The strange book title comes from the poem “Sailing to Byzantium” by WB Yeats. This historical fiction tale addresses the life of a young socialite. During WWI, Georgie Hyde-Lees breaks free from maternal control and arrives in London to nurse soldiers. Through her mother’s connections she meets WB Yeats, the famous poet many years her senior. Interested in the occult, Georgie enlists Yeats’ help in securing an invitation into the Order (The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). The author’s descriptions of a young woman trapped by conventional society’s rules and expectations are well drawn. Georgie falls for Yeats, but the reader remains hard pressed to understand the attraction Georgie exhibits. Certainly, he treats her poorly throughout their relationship. At the time of their meeting, WB struggles with his professional writing career faltering.
Presented with the option of another suitor, an officer who is her contemporary and a suitable match, Georgie sends him packing. Regardless that her mother and friends warn her that Yeats still loves a woman from his past (Maud Gonne), headstrong Georgie doggedly pursues Yeats. Yeats strings her along through his reconnection with Maud and then Maud’s daughter, Isesult.
Georgie’s stubbornness eventually pays off. Turned down by everyone else, Yeats finally marries Georgie. Neither are happy in the marriage but to keep Yeats’ attention (at least for a while), Georgie takes up automatic writing. Very keen to engage in all things esoteric, Yeats focuses just enough on his wife. That satisfies Georgie even though she knows she’s perpetrating a fraud. Eventually, Yeats’ poems benefit from the pursuit of the greater unknown.
Having read the reviews on Amazon after reading the book, most people agree the writing is exceptional, although the pacing suffers in a few places. The depiction of the period and societal constraints are interesting and well done. My biggest gripe is that the book is basically a very sad, one-sided romance. I had hoped for a journey into a mystical world of secret societies where Georgie actually had some PSI ability. At least on that level, she might have shared a connection with the older poet. Apparently not, she duped her husband for years if this fiction reflects reality.
While in Vancouver, I stumbled on a little book called A Brief Guide to Secret Religions: AComplete Guide to Hermetic, Pagan, and Esoteric Beliefs by David Barrett. Barrett has a PhD in the Sociology of Religion from the London School of Economics. On several nights, after an exhausting day of sightseeing, I’d settle down to read Barrett’s work. I know I’m weird, but I found this to be a fun, little history book. For years I’ve skirted the edges of the New Age movement, am happily surrounded by pagans, and lately I’ve been taking classes on Hermetical beliefs so the book interests me on several levels.
Barrett divides the book into three parts (the New Age: Hermetic, Occult, High Magic: and Neo-Paganism), but he freely admits that when examining the interrelationship of these groups, the lines blur quickly. So he imposed this structure knowing it’s arbitrary. Interspersed throughout the book are interview responses from different followers of these groups which illuminate their thoughts on various key issues, expressing commonalities and differences. It’s a fascinating read and you begin to understand that these alternative paths have a rich history and a dynamic future. In a culture where we are fast becoming a people who identify as “spiritual, but not religious,” understanding the depth of the roots of New Age (don’t think for a second that Hippies started this), Hermetics, and Paganism become more important. Many of the ideas of these groups are moving mainstream led by new scientific theories, continued interest in environmentalism, and an era supporting individual spirituality. Barrett’s writing reflects that he is a scholar, open-minded and even-handed. Highly recommended!