Why was James Joyce’s daughter Lucia written out of history?
Annabel Abbs, author of The Joyce Girl, asks why was Lucia Joyce, a beautiful woman and talented dancer, left to languish by her family for 50 years in an English asylum?
Most of Lucia Joyce’s letters (to her, from her, about her) had been purposefully destroyed. Her medical records had been burnt. She spent four months in analysis with the legendary Carl Jung in Switzerland. He too had destroyed all his notes. Poems and a novel she’d written had also been lost or destroyed
When I first stumbled across James Joyce’s only daughter, I confess I was behind the curve. It was a dank, dark day in March 2012. Copyright on Joyce’s work had recently expired and Joyce scholars everywhere were celebrating. I knew nothing of this as I
pushed aside a demi-john of lime vodka and picked up a graphic novel recommended by a friend. At the time a career in the flavoured vodka business beckoned and I was experimenting with flavours in my kitchen. The demi-johns were heavy, my hands were sticky with citrus, and I’d managed to get vodka in my eye – Dotter of her Father’s Eyes, by Mary and Bryan Talbot, looked like a bit of light relief.
The “light relief” turned out to be a comic-style autobiography, cleverly twinned with a short but moving account of Lucia Joyce’s life. I’d studied Joyce at university, some 25 years earlier, but knew nothing of his daughter. I was instantly struck by the juxtaposition of the world-famous, iconic figure of Joyce and his “unknown” daughter. Everything about her intrigued me. I wanted to know more about this beautiful girl who’d studied modern dance in 1920s Paris.
I wanted to know what happened between her and Samuel Beckett, and between her and the American artist, Alexander Calder. Why had her lovers had such stellar careers, while her own promising career as a dancer languished? I wanted to know what it was like to have a father deemed to be a genius pornographer, and a mother who’d been an uneducated chambermaid – another odd juxtaposition. I wanted to know how it felt to be at the heart of one of the most exciting periods in artistic history. But most of all I wanted to know why she was left, friendless and forgotten, in an English mental asylum for 50 years. What had happened to make her own mother and brother abandon her so ruthlessly?
Hoping to find some answers, I turned to a 600-page biography written a decade earlier by an American Joyce scholar called Carol Loeb Schloss. The biography was meticulously researched and yet entire swathes of Lucia’s life were unaccounted for. Why? Because most of her letters (to her, from her, about her) had been purposefully destroyed. Her medical records had been burnt. She spent four months in analysis with the legendary Carl Jung in Switzerland. He too had destroyed all his notes. Poems and a novel she’d written had also been lost or destroyed. Lucia’s life seemed to be little more than a few bald facts strung together and viewed through the lens of other people, many of whom seemed entirely unreliable. And yet newspaper reviews (which I quote in the novel) raved about her talent.
I began reading anything I could find on 1920s Paris and the Joyce family. I went to the National Archives and the James Joyce Centres in Zurich and Trieste, trawling through clippings, photographs and previously-censored material. The more I researched, the angrier I became. Joyce’s daughter had been obliterated from history, her voice smothered. I realised that if I wanted to understand and experience her life, I would have to use the facts gleaned from my research – and imagine the rest. Only a novel was going to give me the emotional truth of Lucia. Only fiction could provide the emotional access to the past I was looking for. To experience her life, both in the intense, claustrophobic Joyce household and colourful, creative, jazz-age Paris needed imagination, not another biography or history book. And, as Doris Lessing famously said, “There’s no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth”.
So the vodka business was put to one side as I began writing Lucia’s story, fuelled by outrage. I’d never attended any writing courses, but ploughed on regardless. As my research gathered pace, I was horrified to uncover a pattern of young, newly liberated women being carted off to asylums: Lucia’s sister-in-law; her first boyfriend’s sister (who was the first French translator of Joyce’s Dubliners); Zelda, the wife of F Scott Fitzgerald, (who studied ballet alongside Lucia). All appear in my novel – and all ended up with diagnoses of schizophrenia. Lucia and Zelda both died in asylums. They had both longed to be professional dancers. They had both, it seemed to me, lived in the shadows of more successful men.
These young women were also victims of the rapid change sweeping through the developed world. The 1920s was a time of huge change – cars, cameras, telephones and radios were altering the lives of everyone. In Paris, hems were up and stockings were down as young women embraced change and all it promised. But beneath the glamour and glitter lay a dark underbelly. As I wrote The Joyce Girl, I noticed similarities with our own period. Today, technology and social media have revolutionised our world and yet beneath the glossy Technicolor of Instagram and Facebook lurks a similarly dark underbelly, with soaring rates of mental health problems among the young. The more I researched, the more I saw parallels between the 1920s and the 2010s – as new generations (particularly, but not exclusively, female) struggled to adapt to new values, to new ways of behaving and seeing themselves. Hence I decided to give my first-year profits to a charity called YoungMinds.
Lucia’s story was particularly interesting because she very much wanted to be a modern woman, and yet her parents retained a strongly Irish sense of propriety – in spite of Joyce’s image as a radical writer changing the face of fiction. It was here, in the father-daughter element of the story, that Lucia’s story resonated at a more personal level. Like Lucia, I grew up with a poet-father who exiled himself in order to pursue his art. The Joyces went to Italy and adopted Italian as their lingua franca. We went to Wales and learned Welsh. Like the Joyces, we lived in relative poverty, moving frequently during the first 10 years of my life.
My childhood was very much the “lite” version – but the similarities enabled me to understand how she might have felt. While many children grow up with the sense of a largely absent father, having a writer as a father results in something quite different – a father who is present in body but absent in spirit. Joyce worked and wrote obsessively. He was convinced of his own genius. He refused to compromise the integrity of his art for anything – or anyone. My father was similarly compulsive. Like Lucia and her brother, Giorgio, I and my siblings grew up in thrall to the creative will. Reading Ulysses for the third time reminded me of how particularly absent Joyce must have been from his children’s childhood. But there the similarities ended.
The Joyce Girl is my attempt to resurrect Lucia and give her a voice, to experience 1920s Paris as she might have done, to understand why her life fizzled out in the way it did. I hope I’ve done her a scrap of the justice she deserves.
The Joyce Girl, published by Impress today, is Annabel Abbs’ first novel. It won the Impress Prize for New Writers, and was longlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award and the Bath Novel Award. She sponsors a full bursary for aspiring writers on the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA and lives in London
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Lucia Joyce dancing at Bullier Ball - Paris, May 1929
Lucia Anna Joyce (26 July 1907 Trieste - 12 December 1982 Northampton) was the daughter of Irish writer James Joyce and Nora Barnacle.
Italian was her first language and the language in which she corresponded with her father. She first demonstrated her talent as a dancer after seeing Charlie Chaplin's The Kid in 1921: her party pieces became imitations of Napoleon and the little tramp. She studied dancing from 1925 to 1929, training first with the Dalcroze Institute in Paris run by Jacques Dalcroze, followed by Margaret Morris (granddaughter of William Morris) in her school of modern dance, and later with Raymond Duncan (brother of Isadora Duncan) at his school near Salzburg.
She furthered her studies under Lois Hutton, Hélène Vanel, and Jean Borlin, lead dancer of the Ballet suédois.
In 1927, she danced a short duet as a toy soldier in Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's La Petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl). In 1928, she joined "Les Six de rythme et couleur," a commune of six female dancers that were soon performing at venues in France, Austria, and Germany.
Recognized as a professional dancer, she was profiled in the Paris Times after her performance in La Princesse Primitive at the Vieux-Colombier theatre. The article began: "Lucia Joyce is her father’s daughter. She has James Joyce’s enthusiasm, energy, and a not-yet-determined amount of his genius." Highlighting her choreography for Le Pont d’or, and her skills as a linguist, costume designer, and creator of colour schemes and effects, the article concluded: "When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father."
On 28 May 1929, she was chosen as one of six finalists in the first international festival of dance in Paris held at the Bal Bullier. Although she did not win, the audience - which included her father and the young Samuel Beckett - championed her performance as outstanding and loudly protested the jury’s verdict.
After seven years’ training and nine dance schools in the anti-balletic style, she took up professional ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, who was now based in Paris. Working six hours a day at the age of twenty-two when ballet dancers usually begin training at eight, she broke under the pressure and decided "she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind".
Announcing she would become a Margaret Morris teacher, she then "turned down an offer to join a group in Darmstadt and effectively gave up dancing."
Her biographer Carol Shloss, however, argues that it was her father who finally put an end to her dancing career. Joyce reasoned that the intense physical training for ballet caused her undue stress which in turn exacerbated the long-standing animosity between her and her mother, Nora. The resulting incessant domestic squabbles prevented work on Finnegans Wake. Joyce convinced her she should turn to drawing lettrines to illustrate his prose and forgo her own deep-seated artistic inclinations.
To his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver, Joyce wrote that this resulted in "a month of tears as she thinks she has thrown away three or four years of hard work and is sacrificing a talent".
Lucia started to show signs of mental illness in 1930, a year after she began casually dating the twenty-three year old Samuel Beckett, then a junior lecturer in English at the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris. In May 1930 while her parents were in Zurich, she invited Beckett to dinner, hoping "to press him into some kind of declaration."
He flatly rejected her, explaining that he was only interested in her father and his writing. Joyce biographer Gordon Bowker argues that the underlying reasons for the rejection were Beckett's keen awareness of the "strong unfulfilled erotic bond between Lucia and her father" and her need to find "a genius father-substitute", together with "her predilection for unprotected sex."
By 1934, after failed affairs with her drawing teacher Alexander Calder, and another expatriate artist Albert Hubbell, her condition had deteriorated to the point that Joyce had Carl Gustav Jung take her in as a patient. Soon after, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich.
In 1936, Joyce consented to have his daughter undergo blood tests at St Andrew's Hospital in Northampton. After a short stay, Lucia insisted she return to Paris, the doctors explaining to Joyce that she could not be prevented from doing so unless he had her committed. Joyce told his closest friends that "he would never agree to his daughter being incarcerated among the English."
Lucia returned to stay with Maria Jolas, the wife of transition editor Eugene Jolas, in Neuilly sur Seine. After three weeks, her condition worsened and she was taken away in a straitjacket to the Maison de Santé Velpeau in Vésinet. Considered a danger to both staff and inmates, she was left in isolation. Two months later, she entered the maison de santé of Dr François Achille Delmas at Ivry-sur-Seine.
In 1951 Lucia was again transferred to St Andrew's Hospital. Over the years, she received visits from Beckett, Sylvia Beach, Frank Budgen, Maria Jolas, and Harriet Shaw Weaver who acted as her guardian. In 1962, Beckett donated his share of the royalties from his 1929 contributory essay on Finnegans Wake in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress to help pay for her confinement at St Andrew's. In 1982, Lucia suffered a stroke and died on 12 December of that year. She is buried in Kingsthorpe Cemetery.
Her mental state, and documentation pertaining thereto, is the subject of a 2003 study by Carol Shloss who believes Lucia to have been her father's muse for Finnegans Wake. Making heavy reference to the letters between Lucia Joyce and her father, the study became the subject of a copyright misuse suit by the James Joyce estate. On 25 March 2007, this litigation was resolved. In 2004 her life was the subject of Calico, a West End play written by Michael Hastings, and of the 2012 graphic novel, Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Bryan and Mary M. Talbot. Another play exploring her life, called L, was performed to a limited audience in Concord Academy from April 14-16, 2016. It was written and directed by Sophia Ginzburg.
BOOKS DECEMBER 8, 2003 ISSUE
A FIRE IN THE BRAIN
The difficulties of being James Joyce’s daughter.
William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, “Oh, who is it you wish to see?”
When I think of what it means to be an artist’s child, I remember that story. There are worse fates. But in the artist’s household the shifts that the children must endure—they can’t make noise (he’s working), they can’t leave on vacation (he hasn’t finished the chapter)—are combined with a mystique that this is all for some exalted cause, which they must honor even though they are too young to understand it. Furthermore, if the artist is someone of Yeats’s calibre, the children, as they develop, will measure themselves against him and come up short. In fact, many artists’ children turn out just fine, and grow up to edit their parents’ work and live off the royalties. But some do not—for example, James Joyce’s two children. His son became an alcoholic; his daughter went mad. Carol Loeb Shloss, a Joyce scholar who teaches at Stanford, has just written a book about the latter: “Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $30).
Lucia grew up in a disorderly household. Joyce had turned his back on Ireland in 1904, when he was twenty-two. Convinced that he was a genius but that his countrymen would never recognize this, he persuaded Nora Barnacle, his wife-to-be, to sail with him to the Continent. They eventually landed in Trieste, and there, for the next decade or so, he worked as a language teacher and completed “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” With the publication of “Portrait,” in 1916, he acquired rich patrons, but until then—that is, throughout his children’s early years—the Joyces were very poor. Some days they went without dinner. Their first child, Giorgio, was born in 1905, a bonny, easy baby, and, furthermore, a boy. Nora adored him till the day she died. Two years after Giorgio came Lucia, a sickly, difficult child, and a girl, with strabismus. (That is, she was cross-eyed. Nora, too, had strabismus, but hers was far less noticeable.) Lucia’s earliest memories of her mother were of scoldings. Joyce, on the other hand, loved Lucia, spoiled her, sang to her, but only when he had time. He worked all day and then, on many nights, he went out and got blind drunk. The family was evicted from apartment after apartment. By the age of seven, Lucia had lived at five different addresses. By thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. The First World War forced the Joyces to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. As a result, Lucia received a spotty education, during which she was repeatedly left back by reason of having to learn a new language.
Was she strange from childhood? With people who become mentally ill as adults, this question is always hard to answer, because most witnesses, knowing what happened later, read it back into the early years, and are sure that the signs were already there. Richard Ellmann, the author of the standard biography of Joyce, and Brenda Maddox, in her “Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce,” both note that the young Lucia seemed to stare off into space, but the strabismus might account for this. It is also said that she was reticent socially. Although she was talkative at home—a “saucebox,” her father called her—she apparently went through periods when she spoke to few people outside her family. But the language-switching could explain this. A friend of the family described her, in her twenties, as “illiterate in three languages.” It was four, actually: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was her native tongue, the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after (because Joyce found it easier on the voice). It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived.
When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, mostly of the new, anti-balletic, “aesthetic” variety, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with the toga-clad Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed now and then, in Paris and elsewhere, as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer. She is said to have excelled in sauvage roles. But eventually she left this group, as she left every group. (I count nine dance schools in seven years.) In part, that may have been due to lack of encouragement from her family. Nora reportedly nagged Lucia to give up dancing. According to members of the family, she was jealous of the attention the girl received. As for Joyce, Brenda Maddox says he felt “it was unseemly for women to get on the stage and wave their arms about.”
Finally, after seven years’ training in the left wing of dance, Lucia bolted to the right wing, and embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction with Lubov Egorova, formerly of the Maryinsky Theatre, in St. Petersburg. This was a terrible idea. Professional ballet dancers begin their training at around the age of eight. Lucia was twenty-two. She worked six hours a day, but of course she couldn’t catch up, and, in her discouragement, she concluded that she was not physically strong enough to be a dancer of any kind—a decision, Joyce wrote to a friend, that cost her “a month’s tears.”
The loss of her dance career was not the only grief that Lucia suffered in her early twenties. The publication of “Ulysses,” in 1922, made Joyce a star, and there were plenty of young artistic types in Paris who thought it would be nice to be attached to his family. When Giorgio was in his late teens, an American heiress, Helen Fleischman, laid claim to him; eventually he moved in with her. Lucia, who had been very close to Giorgio, felt abandoned. She was also scandalized. (Fleischman was eleven years older than Giorgio, and married.) Finally, she wondered what she was missing. She decided to find out, and in the space of about two years she was rejected by three men: her father’s assistant, Samuel Beckett, who told her he wasn’t interested in her in that way; her drawing teacher, Alexander Calder, who bedded her but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, who had an affair with her and then went back to his wife. Lucia became more experimental. She took to meeting a sailor at the Eiffel Tower. She announced that she was a lesbian. During these romantic travails, she became more distressed over her strabismus. She had the eye operated on, but it didn’t change. Soon afterward, her pride received another blow: her parents told her that they were going to get married. (Giorgio’s marriage to the newly divorced Fleischman got them thinking about legality and inheritance.) This is how she discovered that they never had been married and that she was a bastard.
The following year, on Joyce’s fiftieth birthday, Lucia picked up a chair and threw it at her mother, whereupon Giorgio took her to a medical clinic and checked her in. “He thereby changed her fate,” Shloss writes. That is a strong judgment, but it is true in part, because the minute an emotionally disturbed person is placed in an institution the story enters a new phase, in which we see not just the original problem but its alterations under institutionalization: the effects of drugs, the humiliation of being locked up and supervised, the consequent change in the person’s self-image and in other people’s image of him or her. For the next three years, Lucia went back and forth between home and hospital. One night in 1933, she was at home when the news came that a United States District Court had declared “Ulysses” not obscene (which meant that it could be published in the States). The Joyces’ phone rang and rang with congratulatory calls. Lucia cut the phone wires—“I’m the artist,” she said—and when they were repaired she cut them again. As her behavior grew worse, her hospitalizations became longer. She went from French clinics to Swiss sanitariums. She was analyzed by Jung. (Briefly—she wanted no part of him.) One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” which at that time was a subtype of schizophrenia, describing patients who showed antic, “naughty” behavior. Another diagnostician said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness. At one point in 1935, when she seemed stabler, her parents let her go visit some cousins in Bray, a seaside town near Dublin. There she set a peat fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call she tried to unbutton their trousers. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap, in a sort of suicidal game. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways, or worse. When she was found, she herself asked to be taken to a nursing home.
Soon afterward, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris. She was twenty-eight, and she never lived on the outside again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though periodically she would go into a tearing rage—breaking windows, attacking people—and then she would be put in a straitjacket until she calmed down. This went on for forty-seven years, until her death, in 1982, at the age of seventy-five.
Carol Shloss believes that Lucia’s case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father’s sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing “Finnegans Wake,” and there were people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very dependent—who believed that the future of Western literature depended on his ability to finish this book. But he was not finishing it, because he was too busy worrying about Lucia. He was desperate to keep her at home. His friends—and also Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the primary target of her fury—insisted that she be institutionalized. The entourage finally prevailed, and Joyce completed “Finnegans Wake.” In Shloss’s view, Lucia was the price paid for a book.
But, as Shloss tells it, the silencing of Lucia went further than that. Her story was erased. After Joyce’s death, many of his friends and relatives, in order to cover over this sad (and reputation-beclouding) episode, destroyed Lucia’s letters, together with Joyce’s letters to and about her. Shloss says that Giorgio’s son, Stephen Joyce, actually removed letters from a public collection in the National Library of Ireland. When Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora was in galleys, Maddox was required to delete her epilogue on Lucia in return for permission to quote various Joyce materials. Shloss doesn’t waste any tears over Maddox, however. In her opinion, Maddox and Ellmann are among the sinners, because they assumed, and thereby persuaded the public, that Lucia was insane. (Whenever Shloss catches Ellmann or Maddox in what seems to her a factual error, she records it snappishly—a tone inadvisable for a writer who, forced to swot up three decades of dance history, made some errors herself.) But the biographers are a side issue. None of Lucia’s letters survive as original documents. Nor is there any trace of her diaries or poems, or of a novel that she is said to have been writing. In other words, most of the primary sources for an account of Lucia Joyce’s life are missing. “This is a story that was not supposed to be told,” Shloss writes. Therefore she tells it with a vengeance.
Shloss says that Lucia was a pioneering artist: “Through her we watch the birth of modernism.” She compares her to Prometheus, “privately engaged in stealing fire.” She compares her to Icarus, who flew too close to the sun. Insofar as these statements have to do with Lucia’s dance career, Shloss is as hard up for evidence as all other people writing about dance that predated the widespread use of film and video recording. What those writers do is quote reviewers and witnesses. But Lucia’s stage career was very short; Shloss is able to document maybe ten or twenty professional performances, and Lucia’s contributions to them were apparently not reviewed. Once, in 1929, when she competed in a dance contest in Paris, a critic singled her out as “subtle and barbaric.” Apropos of that performance, Shloss also quotes the diary of Joyce’s friend Stuart Gilbert: “Ballet yesterday; fils prodigue is a compromise between pas d’acier (steps of steel) and neo-Stravinsky.” This would be an interesting compliment if the prodigal son in question were Lucia, but what Gilbert is clearly describing is George Balanchine’s ballet “Le Fils Prodigue,” which had its première in Paris, with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, three days before Lucia’s dance contest.
Shloss’s evaluation of Lucia as an artist is not limited to her dance career, however. Lucia, she tells us, collaborated with Joyce on “Finnegans Wake.” One of Lucia’s cousins, Bozena Berta Schaurek, visited the Joyces briefly in 1928, and in an interview fifty years later she recalled something from that visit: while Joyce worked, “Lucia danced silently in the background.” Joyce prided himself on his ability to write under almost any conditions, so if his niece saw him, once or twice, working in the same room where Lucia was practicing, this would not be surprising. But in Shloss’s mind Schaurek’s report prompts a vision:
There are two artists in this room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning. The two communicate with a secret, unarticulated voice. The writing of the pen, the writing of the body become a dialogue of artists, performing and counterperforming, the pen, the limbs writing away.
The father notices the dance’s autonomous eloquence. He understands the body to be the hieroglyphic of a mysterious writing, the dancer’s steps to be an alphabet of the inexpressible. . . . The place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness. They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts but a language nevertheless, founded on the communicative body. In the room are flows, intensities.
Shloss thinks that this artistic symbiosis went on for years and that out of it came the theme of “Finnegans Wake” (flow), its linguistic experiments, much of its imagery, and also, because dance is abstract, its quasi-abstract quality. In return for these artistic gains, Shloss says, Lucia’s life was forfeited. Transfixed by Joyce’s gaze, she became too self-aware. And magicked by her relationship with him—“one of the great love stories of the twentieth century,” Shloss calls it—she could never form an attachment to another man. Even years later, when Lucia is in the sanitarium and doing bizarre things—painting her face black, sending telegrams to dead people—Shloss believes that this was Lucia’s way of giving her father material. She wasn’t schizophrenic; she was working on “Finnegans Wake.”
This elevation of Lucia to the role of collaborator on “Finnegans Wake” is the book’s most spectacular act of inflation, but by no means the only one. The less Shloss knows, the more she tells us. On Lucia’s studies with Raymond Duncan, for example, she seems to have almost no information. But here, among many other things, is what she says on the subject:
Lucia’s mind was filled with the grammar of vitality, prizing the dynamic over the static order. She imagined herself in terms of tension and its release; she felt the anxieties of opposing muscle to muscle and the heady mastery of resistances, knew the peace of working with gravity and not against it. To drop, to rebound, to lift, to suspend oneself. To fall and recover, to know the experience of grounding oneself and then arising to circle to the edge of ecstasy. Priests danced, children danced, philosophers’ thoughts rose and fell in rhythmic sequence; lovers danced, and so did Lucia.
This is what you get when you tear up letters on a biographer. Underlying that passage—indeed, the whole book—are many of the irrationalist formulas associated in the public mind with dance. Painting is an art, writing is an art, but dance is a religion, an immolation. It is primitive, it is sexual, it is Dionysiac. (Shloss gives us a talk on Nietzsche.) It is an ecstasy, an obsession—the Red Shoes. Therefore it is cousin to insanity. Shloss points us to Zelda Fitzgerald, who also threw herself into ballet in her twenties, also studied with Egorova, and also went mad. (The two women even ended up in the same Swiss hospital, though Zelda was gone before Lucia checked in.) Nijinsky, too, is invoked. And Lucia’s symptoms are repeatedly described as her way of dancing.
In some sections, however, Shloss forgets that she is writing a symbolist poem or a Laingian treatise and starts writing a biography. That, of course, is when she has some information to go on. At one juncture, she quotes from a history of Lucia that Joyce and his friend Paul Léon wrote for one of the hospitals that she was sent to: “The patient insists that despite her diligence, her talent and all her exertions, the results of her work have come to nothing. The brother, her contemporary, whom she previously idolized, has never worked at anything, is well known, has married wealth, has a beautiful apartment, a car with a chauffeur and, on top of it all, a beautiful wife.” Lucia herself said to a companion that her situation was “just as if you had been very rich, and collected many valuable things, and then they were taken away from you.” These are modest statements, about cars and money, not Dionysus, but they are the ones that make you want to cry.
Another poignant section of the book has to do with Joyce’s efforts on Lucia’s behalf. Joyce believed that Lucia’s problems were somehow inherited from him: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.” (In fact, the fire may have been transmitted by Nora, whose sister Dilly spent a year and a half in a lunatic asylum.) He tried to find ways to heal her, please her. He bought her a fur coat (“My wish for you is warmth and beauty”), and when she lost it he bought her another one. To replace dancing, he persuaded her to take up book illustration—she drew lettrines, ornamental capitals—and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for her work. He didn’t think she was crazy; he thought she was special—“a fantastic being,” with her own private language. “I understand it,” he said, “or most of it.” If there was something wrong with her, maybe it was an infection, or a hormone imbalance. (She was given hormones, and also injections of seawater. The treatment of schizophrenia in those days was basically stabs in the dark, as it is still.) He spared no expense. In 1935, Léon reported that three-quarters of Joyce’s income was going to Lucia’s care. When the Germans invaded France, in 1940, and the family had to flee to Switzerland, Joyce practically killed himself in the vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. Indeed, he may have killed himself. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer.
Shloss loves Joyce for the pains he took over Lucia. The enemies in her book, apart from the letter-destroyers, are Nora and Giorgio—especially Giorgio, who, though by this time he spent his days in an alcoholic haze, was always forgiven everything by his family, and who, time and again, was the first person to say that his sister should be put away. Shloss repeatedly suggests—again, without evidence—that there may have been some sexual contact between Lucia and Giorgio when they were in their teens or earlier, and that Giorgio, in his rush to institutionalize her, may have been trying to silence her on this subject.
Shloss’s book is part of a tradition, the biography-of-the-artist’s-woman—a genre that is now about thirty years old, as old as its source, modern feminism. Its goal is to show that many great works of art by men were fed on the blood of women, who were then, at best, forgotten by history or, at worst, maddened by their exploitation and then clapped in an institution. In the latter cases—Shloss’s “Lucia,” Carole Seymour-Jones’s “Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot, and the Long-Suppressed Truth About Her Influence on His Genius”—these books can be very indignant. (Not always. Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald basically comes down on Scott’s side.) When the woman is merely unacknowledged, the tone tends to be milder, as in Brenda Maddox’s “Nora”—which, pace Shloss, says that Nora was the primary inspiration for Joyce’s work—or Ann Saddlemyer’s “Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats,” which tells the weird story of how Yeats’s wife, Georgie, was the medium (literally) through which he reached the spirit world and thus found the subject of his late work. In recent years, possibly because most of the really shocking cases have been used up, the arguments seem to be getting subtler. In Stacy Schiff’s “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)” we are shown a woman whose contribution to her husband’s work was to meld with him in the creation of a single, shared personality, which then wrote the books and lived the life—a curious phenomenon.
All these biographies, subtle or not, are valuable, and not only for the sake of justice (when that is what they achieve) but because they tell an important truth about how artists get their work done. Many people are brilliant, and from that you may get one novel, as Zelda Fitzgerald did. But to write five novels (Scott) or seventeen (Nabokov)—to make a career—you must have, with brilliance, a number of less glamorous virtues, for example, patience, resilience, and courage. Lucia Joyce encountered obstacles and threw up her hands; James Joyce faced worse obstacles—for most of his writing life, publishers ran from him in droves—but he persisted. When the critics made fun of Zelda’s novel, she stopped publishing; when Scott had setbacks—indeed, when he was a falling-down drunk—he went on hoping, and working. Lucia and Zelda may have been less gifted than the men in question. But there is something else going on here, too, which the biographies-of-the-artists’-women record: that while nature seems to award brilliance equally to men and women, society does not nurture it equally in the two sexes, and thus leaves the women more discourageable. Nor, in females, does the world reward selfishness, which, sad to say, artists seem to need, or so one gathers from the portraits of the men in these books. One can also gather it from biographies of the women who did not lose heart—for example, George Eliot, whose books were the product of a life custom-padded by her mate, George Lewes. (Phyllis Rose, in her “Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages,” reports that for twenty-four years Lewes screened Eliot’s incoming letters, together with all reviews of her books, and threw away anything that might distress her.) Then there is Virginia Woolf, whose novels would never have been written had she not had non-stop nursing care from Leonard Woolf. Virginia knew this, and seems to have decided she deserved it, or so she suggests in “A Room of One’s Own.” But, male or female, once the artist walks into that private room and closes the door, a lot of people are going to feel shut out—are going to be shut out—and they may suffer. ♦