The Price of a Book

April 3, 2016

Biography, Insanity, Literature

Lucia Joyce

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

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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50 Comments on “The Price of a Book”

  1. john flanagan Says:

    A wonderful piece, Malcolm
    Thank You




  2. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Good grief! What a story. I’d very much like to read this bio by Shloss. You seem to be much interested in Joyce these days. I’ve been curious about your recent hiatus. Did you write your novel?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Good grief! What a story.”

      Exactly Cindy. When there’s a story as poignant as this one there’s no need to add anything. Just tell the story and stand back. I am into Joyce these days. I can’t believe how much Joyce’s works have changed since I first read them at college 🙂 What a difference a life makes! Thank you for asking about the book. It wasn’t a novel but a popular history book and it’s on hold for several reason I won’t go into now.


  3. Victo Dolore Says:

    So tragic. So very well written.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. It is a tragic story but there is another interesting aspect of Joyce’s relationship with Lucia that I couldn’t squeeze into the post without making it too long. Shloss thinks that Lucia was Joyce’s collaborator on Finnegan’s Wake. Lucia used to practice her dancing in the same room in which Joyce wrote and she literally became his muse for the flow of the book. Her presence is felt everywhere in the book. For example, Lucia was part of a repertoire group called Les Six de rythme et couleur which seemed to inspire Joyce to invent his own troupe of Rainbow Girls:

      “Catchmire stockings, libertyed garters, shoddyshoes, quicked out with selver. Pennyfair caps on pinnyfore frocks and a ring on her fomefing finger. And they leap so looply, looply, as they link to light. And they look so loovely, loovelit, noosed in a nuptious night. Withasly glints in. Andecoy glants out. They ramp it a little, a lessle, a lissle. Then rompride round in rout.”

      “And these ways wend they. And those ways went they. Winnie, Olive and Beatrice, Nelly and Ida, Amy and Rue. Here they come back, all the gay pack, for they are the florals, from foncey and pansey to papavere’s blush, foresake-me-nought, while there’s leaf there’s hope, with primtim’s ruse and marry-may’s blossom, all the flowers of the ancelles’ garden.”

      Joyce took this further and believed that his writing was somehow implicated in her illness. Joyce was all about radical innovation in language but he believed that Lucia had absorbed this as radical innovation in living life itself. Shloss says “We can see in her (Lucia’s) character her father’s literary defiance of authority, his antagonism or indifference to the expectations of audiences, his desire to escape conventional languages and to seek as-yet-undiscovered subjects for expression. And perhaps of most singular importance, she grew eventually into an awareness of the observer’s role in both creating and curtailing the world of perception.”


  4. Adrienne Morris Says:

    Alcoholics know how to love–they just don’t do it very well. Sad father daughter story.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Adrienne. This of course goes much further than alcoholism. Please see my reply to Victo Dolore.


      • Adrienne Morris Says:

        My ex-husband still believes to this day (as reported by my son) that my first novel was written about him 🙂 when the main character was the antithesis of my husband. lol. It’s impossible for life not to bleed into art and back again.

        Being a muse doesn’t always mean being loved. I just wonder, having been around Irish alcoholics how close one can truly get to an addict ( or maybe even a writer!).


  5. talkwithsusie Says:

    Love reading your wonderful words, Malcolm. Thank you for sharing with us.


  6. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Caused me to ponder, again, the imprint of alcohol in art…writing…and of being Irish. Thinking I don’t believe Norman Rockwell drank much. Smiles…


  7. cattalespress Says:

    Amazing stuff! I had no idea of any of this. How did you come across all this information. YOU are the most amazing man of all, Malcolm!


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Not amazing at all. The lead came from another commentator Daedalus Rex, who remarked on my post about Joyce’s anarchism that Carl Jung had reviewed “Ulysses”. From this I read about Jung’s treatment of Lucia and the rest is history. Glad you enjoyed it.


  8. chr1 Says:

    A shame..I wonder who among us can judge the sacrifices made for art?


  9. Dalo 2013 Says:

    You’ve introduced Lucia Joyce to me, and I am now very intrigued by her story and life ~ I look forward to reading the bio by Shloss. The cost of a book indeed. The pursuit of a goal can be very noble, but it often depends on the perspective.

    I once held a first edition copy of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” at a Dublin bookstore. It was incredibly expensive, and the Euro-USD were horrible as well…but I wanted the book as I hadn’t read any Joyce at the time and imagined the magic of reading him from a first edition. Alas, I did not by the book…and still have not read Joyce.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “it often depends on the perspective”

      It certainly does. Damn the wisdom that comes with age. It was so much simpler when we were younger and more sure of ourselves. First edition or not, either “Dubliners” or “A Portrait…” are great ways to start reading Joyce. Enjoy.


  10. candidkay Says:

    So much to comment on here and yet, what strikes me most is “illiterate in three languages.” As a writer and lover of words, I cannot imagine how this must feel. That frustration alone must have been a heavy burden to bear. How can one succeed without the basic tool of the written word?


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Exactly Kay, but not just the written word, the spoken word too. One can’t help thinking that she turned to the universal language of dance to compensate for her inability to communicate through language. Thank you for commenting.


  11. L. Marie Says:

    What a sad story, made sadder from the fact that the family tried to sweep it under the rug.

    I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by Joyce. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at his writing the same way after hearing about this


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Please don’t be so hard on Joyce. He was unbelievably close with Lucia and only wanted the best for her. Jung was wary of treating her because he said the psyches of father and daughter were so closely entwined together. I think the real ‘baddies’ were other family members and sponsors.


  12. annabelletroy Says:

    Could never do Finnegan’s Wake, though I loved Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist, and the Richard Ellman biography of Joyce. Poor Lucia! She is definitely not alone for being an unusual woman at that time, without fortune or protection, sometimes did mean that fate. Probably more than we know. Thank you for the post.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I agree with you about Finnegan’s Wake. I found the William York Tindall guide indispensable but who wants to hold a book in one hand and a guide in the other? Ulysses is my favorite and I find it much easier to listen to than to read. There’s a wonderful Audible edition with Tim Norton narrating and singing and also period music. As to Lucia, Virginia Woolf was right, Lucia needed a room of her own. Thanks for commenting.


  13. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    Thanks for sharing Lucia’s story, which, it seems to me is an integral part of Joyce’s story and so tragic that it was hidden for so long.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Andrea. Marcel Proust thought very strongly that you did not need to know an author to understand his or her work. I am not so sure about that and from your comment I don’t think you are too.


  14. Jeffrey Rogers Hummel Says:

    Hi Malcolm

    Finally got to this. It is one of your most fascinating and moving posts. You should change careers and become a writer.




  15. dgkaye Says:

    Thanks for sharing this fascinating read. 🙂


  16. D. Wallace Peach Says:

    Fascinating. What a tragic story for both Joyce and Lucia. It sounds like she lost everything except her rage.


  17. Tahira Says:

    The stories not meant to be told are always the most interesting. As is this one, Malcolm. As always, beautifully written.


  18. Aquileana Says:

    So interesting dear Malcolm… I much enjoyed reading about Violet Gibson, and so many intertwined admirable people such as Joyce and Jung…
    Truly well penned as well… I cn tell you that the translation to Spanish is remarkably good… so that´s a sign to measure the quality of your writing… 🙂
    All the best to you!, Aquileana 😀


  19. sabretoothedchickenstour Says:

    Enjoyed this tale of woe. Thanks.


  20. Christy B Says:

    Wow, what a story! So sad..


  21. Beth Says:

    So now this has become a “twice-told-tale of humiliation avoided through the use of brutality. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I seem to remember there are plenty of “insane” artists.


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