Gore-Booth, Eva (1870–1926)
Gore-Booth, Eva (1870–1926)
Irish poet, pacifist, suffragist and labor activist who campaigned to improve the pay and conditions of women workers in Manchester. Born Eva Selena Gore-Booth on May 22, 1870, at Lissadell, County Sligo, Ireland; died in London, England, on June 30, 1926; daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth (a landowner andexplorer) and Georgina (Hill) Gore-Booth; sister of Constance Markievicz (1868–1927); educated at home; never married; lived with Esther Roper; no children;
Traveled with father to the West Indies and America (1894); diagnosed as having tuberculosis (1895); spent some months in Italy (1895–96), where she met Esther Roper; returned to Lissadell and set up the Sligo branch of the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, before settling with Roper in Manchester (1896), where both were associated with the University Settlement, the Manchester and Salford Women's Trade Union Council, the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage, the Women's Co-Operative Guild and the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and Other Workers' Representation Committee; published her first collection, Poems (1898); met Christabel Pankhurst (1901); split with Pankhurst on the use of violence in the suffrage campaign (1904); represented the Lancashire Working Women's Societies, the Trade Unions, and Labor Societies in Lancashire in the Women's Franchise Deputation to Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman (1906); involved in campaigns for barmaids' right to work, for the improvement of florists' assistants' and pit-brow women's working conditions (1908–11); moved to London with Roper (1914); attended trials of conscientious objectors on behalf of the No-Conscription Fellowship (1915–18); was a member of the British organizing committee of the Women's International Congress, held at The Hague (1915); traveled to Dublin following the Easter Rebellion (1916) to visit her sister, Constance Markievicz, one of the rebel leaders, who was condemned to death but reprieved and imprisoned in England; attended the trial in London of Sir Roger Casement and was involved in the unsuccessful campaign for the reprieve of his death sentence (1916); visited Italy (1920–21); diagnosed as having cancer (1924).
Poems (1898); New Songs, a Lyric Selection made by AE from poems by Eva Gore-Booth and others (1904); The One and the Many (1904); The Three Resurrections and The Triumph of Maeve (1905); The Egyptian Pillar (1907); The Sorrowful Princess (1907); The Agate Lamp (1912); The Perilous Light (1915); Broken Glory (1917); The Sword of Justice (1918); A Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel (1923); The Shepherd of Eternity (1925); The House of Three Windows (1926); The Inner Kingdom (1926); The World's Pilgrim (1927); Collected Poems of Eva Gore-Booth (1929); The Buried Life of Deirdre (1930).
In the spring of 1896, two women met on an Italian hillside. Outwardly, they were very different: Esther Gertrude Roper was 28 years old, a university educated suffrage and labor activist of working-class stock. The other, Eva Gore-Booth, was an Anglo-Irish gentlewoman of artistic tastes. Introspective and reserved, she had enjoyed a privileged upbringing and had little contact with the world which Roper represented. Nevertheless, the bond between them was immediate, as Gore-Booth eagerly questioned Roper about the campaigns in which she was involved. "What work were we doing for the working women? What was going on in the franchise movement? How did people work and live in an industrial center in Manchester?" As Roper remembered it, in the biographical note which she wrote for Gore-Booth's Collected Poems, "We spent the days walking and talking on the hillside by the sea. Each was attracted to the work and thoughts of the other, and we became friends and companions for life—she made up her mind to join me in the work in Manchester." This brisk account conceals the importance which the event held for both of them, and which is more eloquently expressed in Gore-Booth's poem "The Travellers," published in her 1904 collection, The One and the Many, and dedicated "to E.G.R":
Was it not strange that by the tideless sea
The jar and hurry of our lives should cease?
That under olive boughs we found our peace,
And all the world's great song in Italy?
Eva Gore-Booth's life story began by another sea, which she remembered with no less affection in poems such as "The little Waves of Breffny."
The great waves of the Atlantic sweep storming on their way,
Shining green and silver with the hidden herring shoal,
But the Little Waves of Breffny have drenched my heart in spray,
And the Little Waves of Breffny go stumbling through my soul.
Born on May 22, 1870, at Lissadell, the Gore-Booth family home in County Sligo on Ireland's Atlantic coast, Eva grew up in the landscape which was also to inspire her friend, W.B. Yeats. As one of five children of Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth , she was born into the landowning class which still retained most of the land of Ireland, but the Gore-Booths were somewhat unorthodox members of that caste. Sir Henry was an Arctic explorer; at home, at a time when relations between landowners and tenants were generally poor, his reputation as a landlord was high. According to one account, quoted by Roper, during the famine of 1879–80, Sir Henry "kept an open store of food at Lissadell, giving out meal etc. to the starving poor, free to all, at his own cost, and I believe all the members of his family assisted in doing so." Eva, therefore, inherited a strong sense of social obligation, as did her brother, Josslyn, and her sister, Constance (Markievicz) . The former became an exponent of co-operative practices, and the first Irish landlord to sell his estate to his tenants; the latter, as Countess Markievicz, was a feminist and a nationalist, the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, and the first woman to become a government minister in the independent Irish state.
Gore-Booth left an autobiographical essay, "The Inner Life of a Child," which was found among her papers after her death and published in the Collected Poems. According to this account, written in the third person, the most traumatic event of her childhood was the death, when she was nine, of her beloved grandmother, Lady Emily Hill , which made her aware both of the fact of death and of "mysteries untouched and unrecognized by one's ordinary outside faculties." The death of the grandmother, she wrote in the essay:
Did not touch [the child], it seemed vague and unreal. All the same, she realised then for the first time, vividly, that some day she should die herself.… The idea of the absence of light and air filled her with unspeakable terror. But a little time afterwards as she lay in bed one evening a new happiness came to her.… Without any warning the child became suddenly conscious that a "door had opened in the air," and that her grandmother was standing beside her.… The child… had no thought of fear, nor did she think it strange, she was simply delighted to be with her again.
Eva told no one of her experience and eventually came to realize that the apparition had no real existence but was "simply a subtler and keener perception of things that are really there." This sensitivity was noted by her former governess in an account written many years later, in which she recalled her as:
A very fair fragile-looking child, most unselfish and gentle, with the general look of a Burne-Jones or Botticelli angel. As she was two years younger than Constance, and always so delicate, she had been, I think, rather in the background and a little lonely mentally, but music was a great joy to her. The symbolic side of religion had just then a great charm for her, and always of course the mystical side of everything appealed most.
Another who recorded his impressions of Eva at this time was W.B. Yeats, who, in a poem written many years later, remembered a visit to
Lissadell and the two sisters, Constance and Eva, radiantly young and unaware of the disappointments and griefs to come.
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
Acutely conscious of the beauty around her, Eva was also keenly aware of ugliness and deprivation, and, despite her own sheltered upbringing, she already, in Roper's view, "seems to have been haunted by the suffering of the world, and to have had a curious feeling of responsibility for its inequalities and injustices." Until her meeting with Roper, however, Gore-Booth's life was conventional enough. She and Constance spent a great deal of time together, and, while her sister painted, Eva read or practiced her writing. In 1894, she traveled to the West Indies and America with her father and, in the following year, visited Europe with her mother, going to Bayreuth for the Wagner Festival, and then to Italy. In Venice, she fell ill and was advised to spend the winter on the Mediterranean; it was during that stay, while a guest at the house of the author George MacDonald at Bordighera, that she met Roper and made her decision to live and work with her in Manchester, where Roper was already involved in social work, in the organization of working women and in the women's suffrage campaign.
Before joining Roper, Gore-Booth returned to Sligo and, infected by her friend's enthusiasm for the cause, set up a local branch of the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, with herself as secretary, Constance as president, and her other sister, Mabel Gore-Booth , as treasurer. By 1897, Roper reports, Eva "was settled in Manchester and was giving the greater part of her time to work for women." She became involved at an early stage with the University Settlement, taking charge of its women's drama group, the Elizabethan Society. As Louisa Smith , one of the members who became a friend, remembered:
We were a class of about sixteen girls… all machinists.… [W]e had no assets, but we enjoyed every minute of the rehearsals. We were very raw material but keen on acting; she showed such patience and love that we would do anything to please her and she got the best out of us.… If any of us were feeling seedy or worried about business or home she would always see, and showed such an understanding sympathy that we came away feeling we had a real friend.… She was also very keen on women's rights and trade unions. She persuaded me to join.… She was very frail and delicate herself, but full of pluck and determination, and would stand up for people she knew to be unjustly treated, even though the world was against them, and with all so sweet and gentle that one could not help loving her.
"The next ten years," according to Roper, "were full to overflowing with organisation, writing, speaking at large gatherings in all parts of England, deputations to Cabinet Ministers and to Members of Parliament." As joint secretary of the Women's Textile and Other Workers' Representation Committee, of the Manchester and Salford Women's Trade Union Council, and later of the Women's Trades and Labor Council, Gore-Booth played a major part in the struggle for female suffrage, and in campaigns for improved wages and conditions for women in the textile industry. In addition, "on different occasions, women pit-brow workers, barmaids, women acrobats and gymnasts, and women florists were successfully organized in their own defence." While Esther's talent was for organization, it was Eva who was the better communicator and who had a remarkable capacity to overcome barriers of class and culture. According to a colleague, Sarah Dickenson :
The friendly way that she treated all the women Trade Unionists endeared her to them. If she was approached for advice or help she never failed. She is remembered by thousands of working women in Manchester for her untiring efforts to improve their industrial conditions, for awakening and educating their sense of political freedom, and for social intercourse.
Among those whom Gore-Booth inspired was the young Christabel Pankhurst , who became a member of her Poetry Circle at the University Settlement in 1901. According to Sylvia Pankhurst , in The Suffragette Movement, through her contact with Gore-Booth and Roper, "Christabel was finding the serious interests she had hitherto lacked. She was now an active member of the North of England Women's Suffrage Society Executive, and of the Women's Trade Union Council, and presently her two friends induced her to study law." Emmeline Pankhurst , however, "was intensely jealous of her daughter's new friendship." Her opposition, together with Christabel's growing militancy, which was the antithesis of Gore-Booth's and Roper's gradualism and pacifism, created a split within the WTUC and ultimately brought the friendship between Eva and Christabel to a close.
During these eventful years, Gore-Booth wrote continuously. Her first collection, Poems, appeared in 1898, and was praised by Yeats as being "full of poetic feeling and… great promise." Her work also attracted the attention of the author and critic, George Russell, who welcomed her addition to the ranks of writers of the Gaelic Revival, and included some of her poems in a selection by eight young Irish writers, which was published in 1904. Also in 1904, she published her collection, The One and the Many, including poems such as "The Soul to the Body," which her biographer Gifford Lewis has speculated, reflect her depression at the failure of her friendship with Christabel. However, the volume also contains her celebration of her relationship with Roper, "The Travellers," together with expressions of her love for her native place, such as "Lis-an-Doill" (Lissadell) and her most famous lyric, "The Little Waves of Breffny," which, wrote Katherine Tynan , "is a small masterpiece," which "will go singing in the human heart so long as the heart answers to poetry."
Another continuing theme was what George Russell called the "eager adventure of the mind that inspires all Eva Gore-Booth's work." Thus, the Celtic myth which served as the basis of her 1905 play, The Triumph of Maeve, symbolized for her "the world-old struggle in the human mind between the forces of dominance and pity, of peace and war." The warrior queen Maeve sees a vision of the crucifixion of Christ, symbolizing the birth of "the new god of pity." As Gore-Booth related in her preface:
At first the glimpse of the new ideal is not strong enough to make any difference in her life. But Fionavar, her great joy in life, goes down to meet her mother returning in triumph from the fight, suddenly sees the death and pain of the battlefield, and falls dead, crying in bitterness: "Is this the triumph of Maeve?" The effects of these events gradually cause Maeve to lose interest in fighting and ambition. In the end, without force or sovereignty, in loneliness and poverty, she finds the way into faery land—the way to her own soul.
Always delicate, Gore-Booth's health was put under increasing strain by her heavy workload. Nevertheless, she continued her work for trade unionism and, despite her distaste for militant suffragism, for the women's suffrage campaign. In 1906, she was a member of the Women's Franchise Deputation which met the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, and in her contribution argued that the low wages currently earned by working women in Lancashire were a direct result of their lack of political power. Disappointment at the failure of this deputation and at her own performance were the themes of "Women's Trades on the Embankment" and "A Lost Opportunity," both published in The Egyptian Pillar (1907), but "Women's Rights," in the same collection, concluded with a confident assertion of her belief that the feminist cause would ultimately prevail:
Oh, whatever men may do
Ours is the gold air and the blue.
Men have got their pomp and pride—
All the green world is on our side.
For Eva, women's right to work and fair pay was inseparable from the right to vote, and she and Roper concerned themselves with the status and conditions of working women who had previously lacked a voice. These included barmaids, whose employment they defended against those who regarded such work as unsuitable for women, florists' assistants, whose conditions they investigated, and pit-brow lasses, whose jobs were threatened by proposed protective legislation. At a meeting in Manchester in 1911, Gore-Booth told how she had herself worked on the pit face with the women, and, at another rally, she declared that "she thought it scandalous that men who sat at Westminster to vote themselves £400 a year should vote away the living of thousands of women."
In 1913, illness forced Eva to leave Lancashire, and she and Esther settled in London. However, she continued to invest a great deal of time and energy in a wide range of causes, including animal welfare and the campaign against capital punishment, while the outbreak of war in 1914 placed a heavy pressure on all those with pacifist opinions. As a member of the Women's Peace Crusade, Gore-Booth traveled the country to speak on its behalf and to attend tribunals and courts martial of conscientious objectors. In 1916, Irish nationalists, among them her sister Constance, launched an unsuccessful rebellion in Dublin. Several of the leaders were executed, and Markievicz was condemned to death, but she was subsequently reprieved and imprisoned in England.
Gore-Booth was deeply affected by these events, and by the trial for treason of Roger Casement, which she attended. Broken Glory (1917) included a number of poems on this theme, such as "Easter Week," "To Dora Sigerson Shorter" and "Roger Casement," as well as several addressed to Constance who, apart from Esther, was certainly the most important person in Eva's life. "Wild rebels" both, they shared not only the memories of childhood but also a deep hatred of injustice and inequality, and the concept of an ideal world, for which each in her own way was prepared to struggle. During Constance's imprisonment, Eva visited her regularly and experienced the same sense of mystical union with her which she had felt many years before with her grandmother, and which she now recorded in "Comrades."
The wind is our confederate,
The night has left her doors ajar,
We meet beyond earth's barred gate,
Where all the world's wild Rebels are.
The successive blows of the war years took a severe toll on Gore-Booth, both emotionally and physically. With the end of the Great War in 1918, travel was once more possible, and she and Esther were able to visit their beloved Italy again. Back in London, and now almost retired from active political work, Gore-Booth had more time to devote to her exploration of religious and spiritual matters. She learned Greek and Latin in order to allow her to read the New Testament and classical works in the original languages, and her study of the Gospel of St. John resulted in The Psychological and Poetic Approach to the Study of Christ in the Fourth Gospel, published in 1923. Her 1925 collection,The Shepherd of Eternity, was the last to be published in her lifetime, and many of the poems were reflections on aspects of the life of Christ and of Christian doctrine. As the critic of The Manchester Guardian observed, she was "one of the most sensitively clear yet intellectually and imaginatively sure exponents of the mystic faith among modern poets.… Though the poems are nearly all of a mystic or religious import, there is a universality and reality about them that widens and strengthens their appeal."
In 1925, Gore-Booth was diagnosed as having cancer. In severe discomfort, she nonetheless retained the serenity which had always characterized her. Throughout her illness, she continued to read widely, to write and to see friends, and to find comfort in her own idiosyncratic religious faith. Not long before her death, on June 30, 1926, she confided to Roper:
You know, I have always been afraid of death, and I could not get away from the fear of it. Then, quite suddenly… I heard the words, "I will come to you."… It was absolutely overwhelming. There was a radiance all around and I was filled with an extraordinary feeling of joy, the greatest I have ever known.
For Roper, who took on the task of overseeing the publication of her remaining works, Gore-Booth was an important thinker and an invaluable co-worker in the causes to which both were devoted, but she was above all a lifelong friend and partner. "No words of mine," she wrote in her introduction to the Collected Poems:
could ever tell the beauty of her friendship, but I can say of it truly, "Love never faileth." Through years of difficult and trying work, through periods of terrible strain and grief, through ever-recurring times of intense pain, this was true. To the hard work which we did together for thirty years she brought a spirit of adventure and gaiety which nothing daunted. Of a gallant courage and a gentle courtesy she made life together a gracious thing. Even simple everyday pleasures when shared with her became touched with magic—wandering through the woods of her old home, or seeking the "blue gentians and frail columbines" of a Swiss mountain, or finding "beauty and life and light" in Italy.
In a record of her dreams which she kept during her final illness, Gore-Booth reflected that:
As in the parable of the Talents, everyone is given a gift. You cannot reach Eternal life till your acorn has grown into an oak-tree. And my own limitations, the rigid walls of my acorn, were shown me clearly. God wants us in heaven—this was the message… but the acorn cannot live in heaven, only the oak-tree. Therefore growth is the main object of Life.
But if Gore-Booth looked forward to a heaven after death, she also sought throughout her life to create another heaven for the living. The two concepts were for her inextricably linked, and in "Magna Peccatrix," she links the obligation to serve humanity to what was for her its source.
What a man does for Christ he does for all,
Even the least of us; each fair deed done
Doth on all men in light and gladness fall,
The whole world's rainbow from the whole world's sun.
Gore-Booth, Eva. Poems: Complete Edition with a Biographical Introduction by Esther Roper. London: Longmans, Green, 1929.
Lewis, Gifford. Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper: A Biography. London: Pandora Press, 1988.
Fulford, R. Votes for Women. London: Faber and Faber, 1958.
Haverty, Anne. Constance Markievicz. London: Pandora Press, 1988.
Markievicz, Constance. Prison letters of Countess Markievicz. Edited by Esther Roper. London: Longmans, 1934.
Middleton, L. Women in the Labor Movement. London: Croom Helm, 1977.
Material on English suffrage movement in Fawcett Library, London, and in Manchester Central Library.
Rosemary Raughter , freelance writer in women's history, Dublin, Ireland