Lucia Runs through Finnegans Wake Like an Artery: The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs

Since the publication of Phyllis Rose’s beloved Parallel Lives in 1984, which revealed in startling clarity what it meant to be the wife of an eminent Victorian, a growing number of novels and biographies have chosen not to focus on the icons of history, but on their spouses, families, lovers, and friends. While some critics have wondered whether this approach adds to our understanding of the personalities under debate, others, such as myself, find the genre fascinating, not least because we feel that the way an icon treated a wife, child, mistress, relative, or colleague in real life might reflect upon their character and accomplishments.

Given my interest in the treatment well-known household names of the past accorded to the people around them, I was excited to read The Joyce Girl (William Morrow, June 2020). The novel by Annabel Abbs tells the story of Lucia, the gifted, tragic daughter of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. Born in the red-light district of Trieste, Italy in 1907, Lucia was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and institutionalized in Burghőlzli, Switzerland, in 1936. She died fifty-two years later in St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, UK, where she had been an inmate since 1951.

Joyce’s relationship with his daughter was loving and highly complicated, with Lucia insisting that she had been instrumental in the creation of Finnegans Wake, the book on which her father worked for seventeen years, a period coinciding with the time she grew from a child into a woman, rising to considerable heights of fame as a dancer, and then descending into insanity. Lucia was adamant in claiming that she had inspired the passages in Finnegans Wake that dealt with love, madness, and dance. However, as Abbs asks in The Joyce Girl, does this mean she helped co-author the book, as Lucia’s biographer, Carol Shloss, claims in To Dance in the Wake? Just what influence did Lucia exert on her father, given her dawning mental illness?

When I asked Abbs these questions, her answer was very moving.  “Yes, Lucia and her father shared a very deep bond,” Abbs said. “He was devastated by what happened to her… I think Lucia runs through Finnegans Wake like an artery, but more because Joyce was utterly preoccupied by her plight. As D H Lawrence said, we ‘shed our sickness in books,’ and I suspect Joyce was coming to terms with Lucia’s illness and sadness through his writing…But I’m not sure that makes her a co-author.”

author Annabel Abbs

Abbs agrees with those of Joyce’s biographers who have suggested that the author felt guilty in the face of Lucia’s affliction because of the unconventional lifestyle he had chosen for himself and his family. This involved his contracting syphilis, constantly moving house, and privileging his writing over everything else, factors he realized too late might have played a part in Lucia’s worsening condition. As Abbs studied Lucia’s circumstances, she became aware of a further complication, and one of which Joyce was seemingly unaware: his misogynistic attitude, which led him to proclaim that he hated intelligent women, although he owed his literary success to them. “His patron was a woman, the publisher of Ulysses was a woman, the first people to print chapters from Ulysses—and go to court for it—were women,” Abbs told me. “This must have been profoundly confusing for Lucia—and how difficult it must have been for her to have confidence in herself when all the women in their circle were catalysts for her father’s success rather than artists in their own right.”

Reflecting on Abbs’ remarks, it occurred to me that Lucia chose to be a dancer because she yearned for an artistic outlet that could be judged on par with her father’s writing, but was also innately her own creation, and one in which he could not compete with her. Avant-garde dance celebrating sexually daring, even deviant, heroines was all the rage during the era in which she lived, so Lucia’s dancing could represent her attempt to liberate herself from Joyce’s influence and to find her own way. Whatever the goal of her endeavour, though, it ended in tragedy, to which Joyce’s surprising response was to purchase a fur coat for Lucia, which—like some magic skin—was presumably meant to aid her recovery. On this issue, Abbs commented, “The dance [Lucia] and her troupe performed was certainly radical. They danced barefoot, often scantily clad, frequently in costumes they made themselves. … The fur coat, as I interpreted it, became a sort of metaphor. The wild rebel tamed, turned into a trophy. Joyce famously bought Lucia a mink coat—he thought of it as medicine, a way of helping her cure.”

Yet, Lucia not only danced. She also wrote. She even authored an autobiography—preserved in the National Archives in London—and throughout her life, entertained a copious correspondence. However, her family and friends destroyed most of it—a quizzical, cruel attempt at erasure that makes one wonder why it happened. When I asked Abbs about the reason, she offered this answer: “Harriet Weaver, [Lucia’s] guardian, destroyed hundreds of letters… Samuel Beckett destroyed letters and refused, point blank, to discuss Lucia to his first biographer, Deidre Bair. Carl Jung destroyed all his notes from months of analysis… Other medical records disappeared too. I’m sure some was genuine loss… But there was also clearly a process of systematic destruction intended to remove Lucia’s voice.” As to the autobiography, Abbs reports that she burst into tears while reading it. “It’s all that [Lucia] left – and it was all about her father. As if she too was writing herself out of history.”

Thus, as is often the case with women in history, posterity is left with scant facts and documents about their lives that have not been vetted by their families. As a result, we will never know for sure the cause of Lucia’s illness, or what role her parents, lovers, doctors, or her brother Giorgio played in sealing her fate. I, for one, am grateful to Annabel Abbs for venturing where historians daren’t tread, and after studying the existing record, thinking herself into Lucia’s psyche, and intuiting a personal truth where records show a blank. I found The Joyce Girl a wonderful tour de force, psychological, yet lyrical, about a woman’s mental unravelling; fascinating and shocking in equal measure. Not everyone will agree with the conclusions Abbs draws, but she makes a convincing case for her ending. Thanks to her, Lucia Joyce’s is a parallel life that is no longer unexamined. The Joyce Girl will deeply resonate with readers wishing to shine a light on the women who led remarkable existences in the shadows of so-called ‘great men.’


About the contributor: Elisabeth Lenckos holds a PhD in Comparative Literature. She is on the HNS Social Media Team.

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