The Yeats Sisters – at best tolerated but often derided

Lily Yeats

A pillar of the literary establishment of both England and Ireland, William Butler Yeats was considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. In 1923, he received the Nobel Prize for literature. It was only through researching tarot artist, Pamela Colman Smith, who seemed to think William was a tad arrogant but also quite liked him, but who was also friends with his sister, Lily, that I felt compelled to look more closely at the Yeats family background.

More reading is needed but I happened upon a gem by Joan Hardwick, called The Yeats Sisters. William had an Expressionist artist brother, Jack, and two sisters Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly); their respective dates were 1866-1949 and 1868-1940. On reading of their lives and rivalries, it seemed that the whole Yeats family was, for a period of time, sustained by the earnings of the embroiderer, Lily (who worked for May Morris) and the teaching of Lolly, who gave lessons in painting. As usual, the women were hidden from history. Most people, myself included before reading this book, would have had no real clue about the Yeats sisters.

Lolly painted by her father

Their father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who gave up the lure of the law to be a painter. He was a considerable portraitist, but ill-disciplined, something of a dilettante, a spender, and terrible at deadlines, so you can guess the outcome. He married Susan Pollexfen at Sligo. John was her brother’s dazzling friend who, on the eve of their wedding wrote:

… I love you so much that I would like to share every mood with you. And to have nothing secret from your quick strength and common sense — you are more a man than a woman. Only I hope you won’t henpeck me. And make me withdraw from the intimacy of all people who are not acceptable to your ladyship. You are fond of the Exercise of power and authority in which I quite agree & which bodes ill to my freedom. I shall be afraid to ask anybody to the house without first asking your permission and if I do how cross you’ll be with your head thrown back. Your utterance short and abrupt, your dress rustling angrily. The storeroom key grating harshly and sharply in the lock. How my spirits will sink. And how uncomfortable the unfortunate guest will be. And what a milksop I’ll be thought and what a tyrant you’ll be thought and how you’ll be dreaded accordingly. How my poor sisters will tremble at your frown and how we shall make common cause together.

It was pretty much all blarney. Susan loved her life at Sligo. On her husband’s whim, she was removed and exiled from it to bohemian artistic society in London. The family spent many years in poverty, living on borrowed money from Susan’s family. Her miserable lifestyle took its toll as she became increasingly withdrawn, the family invalid, later cruelly struck by strokes. She had fallen into depression while her husband wrote:

If I showed her my real thoughts she became quite silent for days, though inwardly furious.

She was resentful and slept a lot, mainly attributed to the Pollexfen curse of ‘madness’ which seemed to be a way of deriding anyone who did not fit some norm. From a domineering father to a distant and erratic husband meant that Yeats family life was far from happy. Susan Yeats died at 59, miserable and dulled by her marriage following 6 children in ten years and two strokes from the age of 47. Yet, all of her children were in some way remarkable; perhaps spurred on by hardship.


Only just prior to his death did john Yeats acknowledge the work of the two spinster sisters he fathered:

Lily working all day at the Morrises, and Lolly dashing about giving lectures on picture painting and earning close on 300 pounds a year, and one year more than 300, while both gave all their earnings to the house. And besides all this work, of course, they did the housework and had to contrive things and see to things for their invalid mother – and all this while quite young girls … They paid the price of having a father who did not earn enough.

The sisters never got on. Yet, between them, they ran a printing press and a workshop. William tolerated and at times liked Lily but was exasperated by Lolly. Jack kept his distance from them all and John moved to New York where he later died. What is sad is to read of Lolly, who was liked and admired by many people in the outside world but detested by her own family, deplored for her individuality, her independence, and her energy. It was her nervous mannerisms which perhaps irked them most. Languid Lily was more deferential, the kind of woman men found easier to ignore, despite her many health issues.

In middle/older age, Lolly was treated with terrible unkindness by all the others, encouraged to be on her own at night, rather than engaging in family life, and constantly assured that she was going quite mad. It’s a shocking tale, quite cruel, described by Hardwick as a time when attempts at female self-determination were at best tolerated, and more often derided. The women impressed me, especially Lolly, who had no support from anywhere much along the way!

Lolly died in 1940, followed nine years later by Lily. In death, as in life, they were not to be parted. They share a grave by the church of St Nahi in Dundrum. Perhaps they are hating each other in heaven!


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