The Parnell Tragedy
Parnell. By Joan Haslip. (Cobden Sanderson. 15s.) THE tragedy of Parnell was so terrible in its personal and pulAic consequences that it is still today poignant reading for anybody
who was old enough at that time to understand its significanCe.
A writer who is to satisfy such readers must possesi unusual gifts. Miss Haslip's success can be judged by the. effect of her
book on those who approach this subject, not as apiece of history, but as one of the cruel memories of their own lives, on men who believing with all the ardour of youth that England was on the eve of a noble action found all their hopes destroyed in a single squalid afternoon in the divorce-court. Miss Haslip's study will take a high place among biographies, not only for its literary skill and charm of composition, but also for its qualities of fairness, balance, judgement and insight. She can admire Parnell without disparaging men who were his rivals or his foes. Incidentally, she has rescued from oblivion an heroic chapter of the life of " Buckshot Forster," reminding those who only know him by his failure of the days when he nursed the sick in Irish workhouses in the distress of the Irish Famine.
No complete interpretation of Parnell was possible until Mr. Henry Harrison revealed in his book, Parnell Vindicated,
the full story of the O'Shea affair. Miss Haslip makes Parnell's
part in that story intelligible. Her vivid and intimate picture- of his habits, his temperament, his moods, his health—enables
the reader to understand how it was that a man could be at once so strong and so weak. For this was Parnell's tragedy. A man with a tenth part of his strength could have escaped
his fall if that strength had always been at his service. But in one relationship Parnell was not stronger but weaker than the normal man and that weakness destroyed him.
When Parnell and Mrs. O'Shea fell in love there were two methods of treating their problem which would have left Parnell his career. Mrs. O'Shea was in a position to divorce her husband ; she could have taken action and married Parnell. Or Parnell could have carried Mrs. O'Shea off openly and let O'Shea take action. At that time Parnell was so hated in England that another black mark would not have counted. He would have had a fight in Ireland, but he would have fought under the most favourable conditions and he would have won.
Unhappily romance was in this case overshadowed by finance. Mrs. O'Shea had a rich aunt and the O'Sheas were looking forward to a large legacy when she died. A scandal would have put an end to these expectations, and therefore the two O'Sheas agreed to avoid a scandal. But the aunt, like Charles
the Second, was an unconscionable time in dying and she lived long enough to make this arrangement fatal to Parnell. In assenting to this plan Parnell ruined himself. He piit himself in the power of a worthless man who had no reason to like him or to spare him. Master of his party, and at one time almost master of the House of Commons, he had given himself a master, and that master a man in whose hands no man of sense would have put anything he valued. Thence followed all those intrigues that first bewildered and then exasperated his fol- lowers as they found that Parnell was paying his ignoble debt at their expense. Parnell suffered tortures as a lover and a father, wore out his sensitive nerves and ruined his career, because he had not enough strength to tell Mrs. O'Shea that she must choose between him and her aunt's fortune.
The same weakness marked his behaviour to the end. A mistress resolved to-ruin her lover would have acted, when the crisis came, as Mrs. O'Shea acted. She had all Dido's fury without Dido's excuse ; she quarrelled with Lewis, and as Miss Haslip shows, she so conducted herself as to add new elements of mischief to those which the incident had provided for Parnell's enemies. Parnell, who had told the Liberals to make their minds easy, never tried to check her fatal violence, and never took a single step to see that his interests and his reputation were defended with a modicum of common sense. O'Shea timed his blow perfectly. Parnell had just emerged from his battle with the Government and The Times with flying colours. Many Englishmen who had been adverse felt that they had wronged him, that their own country as represented by its Government and its most powerful journal had behaved meanly and unfairly, and that this cold and determined Irishman had defeated a conspiracy in which all the wealth and social influence of a great party had been used without scruple for his ruin. At that very moment, when this enthusiasm was at its height, Parnell was presented to their view in, a very different light, as a man slinking from the anger of an ill-used husband, living under one name here, under another there, reduced to ludicrous shifts and tricks to save his skin from personal violence. The reaction was inevitable. A man may go through the Divorce. Court and emne, out with his reputation unstained or even ennobled. Parnell, owing to his gross mismanagement and incredible weakness, had brought the laughter of the music-halls to the aid of the pulpit violence of Stead and Hugh Price Hughes.
Miss Haslip discusses equably and fairly the complications that folloWed. Two questions are raised by such cases. How far should electors consider a man's private life ? How far do they ? The two questions quite distinct are often confused. They were confused by Mrs. O'Shea, who accused Gladstone of hypocrisy because, as she alleged, he knew of her relations with Parnell long before the divorce. As a fact GladStone did not believe the rumours that reached hini. But if he had there would have been no hypocrisy in_ his conduct. He never expressed any opinion on the first of these questions. He never said that Parnell's adultery disqualified him for public life. He had served under r,lmerston. One of his leading colleagues had been well known in society as the lover of a married woman, a married woman who tried to push his interests in politics as Mrs. O'Shea tried to push those of Parnell. Gladstone never said of him that be ought to go out of public life. On the contrary he did his best to give him important public work. But if the husband of that lady had brought an action, if the lover had refused to defend himself, if his mistress had in her wild fury accused her husband of adultery with her sister, if this _dignified aristocrat had been falsely but successfully represented as, slipping down a fire-escape from bedroom win- dows, his public career would have been interrupted. Nobody would haye thought it hypocrisy on the part of his colleagues if they had held that for the moment he could add nothing to the strength of their common cause. Gladstone was in public life to carry Home Rule, not to vindicate the right of a man to be at once a public leader and a co-respondent in a divorce case. . That right may be of great importance but he could scarcely be expected to think it more important than Home Rule. Mi. Ervin in his brilliant book on Parnell thinks Gladstone submitted 'to the impertinence of the Nonconformists, but Gladstone would have said that he used his judgement on the facts. But whether he was right or wrong in his conclusion, it is difficult not to think that hecommitted a gross blunder when, after all attempts to reach Parnell had failed, he published his letter. He was always at his worst in dealing with men, and this was an example, of that weakness. If he had had something of Parnell's coldnass mixed with hiS excitable temperament, he would, have been wiser. On the other hand if Parnell had had his single-minded enthusiasni for a public object, he would surely have taken Gladstone's advice and saved Ireland from