As anyone who follows me on Twitter will be aware, this week I unearthed Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light (Harvill Secker 2010) from my in-tray where it has been languishing for the last few months. It is the trade paperback edition, purchased in a charity shop and put aside in favour of other things. As I am sure I have remarked before, there is a particular pleasure in coming across a book that you have completely forgotten ever buying. Finding it all over again is a treat in itself. O’Connor’s novel was chosen as the Dublin One City One Book title for 2011 but I never actually got around to reading it. (See this article in The Blurb pages for more on the annual event).
The novel brings to life the secret love affair between playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909) and Abbey Theatre actress Mary (Molly) Allgood (1885-1952) from their meeting in 1905 until Synge’s death. Molly went on to become a well-known stage and film star (as Maire O’Neill) though Synge’s family and friends brushed aside her real-life role as Synge’s lover and muse. Her relationship with Synge had never been considered suitable owing to differences in their respective religious and social positions.
I am just over half way through Ghost Light now and enjoying it very much after taking a few pages to get into it. At first, I thought the novel was going to be too sad and dreary for what I wanted at the time. Certainly, persistence has paid dividends and, while the book has its sadness, there is plenty of humour too with some brilliant comic dialogue. Of course, Molly is a wonderful heroine, both in her fiery spirited youth and her resilient old age in a battered post-war London.
The more I progress with the novel, the more I want to know about Molly’s life and times. I found a lovely portrait, painted by John B Yeats on my internet trawl for more information. Molly made many films during her career, working up until the end of her life. She went on to marry twice (her first husband died and she was divorced from the second) and had two children. Apparently all of her letters to Synge were destroyed but an edition of his letters to Molly was published in 1971 by Harvard University Press (edited by Ann Saddlemyer). I think this is one volume I would like to add to my Landing Bookshelves letters collection. Perhaps a Christmas present to myself?
For more information take a look at Joseph O’Connor’s webpages: http://josephoconnorauthor.com/ and also an article he wrote for Prospect Magazine (from where the picture of Molly was taken): http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/the-playboy-and-his-muse/