Maud Nic Ghoinn Bean Mac Giolla Bhríghde (Maud Gonne McBride) and William Butler Yeats live again as complicated people in Ross’s account of their intertwined lives. They live as people, as opposed to their shibboleths: the wild suffragette and the eccentric poet, respectively.
Rose Cross observes the dichotomy: “The living, breathing woman and man, what he called “the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast,” and the creations they made to feed the newspapers and stalk the history books.”
“Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days! Come near me, while I sing the ancient ways… …Come near, that no more blinded by man’s fate, I find under the boughs of love and hate, In all poor foolish things that live a day, Eternal beauty wandering on her way.” (To the Rose upon the Rood of Time – W.B. Yeats) This is just one of the snippets of Yeats’s work sprinkled through this historical novel.
We meet Gonne as a conflicted woman: on the one hand, involved with a right-wing Parisian politician Lucien Millevoye, and on the other, agitating for revolt of the Irish, with Yeats as one of her Irish “contacts.” She and Yeats, both Anglo-Irish, are presented as detached. Maud’s affinity for the Rising seems more intellectual than passionate in this telling, mostly in the omniscient third person point of view. The point of view is that of Rose Cross, the housekeeper and, of course, the symbol of the Rosicrucian mystics. Part is in past tense and part in present tense which is a bit disconcerting at first. We meet Yeats as part of an extended family, a poet, a mystic, a nationalist, but a pacifist.
Ross pulls back the curtain on both the French and Irish literati and politicos who walked the same streets and sat in the same cafés with Yeats and Gonne: General Boulanger, Paul Déroulède, du Rochefort, Clemenceau, Lady Gregory of Coole Park, and many others. But more prominant are the occultist friends and influences: Samuel Mathers, Madam Blavatsky, with their incense and séances. Gonne’s attempt to reincarnate her beloved son Georges while in his crypt at Samois Cemetery is one of the strangest chapters.
Yeats himself wrote a book of short stories called The Secret Rose, with a highly ornate cover designed by his friend Althea Gyles and dedicated to his mystical “AEther” friend George Russell. Who was the Secret Rose. Was it Gonne’s son George, whom she tells Yeats is her adopted charge; was it “the Ruby Rose and Cross of Gold” of the secret Golden Dawn occultist society; there are many possibilities described in this book of roses. Or does “Her” refer to the narrator, Rosie. Ross leaves that to the reader.