The life of Lucia Joyce, so Carol Loeb Shloss tells us, “is a story that was not supposed to be told.” In her attempts to recount the tale of James Joyce’s troubled daughter, Shloss met many obstacles, chief among them, she implies, the remaining members of the immediate Joyce family, and particularly Joyce’s grandson, Stephen, “the very person who…decided that [Lucia’s] story should remain buried in the dark cellars of ‘family privacy.’” It was Stephen Joyce who in 1992 persuaded the National Library of Ireland to allow him to remove from the James Joyce–Paul Léon papers, which were about to be opened to the public, a substantial number of letters relating to his aunt. Already Stephen Joyce had destroyed Lucia’s letters to him, and had persuaded Samuel Beckett to do likewise.
Most importantly, in the early 1980s he had taken possession of a trunkful of Joyce papers, including many letters from Joyce to his daughter, which have never come to light—and never will, it would seem, given Stephen Joyce’s fierce determination to safeguard the privacy of his grandparents and of his father, and to suppress, as Shloss would have it, the sad history of his Aunt Lucia. No wonder that Shloss when she took on the task of writing Lucia’s biography should have felt “as if I had walked into a small disaster zone.”
It is ironic that the long introduction, “What Happened to Lucia Joyce?,” relating the author’s travails in researching her subject, should be the most absorbing chapter in the book. Shloss presents herself as a cross between a private detective engaged in a search for a missing person and the foster parent whom, had she been available and had he been wise enough, Joyce would have appointed to look after his daughter and preserve her memory. She has been inventive and resourceful, not to say cunning, in her investigations: though muffled in academic tones, there is a note of triumphal glee in her account of how she outwitted the Joyce family censors by tracing Lucia’s years of treatment in various European mental institutions through the medical bills which Paul Léon had saved.
As she admits, however, the paucity of primary sources meant that she “had to construct the contexts of Lucia’s experiences and then put her into them,” so that “the Lucia who is presented here is almost totally refracted through the eyes of others.” All the same, despite what she describes as “generations of censorship,” she has managed to paint a remarkably detailed portrait of Joyce’s unfortunate “Lucylight,” as he dubs her in Finnegans Wake, and in the process has produced a sharply perceptive and disturbing meditation on the terrible price that great art often levies not only on the artist but on those closest to him.
The question remains, and it is a difficult one, whether Lucia Joyce merits such a lavish portrayal. Lucia liked to tease her father that her …