Book Review: Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce by Brenda Maddox

This book is Ireland.  For even though James and Nora Joyce
left Ireland and lived in Europe almost their entire lives, the
tone, the feel is ever Ireland.

Nora by Brenda Maddox 005








In 1903 over 30,000 Irish left their shores and headed to
America.  Large families waited on the docks, dragging
meager bags of belongings, herding seven or eight little kids
with the mothers clutching “last year’s baby.”

With that term of “last year’s baby” I was stopped cold–on
page three of this book.  This was to be an Irish tale all right.

The book is the biography of Nora Joyce written in 1988.  But
it can’t be written without writing about James Joyce, so that’s
where we begin.

Joyce was fortunate that his family still had some position when
he was a young man, and he went to Belvedere Prep School–
where he came in first of all of Ireland in English compostion.
He went on to graduate from University College in Dublin.
While there he made three friends who were to play parts in
his writing:

Gogarty–a medical student, model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses;
Vincent Cosgrove–a medical student, model for Lynch in Portrait
and Ulysess, and Robert in Exiles;  and John Francis Byrne–
model for Cranly in Portrait.

And who was the model for his female protagonists?  Try to guess.

Joyce’s mother dies in 1903.  He does nothing to help his father
with the burden of supporting nine younger children.  Joyce is
anxious to leave Ireland and its “priest-ridden land.”  His father
agrees that “No one  with any self-respect stays in Ireland.”

In 1904 Joyce meets Nora.  His eyesight is poor even at this
young age, but he sees and falls in love with a tall, auburn
haired beauty who works at Finn’s Hotel in Dublin.  Her name
is Nora Barnacle—and throughout his writing Joyce refers to
geese often, and barnacle geese in particular as nods to Nora.
She has come/run away really from Galway and is on her own.

He makes sure she knows that he is being recognized for his
writing–two poems have been published, which Nora memorizes,
and he also sings occasionally in concerts.  His first story, The
Sisters, is published during the summer.

He tells her he wants to leave Ireland and she hopes to go with him.
They “elope” without benefit of clergy at the end of the summer and
go to Zurich where Joyce is expecting to work at a Berlitz school.

Both left large families, but were not close to them, alienated, in fact,
except for Joyce’s brother Stanislaus who eventually joins them in
Europe.  Both had fathers who were unable or unwilling to support
large families with many girls.

In this book, they move so many times, I couldn’t keep track.  But
they always seemed to live in “bad rooms at good addresses.”

They had no money and frequently begged Stanislaus, with a steady
job, for financial help—-for years.  Joyce relates all of his personal
stories, and Nora’s to Stanislaus.  And for all the years to come,
Stanislaus keeps the letters that pass among the family.

Joyce teaches intermittently, works on his writing always.  Despite
having no money, they are spendthrifts and dine out constantly.

They move to Trieste, Stanislaus, too, then to Rome.  Joyce is trying
to get Dubliners published but Ireland is dismayed with its content
and anti-Catholic viewpoint and refuses to publish it.  He continues
to work on A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Georgio is born.  Nora, essentially alone in a strange land, clings to
the baby and develops “a closeness to Giorgio and a dependence upon
him from which neither she nor the boy ever escaped.”

Joyce realized that he had led Nora, only twenty-two, into a strange
country that had disoriented her.  “She was his portable Ireland, yet
he had sacrificed her Irishness to the needs of his art.”   Her wit,
her personality, her methods of writing–Nora’s ways were the
sense of Ireland he needed for his writing, and he used them.

Two years later Lucia is born.  Joyce takes Georgio back to Dublin
to show the family, and to try to get Dubliners published.  While he
is in Dublin–about the only time he and Nora are ever apart–a
series of letters is written between them–a series that gives us
more detail about them than we need or want to know.  I closed
the book for a couple of weeks.

Joyce’s sister Eva returns to Trieste with him to help Nora mind
the children.  Shortly thereafter, sister Eileen comes, too.  So,
four of the Joyce siblings are in Trieste, Charlie is in Boston, and
four other sisters remain in Dublin.

Of Nora’s family, still in Galway are her brother Tom and five

While they are in Zurich, in 1914,  Dubliners with its fifteen
short stories is finally published in England.  In the meantime
Portrait is being published in a magazine as chapters in England,
thanks to a new wealthy benefactor Harriet Weaver.  She would
furnish money to the Joyces for years to come.

In 1917 Joyce is diagnosed with glaucoma.  But Nora does not
become secretary for Joyce’s writing.   They move to Italy and the
children change schools (and languages) again.

Joyce has trouble finding a publisher for his new book, Ulysses.
Most publishers fear lawsuits over the obscene content.  But
then Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company in
Paris, agrees to publish the book with her own funds.   Between
Sylvia Beach and Harriet Weaver, and eventually royalties coming
in from his other books, Joyce and Nora begin to live comfortably.

In Paris, they have a wide circle of friends and for the first time,
Nora makes friends of her own—not relying on her husband’s
fame and literary friends.  Peggy Guggenheim is in their circle,
but not Gertrude Stein.  She looks upon Joyce as a rival—she
was also experimenting with “stream of consciousness” writing.

The Joyces attend concerts—Nora with a fondness for Wagner,
and, my favorite–a young American composer, George Antheil,
who presents the Ballet Mécanique which has a score of
“nine grand pianos, saws, hammers and an airplane propeller.”

Though surrounded with a “modern” crowd of elites, the Joyces,
according to Maddox, “each cherished the ideal of bourgeois family
life . . .(what) they might have led had they remained in Ireland.”

Georgio and Lucia become young adults but drift from one thing
to another.  Georgio has a good singing voice, but has little ambition
to make a success of it.  Lucia, a trained artist and pianist, likewise
is unable to find a niche.

Georgio falls in love with an older married woman, Helen, a
wealthy heiress from New York.  They marry and produce a
grandchild for the Joyces, Stephen.

Lucia has troubling emotional problems which eventually lead to
being committed to mental institutions for the rest of her life.

These events with their children take a severe toll on Joyce and
especially Nora.  He has his writing to fall back on.  Nora persists
on her own.

Joyce becomes a true celebrity and his drinking, always a problem,
increases.  One night while out at dinner, Nora threatens to leave
if he orders another bottle of wine.  He does, and she does.  On
her way out, she tells a friend a well-known line–that someday
she’s going to write a book, too: “My Twenty Years with a Genius–

Nora never read Ulysses.  When asked if Molly Bloom was based
on her own character, she would answer, no–that Molly was fatter.
But she did acknowledge that she was probably part of Finnegans

Joyce preceded Nora in death.  Georgio had lost Helen by this time,
also to mental illness, so Nora relied on Georgio and to her dear
grandson, Stephen for family.

This biography is based not on Nora’s own words.  There are few
recorded, but by letters written by her and Joyce and the family.
Friends and acquaintances also furnished anecdotes.

I found this sprawling life story of the Joyces very interesting.
There are sixteen pages of photos which I must have referred to
a hundred times.  To me, Nora seemed a woman who was in love
all of her life, but who did not have an especially easy life.  She
was not educated like her famous husband, but held her own
and had the self-confidence to do what she had to do–support
her husband’s writing no matter what.

Nora, Georgio and Lucia in Zurich. ©booksandbuttons

Nora, Georgio and Lucia in Zurich. ©booksandbuttons










I have read most of Joyce’s writing, but have never read
Finnegans Wake whose theme supposedly is that the
history of a family is the history of the world.  It’s known to
be difficult to understand.

Joyce once said, “If anyone doesn’t understand a passage, all he
has to do is read it aloud.”

We’ll see about that someday.



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2 Responses to Book Review: Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce by Brenda Maddox

  1. Stefanie says:

    What a interesting sounding book! I like Joyce and know nothing about his wife. I think this will have to go on my TBR list!

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