Irish Divorce/Joyce’s Ulysses extract: enhancing its truth to life

Leopold Bloom ponders the possibility of petitioning the English courts for divorce

June 16th, 1904, is proving a challenging day for Leopold Bloom. The 38-year-old canvasser in James Joyce's Ulysses suspects that his wife of 16 years, Molly, has arranged to meet Hugh Boylan, a wealthy man about town at 7 Eccles Street, the family home, ostensibly to practise music. About to return home around midnight after being out all day, Bloom decides to canvas his options in a conversation with Stephen Dedalus, a drunken young schoolteacher he has befriended. What will Bloom do if the music lesson has been a cover for sex? One option is to petition for a divorce that will free him "from the bonds of marriage" (decree absolute), but in 1904 Ireland such divorces could only be obtained at great expense from the English parliament. Or so it has come to be believed. However, an exciting new ebook published last week, Irish Divorce / Joyce's Ulysses, proves that Bloom has a less expensive and a more realistic alternative should he choose to use it. He might be able to petition the English court.*

It is during his conversation with Stephen in the cabman's shelter that readers of Ulysses are made aware that Bloom possesses a basic working knowledge of the English rather than the Irish divorce court. There is also a hint that he is using his conversation with Stephen to explore the extent to which an injured party can ignore adultery before either condonation or connivance prevents legal redress and triangulates the parties in enduring complexity and unhappiness. Once a liaison is the "talk of the town", the injured party cannot ignore it without prejudicing his legal options.

But seeking redress through the English court, given the rapacity of the newspapers for reporting divorce proceedings, is equally hazardous because, as Bloom rightly explains to Stephen, illicit intimacy is gleefully amplified into scandal. As Sir George H Lewis, a Judge in the Divorce Court, remarked to the 1912 Royal Commission on Divorce, “A great many people take up the paper and the first thing they do is to turn up and read about the Divorce Court. . . . I think they are spicy reading.”

For Bloom, the intrusion of the press and the fact that divorces are heard in open court and sometimes before a jury is not simply a violation of privacy but an unwarranted amplification of what has taken place. As he explains to Stephen, “An awful lot of make-believe went on about that sort of thing with the usual splash of gutterpress about the same old matrimonial triangle alleging misconduct with professional golfer or the newest stage favourite” (16.1480-83).


What follows is a brief account of hearings in the divorce division of the King’s Bench that is eloquent of Bloom’s knowledge of case history and procedure. Firstly, there is the customary defence of inevitability: that the respondent and co-respondent “were fated to meet and an attachment sprang up between the two so that their names were coupled in the public eye” (16.1484-86). As numerous court minutes show, . . . many lovers made it appear that they had met one another by chance and that their meeting was due to their husband’s or wife’s lack of attention.

The next step was for meetings to become more frequent until they led to intimacy. Evidence for intimacy, as Bloom explains to Stephen, was often submitted to the “court with letters containing the habitual mushy and compromising expressions leaving no loophole to show that they openly cohabited two or three times a week at some well-known seaside hotel and relations, when the thing ran its normal course, became in due course intimate” (16.1486-90).

While the discovery of letters provided the material evidence to proceed to court and frequently provided the basis for a successful outcome, Bloom has yet to discover Boylan’s and Molly’s correspondence. All he has at present is a glimpse of “a strip of torn envelope” when he was bringing up Molly’s breakfast tray that morning (4.308). That he includes letters in his account of adultery and divorce. . . shows that he is aware that proof of adultery requires either unambiguous material evidence or independent testimony free of collusion or connivance.

What Bloom next confides to Stephen reveals his understanding of the psychological state of the lovers and his awareness that adultery in English law is a misdemeanour rather than a crime: “But as for that the two misdemeanants, wrapped up as they were largely in one another, could safely afford to ignore it as they very largely did till the matter was put in the hands of a solicitor who filed a petition for the party wronged in due course” (16.1493-96).

The next part of his explanation, as “the decree nisi” “and the King’s Proctor tries to show cause why and, he failing to quash it, nisi was made absolute” (16.1490-92), reveals that Bloom is familiar with the English jurisdiction, even to the order of events. As Jackson v. Jackson (1910) established, the King’s Proctor can only make enquiries after the decree nisi had been granted regardless of how suspect the evidence in the affidavits might appear.

That Bloom then represents the King's Proctor challenging the decree nisi, however, points to his own anxieties, because, until 1920, the King's Proctor only investigated those cases where collusion had "necessarily" been brought to his notice. According to Every Man's Own Lawyer, Joyce's principal source of legal knowledge, "The King's (or Queen's) Proctor is the legal advisor of the Crown whose duty it is to intervene in divorce suits, after a decree nisi has been pronounced, and before the decree is made absolute, if he has reason to suspect collusion between the parties to the suit."

In fact, as William Cornish has shown, the Office was far more minatory than that.

“The Proctor’s office. . . sent inquiry agents out when there were suspicious circumstances and informed the Attorney-General where evidence of collusion or recrimination resulted. The Attorney might then intervene, causing the judge to refuse the decree absolute. Costs of the whole proceedings would then, in all likelihood, be awarded against the petitioner, and the couple would remain married. The husband who arranged that his wife’s lover would pay for his divorce proceedings against her would fail, the adulterous pair would be left to live in adultery, and the husband would be unable to marry again. The wife who sought to escape from the domination of a cruel and adulterous husband would be left under his yoke, if it turned out that she had had sex with someone else.”

But for Bloom, as he confides to Stephen, it is the publicity given to illicit love affairs that he finds most offensive. What incenses him, he emphasises, are “the blatant jokes of the cabman and so on who passed it all off as a jest, laughing immoderately, pretending to understand everything” as soon as the Parnell case was mentioned. What he finds equally offensive is “the anonymous letter from the usual boy Jones” who happens to “come across” the errant couple “at the crucial moment in a loving position locked in one another’s arms” (16.1534-36).

Again, Bloom is reflecting discussions that were taking place in the newspapers of the day. In an article entitled “Anonymous Letter Fiends”, the writer notes that “anonymous letter writers have been very busy recently” and advises that “the worst of the anonymous letter is that once read . . . the mischief is done . . . what if it be true-in part or in whole? . . . for the private individual there is only one way. Refuse to read an anonymous letter.”

Bloom, with Molly in mind, then ironically restages the confession and plea for forgiveness scenario that he had constructed for himself in the Ormond when he was listening to Lionel's song from Flotow's Martha:

“The erring fair one begging forgiveness of her lord and master upon her knees and promising to sever the connection and not receive his visits any more if only the aggrieved husband would overlook the matter and let bygones be bygones with tears in her eyes though possibly with her tongue in her fair cheek at the same time as quite possibly there were several others.” (16.1537- 42)

That Bloom should then proceed to recommend marriage to Stephen as a way of achieving sexual satisfaction, avoiding “a nice dose that might last him a lifetime”, and securing domestic comfort should strike the reader as ironic. But before Stephen is able to respond, the information that he has not eaten since “the day before yesterday” at once astounds Bloom and immediately prompts him to offer Stephen the hospitality of 7 Eccles Street.*

As all good readers of Ulysses know, none of the possible courses of action – forgiveness, desertion, separation, divorce – actually takes place. Bloom' s entry into the matrimonial bed wakes rather than arouses Molly. They are reported to have an "increasingly more laconic" conversation replete with evasions and falsity. Bloom is depicted falling asleep while Molly lies awake, musing over what has happened, what she might do, and what the consequences might prove to be. To speculate whether divorce is a likely, very likely, or highly unlikely outcome for the Blooms is to venture on the counterfactual and to impose closure on a text that intrinsically resists it; but, to ignore the possibility is to deny ways of reading Ulysses that enhance both its uncertainty and its humanity, its truth to life.

This is an extract from Irish Divorce/Joyce’s Ulysses by Peter Kuch (Palgrave Macmillan)