Emily Lawless

Born: 17 June 1845
Died: 19 October 1913
Last October there passed out from among us one of our few women-poets, Emily Lawless, Irishwoman first, and nil the rest afterwards. All the rest includes a great deal: a writer of novels and of romance, an historian, a naturalist, a lover of science, a bold thinker. And in each of these many parts Emily Lawless won distinction; in her poems, in her writing of Irish romances, of Hurrish and of Grania, something stronger and more likely to endure. If she was first an Irishwoman, it was not of the type usually accepted as representative, at least in England — the vague and mystical Celt, impetuous, unpractical, guided by forces outside reason. The mind of Emily Lawless was a concrete mind with a turn for affairs; with a man’s business outlook, large and lucid, not over-concerned with detail; still more with a gift for natural science, her ‘ruling passion’ from seven years old onwards, and for the methods of minute research. But under this fine and interesting terra firma there ran deeper than can plummet sound the unconscious currents of race — flashing here and there to the surface, when and how she herself knew not — persistent questionings of the unseen, gleams of intuition, a sudden brilliant vision of the past, a wild stirring of the blood, a passionate companionship with Irish earth and sea ; or — more rarely — tranquil pools of inspiration reflecting in their depths the things she brought from afar. Perhaps there are few people in whom the two strains of artist and of woman keep so distinctly alongside — seldom fusing, touching occasionally, yet without causing the conflict, the clash of emotions which has troubled so many creators. What disturbance she suffered from her gifts was nearly always intellectual, unless it were from the nervous stress of work. Her poetry flowed easily from her, was almost her pastime; and, until illness overtook her, the writing of her books gave her pleasure. This was the more remarkable because when she began her real career as a writer she was already forty-one, and had no spring of youth to help her. Emily Lawless was born in Ireland in 1845. Her father was the third Lord Cloncurry, her mother the beautiful Miss Kirwan of Galway. Her great-grandfather, the first peer, was the famous opponent of the Union, twice imprisoned in the Tower — a born hero of romance, but a good administrator, clear-headed and beneficent, who united in himself some of the gifts that distinguished his great-granddaughter. He is good to read of amidst his picturesque doings with Ministers and patriots, with O’Connell and the rest, as chronicled by his son in his Life and Letters. And it was from his day and through his conversion that his family embraced the Protestant faith. Emily Lawless spent the best parts of her childhood in the West of Ireland, in her mother’s home and country; and Castle Hackett and County Galway and the haunted hill of Cruchmaa and the islands of Aran made up her land of enchantment, the country which every child creates for itself, but which this child found ready to her hand. The haunted hill belonged to her own family, it was a treasury of fairy-lore; and the moody, ever-changing Atlantic, with its strange voices of calm and storm, its wheeling sea-birds, its huge swelling stretches, its dark hiding-places amidst the cliffs and caves, its sounds and gullies rich in silver mackerel — that Atlantic peculiarly her own — was no less a magic playground full of things she could never know, full also of strange things — sea-creatures — which she could know, and early learned to dredge for. Her mother must have made part of all the romance. She; was beautiful with a kind of arresting beauty which lay largely in the harmony of her features, but her charm was not confined to any form, it was conveyed by her whole person. Slender, frail, sparkling, grace itself, full of movement and sympathy, even in old age Lady Cloncurry made many lovers, and in her youth she carried all before her. She and her husband left their eight children full liberty — to the four girls no less than the four boys. As soon as she was past babyhood Emily was allowed the run of the far-stretching grounds by herself, now on foot, now on the back of her pony. Yet even at this moment, when all her best joys were open-air joys, she had one other taste which was prophetic — a dominating love of fine language. Big words had such a fascination for her that when she could not get out she spent hours curled up among the bookshelves in her father’s library, turning over heavy old volumes, Elizabethan plays and the like; getting off by heart long portions in which the sound of the words pleased her, and reciting them to whoever would listen. The meaning did not concern her, and the results were not altogether convenient. On one occasion, when she was eight years old, her father was giving a dinner to a party of sporting squires, jovial port-drinking gentlemen, and, proud of his little girl’s achievements, he told her as she sat at dessert to get up and repeat one of her ‘pieces.’ She obeyed. But unfortunately her last ‘piece’ was from an Elizabethan play — the speech of an outraged husband to a faithless wife — and it had attracted her because of the grand sound of a word which ended each line of the passage. It was a term of insult, the most improper in the English language. She loudly declaimed her blank verse, rolling off her favourite word with gusto to the great bewilderment of the squires, till her father, at first speechless, recovered his presence of mind and with a ‘Thank you, Emily; very nice, but that is enough,’ put an end to her performance. ‘Nine years old,’ she says, ‘has always seemed to me to be the really culminating moment, the true pinnacle of human ambition.’ When she was that blessed age she inscribed, in a handwriting of quite incredible shakiness and illegibility, the names of three snail-shells, two butterflies, and four moths — copied out of Lardner’s Cabinet Encyclopaedia, with spelling variations of her own — also of a limestone fossil, a piece of feldspar, a fragment of mica, a stone celt . . . and a piece of plum-pudding stone — set down as ‘Conglomerate.’ After which . . . she inscribed above the rest in a handwriting even more tottering . . . The Union of all the Sciences, by — her own name in full. Her ambition soon took a definite shape — the discovery of ‘some bird or quadruped “new to science,”‘ a modest aim by the side of which all schoolroom knowledge, more especially that of the frivolous arts, seemed a mere object of contempt. The new bird or quadruped was gradually transformed into a new butterfly or moth, and in quest of this moth it was that the ten-year-old entomologist had her great adventure. She herself, many years afterwards, recorded the terrors of it: how, mistaking the time, she stole out secretly at 3 a.m. instead of at daybreak, the official moth-pill-box in hand; and how in the course of her miserable search, chilled and bogy-haunted, she ‘struck gold’ in the guise of an hitherto unknown moth; how, still having two hours to wait till the house should open, she crept into a haystack, and how suddenly she found herself buried in it, unable to get out, half smothered and in very real peril, for no one would pass near till the morning; how when a workman did at last arrive and heard her scream, he took her for a ghost and fled away, and how she was at last, extricated and went home. It was not until hours after all this that, for the first time since the early morning, she suddenly remembered her capture, which was to make her name famous for ever. Springing from her bed, she ran quickly to where her jacket had been thrown, and plunged her hand with beating heart into its pocket. . . . In her many writhings and wrigglings the chip-box had long since resolved itself into a mere handful of broken chips, while the captive itself — the ‘Great Unknown’ — had resolved itself into a few pinches of vividly green dust at the very bottom of her pocket. This moth-hunt was the precursor of many less effective but maturer raids by lantern-light, under mossy tree-roots, in woods, in the open, wherever knowledge and instinct led her. And she soon extended her field. Those who accompanied her remember the excitement of sailing with her on dredging expeditions, whether among her own rock islands or in more distant waters, and tell how she always knew just where to stop the boat and find the creatures she sought — ‘creatures that I never knew were there,’ said a Riviera fisherman who once took her out on the Mediterranean. Her love of flowers dates no less from early days, especially of the rock-flowers of Clare and the islands of Aran — ‘gentian and saxifrage, pimpernel and eyebright.’ She loved the struggle of these lowly rock-plants with sea and wind, their laborious radiant victory, their faint scent that had to be pressed out of them, their reserve, their strength, their hidden lives known to so few — loved them as she loved the island people. Anything indeed, shell, flower or creature, belonging to the rocks, gave her a peculiar pleasure — and anything belonging to the sea. It was characteristic of her that it was so. She liked bareness and endurance better than fertility and ease. But she adored colour and movement, swift movement of wind or water, horse or petrel. To cleave the waves, swimming or sailing, to cleave the air on horseback— these were her great joys, greater than art or even poetry. Rather were they the same tiling, for to her they meant self-expression; to her ‘the poetry of earth was never dead’ — that poetry which she so often chose to articulate in terms of science. The strongest remembrance of her kept by an old friend of her youth was that of a girl with ‘tossing corn-coloured hair’ galloping about County Clare. Her physical life was at least as strong as her intellectual life, her taste for science as pronounced as her taste for poetry. There is little to tell about Miss Lawless’s youth. She had the grief of losing her father at fourteen; to her fascinating mother, like the rest of the family, she had a great devotion. Later, two of her sisters died while still in their prime, and, worst grief of all, she lost her younger brother, Denis, her closest companion, who shared so many of her gifts as well as of her tastes, and who was cut off by a cruel illness in the fulness of his brilliant powers. Not long before her mother had passed away — the mother who had been the astonished adorer of her daughter’s gifts — who had always seemed to that daughter younger than herself. But these sorrows were scattered over many years. Meanwhile she lived out her youth: she went out into the world, loving good talk, we may be sure, more than dancing, but never so happy as when she got back to her native land of Clare and her rock-strewn Burren. Or else it was to the Cloncurrys’ place at Lyons and, later, to Maretimo near Dublin, where her mother made her home, where her second brother, Frederic, now lives. She matured early, she read much, spending hours over books — over history, fiction, science, poetry ; yet, except for a few stray articles concerning natural history, she printed nothing before middle-age. Her first story, A Chelsea Cousin, which appeared anonymously in 1882, met with no success. And it was not till four years later that she published her earliest Irish novel, encouraged by her meeting and quickly ripening intimacy with Mrs. Oliphant, that racy and fertile story-teller, that truest and tenderest of friends and critics. Hurrish was a story of the peasants of Galway. It came out in 1886, a momentous year for Ireland and one that doubtless helped the reputation which the book would in any case have had. Big politicians and the ordinary public were alike preoccupied with the Irish, wishing to know more of them, sensitive to the dramatic contrasts their country presents. Hurrish had an instantaneous effect. Distinguished people of all sorts, those concerned with affairs and those concerned with letters, hailed her as a new light in the literary heaven. She found herself famous. But its success was exceeded by that of her second Irish novel, Grania, a tale of the isles of Aran, which appeared in 1892, when her name as a representative of Ireland had been made not only by Hurrish but by her Essex in Ireland (1890) and her Ireland (‘Story of the Nations’ Series, 1S87); when, also, the curiosity of England about Ireland had increased. Perhaps no woman ever had a quicker or more flattering welcome from great statesmen as well as from fellow-artists. Public men wrote to thank her for enlightenment as well as for pleasure; Gladstone was enchanted; Morley compared her writing to that of George Sand; Meredith, Lecky, Lord Bowen and a host of others, great and small, acclaimed her in letters and in talk. But the greatest laurel conferred upon the book was from the hand of Swinburne. The story of the island-folk, primitive, mystic, pagan — unconscious endurers, part of Nature and her storms and struggles — knowing no tongue but the Irish — went straight to the poet’s imagination, and his letter is not only a tribute, it is an emblem of the way that a book could act upon him. It was not to Grania but to Essex in Ireland that Miss Lawless owed another illustrious acquaintance, that with Mr. Gladstone. This record of Essex’s Irish experience, purporting to be written by one of his followers, was taken by Gladstone to be authentic ; he wrote in excitement at the discovery, and was, perhaps, still more excited at the further discovery of his error. Not long after this, he fulfilled his desire of seeing Miss Lawless. She was staying at Cannes, in a hotel, and happened to be resting on her bed, in her dressing-gown with no shoes on her feet, when she heard a man’s footstep and a knock at her bedroom door. Thinking it was the waiter who always brought her her post and her tea, she took no notice till a deep voice said : ‘May I come in?’ and, turning round hastily, she saw the face of Mr. Gladstone peering round the door. She leaped to her feet, hid the deficiencies in her dress as best she could — a needless precaution, for he never noticed them — and sat down near him to enjoy two hours of his rich, unbroken, mid-stream conversation — for, after he had explained that he was staying with Lord Rendel near by, he wasted no more time in non-essentials. Tour de force though Essex in Ireland is, it required, perhaps, a man of Gladstone’s Homeric naivete and immense power of belief to take it for a contemporary document; its very correctness and regularity would have aroused suspicion in minds more critical and more conversant with the luxuriant waywardness of Elizabethan English. But a wonderful piece of work it remains — ‘the only one of my books that gives me any personal satisfaction,’ she says, ‘partly because I am able to imagine it is not by me.’ And there was another reason. ‘The true hero, or rather heroine,’ she writes elsewhere, ‘is the wretched country itself, groaning under its troubles, yet with that curious fascination which we all feel, though we can hardly tell where it lies.’ Gladstone’s visit Miss Lawless always counted as among the epochs in her existence. Fame brought her, indeed, a full harvest of praise — from Archbishop Manning and from Aubrey de Vere, among others, from women as well as men; new friendships also, especially those with Lecky, the historian, and Sir Alfred Lyall, the intercourse with whom remained as central interests in her life. To both of these she was an intellectual comrade; with both she discussed public matters — Ireland and its history with Lecky, India with Sir Alfred, poetry with both, especially with the writer of Theology in Extremis. Sir Alfred and Emily Lawless were equal in their admiration of one another’s verse. And Lord Dufferin was another of the fervid correspondents evoked by her books, and remained as a warm, supporting friend to cheer her with his sympathy. Friends, indeed, Miss Lawless never lacked, new or old. And among the oldest of these was one who materially influenced her practical life and thought — her cousin, Sir Horace Plunkett, with whose noble schemes for the agricultural and industrial development of Ireland she identified herself. Her pen was ever at the service of The Homestead, the organ of Sir Horace Plunkett’s Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, where several of her poems appeared; and for its leading contributor — its most eloquent voice — ‘A. E.’ (George Russell) — she had an unbounded admiration. The women’s branch of the movement, started within more recent years, had also her warm effectual sympathy. Like Sir Horace Plunkett, Miss Lawless was Irish first and political afterwards. She was a Unionist ; she would have liked to be able to be a Home Ruler, but she did not regard her countrymen as ripe for self-government. None the less for that did she love her land with a love that was in her bones and being, and she longed to work for Ireland. It was not only in public matters that Sir Horace Plunkett affected his cousin’s mind. They kept up a constant correspondence, and, perhaps more than any one, he lent her the intellectual stimulus and companionship on which, as her health grew weaker, she increasingly depended. In 1911 she was working at a new edition of Ireland and brooding over her last story, Castlebar, the completion of which had finally to be left to another. Before she began Castlebar, which, finished by Mr. Shan Bullock, can hardly count as hers, she had given us many other volumes. Two years after Grania there appeared her third Irish romance, Maelcho, inferior to its predecessors, both as to matter and success. It had no effect with the public. But she had meanwhile written various tales which had met with a warm reception. Hitherto we have spoken of her Irish stories. But there were others. As early as 1887 Major Lawrence, F.L.S., had first seen the light in Murray’s Magazine, and it was printed later as a separate volume. It is a delightful study of a delightful man — a soldier and a naturalist, whose love of moths and sea-creatures is only once forgotten for the love of a woman, the heroine of the history. It was followed two years after by Plain Frances Mowbray, and other Stories, and by her own favourite Traits and Confidences, which carries us again to Ireland — a collection of tales and studies, chief among them ‘ The Adventures of an Entomologist,’ already quoted. The Garden Diary (1901) is what it sets out to be, and something more. The prose of The Book of Gilly recalls Emily Lawless’s poetry. And when we come to her poetry we come to that part of her which will endure. ‘With Hurrish and with Grania’ we might add, but they almost make part of her poetry. In 1902 came out The Wild Geese, with a preface by Stopford Brooke; in 1909, The Point of View (printed privately for the benefit of the Galway fishermen); and, a month ago, her last volume, The Inalienable Heritage — privately printed also — which she was still revising when she died. It must not be supposed that the life of Emily Lawless was all endurance. Even in the last eighteen months, a time of incessant suffering, she had unexpected rallies and delightful hours of distraction. Before that, she enjoyed some leisurely spaces without pain. Nothing gave her more pleasure than the recognition which she received from Ireland when, in 1905, the University of Dublin conferred upon her the honorary degree of Litt.D., and she went in person to accept it. Her life, until 1911, was spent between England and her own land, to which she paid a long yearly visit. While her mother lived, their family plans and Emily’s health compelled them to lead a nomadic life, now in hired houses in Windsor or Wimbledon or Surrey, now in hotels abroad, where Miss Lawless was obliged to winter. But after Lady Cloncurry died these conditions came to an end, and Emily at last experienced the joy of a settled home. With her devoted friend, Lady Sarah Spencer, she settled at Hazelhatch, at Gomshall, Surrey, a charming house which they built after their own desires. And here she could indulge in the two pursuits that pleased her most — that of gardening and that of friendship. The gardening was no mere pastime. She was not only a born landscape gardener, but she worked like one. Even when she was ill, she spent hours standing or on her knees, planting, pruning, weeding, carrying out clearances in shrubberies — on better days inventing little water-works. The labour, however hard, soothed her nerves. Who that knew her cannot see her stooping absorbed, as she handled some delicate plant with her strong, capable, maternal touch? Her plants were really like her children, each with its separate character and destiny which it was her darling work to study. Her talk was habitually matter-of-fact and literal; it hardly ever betrayed the poet. She spoke best either about public affairs or else upon speculative problems. She was not brilliant, but she was sound — with distinction; sometimes weighty — as in her pronouncement upon the vexed question of Women’s Suffrage, and of what she calls the ‘wrong and unworthy anti-woman campaign’: When one knows how cruelly hard the lives of women workers are, and how vast the numbers that are driven to daily work outside their hours (over five millions, larger than the whole population of Ireland, or Scotland, or Australia!), when she knows too how terrible a gulf of temptation yawns for the younger ones if they find the effort to live by their work too hard, it makes me most indignant that anyone should want to perpetuate all the barriers that have come down from a cruel old past. I have no sympathy with Suffragette methods, I need hardly say, and have personally no wish for a vote, but the helplessness of great bodies of women-workers even against admitted wrongs, simply because there is no one whose interest it is to speak for them, is too plain a fact for any fair-minded person, man or woman, to deny. She was a warm admirer of her friends. And what a list of friends she had, English and Irish; old friends, like Sir Henry and Lady Blake, who travelled with her about the isles of Aran when she was preparing for Grania, and who corresponded with her from all parts of the world; Lady Blake’s sister, the Duchess of St. Albans; or Lady de Vesci and Mrs. Studd, the true and tried companions of so many years; or women writers of mark among whom two became her intimates— Mrs. Humphry Ward and Mrs. Fuller-Maitland, the author of Bethia Hardacre’s Daybook, Miss Lawless’s favourite bedside volume; or country neighbours, like Mrs. Litchfield, and Miss Byers, and Miss Flora Russell, who lent her their constant companionship; or her mother’s friends, such as Lady Ritchie, the daughter of her admired Thackeray; or younger people, like her niece, Mrs. Goschen, and Miss Venetia Cooper, who gave her an untiring devotion ! Their sheltering care was hers to the end, and it helped her. Nature also, whom she had so loved, did not lose the power to console. Emily Lawless was that rare being, a religious Stoic. Still rarer is it that the Stoic is an artist, yet all these contrasts she combined. She was not unlike those plants she loved so well. Her bloom was born of rocks, and nourished by struggle and tempest. Her roots were deep and strong, and she could only live within earshot of the infinite sea. Her spirit loved solitude. It also loved sunlight. And if its colour and its scent did not strike the ordinary passer-by, they were there for those who chose to stoop close to her. The fragrance was crushed out of her, but it endured.

All books by Emily Lawless