Review | Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Colm Tóibín


Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, Colm Tóibín, Viking, 2018, pp.192, £14.99

Strolling through the Dublin where he once studied, Tóibín muses on the city’s remarkable literary history: ‘The domed Reading Room has not changed since the time of Yeats and Joyce. It has the same light and layout, the same noises, perhaps even some of the same people, or maybe they just look similar. And the same sounds: whispered consultations with the librarians; chairs being pushed back; the seagull cries on the out-coughing; and then a sudden pounding silence as heads are bowed low in the holy sacrament of reading…’ In his eyes, Dublin remains as it ever was: a hub of frenzied creativity with a sacred value bestowed on literature. The exciting and experimental works still coming out of Ireland today reflects this tradition inherited from Ireland’s cultural and literary heroes. Yet whilst he devotes some time exploring the important legacy these men left behind, Tóibín’s new book is principally invested in the significance of their fathers, who led lives no less fascinating. Largely unfamiliar to the public, Tóibín probes deep into the lives of these unusual father figures, and emerges with vivid portraits of these men who had such influence on their famous sons.

The first chapter examines the father of Oscar, William Robert Wilde, ‘a figure whose life has a considerable number of similarities with that of his son’. An immensely intelligent man, William Wilde’s accolades were multidisciplinary, ranging from influential writings on Irish folklore to founding the first Eye and Ear Hospital in Dublin. The similarities which he shares with his son, however, originate in his unashamed public persona and in his apparent disdain for the Victorian rules of sexual morality. Tóibín discusses the strangeness of William Wilde’s amiable relationship with his illegitimate son: a practice very unusual during the period. Most memorably, however, Tóibín presents the reader with convincing evidence that bears a striking resemblance to the infamous Queensberry trial that destroyed Oscar’s social reputation during the late Victorian period. His father underwent a gruelling trial of his own involving an accusation of sexual misconduct by one of his patients, Mary Travers, and the resultant elevation in public gossip ‘shook society in Dublin like a thunderclap…’, much as London society was shaken by his son’s trial. Such revelations enhance our perceptions of Oscar Wilde and perhaps go some way to explaining his disposition. With Tóibín’s often emotive identification with the playwright, these disclosures become more powerful and compelling.

The book moves smoothly on to John Butler Yeats, a technically gifted artist even in his last days at the age of 82. His son William would say of him, days after his passing: ‘He has died as the Antarctic explorers died, in the midst of his work and the middle of his thought, convinced that he was about to paint as never before.’ The last decade of his life was spent continually on his self-portrait, and Tóibín begins the chapter with his own personal interaction with this painting, accidentally discovered at a friend’s house. Just as with Wilde, Tóibín’s research is intimately and respectfully conducted, procuring valuable insights from his letters which again make the reader reassess perceptions of his famous son William. The author’s interest in the man resides in the correspondence of his later years: in his move to New York and the renewed lease of life he found there. A series of love-letters to an old friend Rosa Butts remain of chief interest. Both had agreed to write with ‘totality and frankness and then each burn the other’s letters as soon as they had been read’ but whilst Yeats kept his side of the bargain, Rosa did not. The 200 deeply impassioned letters that remain are striking for their defiance in the face of old age but are also reminiscent of his son’s life-long infatuation with the staunch nationalist Maud Gonne, who is famously immortalised in William’s poetry.

However, Tóibín’s triumph is the final chapter on the father of James, John Stanislaus Joyce; to him, their relationship is the most intriguing of all. As he says, ‘In his work, James Joyce sought to recreate his father, reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world, while at the same time making sure that, from the age of twenty-two, with the exception of a few short visits to Dublin, he did not see him much.’ His father’s popularity in Dublin was huge, frequenting most of its bars and performing with his fine tenor voice, which was also gifted to James. Joyce’s permanent departure from Dublin in 1904 was in part an exile from his father, whose drunkenness and debauchery caused havoc to his family. Tóibín’s inclusion of several diary entries from James’ brother Stanislaus alerts the reader to his abhorrent nature and abusive tendencies. One disturbing entry in which his father made ‘a vague attempt to strangle his wife’ is particularly perplexing. Tóibín maintains that: ‘It would be easy to consign John Stanislaus Joyce to the position of one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in recorded history.’ However, because James Joyce doesn’t condemn him in this way, nor does Tóibín, and instead recognises the father’s crucial importance to his son’s life and works. James Joyce would later tell a friend of the significance of his father: ‘I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him… I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition.’ Tóibín, whilst acknowledging his indefensible failings as a father and a husband, writes in the same respectful spirit.

‘In this world of sons, fathers become ghosts and shadows and fictions. They live in memories and letters, becoming more complex, fulfilling their sons’ needs as artists, standing out of the way.’ In his book Tóibín refocuses the spotlight from the sons and sheds light on their origins through the lives of their fathers. This is not necessarily a book of new material. Its contents can be found elsewhere in various sources. Yet the innovation and quality in Tóibín’s presentation would be difficult to match. It is thoroughly researched, accessible, and is infused with anecdotes of his own personal experience, allowing for a comprehensive albeit leisurely read.

Words by Ronan Gerrard.

For more on Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, visit Penguin.

To discover more content exclusive to our print and app editions, subscribe to The London Magazine today from just £17.