Writing the biography of Nora Barnacle Joyce was from the beginning a formidable undertaking, rendered more so by the abundance of expanding material on James Joyce’s life and works. It should be said at once that Brenda Maddox has carried off the hazardous enterprise with remarkable success. Not that she has written, technically speaking, a good book. It is flatly written and padded with material that relates much more directly to Joyce than to Nora; it is often full of trivial details and it has longueurs; for extended stretches it treats simply as boring distractions Joyce’s writings, which are the main reason for a modern interest in this mixed-up couple of scruffy Celts in the first place. Yet in the end it emerges as a humanly fascinating and impressive portrait, alive and open in a lot of ways that the subjects of purely literary biographies usually are not.
This is all the more striking in that Joyce’s own life, after moments of audacity and moral heroism in the first two decades of the century, trails off across the next twenty years into a chronicle of cadging, invalidism, quixotic and irrelevant campaigns, and an immense but intensely private work of literary creation. To define the relation of a largely uneducated Galway girl to an enormously intricate yet muscle-bound mind like Joyce’s is the core of this enterprise; at its best, Ms. Maddox’s book casts a lot of fresh light on the character of Joyce’s achievement and on the energies that went into it. They were not all of them his own energies by any means, though the supplier of them was often puzzled by the directions they took.
Nora Barnacle was born in Galway on the west coast of Ireland. She was the child of an alcoholic baker who ultimately became little more than a convivial vagrant. In a convent school Nora got enough education to keep her from being classified as an illiterate, but not much more. Handsome, red-haired, and arrogant (her careless, “sauntering” walk was one of the things that first caught Joyce’s otherwise myopic eye), she attracted and reciprocated the interest of the local boys, until her uncle Tom Healy caught her out one night against orders and beat her with a blackthorn stick. Within a week she left Galway for Dublin, where she took a job at Finn’s Hotel in Leinster Street. Around the hotel she did a little of everything, serving as chambermaid, waitress, and barmaid (it was a small and not very distinguished establishment). She was just twenty years old when Joyce picked her up on Nassau Street and asked her for a date. Though she didn’t show up the first time on June 14, 1904, she apparently walked out with him on June 16, and in a dark alley of the Ringsend district promptly unbuttoned his trousers and expertly “made a man of him.”
This ambiguous phrase doesn’t necessarily imply consummated intercourse. Nora was a bold girl, but not an idiot; she knew the consequences of bearing an illegitimate child. She did not know about the now commonplace contraceptive techniques, but she did know about simple, practical ways to avoid pregnancy. Joyce himself was by no means an unpracticed innocent; he had been patronizing the prostitutes of Nighttown for a long time. But he was startled by Nora’s boldness and sexual nonchalance; impressed, too, by the fact that she was the first woman to give herself to him freely, out of affection. With an atheist’s severe puritanism, he decided that in honor she must know the worst about him, and he told her.
As the relatively conventional girl she still was, she was surprised to learn that he had rejected passionately not only the Catholic Church but the ideal of settled domesticity and the entire middle-class social order with its appended moral values. He may have overstated his various iniquities, but he could not shock her. Their different yet complementary forms of nonconformity only cemented more closely the bonds of their intimacy. Having once entrusted her destiny to James Joyce, Nora was incapable of turning back; and in early October she took the boldest leap of her life in agreeing to run away to an unknown foreign destination with a penniless young man who had made unmistakably clear that he had no intention of marrying her.
What was it that Joyce “saw in” Nora Barnacle? Absolute loyalty, in the first place; complete simplicity and directness of character; total courage. Most of these were qualities that Joyce himself conspicuously lacked. He was also fascinated (and increasingly so as his art deepened and completed its vision) with the notion of remarkable wisdom lying buried in the minds of unremarkable people. Among hundreds of examples, the parodic model is Bloom, apostle to the gentiles, who without knowing what he is doing bestows on an unbeliever a saving truth of which he is himself ignorant: “Throwaway” is the winner of the afternoon’s horse race and Bantam Lyons snatches the tip out of the air when Bloom uses the phrase in a wholly different context. In some such way Joyce worshiped Nora as the unknowing vessel of a wisdom beyond that of the discursive, catechetical mind; she became for him an emblematic goddess of the fertile, common earth.
The global quality of his absorption in her, as revealed in the famous “dirty” letters now at Cornell—she was for him a devotional and a demonic figure, fecal and fetal, conspiratorial and supplicatory, foul and holy all at once—was a major element of the plunge into the semiconscious, instinctive self that made his art the explosive force it became. Compared with what she brought him in the shape of formless, instinctive Weiblichkeit (or so he understood it), Nora’s open lack of interest in the actual books he wrote—she never read very far in any of them—was a minor disadvantage, even perhaps a positive blessing. At a time when the literary world was worshiping him as an extraordinary genius, she prized the qualities in him that she thought made him ordinary. On one occasion she referred to him as “simpleminded Jim.”
Much of English literature, from Chaucer to Donne to Eliot and Joyce, is devoted to an elaborate dance around a fascinating, enigmatic love object; in Ulysses, where all the men are subject to one form or another of erotic paralysis, Molly Bloom, with her strong instinctual drives and her defiant vulgarity, becomes the axis on which the entire book spins. This is a climactic vision of the novel, and its implications carry over strongly into Finnegans Wake. But I’m not sure it fits comfortably with any scheme of chronological biography. Nora Barnacle, even when she most closely approached Molly Bloom, was a very different person. If nothing else, the distorting lens of Joyce’s literary imagination would ensure that. And Molly exists at a single moment in time; Nora in her sixty-seven years of life had many different parts to play, not all of which involved her, actively and passionately, in the lurid sexual imagination of James Joyce. One token of this fact is that her “Molly Bloom” phase seems over and done with little more than halfway through Maddox’s biography. As they were violent, Joyce’s sexual fantasies were relatively short-lived; there is some evidence that they were more verbal than physical; and, Ms. Maddox intimates, from some time like 1920 onward, the Joyces had what amounted to a white marriage.
Where did that leave Nora Joyce? Not by any means in the desperate straits of Molly Bloom, who has nothing to think about but the last lover and the next, however one apportions her admirers between the real and the fantastic. She had a major task in keeping her husband from drinking himself to death, other problems with shifting her peripatetic, penniless family around Europe under the shadow of the Great War, continual difficulties with their children, and the monumental pressures of carrying on family life, as occasion demanded, in Italian, German, or French. Wherever the family moved, whether in Zurich, Trieste, or Paris, she had friends—not just people attracted to Joyce who tolerated her presence, but friends of her own; she welcomed visiting members of the Joyce clan, and kept up relations with the families remaining in Ireland. In the face of Joyce’s steadily deteriorating eyesight, she took on many of the functions of a devoted nurse. When they had money, she rejoiced in it, and helped Joyce spend it lavishly in restaurants and spent it on herself at couturiers. She is remembered as a woman of strong good sense and ready wit: Anna Livia sums up the force of her character in an expression as elegant as it is concise: “I done me best when I was let.”
It must have been particularly daunting to undertake a biography of Nora in the wake of Richard Ellmann’s immense and all but definitive account of Joyce himself; and it would be idle to deny that major parts of Ms. Maddox’s substantial and thoroughly researched volume come close to treading on Ellmann’s heels. Seeing things from Nora’s perspective also blots out a great many literary overtones; Joyce the writer comes off as a remote, self-absorbed figure working what might as well be quadratic equations. Damped out as well is the kind of semi-shoptalk that Joyce in his early days used to carry on with his brother Stanislaus, his fellow students at University College, Dublin, even with Gogarty. Aristotle and Ibsen, Shakespeare, Yeats, James Clarence Mangan, Wilde, Defoe and Blake, Gerhart Hauptmann and Gabriele D’Annunzio were subjects with which the young literati of Dublin were surprisingly familiar; they barely crossed the horizon of Nora’s world.
Most Joyce scholars are male, and all of them are logomaniacs; so it is good to know about the vital life Nora Joyce experienced apart from the sexual liberation of James Joyce and her contributions to his work. She took an independent interest in and achieved a wide knowledge of opera; she had occasional chances to display a mostly submerged dramatic talent, as when she took part in a theatrical group in Zurich; she had a natural pride and dignity along with instinctive tact, which enabled her to move among cosmopolites and intellectuals without striking a false or pretentious note; she enjoyed flirtations, but kept them well in hand; she could be quaint and funny. After her husband’s death in 1941, she settled in Zurich, always refusing to return to Ireland. When war restrictions cut off most of the money that might have been available to her, she accepted penury with the same dignity as she had accepted monetary riches. The Irish government having indicated coolly but distinctly that it would not welcome the idea of burying Joyce’s body in his native land, she decreed that Ireland should have no more of his manuscripts than she could help; and so it came about. She had, when stirred, more than a touch of her husband’s Luciferian pride.
Having this story laid out in great, even excessive, detail is a very good thing. Even if its outlines are already familiar, the story has its own impetus and interest. Ms. Maddox indulges in some feminist rhetoric, as she indulges now and then in some psychiatric speculations; believers will appreciate these touches, and unbelievers can just as easily disregard them. A more literary book would have been inappropriate to the simplicity of the subject. Ms. Maddox has not, indeed, written one of those rare literary biographies that come close to being literature themselves. But in good gray biographer’s prose she has filled out an appreciable part of a complicated and continuing puzzle.
June 30, 1988