Joycean joy after library says 'yes'

The National Library of Ireland has put its collection of James Joyce manuscripts online, free of charge

The National Library of Ireland has put its collection of James Joyce manuscripts online, free of charge. It’s an excellent resource, but appears daunting at first – so where should the reader start?

TUESDAY APRIL 10TH, 2012, was a great day in the world of Joyce studies. On this day, the National Library of Ireland made its considerable holdings of James Joyce manuscripts available cost-free online. This was the first time that such an initiative had been undertaken by any institution, anywhere.

A very important part of Irish heritage is now easily accessible. There is no need for special visits to the library, and no need to obtain a reader’s ticket. Instead, the documents are there for all to see online.

It is hoped that people with no expertise in textual studies will be interested in using this new resource; after all, the Irish State paid some €12.6 million back in 2002, plus another €1 million or so for the “Circe” manuscript in 2000 (which can also now be found online, as is another small but very important collection of early Finnegans Wake manuscripts, for which the library paid €1.17 million in controversial circumstances in 2006).


There are two initial points to bear in mind: due to the rushed nature of the library’s action (in response to a pre-emptive strike by the Joyce scholar Danis Rose) the photographs of the manuscripts are in low-resolution PDF form. The quality, it must be said, is not great, so that Joyce’s hand, especially in the Ulysses manuscripts, is difficult to decipher (not to mention that, in the case of the notes, they are often crossed through in thick crayon).

The library has promised that the manuscripts will be available in “very high-resolution formats” from June 16th next, and has also declared that it is “developing new image-viewing software which will ensure that online images of the James Joyce manuscripts can be researched in minute detail by NLI website visitors”.

The other issue is that the manuscripts have been placed online in a very raw state, without any real context or annotation, let alone transcription. There is no reason why all this should not follow in due course.

The library’s website currently offers a brief “summary”, stressing the manuscripts’ importance, but this alone does not get a reader very far. There is also a very fine bibliographic introduction and description of the documents by assistant keeper Peter Kenny; once more, however, it is more of an introduction to the form of the manuscripts than to their content.

Access to the Joyce manuscripts is discreetly hidden on the National Library's home page ( behind the rubric "more service enhancements", under the News category. (Even allowing for the special circumstances, a bit more of a fanfare is in order.) Having found this and done a few more mandatory clicks, a reader will espy "The Joyce Papers 2002, c.1903-1928". (This confusing title means that they were acquired in 2002 but themselves are dated between 1903 and 1928.) Having clicked on this, the reader will be confronted by a daunting array of numbers listing different manuscripts, each one of which can be clicked on. The detailed "Collection List" provided by Kenny as the first item on this series is helpful at this point. It makes it clear that the manuscripts fall under three main categories: early notes, Ulysses notes and drafts, and Finnegans Wake material.

A reader may well be relieved to learn that the Finnegans Wake documents can be safely ignored, or at least left for much later attention; they are mostly page proofs with some pretty modest corrections. This means that all the numbers from MS36,639/15 (yes, it is a bit of a mathematical maze) on down can be left out of the reckoning.

It is in the other two categories, the “early notes” and the Ulysses notes and drafts, that the real meat of the collection is to be found. Although the collection is titled “The Joyce Papers 1903-1928”, it is quite possible that the very first set of documents – a series of extracts from Dante – dates from a good deal earlier, possibly from Joyce’s time in university or even from his school years in Belvedere.

The next document (MS 36,639/2/A), if it had been discovered on its own, would in itself and of itself be a source of great excitement. It is a commonplace book, which Joyce used for an unusual variety of purposes: as an account book, as a repository of various passages and poems from his reading that struck him (Ben Jonson is a particular favourite); reading lists; thoughts and reflections on aesthetics; remarks on friends (JF Byrne, for instance); and, eventually, notes for Dubliners and for the figure of Stephen Dedalus as he emerged in the later fiction (some of the notes even look forward to Ulysses).

It was purchased and begun in Paris in 1903, and it is gratifying to see an entry in the accounts list of a payment of some 16 francs from The Irish Times (this was for an interview with French motor ace Henri Fournier). An unusual feature of this copybook is that it was used for an extremely long period, from 1903 in Paris to around 1912 in Trieste. This alone gives it a special place.

The document following it is also exceptional: it is a “subject” notebook for Ulysses. There are many other Ulysses notebooks, but none other that deals with themes and subjects (another notebook in this collection has its entries grouped under episodes). The “subjects” are listed, with notes under them.

They include notes on the Irish, starting with the information that they have a rich vocabulary because they read little, and going on to the Clerkenwell bombing of 1867, as well as quoting speculation on the Celtic view of hell by a German professor. There are also notes on the Jews and on theosophy, as well as notes devoted to two of the main characters of the book, Stephen and Bloom, and to other miscellaneous topics.

The following two copybooks contain notes of a more conventional nature intended for Ulysses, grouped under the names of episodes. A special feature of all these notebooks is the use of differently coloured crayons to cross them out as they are used, ie incorporated into Ulysses.

The different colours of the crayons indicate that the notes entered the text at different times: this was a kind of sorting system that Joyce used to keep track of the progress of his note-taking and to avoid repeating a note already used. It makes for a strangely beautiful effect, quite unintended but part of the manuscripts’ charm.

The remainder of the Ulysses manuscripts are fascinating drafts of the various episodes. One draft, of the third episode, is the very earliest draft extant of any episode of the book. In the case of another episode, “Sirens”, there are two separate drafts, with striking differences between them. There are aspects of this early “Sirens” draft which suggest the whole book began and could have gone in a very different direction from the one it finally took.

For three of the book’s episodes, including Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, the National Library’s drafts are the only ones known to exist. In quite a few of the drafts, the crayons are again in use, this time in the form of Xs; this is to show that the material in the draft has been incorporated into the next draft stage.

Naturally, these are very much working documents; indeed, to call them working documents is to massively understate the incredible focus and concentration of vision that lies behind them.

There is an occasional moment of light relief, however: in the midst of the draft of the 12th episode (MS 36,639/10), there is a bantering exchange between Joyce and Nora concerning a possible loan of 15 francs: Joyce ends his side of it by declaring: “The curse of a lopsided God light sideways on your inebriate and unbalanced personality,” and then takes the harm out of it by signing off: “yours affectionately JJ.”

Nora, however, has the last word with the statement: “Sir Horace Rumbold [the British minister in Bern, a particular enemy of Joyce] presents his compliments to Mr Joyce and suggests that he shall go to Hell.”

It might be asked, what is the point or purpose of this massive interest in, and the massive sums paid for, a writer’s first, second or intermediate thoughts, represented in drafts and notes? Is not the final product, the completed work, all that really counts? The obvious answer is that such materials give invaluable access to the creative process that underlies the creative product.

The best response, though, might be by way of an example rather than a theory. We now know the famous ending of Molly Bloom’s monologue as, “I said yes I will Yes.” In the draft of this episode now in the National Library we find that it originally read “I said I would Yes.” On the draft, and as he wrote, Joyce crossed out the grammatically correct “would” and changed it to “will”, vastly increasing the immediacy and intensity of the declaration. What’s in a word? Quite a lot, sometimes – and thanks to the initiative of April 10th, these words, and others like them, are now available to vastly more people.

Terence Killeen is research scholar at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin