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Rauchbauer, Otto. Shane Leslie - Sublime Failure. Dublin: Lilliput Press, May 2009 (ca 320 pp, 24 illustr.)
ISBN-10: 1843511568  |   ISBN-13: 978-1843511564

FWF Project no P18660
Project time frame: May 2006 - December 2007

Original web design by Dr Stephen Ferguson. Adapted by Monika Wittmann, April 2009.

Project Director and Team

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Otto Rauchbauer
Director of the Shane Leslie Biography Project

Between 1980 and 2003, Prof. Rauchbauer was a member of the Department of English and American Studies at the University of Vienna. As regards research, he has done work on Elizabethan literature (prose and drama), 20th century English literature, and particularly Irish studies (Anglo-Irish relations in the 20th century). In 1993, he set up a private archive in Drishane, Castletownshend, the house of the well-known Irish writer Edith Œnone Somerville (1858-1949). The catalogue of the archive and a biographical sketch of the author were published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 1994/95 and reviewed in the TLS. In 2002, Otto Rauchbauer published a lengthy monograph on the Big House in Irish culture (Diskurse und Bilder zum anglo-irischen Landsitz im 20. Jahrhundert – Eine interdisziplinäre Studie, Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter). The monograph provides an overview of the representation of the Irish Big House against the background of various discourses, both nationalist and revisionist, and deals with history, autobiographies, the documentary film and also with a vast corpus of folklore material on the subject (situated in the Irish Folklore Department at University College, Dublin). The section on Big House literature in the narrow sense of the word is particularly extensive and contains, for example, a chapter on the post-Yeatsian country house poem. There is also a section on scholarship about Big House literature and a theoretical chapter regarding motif structure. One of the aims of the monograph was to show that the motif structure of the Big House recurs in various discourses and media with variations.

The following project, Shane Leslie. A Critical Biography was begun in 2003. The first stage was to collect archive material from more than thirty archives in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. In addition, half a year was spent in Oxford (Bodleian Library), Eton and Cambridge to peruse background material for the biography. Subsequently, a sophisticated database cotaining all relevant archive material was set up, which provided the basis for the compilation of the manuscript. The biography was published with Lilliput Press, Dublin, under the title Shane Leslie - Sublime Failure in May 2009.

Elisabeth Gruber

Born in 1982, Elisabeth Gruber studied English and Philosophy at the Universities of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Vienna, Austria, which she passed with distinction. She submitted an interdisciplinary MA thesis on the contemporary writer Esther Freud, for which she was granted an excellence scholarship.
She is currently working on a doctoral thesis about 19th century English novelist, artist and eccentric Frederick Rolfe, also known under his nom de plume, Baron Corvo. Some rare "Corviana" are to be found in the Leslie project's database, since it was Sir Shane who sparked off a revived interest in the life and works of the Baron.
Elisabeth Gruber's interests include critical theory, studies in biography (with a focus on confessional prose and poetry), literary translation as well as the interconnection of literature and visual arts, all of which tie in with the main points of her prospective dissertation.

Andrea Mayr

Born in 1978, Andrea Mayr studied English and Catholic Theology at the Universities of Vienna, Austria and Edinburgh, Scotland. With the help of a short-term research scholarship for Dublin, Ireland, she wrote her MA thesis about the representation of the Aran Islands in Anglo-Irish and Irish literature, focussing on dominant images and discourses.
Her interest in all matters Irish motivated Andrea Mayr to join the Shane Leslie project as a research assistant in May 2006. This allowed her continue working on the subjects of Irish literature and history as well as on conceptions of Irish identity. Shane Leslie's involvement with James Joyce is one of her main subjects in the project; data management and the systematisation of archive material are other fields of interest. Andrea Mayr is furthermore planning her doctoral thesis on an Irish subject.

Caty Novák

Born in 1981, Caterina Novák studied English at the University of Vienna, Austria. She graduated with distinction in 2007, focussing in her diploma thesis on the interrelation between late-nineteenth-century utopian literature and the emerging feminist movement. Since 2005, she has been working at the Department of English and American Studies, where she encountered and soon became fascinated with the Shane Leslie Biography Project. Caty participated as a research assistant in the last phase of the project, revealing her talents in many ways: she was involved in editorial work together with Fiona Dunne, the editor of the Lilliput Press. In this capacity she not only worked on the format of archival references, but also contributed to polishing the MS's style. Another decisive factor was her thorough knowledge of the database on which the book relies.

Other people who participated in the project included Monika Wittmann, whose efforts to give the MS shape and substance were equally substantial to finalise the biography project. From its early phase onwards she coordinatored activities of the people involved. She provided the author with a printed version of the database which was extremely helpful as an additional means to analyse Shane Leslie material. In addition, she proof-read the MS several times and devised a workable index. All this she did in her free time. In a project in which several people had to interrelate, her friendliness and capacity to smoothe personal and technical difficulties turned out to be invaluable.

 Dr Stephen Ferguson, a man of many talents, set up the database for the project, also giving practical advice as to how to manage the input of more than 4,000 data. In addition, he did a lot of proof-reading during the initial phases of the writing of the manuscript, relying on his substantial experience as former editor of a scholarly periodical. He also designed the orginal project website. His courtesy and general interest in the project were much appreciated.


A biography of Shane Leslie (1885-1971) is long overdue. Its subject was a descendant of an old Anglo-Irish family, with a network of relationships in Great Britain and the United States: Leslie was a first cousin of Winston Churchill, a politician with some relevance to Anglo-Irish and American relations, a prominent Catholic convert and apologist, a man of letters and a creative writer, also a journalist and literary critic of some note, a translator from the French and Gaelic, and an investigator of the paranormal. In addition, he was an exponent of bibliography involved in the transatlantic rare book trade, a Celtic scholar, a planter of trees and conservationist, a society man and brilliant conversationalist and keenly interested in Irish folklore.

The compiler of this biography believes that he can shed new light on a man who was well-known during his lifetime but whose character profile was probably unduly stereotyped because of his sometimes eccentric and histrionic lifestyle, while his strong analytic and intellectual gifts, brilliant wit and stylistic competence have been largely underrated.

His was a time of political transition and tension and of steep economic decline. Nevertheless he managed to be true to his concept of the art of life by pursuing a wide range of interests and retaining his personal independence. He moved freely in the worlds of the Irish and English country house and among rural people in Ireland and England just as he did in English post-Edwardian high society. Throughout his life he insisted that his first allegiance was to Ireland; but he spent most of his time in London and the countryside, also living altogether more than ten years in America; he could thus reconcile with relative ease at least three different cultures.

His total published work of more than sixty individual titles, impressive as it is in regard to volume and the quality of his publishers, is admittedly uneven at times. This critical biography aims at a fresh evaluation of the man and his works, which will be based on the archive materials of more than thirty institutions in the United Kingdom, Ireland and the United States.

Leslie's life was full of contradictions on many different levels: for example his predilection for aesthetics, exuberant lifestyles, or church ritual stands in odd contrast with a strong wish to withdraw from life, social events and individual people, including his wife and family. As a matter of fact Leslie's personality often reveals instability and even a proneness to mental breakdowns throughout his life.

Of some importance in the biography will be the Leslie-Churchill link, which mainly comes to the fore in the archival correspondence; it is hoped that it will substantially complement the connections of the Leslie-Churchill families which have so far been published in R.S. Churchill and Martin Gilbert's biographical volumes of W.S. Churchill's life.

Leslie was educated in Ludgrove School, Eton, at the Sorbonne (for a year) and finally at King's College, Cambridge. While he valued the intellectual calibre of the French university, he appreciated in Cambridge, apart from his teachers, a great number of extra-university activities, for example doing social work in the London slums, and being early in his life involved in propaganda as an Irish patriot, moving towards his conversion to Catholicism. Leslie's visit to Yasnaya Polyana to listen to Tolstoy's teachings had a great impact on his later life. During the second decade of the 20th century he married the daughter of an American diplomat, canvassed for the Gaelic League in America, afterwards joining World War I as an ambulance driver and finally returned to the United States on a semi-official mission to act as a mediator between different sections of the political spectrum in the context of the Anglo-Irish conflict. This chapter (2) will be the most important one in the biography. It is assumed that the biography will provide new insights into Leslie's relationship with a number of important people like John Redmond and John Dillon, both leaders of the Irish Party, Joe Tumulty, President Wilson's secretary, many representatives of the American Catholic hierarchy, and Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice, then British ambassador in Washington. The John Quinn Collection in the New York Public Library has a highly interesting bidirectional correspondence between Shane Leslie and the American lawyer, connoisseur and collector of the arts, John Quinn. Leslie made several attempts to ameliorate the plight of such Irish patriots as Sir Roger Casement and Eoin MacNeill. One of the central issues of Leslie's political work was his involvement in the Irish Convention, passing on reports from its president, Sir Horace Plunkett, to American public figures and even President Wilson. Leslie's failure as a go-between and also to make a political career resulted in a re-orientation of his life. Although his involvement in Irish politics from the 1920s onward was no longer mainstream, he continued, on a much smaller scale, to offer his services at the end of the Anglo-Irish conflict and well into the 1950s.

In 1916, he was offered the editorship of the Dublin Review, a London based Catholic intellectual periodical which he held until 1926. He succeeded in attracting new contributors from America and the continent and gave the periodical a historical and biographical bias. As a Catholic intellectual Leslie may not compare favourably with such notables as Christopher Dawson, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and others. Yet he became an important church historian in his own right. It is probably arguable that Leslie's close links with the Roman Catholic hierarchies in England, Great Britain and America gave him deep satisfaction since they offered him an opportunity to be involved in church politics on a high level.

Chapter 4, which will be copiously illustrated from archival material, may be sometimes anecdotal but it lends itself also to more general observations and abstractions. After a tumultuous political career as a Christian, Socialist and nationalist rebel, he immersed himself fully in the lives of his social peers after 1920, largely with enthusiasm but occasionally with doubts about himself and his associates. Leslie was a regular guest at the London salons of Lady Londonderry, Lady Colefax, Lady Cunard, Hazel Lavery and many others, but equally in the remaining country houses which were now financially and ontologically under siege. Collectively, Shane's reports in his correspondence and diaries occurred in the context of his predilection for long walks. Thus he provides a unique account of British and Irish rural society from the 1920s to the 1950s. Of particular interest in this chapter are Leslie's recollections of the world of entertainment in the households of Bendor, the second Duke of Westminster, and the ninth Duke of Marlborough, sometimes striking a more serious note.

Shane Leslie's role in the transatlantic transfer of rare books and occasionally objects of art was often distorted by the popular English and Irish press. Relying on archival material in the Rosenbach Foundation in Philadelphia and in the Grolier Club New York, chapter 5 will try to rectify this somewhat negative picture. Acting as sub-agent to both Doctor A.S.W. Rosenbach (1876-1952), the "Napoleon of the book trade", and John Fleming (1910-1987), an equally distinguished trader in rare nooks and manuscripts, between 1929 and 1968, Leslie, owing to his aristocratic connections in Ireland and England and to his knowledge of country house libraries, had his hand in many of the deals accomplished. He often provided expertises for his American employers. Dr Rosenbach, in turn, himself a scholar of English literature and bibliography, funded a chair at the University of Pennsylvania which Leslie was to occupy in 1933/34. Once established in academe, he continued his lecture tours in American universities, holding the chair of English studies at Notre Dame University, Indiana, in 1935 for half a year. In fact his lecture tours in America have also to be seen against the background of English co-religionists like Arthur Lunne, Christopher Hollis or Christopher Dawson, who tried to initiate a Catholic literary revival in the new world. However, Leslie's lecture circuits occurred on many different levels of society in America and Great Britain and allowed him to cash in on his exceptional rhetorical skills and also to improve his finances.

Much scope will be given to chapter 6. Leslie's relationship to literature can be explored in many different areas. He was certainly a remarkable stylist, and had expectations of a literary career which was helped by his access to important publishers in England and America, like Chatto & Windus and Charles Scribner's. Taken as a whole, the quality of his creative work is unusually wide but uneven, which may be explained by the fact that he was often hard-pressed for time. Occasionally he might have profited from a critical reader provided by a publisher.

All of the four novels, written and published in the 1920s, can be regarded as auto-fiction in which many of Leslie's friends are impersonated (who usually resented it). Leslie's attitude to Modernism was always ambivalent, but it may be argued that his cultural pessimism which is conspicuous in The Anglo-Catholic and Doomsland shows that Leslie could not entirely dissociate himself from contemporary life. The Cantab, published in 1926, was, at the request of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in England, banned on obscenity charges and caused some stir in England, France and America.

Much of Leslie's poetry, published and unpublished, has also autobiographical overtones. Some of it, set in Ireland or England, is pastoral and in the tradition of Georgian poetry. A considerable portion of his verse is occasional, celebrating public events and people. On the other hand he fashioned some of his ballads on traditional models contained in various collections like that of Bradshaw in the University of Cambridge Library. Leslie wrote a very interesting epic on World War II, The Battle of Jutland, which oddly stands in contrast with a good many war poems, which show his bitter mood at the time.
Leslie's strength as a writer comes to the fore in the semi-literary form of the biography. He wrote at least four full-length biographies on Cardinal Gasquet, Cardinal Manning, Mark Sykes and George IV. In addition he published several "group biographies", some of them, like the one on William Scawen Blunt, having been regarded highly by critics. Since Leslie's concept of biography was predominantly Victorian, he had to clash sooner or later with Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, which was an exercise in debunking Victorian times and notables, written in an attractive and readable style, and often focussing on the inner minds of individuals whose negative character qualities (like Cardinal Manning's alleged careerism) are foregrounded. However, it is interesting to note that in his psycho-literary biography of Swift (The Skull of Swift), Leslie seems to have been influenced by the great 20th century biographer.

Leslie's work as a critic of literature, which ranges from the professional to the journalistic, proves his wide knowledge of English and French literature. Leslie knew many of his contemporary poets and writers personally and often corresponded with them.

Leslie's review of Ulysses in the prestigious Quarterly Review and the Dublin Review in 1922 has only recently been "rediscovered" by critics dealing with Joyce's early reception. The Leslie archives do in fact contain much material which throws more light on this topic than is generally known.

Leslie was instrumental in assisting in the genesis of an important experimental biography and in launching another promising author on his career. The life and works of Frederick William Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo (1860-1913), had originally been briefly acknowledged. But it was Leslie, sharing Corvo's predilection for aestheticism, who rediscovered him in a first revaluation in the London periodical Mercury in 1923. Leslie also inspired A.J.A. Symons' experimental biography of the eccentric, The Quest for Corvo, published in 1934, generously providing ideas for the biographer.

Leslie's relationship with the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald dates from the time of his first and second American tours 1911-1918, when he met him at the Catholic Newman School in New Jersey. In fact, Leslie's contacts with Fitzgerald and his publisher continued for many years in the 1920s and 1930s. Earlier, in 1917, the American writer had entrusted the dashing Anglo-Irish writer with the manuscript of his novel This Side of Paradise, asking him to represent his interests vis-à-vis his publisher. According to Leslie's subsequent instructions Fitzgerald revised the first draft of the novel and was thus firmly launched on a remarkable literary career.

Part of the relevant Leslie-Fitzgerald correspondence has been printed and can be located in the Fitzgerald bibliographical canon. However, the total correspondence between the two appears to be much more complex: Leslie was ambivalent towards Fitzgerald, and although he readily helped the young man in his work as a writer, he had certain reservations about the young American's art. If one pursues for example Leslie's letters to Charles Scribner, the later publisher of Fitzgerald, one is confronted with the fact that Leslie saw his American friend more as a young man for whose spirituality and personal well-being he felt responsible. In addition – and this is also borne out by Leslie's letters to the TLS in the 1930s – Leslie may well have been envious of Fitzgerald's overwhelming success as a writer. In the late 1920s, when Fitzgerald became addicted to alcohol, Leslie offered to take care of him in his London flat; in addition Scribner had implored Leslie to exercise his influence on Scott so that the writer might meet his commitments vis-à-vis his publisher.

List of archives containing Leslie MSS material

Republic of Ireland
1. National Library of Ireland, Dublin (Leslie Archive)
2. Trinity College, Dublin
3. Kilmainham Jail, Dublin (museum)
4. Maynooth College, St. Patrick’s, Co. Kildare
5. Castle Leslie, Co. Monaghan, Ireland (family archive)
University of Limerick

United Kingdom and Northern Ireland
7. Churchill Archives, Churchill College, Cambridge
8. Eton College, Berkshire
9. West Sussex Record Office, Chichester
10. Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge
11. King’s College, Cambridge
12. Cambridge University Library
13. Magdalene College, Cambridge
14. The Meynell Archive, Greatham, Sussex
15. Bodleian Library, Oxford
16. St Andrews University, St Andrews
17. The Dukes of Westminster Archives, Eaton Hall, Cheshire
18. Yeats Archive, St. John's College, Oxford
19. Public Record Office, Belfast

United States of America
20. Lauinger Library, Special collection, Georgetown University, Washington, DC (Leslie Archive)
21. University of Notre Dame Archives
22. The Diocesan Archive of Baltimore
23. The Rosenbach Foundation, Philadelphia
24. The New York Public Library, New York
25. Princeton University
26. Grolier Club, New York
27. Library of Congress, Washington (W. Wilson papers)
University of Pennsylvania Archives

Private Collections
29. Private collection of Merlin Holland
Tarka Leslie private archive, Salisbury, Wiltshire

Europe (Continent)
31. Czartoryskich Museaum, Cracow, Poland
32. Ehrenpreis Center for Swift Studies, Münster, Germany


The project director gratefully acknowledges the receipt of funding for this project from the following institutions:

FWF Der Wissenschaftsfonds
Hochschuljubiläumsstiftung der Stadt Wien
Österreichische Forschungsgemeinschaft
Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
Royal Irish Academy
Bundesministerium für Wissenschaft und Forschung
Universität Wien, Rektorat
Universität Wien, 
Dekanat der Philologisch-Kulturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät


Univ.-Prof. Dr. Otto Rauchbauer
Department of English and American Studies
Spitalgasse 2-4 / 8.3 
A-1090 Vienna, Austria

Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik /
Department of English
Universität Wien
Campus d. Universität Wien
Spitalgasse 2-4/Hof 8.3
1090 Wien

T: +43-1-4277-424 01
F: +43-1-4277-9424
University of Vienna | Universitätsring 1 | 1010 Vienna | T +43-1-4277-0