Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Lady Gregory's Toothbrush

Colm Tóibín
Picador (Nov. 2003) 125 pages
ISBN: 0 330 41993

reviewed by Ann Skea

"The greatest living Irishwoman," said George Bernard Shaw of Lady Augusta Gregory after she had fought the bans and directed his play, The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet: A Sermon in Crude Melodrama, at the Abbey Theatre. Shaw's play, like Synge's Playboy of the Western World, was "deeply objectionable" to some but was also a huge success at the box-office. And it was another success for Augusta Gregory and W.B. Yeats in their fight against the censorship of Irish drama, and in their efforts to encourage Irish writing and establish Irish literature as a valuable part of the Irish culture.

The paradox of this was that at a time when militant Irish Nationalists were attacking the landowning gentry, Lady Gregory was both a nationalist (in her passionate love of Ireland and her literary work) and a landowner who spent a great deal of her time in England.

Colm Tóibín's biographical essay (which is based on letters and other writing of Lady Augusta Gregory held in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library) shows how Augusta Gregory juggled these two roles. It shows, too, what a determined, intelligent, generous and imaginative person she was.

As the youngest, least attractive and accomplished daughter of a strict, Protestant family, she had not been expected to marry. But at the age of twenty-seven, she accepted the proposal of Sir William Gregory, a widower, thirty-five years older than herself, who had been a parliamentarian and Governor of Ceylon and who was, at the time of their marriage, a trustee of the National Gallery in London. Coole Park was Sir William's Irish estate, but the Gregories spent only the summers there. It did, however, become the focus of Augusta's literary life and work.

From her writings, Colm Tóibín documents her collecting of Irish folk-tales, her growing confidence in her writing, her reinventing of herself through her love for Ireland, and the influence of her friendships with, in particular, William Scawen Blunt (who was her lover), John Quinn (an American who was also her "secret passion"), and William Butler Yeats. Her ambivalent feelings about some of the battles she and Yeats fought as founders and fellow directors of the Abbey Theatre also make interesting reading.

This is a slim book, but it offers an interesting and enjoyable picture of a remarkable woman and the important part she played in the revival of Irish literature.

And the toothbrush? Well, I'll let you discover that for yourself, but is was part of the paradoxical role Augusta Gregory played in creating a literary heritage for all, including those "cavity-riddled" Irish who most opposed her.


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