Family Secrets

by William M. Murphy. Syracuse, 540 pages. $39.95.
Mr. Murphy is an acknowledged authority on the Yeats family—that is, “William Butler Yeats and His Relatives,” whose activities are reported in this book. Mr. Murphy promises the reader factual information unencumbered by literary interpretation, art criticism, aesthetic estimate, or psychological speculation, and he keeps his word except on those occasions when he must decide which family member is least mendacious. Willie and Lily and Lollie and Jack (officially William Butler, Susan Mary, Elizabeth Corbet, and John Butler junior) were the offspring of a marriage between Susan Pollexfen and John Yeats. The Pollexfens were business people with a high regard for money. They were nonintellectual, glumly pious, and socially glacial. The Yeatses were Anglo-Irish gentry, landowners and clergymen, merry idealists with a high regard for learning. The match would probably have been awkward in any case, but when John quit a promising legal career to become a painter, feckless finance and professional disappointment led to perpetual disorder. The children, however, were all successful in their separate ways—William as a poet, Jack as a painter, Lily and Loilie (sometimes referred to, with acid Irish wit, as the “weird sisters”) in the revival of arts and crafts that accompanied the Irish renascence. They met or knew or quarreled with almost everyone of note in Ireland at the time. The gossip and tensions and rivalries that Mr. Murphy has revealed are fascinating, while the financial maneuvers of the sisters amount to a small saga. Mr. Murphy has avoided posthumous psychologizing, but he cannot avoid genetic theory, for the Yeatses were very conscious of the incompatibility of Yeats and Pollexfen blood. John senior, broke in New York and the recipient of money from William, put the family position neatly: “It was like a Yeats to send this money and make no fuss about it. It was like a Pollexfen to have it to send.”