the maps, noting transport connections and wondering if any of those elegant old hotels remain. I’ve had the pleasure of staying in one or two very vintage hotels in Asia, but renovations might be overly elaborate and erase historical character.
Still, their journeys were not luxury tours hopping from one British outpost to another. Annoyances ranged from extreme temperatures, weather delays, dramatic storms at sea, fickle health, loneliness, intruding gawkers and local reporters in search of a story. Nellie reinforced her pre-existing negative opinion of the snobby Brits and Elizabeth learned that she liked to travel, despite a tipsy stomach.
Elizabeth Bisland and Nellie Bly used telegraph messages to communicate their progress which the newspapers used to pump reader interest and increase circulation. One paper ran a contest with a free trip for the winner who could guess Bly’s completion date. It was a neck-to-neck race in opposite directions and I won’t spoil the suspense unfolding during their around-the-world journeys by spilling the beans about the final days and the unusual trajectory of their lives afterwards.
Eighty Days was released in paperback on March 11, 2014. It’s a great book for book club discussion groups too. Read my interview with Matthew Goodman at AdventureTravelWriter.org
ISBN: 978-0-345-52727 eBook: 978-0-804-17644-6
Paperback edition, 2014. $16.00
Includes: Index, Bibliography, Photographs, Maps and a guide for reading groups
Some readers may remember the 1956 Technicolor film with David Niven in the title role and a legacy of five Academy Awards. The film Around the World in Eighty Days wasproduced by Elizabeth Taylor’s beloved husband Mike Todd, who died in an aircraft accident 18 months later.
For years, I held on to the uncorrected proofs of the book Life and Death of Eva Peron which was published in 1979. (see photograph at left). I don’t remember how I acquired the uncorrected proofs, probably at one of the many book sales I go to and comb through piles of oddities from reviewers, publishers and disappointed readers. Recently I donated the book to the friends of the local library, so they can use it in a forthcoming book sale. And so the book will make the circuit of used book stores and sales, much like Eva’s corpse has traveled.
I wonder if anyone born after 1995 knows who Evita was? The broadway musical Evita! might help her live on, similar to the way Jesus Christ Superstar helps Jesus.