Lucia Joyce: To Dance
in the Wake
By Carol Loeb Shloss
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 560 pp., illustrated, $30
Carol Loeb Shloss's fascinating but flawed biography of James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, presents an engaging moral problem -- the rights of privacy vs. the claims of historical research. Stephen Joyce, James Joyce's grandson, contends that only the family should have access to significant documents. A great majority of these have been destroyed. Shloss, however, points out that some 1,000 remaining letters include the ones that Joyce most valued -- those between him and Lucia.
Lucia died in the Joycean centennial year, 1982. She had been receiving treatment for mental illness for years, always representing the medical theory of the day. Many doctors labeled her schizophrenic; others were baffled by her condition. When she was a young woman, modern dance and the origins of the physical culture movement assumed an essential part of her life. Lucia's dancing partners and mentors included Raymond Duncan, Isadora Duncan's brother; many followers of the eurhythmic techniques of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze; and Margaret Morris, who saw rhythmic movement as a key to health, and modern dance as a universal language. Lucia's illness was cryptic although people remembered her standard party piece, a charming imitation of Charlie Chaplin. The Joyces' inner circle included Harriet Weaver, patroness, literary executor, and later guardian of Lucia; and the formidable Maria Jolas, the most influential figure outside the family, with whom Joyce shared a love song. The outer circle would include Joseph Campbell, scholar of myth and one of the earliest authors to study the meaning of the sleeping giant beneath the city of Dublin. In later years Lucia had love affairs with Alexander Calder, Samuel Beckett, and the Maine artist Waldo Peirce.
Shloss is profoundly sympathetic to the family, with the exception of Lucia's brother, Giorgio, who is treated as a slick, self-centered social climber embarrassed by his sister's behavior. Bank manager, opera singer, Giorgio emerges as an affluent chancer in his race for social status, a cold schemer who reinforced Nora Joyce's feelings of dominance over her husband, eventually persuading the family to admit Lucia to a mental institution.
The most important strand of the biographical pattern deals with Lucia's immersion in dance and the shaping of her character through the medium. The problem with the biography is its occasionally speculative influence. Shloss is candid. "Because of the circumstances in which I wrote, because I was writing in the wake of earlier suppressions of material, and because of the meagerness of the undestroyed sources, I have had to construct the context of Lucia's experiences, and then put her into them," which is rather like erecting a proscenium stage for performance and leaving it empty. Shloss gets as much out of the gaps in correspondence as we may reasonably expect.
The biography falls into three sections; the middle one includes the compelling emergence of the main themes: Lucia and her psyche, the origins of modern dance, and the relationships of fathers and daughters. Some of it includes the biographical fallacy. Here is Stuart Gilbert, the former Burmese judge and collector of early Joyceana: "As Gilbert watched her he found himself regarding a young woman who was increasingly preoccupied with her own sexual attractiveness. Where once she stood at the ballet barre, . . . watching her own movements, she now began to consider her body as a mirror, capable of reflecting back to others the nature of their own desire." It is probably captious to single out an instance of speculation in a biography as well written as this one, but Lucia, after all, may have been thinking of Issy, one of the fictional daughters in "Finnegans Wake," just as readily as Lucia is thinking about herself: Indeed, the prose has some of the texture of fiction.
When it became obvious that Lucia didn't have the physical capacity to make a career out of dance, Joyce encouraged his daughter to master calligraphy as an art. Although talented, she took a halfhearted approach and never knew that her father secretly paid for the publications, which included a copy of one of his early books, "Poems Pennyeach."
Was Lucia mad or merely neurotic? In the Joyce circle there were many who asserted that he had traded his daughter's welfare for literary fame. Joyce, however, never lost his faith in her talent, notwithstanding the pain of eye surgery, his waning eyesight, and depression nibbling at his creative powers. Asked once for a message to give her father, Lucia replied, "Tell him I am a crossword puzzle, and if he does not mind seeing a crossword puzzle, he is to come out [to see me]."
The final years of Lucia Joyce took place in St. Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, England. Rushing toward the sea, toward the dance of the tides, a childish voice accompanies the river Liffey ("O bitter ending"). In his great final speech in "Finnegans Wake" Joyce is remembering Lucia -- "Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair." The river runs to the sea. Of all of her father's papers, Lucia was allowed to keep his copy of "Poems Pennyeach," though it is questionable if she ever read them.
Robert Taylor is a retired book editor of the Globe.