More Miracle Than Bird, Alice Miller’s debut novel, joins a spate of stories that imagine relationships between famous male artists and their wives. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (2011), Therese Anne Fowler’s Z (2013), and Whitney Sharer’s The Age of Light (2019) – to mention a few – all attempt to give depth and shape to the lives and work of the largely unsung women behind so-called great men like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Man Ray. The goal of these books is laudable, and the material certainly rich, even if the formula feels a little tired.
Miller’s earnest contribution to this subgenre of historical fiction features Georgie Hyde-Lees, who in 1917 at the age of twenty-five married the fifty-two-year-old Irish poet W.B. Yeats – but only after Yeats had previously proposed marriage to and been turned down by both Maud Gonne and her daughter, Iseult. By all accounts, including Miller’s, theirs was an unconventional relationship that required a good deal of determination and creativity on Georgie’s part. In her portrayal of the build-up to the couple’s eventual matrimony and the challenging early days of their union, Miller quite deftly reveals Yeats’s shabby character as he continues to pine for Maud and Iseult, leading us to question Georgie’s good sense in pursuing her poet.
The story starts in 1916, in the midst of WWI, with the young Georgie working in a private London hospital, tending to wounded officers. Here she meets Second Lieutenant Thomas Pike who briefly – and not seriously as far as Georgie is concerned – becomes a romantic rival to Yeats, and in many ways a more suitable suitor. Miller’s inclusion of the fictional character of Pike, so besotted with the oblivious Georgie, introduces a sort of what-might-have-been element to the novel: what might her life have been like if she had chosen another, someone who, unlike Yeats, was more certain of his regard for her? Georgie reflects on this lost opportunity for happiness, admitting, “That was the best of it…one paltry moment with the rain falling, a glass of pink champagne in your hand, and your best shoes in the muddy grass. You never realised it was your best moment, until nothing after it quite compared, and then you were trampled into the mud yourself.”
While she finds purpose and independence working in the hospital, Georgie’s true passion lies in her studies. Having been initiated through Yeats’s influence into The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society dedicated to the study of metaphysics and the occult, she quickly moves up the ranks as a promising student. Georgie is highly intelligent and curious about the “thin veil between this world and the next.” She seems eager to find a cause, a reason for living, and some structure in her life. Yet as certain truths are revealed about the Order and her faith in the possibility of life’s underlying meaning is shaken, she redirects her energy toward becoming Yeats’s wife. Her desperate attempts to win his favor border on obsession and place her in some mortifying situations.
In this way, Miller’s characterization of her protagonist as a flawed and contradictory being is effective: we both admire Georgie’s resolve and find her unbearably foolish and even contemptible in her naivety. When she finally achieves what she has longed for, there is no sense of victory, but rather a dawning feeling of regret: “Why had she fallen in love with this man? Why had she married him? Had she always thought he could give her something he was never able to give?” In one final ingenious act of deception, Georgie wrests her new husband’s attention away from his lost Gonne women, ensuring his undivided loyalty.
There is much to recommend about More Miracle Than Bird, despite some slow moments in the plot, over-description, and occasionally stiff dialogue – perhaps not surprisingly, mainly between Georgie and Yeats. The inclusion of the colorful supporting characters Ezra Pound and Dorothy and Olivia Shakepear, adds a dynamic element to the story, and Miller’s ability to create atmosphere in her writing is notable as she convincingly evokes the sights and sounds of wartime. More Miracle Than Bird is an entertaining read and a fine portrait of another of history’s forgotten women.
Dana Hansen is a writer, editor, reviewer, and professor in the English Department at Humber College in Toronto, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Quill & Quire, Literary Review of Canada, The Winnipeg Review, France’s Books magazine, Australia's Westerley magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Waterdown, Ontario, and is the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Review of Books.