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OpenEdition Books

Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Warwick Gould

'Mastering What is most Abstract': A Forum on a Vision

Olivia Shakespear, Beauty’s Hour

Edited by Anne Margaret Daniel (Richmond, VA: Valancourt Books, 2016), pp. 89. Foreword, Introduction, and Notes by the Editor. ISBN 978-1-943910-40-3

Deirdre Toomey

Texte intégral

1‘Who ever had a like profile?–a profile from a Sicilian coin’is Yeats’s celebrated tribute to his first lover Olivia Shakespear, after looking at her image in the 1895 Literary Yearbook. That image is reproduced as the cover of this attractive volume from the enterprising Valancourt Press. Yeats was probably thinking of the ‘Arethusa coin’, one of the most beautiful of all Greek coins, from the period of rule of Dionysius I (397 BC-343 BC), which represents the profile of the naiad Arethusa, patron of Syracuse, with a horse and palm on the verso. The resemblance to the classical profile so admired by Yeats is striking, as are the elaborate masses of waving hair in a Greek knot.

2‘Beauty’s Hour’, scrupulously edited here by Anne Margaret Daniel, was written by 1894 and published in The Savoy in August and September 1896. It was Olivia Shakespear’s sole contribution to this journal which also published many of the poems which Yeats wrote to her during their affair of 1896. ‘Beauty’s Hour’is, as Anne Margaret Daniel points out in her introduction, a strange work to come from the pen of a very beautiful woman. The story turns on the plain face of the highly intelligent heroine Mary Gower which inhibits her hopeless for love for Gerald Harman. By a personal act of will she becomes briefly beautiful and experiences Gerald’s love in her new identity. The editor points to various models, for a plain heroine; both Jane Eyre and Marian Halcome in Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White are plain. Indeed, Marian’s quasi-masculine ugliness causes a crisis of sexual response in the hero. As Walter realises, despite her perfect body, ‘The Lady is ugly!’ He feels ‘a sensation close to that helpless discomfort familiar to all of us in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream’. Marian’s half-sister Laura is a conventional helpless fair beauty, but it is Marian who dominates the novel. To her indignation, the arch villain Baron Fosco falls deeply in love with her, and Walter Hartwright lives in a strange ménage-à-trois with Marian and her now mentally enfeebled half-sister, in which triangle Marian and he are, as it were, the parental couple, protecting Laura from Baron Fosco.

3Charlotte Bronte was defiant in making her heroine ‘little and marked’, which she did in a direct challenge to her sisters, whom she saw as ‘morally wrong’ in making their heroines beautiful as a matter of course, as was the norm in nineteenth-century fiction. Even Dorothea Brooke, although a bluestocking with scholarly aspirations, is given beauty far removed from that of her homely creator. In Villette, Bronte’s heroine is also plain and in Middlemarch, Eliot gives us an ordinary looking secondary heroine in Mary Garth. However, Elizabeth Gaskell in Wives and Daughters contrasts the conventionally beautiful Cynthia with Molly, whose darker beauty will last, when her blonde stepsister’s red and white complexion will coarsen.

4‘Beauty’s Hour’is a novella and it is unlikely that any writer no matter how skilled or sophisticated would have been able to extend such a narrative, given the challenge of a plain heroine. Wilkie Collins was writing a plot-driven sensation novel, so Marian’s ‘ugliness’ in The Woman in White is not as important as her intelligence and strength of character. Anne Margaret Daniel rightly compares Shakespear’s novella to The Picture of Dorian Gray which also has a supernatural element, which thus allows for an extended narrative which can chart the corruption of Dorian and the sinister preservation of his youth and beauty and in which art (the portrait of Dorian) finally triumphs.

5So we are left with a puzzle, why did Olivia Shakespear choose a plain heroine? In ‘Beauty’s Hour’ she refers to the Beauty of the second class, whose claims to beauty might be disputed. Shakespear may have thought herself to be in this category, as hers was a dark beauty in a period in which fair beauty was idealised. We know that Yeats began his eccentric courtship of Olivia Shakespear by telling her of his love for Maud Gonne, an approach he had already used with Eva Gore-Booth. We do not know whether at any stage in his courtship, he had shown her a photograph of Maud Gonne. However, according to John Masefield, Yeats had ‘a large photograph of a woman’—undoubtedly of Maud Gonne—on the wall of his rooms in Woburn Walk. This would have been a reminder to Olivia of her rival, who was exceptionally tall (Olivia was quite short) and who had red gold hair and a pale apple blossom skin rather than a skin ‘a little darker than a Greek’s’. Olivia Shakespear would have had leisure to examine this when she attended one of Yeats’s Mondays in Autumn 1896, when she also met Henry-D. Davray who had called ‘Beauty’s Hour’, ‘une... jolie fantasie’ in the Mercure de France in October 1896.

6In allowing us to reflect on this enigma, Valancourt Books and Anne Margaret Daniel have done us a service by republishing ‘Beauty’s Hour’. Like many of thst press’s rediscoveries it has a supernatural motif.

7I noticed one minor slip in the otherwise careful editing of this text. In her introduction Daniel quotes a telling passage from Lady Gregory’s Diary in which she describes her first visit in Winter 1897 to Woburn Buildings ‘, very small and draughty… I wish poor W cd be better waited on—his room had not been done up’. Lady Gregory is referring not to interior decor, as the editor reads it, but to his bed not having been made nor his bedroom cleaned by Mrs Old, his housekeeper, who had to travel from Islington and possibly did the housework later in the day. Mrs Old was evidently not expecting an afternoon call from Lady Gregory, ready to measure for curtains. Yeats later referred to Mrs Old as ‘no Angel’.

8Valancourt Books has also republished Henry Mercer’s November Night Tales an impressive quasi-supernatural series, positioned somewhere between Poe and M. R. James, which includes a fatal book story (‘The Wolf Book’) set in the Balkans, as well as Manfroné; or, The One-Handed Monk (1809), a novel which turns up as circulating library fare in Thackeray’s ‘A Shabby-Genteel Story’ and Sheridan le Fanu’s first novel, The Cock and Anchor with its hilarious account of two low-lives dressing for an evening at Dublin Castle. ‘Beauty’s Hour’is an impressive addition to this list, and one hopes that Valancourt will also consider republishing Olivia Shakespear’s Rupert Armstrong (1898), the novel which is closest to the milieu of W. B. Yeats.


Editor of Yeats and Women: Yeats Annual No. 9 (1991), revised and augmented as Yeats and Women (1997). She is co-editor of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume II, 1896–1900 (1997) and Mythologies (2005). She is working with Warwick Gould on a complete revision of A. Norman Jeffares’s A New Commentary on the Poems of Yeats and is Research Editor of Yeats Annual. Email: