16 June – Bloomsday greetings James, from the Bents

Irish republican, revolutionary, suffragette, and actress – Maud Gonne (1866-1953)(wikipedia).

With our Irish connections, we always ferret about looking for Joycean links on 16 June. There aren’t any, as far as we know, other than that Theodore and Mabel once sat to dinner with Maud Gonne (1866-1953) in Constantinople – “a tall and handsome damsel dressed in white Broussa gauze, who says she means to go on the stage” (April 1888, Vol 1, Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles, Oxford, 2006, p.255). Yeats provided Gonne with contact information to Joyce before he left for Paris in 1902, but they never hooked up. Of course, there is always a chance that Mabel and Joyce (or Nora Joyce) once breathe the same Dublin air. Bloomsday greetings James, from the Bents…

A watercolour of Syros in the mid 19th century by Edward Lear; ‘the old sparkly pile’ he called it (diary entry for Wednesday, 6 April 1864).

Maud confirms her visit to Constantinople at that date in a later autobiography, and recounts various doings there; but there is no mention of dining with the Bents in particular. Clearly they left no deep impression on the theatrical Gonne, who surely didn’t feel it was appropriate telling Mabel about her amatory incident, at pistol point,  on Syra – a favourite Cycladic island for Theodore and Mabel. If she had, then Mabel would certainly have jotted it down in her diary that night. Here is Maud’s adventure ashore, worth telling in some detail. Potentially, of course, it could have been serious and dangerous, but Maud, characteristically, makes light of it (Mabel would have done the same – but chances are she would have let off a round or two for good measure.) Let’s give the stage to Maud Gonne, and remember she’s barely more than 20:

“[At] dinner I asked the Captain when we should arrive at Syra in Greece which was our first stopping place. ‘To-morrow, but the storm has made us late; we shall only stay for coaling.’ And, seeing my eagerness, he added: ‘You mustn’t go ashore. It isn’t at all safe for ladies. Some very unpleasant things have happened at Syra and I have been obliged to forbid all lady passengers going ashore there.’

“The second in command was a bearded Corsican who looked like a brigand, had fine eyes and was very attentive to me. Leaning over the rail in the darkness we discussed Napoleon, whose memory he worshipped and I ventured to ask him about landing at Syra; for the one thing I longed for was to be on land. People talk of the glorious sense of freedom on the sea. I always feel in prison on a ship, even in fine weather. He shook his head: ‘’No, no, Mademoiselle, the captain’s orders are absolute and he is right; no ladies may land, and you are too beautiful. If I could take you . . . But that is impossible; we are all too busy, no one may go ashore.’ There was no help to be got even from a bearded Corsican who looked like a brigand and was so ready to make love that I retired early to my cabin with my chaperone and the little girl who was an Armenian orphan brought up by French nuns and was going out to another convent of the Order to teach French. She had never been outside the convent before. She was not more than fifteen years of age.

Bent’s map of the Cyclades from the first edition of his 1885 book (archive.org). Click here for a modern Google map showing Syros.

“Next morning the sun was shining brightly, but no land in sight. I was longing for land, longing for it with all my might. An old Turk with a long grey beard was strolling on the deck. He was a person of consequence, and on the deck a large canvas awning had been arranged behind which the ladies of his harem were sheltered from indiscreet gaze. I didn’t think he would help me to land, but I thought it would be amusing to meet the ladies of his harem. He looked at me gravely, even kindly, as he passed and we spoke a little and I told him I was going on a visit to the daughter of the British Ambassador; but I didn’t ask him about landing at Syra or about visiting his wives; for this last enterprise I thought the stewardess would be the best approach and it seemed to me that the advance should come from the ladies themselves. That could wait; there were still four days before we were to arrive at Constantinople and we were just approaching Syra.

“It was five o’clock when the ship stopped and was at once surrounded by crowds of boats and chattering Levantines selling all sorts of things to the passengers who were all on deck. The coaling barge was busy at one end. I heard it would take about two or three hours before the ship would start again. A Greek selling various trinkets and souvenirs smiled at me ingratiatingly and offered me his wares. He spoke a little Italian, I showed him a fifty-franc note and pointed to the shore and managed to strike a bargain with him to row me there and back for it, and, in the crowd, unnoticed, I slipped down the ladder into his boat and was soon on shore. My little chaperone* was sitting on my shoulder sheltered in my veil and my revolver was in my pocket.

The Grand Hôtel D’Angleterre, Ermoúpoli (Sýros)
The Grand Hôtel D’Angleterre, Ermoúpoli, Sýros, where the Bents liked to stay. Maud Gonne would have strolled by it during her risky shore leave.

“It was great to be on land again. I went to the post office and sent off postcards and wandered happily among the shops in dark, narrow streets, bought Turkish delight and pots of rose-leaf jam and cigarettes and flowers, the Greek acting as cicerone; I was glad to get rid of him at last at a cafe on the harbour where I could keep an eye on our ship and on the time while I drank coffee and ate strange cakes.

“The boats were getting thin round our ship and I had been two hours on land. My Greek guide had not returned. I thought he must be drinking wine somewhere and I tried to enquire of the waiter as I paid my bill, but he spoke only Greek and was of no help; so I decided to go down to the place where I had landed and the Greek had left his boat. He was not paid; so I felt he was sure to turn up. He was there all right with two other sailor-men sitting in the boat. I got in and told him to start. He seemed in no hurry and said there was lots of time. I told him to start at once and he said something to the sailors who lazily began rowing. It was a marvellous evening. The lights on the sea were enchanting and the town looked white and fairy-like. I was very happy. Then I noticed the sailors were rowing in an opposite direction from that of the ship. My guide was not rowing this time, but sitting on the seat facing me; I pointed to the ship and told him to tell them to go there. He smiled and explained they were going to show me a beautiful point of view. I got angry and told him to turn the boat at once. He only laughed and the men rowed quicker.

Maud Gonne, the frontispiece from “A Servant Of The Queen: Reminiscences”, 1938 (archive.org).

“Suddenly I stood up with my revolver pointed straight at him and said: ‘Obey, or I fire.’ The men stopped rowing and there was some quick talk in Greek and the boat turned and rowed to the ship. I sat down, but I kept my revolver pointed but as much hidden as I could. I never took my eyes off my guide till we were at the ship’s side and I tossed him the fifty-franc note and scrambled up the ladder while the sailors passed up my many parcels. My Corsican friend was at the ladder. ‘Mademoiselle, you almost missed the boat. The Captain knows; he is very angry.’ I thought it wiser to say nothing about the difficulty I had had in catching it, and when, at dinner, the Captain was coldly severe about my disregard of his orders. I pleaded that I, not being a sailor like himself, had such a terrible nostalgia to be on land that I could not expect men who were used to the sea to understand; it was my first voyage, and I was all alone and he must forgive; which he did with good grace, for he could do nothing else, merely remarking I was very young and didn’t understand the danger, but he hoped I would not try it again at Smyrna which was our next place of call, or if I did land, for we would make a longer stop there as he had cargo to discharge, I would find a proper escort. ‘None of these ports are safe for young women alone.’”

* A marmoset Maud bought in Marseilles a few days before leaving for Constantinople.

The extracts are from Maud Gonne Macbride, A Servant Of The Queen: Reminiscences, 1938, London, pp. 68-71.