This is a story that was not meant to be told. That it has been told is partly serendipitous. In 1926 the daughter of an Irish aristocrat, Violet Gibson, attempted to assassinate the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini in Rome. After being beaten up and imprisoned in Italy she was returned to England and immediately incarcerated in an asylum in Nottingham. By coincidence this was the same asylum that Lucia Joyce, the daughter of James Joyce, spent the last 30 years of her life in. Gibson’s biographer found Lucia’s grave a few feet from Gibson’s and so came across details of Lucia’s last years that the Joyce family had gone to great lengths to hide.
We can only imagine what it was like for Lucia, growing up in the shadow of her father. While Joyce adored his daughter he would work all day and often go out at night and get blind drunk. We do know that, as a result of multiple evictions for failure to pay the rent, and the events of the First World War, the Joyce family were always on the move. By the age of 13 Lucia had lived in three different countries, received very little in the way of education, and had become “illiterate in three languages.” However, Lucia did develop fluency in one language and that was the language of experimental dance. She became a talented professional dancer, particularly adept at sauvage roles, although she received no support from her family, particularly her mother, Nora, who was jealous of the attention Lucia received. An interviewer in The Paris Times in 1928 praised Lucia’s skills as a choreographer, linguist and performer, and predicted that when she reached her “full capacity for rhythmic dancing,” James Joyce “may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”
But it was just then that things began to go wrong and, according to Lucia’s biographer, Carol Loeb Shloss, she was forced by her family to abandon her career. There followed a series of disturbing events: her father’s eye operation, her mother’s illness, her alcoholic brother’s affair with an older married heiress, and her discovery that she was a bastard. Immediately after these events Lucia attempted affairs with three men in rapid succession, including her father’s secretary, the future novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett, who rebuffed her approaches. From the early 1930’s Lucia’s behavior became increasingly angry, frustrated, and dramatic. She vomited up her food at table; threw a chair at Nora; staged a tremendous tantrum at the Gare du Nord, preventing the family from leaving Paris for London; went into a catatonic trance for several days after her engagement; cut the telephone wires following congratulatory calls that friends were making about the imminent publication of “Ulysses” in America (Lucia shouted “I’m the artist.”); and set fire to things.
Joyce spared no expense for her treatment and Lucia was examined by numerous specialists including Carl Jung, but diagnoses varied, ranging from merely neurotic to schizophrenic. Joyce worried incessantly about Lucia and was convinced that she was sane, saying that he alone understood her secret language (“Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.”). However, when Lucia was 28 the decision was taken to put her in an asylum and she never lived on the outside again. When the Second World War broke out Joyce moved heaven and earth to get her out of occupied France, but he died in 1941 and Lucia was abandoned. In 1951 Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s wealthy patron, moved Lucia to an asylum in Nottingham where she lived until her death in 1982.
Shloss argues that the decision to commit Lucia was taken when Joyce was in the middle of writing Finnegan’s Wake. As he was going blind he had become very dependent on friends, patrons and assistants, most of whom believed that the future of Western literature was dependent on his ability to finish the book. The problem, as they saw it, was that Joyce could not finish the book while he was so busy worrying about Lucia. Her brother Giorgio had been the first to suggest that Lucia be put in an asylum and Shloss suggests 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. Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the main target of her fury, also insisted that Lucia be institutionalized. Eventually Lucia was committed and Joyce finished Finnegan’s Wake. In Shloss’s view, Lucia was the price paid for the book.
It was this story that had to be erased by destroying all Lucia’s letters and Joyce’s letters to her and about her. Shloss says that Giorgio’s truculent son, Stephen Joyce, actually removed letters from a public collection in the National Library of Ireland. Stephen Joyce, on behalf of the Joyce estate, also tried to stop publication of Shloss’s book and in particular, certain materials in the book concerning Lucia, but in 2009 Shloss won a battle for legal fees and received a six figure settlement. As a postscript, on the last day of 2011, the 70th anniversary year of his death, James Joyce’s work finally passed out of copyright, finally free of the ferociously prohibitive Joyce estate that had done so much to destroy all trace of Lucia’s story.
”Then Nuvoletta reflected for the last time in her little long life and she made up all her myriads of drifting minds in one. She cancelled all her engauzements. She climbed over the bannistars; she gave a childy cloudy cry: Nuée! Nuée! A lightdress fluttered. She was gone. And into the river that had been a stream . . . there fell a tear, a singult tear, the loveliest of all tears . . . for it was a leaptear. But the river tripped on her by and by, lapping as though her heart was brook: Why, why, why! Weh, O weh! I’se so silly to be flowing but I no canna stay!”
James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake