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Chase of the Wild Goose by Mary Louisa Gordon: A Lurid Editions Reprint
Chase of the Wild Goose, a playful, offbeat biographical novel about the Ladies of Llangollen, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1936. I was delighted to be invited to take part in an informal blog tour celebrating the book’s return to print (today, 1 February) as the inaugural publication of Lurid Editions, which will focus on reprinting lesser-known and trailblazing 20th-century classics.
Mary Louisa Gordon was a medical doctor and early graduate of the London School of Medicine for Women. She also served as a prison inspector and had a special concern for the plight of female prisoners; another of her works was Penal Discipline (1922). Chase of the Wild Goose was published when she was 75. She underwrote the book to keep it in print until her death in 1941. A word-of-mouth success, it sold reasonably well in those first years.
I’d encountered the Ladies of Llangollen a couple of times before, in nonfiction: in The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, where they are among her exemplars of solitary, introspective living; and in Sign Here If You Exist and Other Essays by Jill Sisson Quinn, where, in the way that they blur the lines between romance and friendship, they presage her experience with an intimate female friend. This was a different way to explore their story.
“The two heroines of this story, the Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, have a remarkable history. They achieved fame at a stroke. They made a noise in the world which has never since died out, and which we, their spiritual descendants, continue to echo.”
These are the opening lines of what, in its first half, is a fairly straightforward chronological account of the protagonists’ lives, from their first meeting to when they flee to Wales to set up house together at Plas Newydd. They grow up in Ireland and, although their prospects differ – EB has a wealthy upbringing at Kilkenny Castle, whereas teenage SP has recently lost her mother and is being passed around relatives and acquaintances – both are often told that marriage is the only viable option. The eccentric spinster stereotype is an unkind one, but one EB is willing to risk. In one terrific scene, she shames her archbishop great-uncle for being just like everyone else and threatening to sell her to the highest bidder in matrimony. Still, the notion persists that if only the right man comes courting, they’ll change their tune.
At their first meeting EB and SP engage in an intense discussion of the possibilities for women, and within two weeks they’re already pledging to be together forever: “I think that nothing cheap, or second-rate, or faute de mieux, will ever do for you or me … We think—you and I—that we want something strange and exceptional, but something different may be ordained for us,” Eleanor says to Sarah. “From now onwards I… won’t you keep me… in your heart?” Sarah asks in parting. Eleanor replies, “I think you have been in it since before we were born.”
The strength of that romantic conviction that they are fated for each other keeps them going despite difficulties – EB’s father disowns her and cuts her off, which has inevitable financial implications, though she had already bought Plas Newydd outright; and for both of them, leaving Ireland is a wrench because they feel certain that they can never go back.
By Part II, the erstwhile fugitives, settled into local life in North Wales, enter into a sedate middle age of visitors and correspondence. Much of the material for this section is drawn from the journal EB kept. Part III is where things get really interesting: in a metafictional twist, Gordon herself enters the narrative as she meets and converses with the long-dead Ladies at their house, reflecting on the social changes that have occurred since their time.
As the Afterword by Dr Nicola Wilson notes, Chase of the Wild Goose is creative nonfiction in the same vein as Orlando, building on real-life figures and relationships in a way that must have seemed ahead of its age, not least for how it looks back to venerate queer foremothers. Although there are long stretches of the book that are tedious with biographical detail and melodramatic speeches, there is enough in the way of convincing dialogue and scenes to make up for that. While I feel the novel probably has more to offer to academics and those with a particular interest in its subjects than to general readers, I was pleased to be able to experience a rediscovered classic. I marvelled every time I reminded myself that this largely takes place in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. Gordon ably reproduces the diction and mores of the Ladies’ time, but her modernist intrusion takes it beyond pastiche.
As for the title, I’m most accustomed to the wild goose as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit in Celtic Christian iconography, but of course it is also a pun on the proverbial wild-goose chase. Gordon nods to both connotations; the phrase appears several times in the text and is the protagonists’ private term for their search for a life together – for liberty and for love. You have to cheer for them, achieving what so few could in their time. Here’s to you, Ladies!
With thanks to D-M Withers and Lurid Editions for the free copy for review.
A first read for Karen and Lizzys #ReadIndies challenge. I will hope to add many more before the end of the month!
Liz has also reviewed the novel.
For more information, do also read this fascinating Guardian article.