Lucia Joyce

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Mosaic section of Ceylon Today on Sunday June 15 2014.


On June 16 every year, aficionados of James Joyce’s Ulysses celebrate Bloomsday, named for Leopold Bloom, the main character, reliving the events of the novel, which is set on 16 June 1904. That was the date of Joyce’s first outing with his wife-to-be, Nora Barnacle (Joyce’s father said, “Well, she’ll stick to him, anyway”).

I made my own preparations for Bloomsday by re-reading To Dance in the Wake by Carol Loeb Shloss, a biography of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. Lucia was the light giver, the “wonder wild,” Joyce wrote. She was the “Rainbow girl” in Finnegans Wake, Issy the temptress, who magically breaks up into the colours of the rainbow. Lucia had a mind “as clear and as unsparing as the lightning,” Joyce once wrote in a letter. “She is a fantastic being.”


Lucia studied dance with Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond, and did lively impressions of Charlie Chaplin. In 1927, she had a part in Jean Renoir’s film The Little Match Girl. She danced with Les Six (a name given to a group of French composers – Auric, Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Tailleferre and Durey). A French journalist wrote in 1928, “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.” In 1929, Lucia Joyce was one of six finalists in the first international festival of dance in Paris. She wore the costume shown on the cover of the book – a slithery-scaled mermaid costume of blue, green and silver that she designed and made. The audience booed when first prize was awarded to a Frenchwoman, and demanded it be given to “the Irish girl.”


Today, Lucia Joyce, if she thought of at all, is regarded as the mad daughter of a famous father. She spent the last 45 years of her life in institutions, incarcerated and medicated, until she died in 1982, at the age of 75. Was she mad? What was the nature of her illness? How did it manifest itself? When did it start? What caused it?

Joyce 1924 J,N,L,G

It seems that Lucia’s relationship with her famous father might have been a big factor. Being treated by another famous man, Carl Gustav Jung, did not help. “To think that such a big, fat materialistic Swiss man should try to get hold of my soul,” she said. Jung thought her so bound up with her father’s psychic system, that analysis could not be successful. Jung himself seemed to be obsessed with his own loathing of Joyce.


At her father’s 50th birthday, on February 2 1932, she threw a chair at her mother, Nora. The immediate reason for the tantrum was that her parents had invited Samuel Beckett to the party. Lucia and Beckett had been lovers. Beckett worked as a secretary for Joyce and had many friends in his circle. It would have been odd not to invite Beckett but Lucia saw it as a personal betrayal. Her brother, Giorgio, took her to a medical clinic and checked her in.


Lucia started to show signs of mental illness in 1930, around the time she began her relationship with Beckett. Beckett told her that he was more interested in James Joyce than in her.Around the same time, three other men rejected her.

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The artist Alexander Calder, bedded her, but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, had an affair with her and also went back to his wife. In 1932, she was contemplating marriage to Alec Ponisovsky, who gave Joyce Russian lessons. Ponisovsky was in love with another woman and Lucia still pined for Beckett. She collapsed, lying for days in a catatonic state.


It was difficult to treat her because no one could decide what was wrong with her. Psychiatry may not inspire much confidence even in 2014, but in the 1930s, it was scrabbling around to make its mind up. One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” a word used to describe patients who showed antic behavior. Another said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness. Others guessed at a range of possibilities from schizophrenia to syphilis to barbiturate addiction to simple moodiness. Her treatments included injections with seawater and animal serum, barbiturates and solitary confinement.

In 1933, when friends called Joyce to congratulate him on winning his obscenity trial in the United States, enabling the publication of Ulysses, Lucia cut the phone wire, saying, “I am the artist!” In 1935, she visited some cousins in Bray, near Dublin. She started a fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call, she tried to unbutton their trousers. She sent telegrams to dead people. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she tramped the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways.

Lucia did not have a normal childhood. She was born in 1907 in a Trieste pauper’s ward, after her father had exiled himself from Dublin. By the age of seven, she had lived at five different addresses. Their parents often left Lucia and her brother Giorgio home alone. ”You are locking us up like pigs in a sty,” the children shouted to their departing parents. By the age of thirteen, she had lived in three different countries. She shared her parents’ bedroom until well into her teens, and was expected to observe outdated social codes that shocked her friends.

The First World War forced the family to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris. Stuart Gilbert was a friend of Joyce for many years. He published James Joyce’s Ulysses: a Study in 1930, and published a collection of Joyce’s letters in 1957. He did not much like Lucia and described her, in her twenties, as “illiterate in three languages.” She knew four languages: German, French, English, and Triestine Italian. The last was the language that her family used at home, not just in Trieste but forever after. It was not, however, what people spoke in most of the places where she lived. This held her back in her education. Joyce saw no call to educate her – “He said it was enough if a woman could write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.”


The Joyces’ civil marriage in 1931, 26 years after they started living together, was a traumatic shock to Lucia. ”If I am a bastard,” Lucia screamed at Nora in one of their rows, ”who made me one?” Lucia’s relationship with her mother was fraught and there is little doubt that Nora favoured Giorgio, who was two years older than his sister. Lucia inherited strabismus from her mother but it was more noticeable in the daughter. The father seemed besotted with the daughter, but spoiled her and sang to her only when he could find the time. He worked all day and got blind drunk most evenings.

Joyce persuaded Lucia to take up book illustration—she drew lettrines, ornamental capitals—and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for illustrating his book, Pomes Pennyeach. The publishers lost her work. Joyce thought his daughter was special—“a fantastic being”. He grieved over her incessantly, but he was in the middle of writing Finnegans Wake, and he was going blind. He was desperate to keep her at home but Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia and who was the target of her fury—insisted that she be put away. When Lucia was twenty-eight, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris 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 break windows and attack people.

In 1935, 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 made a vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer. After Joyce’s death, Nora and Giorgio abandoned Lucia, and Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s patron, became her guardian. In 1951, after Nora’s death, Lucia was moved for the last time, to St. Andrew’s, in Northampton, England. In the 1950s, drugs replaced the straitjacket and she was calm and tractable. She might have lived outside an institution, had there been anywhere for her to go. She died in 1982.


Hermione Lee described Shloss’s prose style as “fervid glop”. Sean O’Hagan wrote in the London Observer that Shloss’s claims for Lucia were “ambitious and at times extravagantly overreaching”. In The Independent, Brian Dillon wrote: “Lucia sometimes fails to bear the strain of this athletic academicism”.

There is some justice in the criticism. There is a daunting amount of speculation, surmise and unconvincingly supported supposition in the book. Shloss can overwrite in her attempt to prove that Lucia was an artist of high calibre and a muse who contributed to her father’s work. Nonetheless, I found the book moving for the picture it paints of a pretty, talented woman succumbing to a life of incarceration. Shloss gives us a sympathetic new angle on James Joyce – the great writer who subordinated everyone around him to the service of his art was also a desperate, doting father who died trying to save the daughter he would never admit was insane.