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Hazel A Life of Lady Lavery 1880-1935 by Sinéad McCoole

Writing.ie | Non Fiction

By Justine McGrath at http://www.thebookclubcafe.com

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Sadly for Lady Hazel Lavery, she was not alive when Yeats published his poem ‘The Municipal Gallery Re-visited,’ as she would have no doubt enjoyed being immortalized in poetry, as much as she enjoyed being immortalized on the Irish bank note.
“Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
As though some ballad-singer had sung it all.”
But perhaps the lines that would have resonated with her most, would have been from the last stanza:
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.”
Lady Hazel Lavery did indeed have “such friends,” as will be discussed later.

According to the author Sinéad McCoole, this biography is the result of over five years work. It shows. We are given a detailed insight into the life of a most fascinating woman, through letters and scrap books. The photographs included in the book also add to our appreciation and understanding of both Hazel and Sir John Lavery, and their exceptional life together.

Hazel Martyn was born in 1880 in Chicago to Edward Martyn of Attleboro Massachusetts, and Alice Louise Taggart, who was from Wisconsin. From birth Hazel was considered beautiful and was the apple of her parents’ eye. She was a bright child and was educated at the best finishing schools, where she learnt dance and music, as well as all the etiquette a young woman of her standing required. Hazel entered Chicago society in 1899 and was admired by everyone. She was described as:“An astonishing beauty with an immense presence despite her five-foot two-inch stature. Her small, rather pointed face was dominated by lustrous almond-shaped hazel eyes.”

Hazel first met John Lavery in 1903 in Beg-Meil in Brittany France in the summer of 1903. She was very taken with his bohemian ways and his painting. Hazel loved painting and sketching herself and was considered quite talented. They began a whirlwind romance, but Hazel’s mother Alice did not approve at all, and tried everything to ruin the romance and keep the couple apart. Hazel respected and admired her mother and despite being headstrong and usually getting her own way, circumstances prevented the couple being together and Hazel agreed to marry Ned Trudeau, a Yale graduate and prominent surgeon – a man much more to her mother’s taste.

They married in December 1903 but sadly Ned died suddenly of a heart attack after only 5 months of marriage. Hazel was pregnant and she gave birth to a daughter in October 1904, who she named Alice, after her mother. After the birth Hazel suffered from ill health – a condition called Nephritis which was to plague her during her lifetime.

Much of this wonderful biography consists of letters written by Hazel to John Lavery and many of her suitors, and their replies. Hazel was overly dramatic in her letters to Lavery, and we get our first inkling of her sensitive and rather emotional state upon reading this overly dramatic correspondence. Following the death of Hazel’s mother in June 1909, Hazel married John Lavery in July of the same year. John was 24 years her senior, but their love appeared genuine and they remained married to each other for the rest of their lives.

John and Hazel lived in Cromwell Place in London, and it is this house which played a major role in the Anglo-Irish treaty negotiations and Irish politics during the twenties.
Hazel Lavery was not Irish. On her father’s side, her descendants dating back to the 13th century were Irish. Oliver Martin was a follower of the Norman conqueror Strongbow and after the Reformation Martin came to be known as Martyn. However she saw herself as completely Irish and began to involve herself in Irish affairs. As a society hostess she entertained everyone from Winston Churchill to George Bernard Shaw and Michael Collins.

She is portrayed as a mediator between all sides. She provided the location, wrote the letters and brought all parties to the table. John Lavery painted many of those who visited Cromwell Place and he was given a knighthood in January 1918 for his work as a war artist. Every politician and man who entered Cromwell Place seemed to fall in love with Hazel. She encouraged this and loved being the centre of attention.

The mystery for me in this biography was whether Lady Lavery was an intelligent, sensitive and astute woman, who genuinely wanted to help the Irish cause and deserves to be hailed as a heroine for the role she played in Anglo Irish relations? Or, was she a spoilt little madam who knew she was devastatingly beautiful, and used it to secure her place in history and in the affections of all the men of importance who took her fancy? Either way, Sinéad McCoole has done a wonderful job of portraying the many facets of this complex personality.

The majority of the book centres on the historical events around the Civil War in Ireland and the treaty negotiations of 1921. We do not know for certain whether Lady Lavery had affairs with all those she is reported to have done so, namely; Michael Collins, Kevin O’Higgins, Lord Londonderry and Ramsay McDonald. There was certainly plenty of poetry sent to her and devotion shown on both sides. Personally I felt she was callous with regards to married men (she never showed any remorse whatsoever to Kitty Kiernan or Birdie O’Higgins) and she seemed to thrive on male attention. Sir John Lavery didn’t seem to care one jot about his wife’s actions, and perhaps he was happy to have peace to get on with his painting.

I found this biography a fascinating insight into an intelligent, yet vain, spoilt woman, who managed to get some of the most powerful men in Britain and Ireland to entertain, amuse and even fall in love with her.

This wonderful biography is a detailed and insightful account of an intriguing woman, who impacted Ireland both socially and politically during a tumultuous time in its history. As if that weren’t enough to interest the reader, she was also married to one of Ireland’s greatest ever portrait and landscape artists.

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