Nora and James Joyce: making women’s speech the universal tongue

Maybe writing about typos in Ulysses triggered it, but I finally took Brenda Maddox’s book Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce off the shelf. It’s an exceptional study, rich in insight and research: highly recommended to anyone interested in her life, personality, and relationships, and in the author himself.

Maddox defends Nora soundly against a tendency in some Joyce scholarship to caricature her as ignorant or even illiterate. The scarcity of Nora’s own letters for some decades didn’t help this perception, nor did her famous dislike of Ulysses. She appreciated its value, but ‘her acceptance was always tempered by her dismay at its obscenity’, Maddox writes. When Joyce complained that Wagner, whom Nora loved, was obscene, Nora pointed irrefutably at Ulysses.

The conclusions drawn from this incident with Arthur Power ring true:

When Joyce presented Nora with her copy of the first edition of Ulysses, she weighed it in her hand and, tilting her head towards Arthur Power, who was watching, said, ‘How much will you give me for this?’ In later years her remark was interpreted as a sign of ignorance but Power, who liked her very much, took it as the taunt of a strong confident woman cutting her man down to size. Joyce, however, did not laugh. Nora’s indifference to his work saddened and tantalised him. It was part of her desirability and unattainability that his genius was of no interest to her. She loved him for his ordinariness.

Several women informed the creation of Molly Bloom, Nora most of all. Comparing Nora and Molly, Maddox notes that ‘their names have the same vowel and stress pattern’ – that’s vowel in the alphabetical, not phonetic, sense – and that ‘to Joyce’s acute ear, different vowels suggested certain personal characteristics. He linked “o” with boldness.’ A footnote cites Phillip Herring’s Ulysses Notesheets in the British Museum, which categorises the vowel associations as follows:

‘a’ – frankness

‘e’ – enclosed

‘i’ – weakness

‘o’ – boldness

‘u’ – misanthropy

Minerva books cover of Brenda Maddox's biography of Nora Joyce (née Barnacle), featuring Nora in large colour portrait facing the camera with a frank and ambiguous expressionMake of that what you will. In Irish English bold has the primary meaning ‘naughty’, but here it carries the standard meaning of ‘confident, intrepid’. Somehow Joyce’s vowel associations remind me of a passage in Ulysses where he talks about words changing colour like crabs in Ringsend.

Contrary to popular belief, Nora did love some of her husband’s work. She knew many of his poems by heart, and she sang the praises of Finnegans Wake, especially when read aloud: she liked its musicality and the fact that it made Joyce laugh – even though, at night, this meant he kept her awake (‘Now Jim, stop writing or stop laughing’). Nora’s influence on the Wake, though less explicit than in Ulysses (true of most things in the Wake), should not be understated:

Today, Marxist scholars among the Joyceans observe that in the Wake, Joyce wrests English from its colonial past; they remark also that Ireland’s two greatest prose writers of the twentieth century chose to shun the language of the conqueror, Joyce by inventing his own language, Beckett by writing in French.

Yet the universal language that Joyce created is really English with foreign touches and a strong Irish accent. That is how Nora spoke. All her life her speech retained the rhythms of Ireland . . . . If the polyglot language of the Wake is Joyce’s triumphal answer to Stephen Dedalus’s complaint against the English spoken by his dean of studies in A Portrait – ‘The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine’ – it is also true that the words of Molly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle were Nora’s before they were Joyce’s. In using a female voice to utter the universal truth – that all things die and are born again – Joyce was making women’s speech the universal tongue.

For more excerpts and thoughts from Nora (including the source of Molly Bloom’s yesses, and why Nora liked the cemetery where Joyce is buried), click through to this Twitter thread:

And if you’re ever in Galway, Nora Barnacle House on Bowling Green – said to be the smallest museum in Ireland – is a lovely place to visit. If it’s open, that is; sadly, it often isn’t. But Maddox’s great biography is.

9 Responses to Nora and James Joyce: making women’s speech the universal tongue

  1. Pauntley Roope says:

    Art Garfunkel liked Maddox’ biography of Nora too, singling it out for special mention in his list of every book he ever read since 1968:
    ‘Books with astericks are favorites’.
    That stacks up as a lovely recreation of ‘asterisk’, rather than a typo or simple spelling error.

    • Stan Carey says:

      That’s interesting, and he seems to have read it quite soon after it was published. Astericks is a nice reanalysis all right, or else it’s an archaism: the spelling was also used in the 16thC, according to the OED.

  2. Roger says:

    Regarding Nora Joyce’s letters: Books of published letters must be increasingly rare. Kingsley Amis’s letters appeared in the 2000s, but there will surely be fewer such books. I picked up three at a sale a week ago, Henry James’s to Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, and Ezra Pound’s. In a way, since the letters would not have been intended for a general audience, they are better than an autobiography. Political scandals apart, would a publisher be interested in collections of emails? To which one is inclined to say “Hah”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Yes, it’s likely their numbers are plummeting, though I don’t have concrete figures to confirm that. I don’t know about ‘better’ than autobiographies, since the latter can encompass the letters, or at least extract what the writer sees as most relevant and interesting. The letters themselves hold their own fascination, but their noise-to-signal ratio is also generally much higher. The last collection I read was Lewis Carroll’s.

  3. Roger says:

    Regarding Nora Barnacle’s house, is that the one with the red door?
    I saw it in the mid-90s, I did not know then it was a museum. And James Joyce was on a currency note at that time. I thought it was a poor likeness of him.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I don’t remember the colour of the door, even though I pointed it out to a friend as we walked by during Cúirt this year. Agreed on the likeness on the £10 note.

  4. Ray Burke says:

    See also – ‘Joyce County : Galway and James Joyce’, published by Currach Press last year, for previously unpublished material on Joyce, Nora and Galway.

  5. ktschwarz says:

    That list of vowel qualities may well be a riff on Rimbaud’s:

    A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu : voyelles,
    Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes …

    Joyce was an admirer of Rimbaud and even had the protagonist of Stephen Hero take Rimbaud as a model.

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