Colm Toibin on Lady Gregory

Colm Toibin on Lady Gregory

Someone once asked a famous writer why he had written such a long book. “Because”, he replied, “I was not clever enough to write a short one”. This is often attributed to George Bernard Shaw, but I’m not sure about its provenence.*

It came to mind a lot this weekend, though, because I’ve read Colm Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, a gem of a biographical essay on WB Yeats’s friend and collaborator, Lady Augusta Gregory.

It’s a beautiful little (125-page) book, packed full of effortless insight, and fascinating for anyone who (like me) is interested in Yeats. I particularly liked this quote from Yeats about a dispute between English colonial censors and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin (which he and Gregory founded):

“The root of the whole difference between us and England in such matters is that though there might be some truth in the old charge that we are not truthful to one another here in Ireland, we are certainly always true to ourselves. In England, they have learned from commerce to be truthful to one another, but they are great liars when alone”.

Also lots of hilarious quotes from Lady Gregory’s correspondence. On a visit to Washington, for example, she met President Taft. “When I was standing near him talking”, she reported to Yeats, “something soft and pillowy touched me, it was his tummy, which is the size of Sancho Panza’s”.

Speaking of which, I am reminded of a story about Lord Castlerosse, an Irish earl who was a famously indolent gossip correspondent and voluptuary in the 1930s, and who was likewise endowed with a magnificent paunch.

One day he ran into Nancy Cunard in the street and she remonstrated with him about the size of his tummy. “Really, Valentine”, she said, “can you imagine something like that (pointing to his paunch) on a woman”. “My dear”, he responded calmly, “half an hour ago it was”.

*Thanks to Veronica Yuill, who emailed to say that the real source is probably a line in a letter of Blaise Pascal’s: “Je n’ai fait cette lettre-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte” : (roughly) “I’m sorry this letter is so long — I didn’t have time to write a shorter one.” What a wonderful thing it is to have erudite readers.