The University of Wisconsin Press

Irish Literature / Drama / Biography


Lady Gregory's Toothbrush
Colm Tóibín

A sharp, concentrated, witty, and much-needed reassessment of a major cultural figure who has often been badly misunderstood.

In this remarkable biographical essay, Colm Tóibín examines the contradictions that defined Lady Gregory, an essential figure in Irish cultural history. She was the wife of a landlord and member of Parliament who had been personally responsible for introducing measures that compounded the misery of the Irish peasantry during the Great Famine. Yet, Lady Gregory devoted much of her creative energy to idealizing that same peasantry, while never abandoning the aristocratic hauteur, the social connections, or the great house that her birth and marriage had bequeathed to her.

Lady Gregory's capacity to occupy mutually contradictory positions was essential to her heroic work as a founder and director of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin—nurturing Synge and O'Casey, her battles with rioters and censors, and to her central role in the career of W. B. Yeats. She was Yeats's artistic collaborator (writing most of Cathleen Ní Houlihan, for example), his helpmate, and his diplomatic wing. Tóibín's account of Yeats's attempts—by turns glorious and graceless—to memorialize Lady Gregory's son Robert when he was killed in the First World War, and of Lady Gregory's pain at her loss and at the poet's appropriation of it, is a moving tour de force of literary history.

Tóibín also reveals a side of Lady Gregory that is at odds with the received image of a chilly dowager. Early in her marriage to Sir William Gregory, she had an affair with the poet and anti-imperialist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and wrote a series of torrid love sonnets that Blunt published under his own name. Much later in life, as she neared her sixtieth birthday, she fell in love with the great patron of the arts John Quinn, who was eighteen years her junior.

"It is the old battle, between those who use a toothbrush and those who don't."—Lady Augusta Gregory writing to W.B. Yeats, referring to the riots at the Abbey Theatre over Synge's The Playboy of the Western World

Colm Tóibín's novel, The Blackwater Lightship, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His books include the novels The South, The Heather Blazing, and The Story of the Night, and the essay collection Love in a Dark Time.

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August 2002
128 pp.    5 1/2 x 8 1/2
3 b/w photos, 3 illus.

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