On 23 April 24, 2019 we discussed ‘Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know’ by Colm Toibin. Three essays about the fathers of Oscar Wilde, W.B.Yeats and James Joyce; these were first given as lectures when Toibin was invited to give the Richard Ellman Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia in 2017. They were subsequently adapted and heard on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Ten members attended the meeting.
This is a well researched somewhat academic work, with a lengthy Bibliography, by an author who is a joy to read in both fiction and non-fiction.
It is fair to say that all members who had read this book found it fascinating and enjoyed the many links which Toibin established between each of the subjects and their fathers, including ways in which they surface in their works.
Toibin lives in Dublin, as did each of his subjects during the same period in the late 19th Century. The Introduction is a joyful and sensitive walk around modern day Dublin, in which the author links each of his subjects to streets, buildings, hotels, churches, libraries, homes and even particular rooms.
A modern day tourist, armed with these twenty pages of the Introduction as a guide book, will discover statues, monuments, plaques and many homes and studios where the three authors are commemorated, lived and worked.
It is a literary love letter to Dublin which brings the city vividly to life.
Each of the three authors was, in their different ways, the son of an influential and successful father, but each very different characters.
Sir William Wilde was a famous doctor with many medical papers to his name, as well as procedures named after him. However, he was also a travel writer, historian, biographer and antiquarian. At age twenty six, he was already a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the British Association and was appointed Census Commissioner for the censuses of 1851,1861 and 1871. Sir William and Lady Wilde were established members respectable Dublin society. In spite of his having fathered three illegitimate children before his marriage, all of who he acknowledged and provided for. Quite an act to follow.
Being more familiar with the works of Oscar Wilde, may partly explain why several members found this the most interesting of the essays. Certainly the alleged misbehaviour of Sir William Wilde and the court case he faced was a fascinating foretaste of the court case which subsequently landed his son Oscar in Reading Gaol.
Yeats’s father was a brilliant and prolific letter writer as well as an impoverished artist who seemed unable to ever actually finish a painting. The story of his self portrait makes fascinating reading. For the last 15 years of his life he lived in New York and was supported by his son.
Opinions varied on this essay which contains long extracts from his letters. One member found it the most interesting, whilst others found the essays on Wilde and Joyce the most fascinating. Several members lamented our lack of knowledge of Yeats’s works.
The final essay, on Joyce’s father demonstrated how Joyce had modelled Simon Dedalus in Ulysses on his father who was a singer, a drinker and a storyteller unable or unwilling to provide for his large family.
Inevitable discussion turned to Oedipus complex. Each of the three authors despised their fathers is some ways. Did they feel constrained by their them ? To what extent did each feel the need to compete ? to be different ? to deny or to support ? Clearly each needed to make his own mark in a different way than the father.
Against the background of Dublin society at the turn of the century, issues such as Home Rule, the Anglo-Irish, the behaviour of powerful members of the establishment and the links between influential families are threads which are constantly present and which help bind these three essays together.
It is a tribute to Toibin’s beautiful writing that following our discussion of this fascinating book, the group then chose another of Toibin’s novels as a future read.