There are times when, despite months of keeping a dignified silence and refusing to rise to the bait, a woman simply has to acknowledge ‘the other woman’. The French First Lady did it this week with elegant style, and I realised I had to do it too.
Readers, I’d like to introduce you to Laurie Bailey, the third Mrs Shields.
As Wilde might have observed, to lose one [wife to alcoholism] may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. The third time around, Arthur Shields found a practical and pragmatic woman who would manage his household without too much artistic temperament.
I introduce her not because she ousted Aideen from his affections (she didn’t) or because I want to gossip about her personal life, but because often in tales of scarlet women, it is forgotten that they too are women with a personality, a career, a passion for their own work and a right to happiness. I also want to introduce her because, despite my devotion and loyalty to Aideen, I wouldn’t have a PhD without Laurie and her devotion to the memory of Arthur Shields.
In the 1970s, after Shields protracted illness and death, Laurie packed up and left her step-daughter in California while she transplanted to Dublin. She was on her own quest, trying to deal with grief and loss. As much as she adored and cherished Christine, Arthur was the centre of Laurie’s life, in life and in death. In Ireland, Laurie set about a comprehensive examination of his past. She unearthed Sr Mary Monica. She met with Eileen O’Connor and had copies made of Aideen’s letters. She requested a meeting with Anne Yeats about her friendship with Aideen (Anne seems to have politely declined) and she tracked down Aideen’s younger sister Maeve in the UK. Most interestingly, she tracked down the businessman Eddie Choate and arranged for copies of his correspondence with Arthur and Aideen to be sent to her (boxes of letters). She left no stone unturned; the information kept piling up. That said, information about Aideen seems to have been put to one side. She couldn’t confront her.
Aideen was romantic and headstrong, with a flair for writing letters that captured moments in her life in vivid technicolour. Laurie was a journalist, who approached life in black and white with the energy of a tornado and the same amount of empathy as this weather front. The files she put together for her planned biography (Saturday’s Child) are nothing short of compendious, containing everything from Christmas cards to random newspaper cuttings about Sandymount village (where Bazie Magee died). Also there are the contents of the Shields’ “green room”, complete with letters hidden by Aideen. The problem, in fact, is often that they’re so comprehensive it’s impossible to tell the useful from the irrelevant.
How much documentary evidence do we need to bring back the dead?
I defer to my idol in answering this question: Inspector Peter Boyd from the BBC drama Waking The Dead.
Do you know it?
There is a useful connection here, promise; bear with me. (And if you know where I can buy the scripts of this series, I’ll be eternally grateful for the information.)
At the centre of this gripping crime drama is a fractious relationship between Boyd and the ever-patient, thorough forensic scientist, Frankie, who works with him. In one episode, he is furious when evidence she gives in a court case frees a man convicted for murder. The DNA wasn’t found at the crime scene; the suspect couldn’t have been there.
Boyd attacks Frankie.
(Imagine Trevor Eve dramatically shaking his silver locks and Holly Aird looking serious in a white coat.)
Boyd: That’s where you’re limited, you see. Not you personally, but forensics. Detection, analysis and then solutions!
Frankie: So you think forensics is just a tool. Do you want to talk about that?
Boyd goes on to argue that while they’re ‘conclusive’, forensics are limited in their usefulness, particularly when they’re on their own.
Finally, he declares:
“Lack of evidence or forensics should not prevent intellectual speculation. You start with IDEAS and then you USE forensics as a tool to validate those ideas. Ideas, ideas, ideas…”
I stopped Netflix, and played this back, because for me this is not just how forensics work for investigators, but how archives work for writers. In and of themselves, they’re conclusive. But on a bigger scale, they’re a tool to facilitate something else and to create something richer and more complex.
I can’t accept that because Aideen’s friendship with Kay Swift wasn’t recorded in writing, it didn’t happen. I know they met frequently and they stayed together in Hollywood. I have to wonder what they talked about and imagine how they felt about each other.
I can’t accept that because there’s no evidence Aideen was there during Shelah Richards’ outburst at Yeats during the 1938 Theatre Festival that she wasn’t in the Gresham Hotel to hear it. I have to wonder how she responded.
As Professor Lonergan pointed out at the Abbey symposium last week, there’s potent magic in the words, “I wonder if…” This magic can transform archives into something vital.
Boyd would disapprove of the term ‘magic’ I’ve used, but he would agree with the idea of the power of archival records to be vitally important right now. I share Aideen’s impatience and imagination, but I’d be useless without Laurie’s meticulous research and facts.
Using both, we not only wake the dead – we can make them dance for us too.