Do we cancel people because of their corrosive words and deeds or do we try to see them as flawed human beings? This question came up while I was writing the first American biography of Maud Gonne in 40 years.
The British-born revolutionary, suffragette, and actress is beloved in her adopted country of Ireland but not so well known in the U.S. Outside Ireland, she is primarily remembered as W. B. Yeats’s muse. (The Nobel Prize winner wrote lyric poems to and about her for 38 years.)
It wasn’t until halfway through my research that I realized Maud Gonne was a lifelong anti-Semite. After W.W. II, she wrote her friend Ethel Mannin: “I’m not sure had I been a German after the treaty of Versailles that I would not have become a Nazi, except for the Nazi exclusion of women.”
I had an adult Bat Mitzvah. I am proud of my Jewish heritage. So in Paris in the summer of 2019, when temperatures happened to be hitting records of 108 degrees, I debated abandoning my scorching walks to the Bibliothèque Nationale to search for Gonne in French press clippings from the early 20th century and letting go of her as a biographical subject altogether. At the urging of a friend, I put off the decision until the heat in Paris quite literally came down.
The letter I ended up poring over in Paris had to do with the Dreyfus affair, which shook the French Republic from 1894 until its resolution, in 1906. In 1927, 21 years after Alfred Dreyfus regained his captaincy, Gonne wrote to Yeats:
My dear Willie:
In the old days when you were Dreyfusard you used to think it fine the thesis ‘Better France perish, than one man suffer injustice’!
I held that Dreyfus was an uninteresting jew & too much money was spent on his cause for it to be an honest cause & that greater injustice triumphed everyday when poor men were sent to jail for the theft of food or clothing for their families & I would prefer to raise the cry for them.
Being a nationalist, I sympathized with French nationalists who objected to the Jews & international finance interfering in their country & upsetting their institutions.”
“I’m not sure had I been a German after the treaty of Versailles that I would not have become a Nazi, except for the Nazi exclusion of women.”
Yet Maud Gonne had many admirable qualities. Though born to great wealth, the granddaughter of one of the richest men in England at the height of the British Empire, Gonne was sympathetic with the Irish. During the potato famine, when a quarter of the island’s population either emigrated or starved, British newspapers lampooned the Irish as mercenary apes. Gonne spoke up for the poor evicted Irish, who lacked not just food but also the right to vote.
Because she was a woman, Gonne didn’t have the right to vote, either, and didn’t achieve it until late middle age. Still, she made herself heard as a journalist and as a speaker in France, England, Ireland, and the U.S. When Irish nationalist organizations refused to let her in, she founded the Daughters of Ireland, in 1900. She and her colleagues were instrumental in leveraging England to extend its parliamentary school-lunch policy to Ireland, where, especially in Dublin, many schoolchildren had been going hungry. She sold the last of her jewels to finance a food canteen during a union strike in 1913.
Gonne’s son, Seán MacBride, won a 1974 Nobel Peace Prize for co-founding Amnesty International, following in the path of his mother’s work on behalf of Irish political prisoners. (Gonne’s husband, the Irish republican and military leader John MacBride, was executed for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising, in Dublin.)
During her lifetime, Gonne was labeled a dangerous terrorist by the English government, who tracked her movements. Late in life, she became an admirer of Gandhi, leading me to believe she might have come to the realization that not all political change need happen violently. As the title of the much-loved Joni Mitchell song “Both Sides Now” says, Gonne deserves to be looked at from different angles and not crossed off the list of 20th-century notables. The truth, as we know, can be complicated.
Kim Bendheim’s The Fascination of What’s Difficult: A Life of Maud Gonne is out now from OR Books