(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The publication of this thoroughly researched biography so outraged Stephen Joyce, the only surviving direct descendant of James and Nora Joyce, that he announced publicly (in June of 1988) that he had destroyed dozens of letters written by and to his aunt, Lucia Joyce, daughter of his famous grandparents. Needless to say, the nephew’s destruction of the letters shocked and sickened scholars the world over. From a humanistic standpoint, however, some might view his actions as honorable, occuring as they did at a time when biographies are becoming increasingly and unflinchingly intimate—becoming, that is, what Joyce Carol Oates has called “pathography.” Brenda Maddox’s portrait of the Joyce family is certainly burled with pathographic strains. For example, using among other sources the famous “dirty letters” which Joyce wrote to Nora during their separation in 1909 (Nora’s side of the correspondence has not been found), the biographer delves as deeply as possible into the Joyces’ sexual proclivities, revealing not only his anal fixation, as well as his fetish for cloacal images and mild forms of sadomasochism, but also Nora’s early willingness to satisfy her “Jim.” From early in the biography, Maddox also uses pathographic tidbits regarding Lucia’s mental illness, from its incipient to advanced stages, to spice the plot and bait the reader needlessly.

Noteworthy here is that, while nobody can be certain of the value of the correspondence which Stephen Joyce destroyed, his actions call attention to complicated issues: What are the ethical responsibilities and legal rights of biographers, scholars, and literary heirs? To what extent, for example, should the tragic life of Lucia Joyce be exposed to public view and inspection because she happened to be the daughter of a famous writer? Must her right to privacy have been abrogated at her birth because, through no choice of her own, her father was a celebrity? Apparently, Lucia’s nephew feels certain about the answers to such questions as these.

Even before Maddox’s biography of Nora Joyce was published, Stephen Joyce had threatened to withhold permission to quote copyrighted material if her publisher refused to delete from the book an epilogue about Lucia, titled “Her Mother’s Daughter.” The section was excised a few weeks before publication. In the light of Joyce’s destruction of his aunt’s letters, however, another epilogue, titled “His Grandmother’s Grandson,” might have replaced the one deleted, since Nora Joyce herself announced to a friend in 1939: “I’ve just spent the most awful day tearing up Jim’s letters to me. They were nobody’s business.” Fortunately, she came nowhere near destroying all of her husband’s letters to her, as was made apparent in Selected Letters of James Joyce (1975), edited by the late Richard Ellmann, and again in Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. Ironically, Stephen Joyce’s public demand that his family’s rights to privacy be honored, as well as his wrangling with Maddox’s publisher and his announced destruction of biographical material, certainly provided what this biography of his grandmother, in all fairness, deserves—that is, outstanding publicity and a large readership.

Although not a scholarly masterpiece like Ellmann’s hagiographic James Joyce (1959, revised 1982), wherein much if not most information about Nora Joyce is relegated to footnotes, Nora has been widely and justifiably praised by reviewers as an essential companion piece to Ellmann’s monumental study. Until Maddox’s much-needed reassessment of Nora became available, the accepted view of Joyce’s wife was that she was a semiliterate, foulmouthed, slovenly housewife who could not cook, who never grew much beyond being the uncultured chambermaid she was when Joyce met her in Dublin in 1904, and who had neither an interest in nor an affinity for her husband’s literary masterpieces. Maddox portrays instead a woman of formidable character, quick wit, direct statements, and outstanding conversational gifts, a woman with an ability to dominate her profligate, hard-drinking husband, an extensive knowledge of opera and deep love of Richard Wagner’s music, and a practical fluency in Italian, German, and French. Barely able to function the few times they were separated, Joyce was totally dependent upon Nora, his “portable Ireland,” who called him her “simple-minded Jim.” While it is true that her formal education ended when she was twelve, later in life she had memorized most of her husband’s poems, and she believed Finnegans Wake (1939) to be superior to Ulysses. That Nora never read past page 27 of Ulysses was not because she was intellectually incapable of appreciating it, Maddox contends, but because Joyce had poured into the book so much of their life together that is was painful reading for her.


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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the hands of their husbands’ critics and biographers, writers’ wives tend to be either neglected or abused. Brenda Maddox seeks to rescue Nora Joyce (nee Nora Barnacle) from both oblivion and opprobrium; it is a noble and extraordinarily difficult (as well as long overdue) task in which the author only partially succeeds. Overcoming the objections of Joyce’s admirers, who often portrayed Nora as illiterate and unsympathetic, proves to be relatively easy, for such claims were based more on prejudice than fact. Unfortunately for Maddox and her readers, the facts in Nora’s case are few. Little is known about Nora before she met Joyce on June 10, 1904, and most of what concerns her after that time has already been noted by other Joyce scholars, most notably Richard Ellmann. Although Maddox cannot add very much in the way of hard facts, she can and does bring to those facts a fresh and wholly necessary point of view, one that manages to be largely sympathetic toward Nora without being unduly critical of Joyce.

Less a biography of Nora Joyce and even less a feminist tract than an exhaustively researched (if at times leadenly written) study of the Joyces, NORA examines the “deeper dependency” that kept them together for thirty-seven years (the first twenty-seven outside the marriage contract) and that was based, as Maddox sees it, on a mutual need for maternal affection. That the couple, Nora in particular, had to overcome extraordinary obstacles is...

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