Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce by Colm Tóibin

Picadoe (October 2018) ISBN:978 1 76078 114 9, A$29.99 (hard back), 215 pages.

Review ©Ann Skea 2018

Dublin then, was poor, down at heel, in the years when Oscar Wilde’s father and W.B. Yeats’s father and James Joyce’s father lived in the city”.

Many people walk the literary trails around Dublin but most are tourists and few of them will, like Tóibin, have had a bank account in Westland Row, the street where Oscar Wilde was born and where James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom once visited the Post Office using a false name. Many might know of W.B. Yeats’s connection with the National Library and, perhaps, have been reminded of his Stephen Dedalus and the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But few would have sat there, as Tóibin did in 1974, and heard the bomb go off in South Leinster Street. And only Tóibin can have speculated on placing a plaque on the home of Samuel Beckett’s father reading “This is where Samuel Beckett did nothing much”.

In his ‘Introduction’, Tóibin takes us on his own literary tour of Dublin through which we meet not only the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B.Yeats and James Joyce, but also many other well-know writers - Gerard Manly Hopkins, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Kinsella, David Dickson, Eavan Boland - to name just a few. This is Tóibin’s Dublin, full of characters from the past and characters from the books and plays of those who helped re–create Dublin as a city steeped in the arts. It is also a small place where prominent families knew each other.

Curiously, Tóibin’s opening chapter about the father of Oscar Wilde is written round his own reading of De Profundis which was broadcast from the Reading Jail cell in which Oscar wrote it. In this text, he finds not only Oscar’s response to his life and to his difficult relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas and with his own father, but also issues of class and status which reflect his parents’ lives.

Sir William and Lady Jane Wilde were clearly intelligent, literate, imaginative, well–connected and decidedly odd individuals. Sir William, an eminent Victorian ophthalmologist and statistician was respected in the small circle of prominent Dubliners, but his lack of personal hygiene was notorious. His wife, the well-known poet ‘Speranza’, was known for the extravagant nature of her entertainments and for her often bizarre way of dressing and behaving. Their eldest son, Oscar, Tóibin writes “merged the talents he had taken from his parents with their sense of nobility and their feeling that they could do what they liked”.

Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, was odd in a different way. As an artist (the profession he chose to follow to the detriment of his family) he appears to have had an inability, or unwillingness, to finish any of his paintings. He was educated, witty and popular but he regularly abandoned his family to pursue his career and he was constantly in debt. Tóibin begins this chapter with a seemingly irrelevant discussion of ‘gaze’ but then narrows it down to the gaze of John Butler Yeats directed on him from a life–size copy of John’s self–portrait, a work which John began in 1911 and which was still unfinished when he died in 1922.

In this chapter Tóibin compares John Butler Yeats with the Dublin–based father of Henry James. He also spends a considerable amount of time charting the amorous long–distance romance–by–mail which John conducted with Rosa Butt, the unmarried daughter of his old friend and prominent Dublin lawyer, Isaac Butt. Tóibin , briefly, finds traces of the father in the poems of his son, William Butler Yeats, but concludes that his influence was mainly to make William keep his distance and determine not to be like his father.

James Joyce similarly distanced himself from his father, James Stanislaus Joyce, but his relationship with him appears to have been complex. Tóibin writes that he “sought to recreate his father, reimagine him, fully evoke him, live in his world, while at the same time making sure … he did not see him much”. This chapter relies on the published diaries and book of James Joyce’s younger brother (another Stanislaus) for a picture of the father but it and deals more closely with the changing and evolving image of the father in James Joyce’s work.

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is classed by the publishers as a Literary Essay. Versions of its three chapters were first presented at the Richard Ellmann Lectures at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017, which perhaps explains c unusual approach to the lives of each man. The images of the three men which are included in the book are also curious, mainly because the very unusual painting of James Joyce’s father, by Patrick Tuohy, shows a man seated rather apprehensively, with a strangely penetrating but baffled gaze which would have perfectly illustrated Tóibin’s discussion of the painted gaze of John Butler Yeats. The photograph of John Butler Yeats, on the other hand, shows a mature, serious, white bearded man, wearing a dark suit and wide–brimmed hat and looking rather appraisingly at the viewer. Of all the images, that of Oscar Wilde’s father seems most like his description in the book. It is clearly meant to present a successful man of some importance: he is probably in his thirties; he gazes off to one side with a slightly bored, sardonic expression as he leans back with his arm casually draped over the back of his chair; and he is wearing what looks like a silk waistcoat under his fashionable jacket and has his dark cravat tied in a careful bow.

To get the most from the book, and to enjoy some of Tóibin’s references to people, poems and plays, it helps to know the work of the famous and creative sons. But whether we need to know much about the lives, loves, talents, successes, failings and eccentricities of the fathers is debatable. Nevertheless, there is much of general interest in this book. And Tóibin, as always, tells his stories fluently and well.

© Ann Skea 2018. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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