Lucia Joyce: flawed fictions don’t write her back into history but hide her truth

The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs presents a fallacious representation of James Joyce’s daughter, her mental illness and particularly her mother Nora, who is harshly treated

Annabel Abbs’ depiction of Lucia’s mother, Nora, is offensively pejorative, argues Genevieve Sartor. Throughout the novel Abbs makes it clear that she believes – and that we should therefore understand – Lucia’s schizophrenia to be the result of Nora’s poor mothering

The story of Lucia, the mentally ill daughter of famed author James Joyce, has gained an increase in public interest ever since Carol Shloss’s controversial biography Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake was published in 2003. However, rather than provoking a growth in scholarship on Lucia, Shloss’s text has instead instigated a series of “interpretations” that conflate the historical with the fictive, publicly disseminating an often faulty depiction of Lucia and her life.

Michael Hastings’ West End play Calico (2004) focuses on Lucia’s failed relationship with Samuel Beckett as the catalyst for her psychological deterioration, and thus conveys a factually tenuous account of what triggered her alleged schizophrenia. Mary Talbot’s graphic novel, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes (2012), described as being both a memoir and a biographical account of Lucia, indiscriminately blurs the experiences of Talbot’s own childhood with Lucia’s, forgoing factual merit for what reads as an ultimately personal catharsis. It was Talbot’s book, according to first-time author Annabel Abbs, that first sparked her interest in Lucia, leading to the publication of the most dramatised and historically questionable depiction of Lucia’s life yet: The Joyce Girl (Impress, 2016).

In a preamble to the publication of The Joyce Girl, Abbs writes that in considering Lucia she knew she would have to use the “facts gleaned from my research and imagine the rest”, stating “only a novel was going to give me the emotional truth of Lucia”. What should be clear is that the novel Abbs is referring to is her own, and whatever emotional truth she attributes to the book having is also her own, and not Lucia’s.

The Joyce Girl is a work of fiction and should be understood as such. Abbs does confirm this point, though only once within the book itself, locating it obscurely in the acknowledgments section at the very end. The implications are clear; in reading The Joyce Girl we are supposed to learn something about an abandoned Lucia and the lives of those who raised her. Sadly, this book delivers little that is reliable about either of these subjects. Abbs wonders “why James Joyce’s daughter was written out of history”, yet her novel, delivering all the malaise only unintended irony can, contributes to this travesty by inflicting such a travesty itself. The Joyce Girl’s depiction of Lucia’s life and the devastation of her mental illness is in conflict with most research on the subject, factually flawed and poorly written. Thus, Abbs’s book accomplishes the obverse of its perceived ambitions: it writes Lucia Joyce “out of history”.


Perhaps the most egregious example, though there are many, can be found in Abbs’ offensively pejorative depiction of Lucia’s mother, Nora. Throughout the novel Abbs makes it clear that she believes – and that we should therefore understand – Lucia’s schizophrenia to be the result of Nora’s poor mothering: she has Lucia state “It was she who did this to me” on the fourth page. Throughout the book Abbs depicts a materialistic, swarthy, mean-spirited and villainous Nora, one who hurls litanies of abuse at Lucia in nearly every scene between them. Nora, “nothing but a chambermaid”, is additionally the only character in the entire novel bequeathed an accent, and her dialogue is studded with numerous so-called Irish colloquialisms. As such, Abbs fleshes out her characterisation of Nora’s unattractive qualities by having her “speak” what would be a comical addition to this book’s frequent displays of writerly shortcomings (the accent reads more like the English midlands than Nora’s native Galway), if it wasn’t so implicitly racially insenstive.

Brenda Maddox’s critically acclaimed biography Nora (1988) can expose, with much greater detail than can be accomplished in a short review, the troubling one-dimensionality of Abbs’s disparaging characterisation of Nora Joyce. What this review is principally concerned with is the problematic manner in which Annabel Abbs is inviting her readership to factually view Lucia Joyce’s mental illness as a consequence of her tense relationship with her mother, an opinion furthered in her recently published article “Nora and Lucia Joyce: what sort of mother abandons her daughter?”

In this nonfiction article, Abbs continues the narrative described in her book by turning to events following Joyce’s death. The article is as questionable and full of conjecture as her book. It begins with a series of assertions – that Lucia was born in a paupers’ ward; that Nora was forced to pretend she was married; that Joyce had rheumatic fever at this time – none of which are true, before engaging in a lengthy discussion of mother/daughter relationships and mental health. The article’s source material primarily consists of tips from a “psychologist friend” and Abbs’s own personal experience as a mother and daughter. Abbs thus moves away from the very story that has granted her the attention she is now receiving, while at the same time falsely promoting it.

Abbs perhaps doesn’t realise the damage that she is doing. She is retroactively inviting readers to take her book as a true representation of Lucia and Nora Joyce, she is promoting the untenable belief that Nora was the principal culprit in an overwhelmingly tragic and deeply nuanced piece of Joycean history, and she is speaking on what is a severe psychological condition. Abbs’s book (and her article) disregards the implications of schizophrenia itself, slanting the facts and thus obscuring them. Lucia was diagnosed repeatedly as schizophrenic. Abbs, in asserting that poor mothering is the reason one’s child can become schizophrenic, is transmitting a disturbing message, one that feeds into the anxieties that families who genuinely do have a member with this traumatising condition wrestle with. She is also advocating a simplistically causal approach to the disorder – a “one thing” theory that suggests a dominant external cause to be the source of an immensely complex illness – one wherein genetics and neurology play a significant role. Abbs is representing real lives and a real condition here, yet she seems to have forgotten that with that comes responsibility, one that in this case is also of significant ethical concern, even when it is framed as a novel.

The errors in Abbs's material quickly reveal what research she did and did not do. She read Shloss's biography on Lucia, but she clearly did not read or at least heed the scholarly responses to it. As is detailed in Joycean John McCourt's appropriately critical review published in the James Joyce Quarterly (Fall 2003/Winter 2004), the number of errors in Shloss's biography rightly destabilise one's faith in the veracity of her account, and the unsubstantiated speculations she puts forth are troublingly groundless – that Lucia was Joyce's muse; that Finnegans Wake is all about Lucia; that Nora was a considerable factor in Lucia's mental breakdown; and that Lucia was a genius. McCourt's review is indicative of the generally negative reception of Schloss's biography within the Joyce community. Thus, it is additionally clear that if Abbs had contacted experts in the field, they would have quickly informed her of factors this review has scanned, and they would have perhaps helped her to develop a conscientious reading with real foundations.

In sum, what is of concern, and what should be troubling to Abbs, is that she is providing the public with an inaccurate and unreliable portrait of a historical figure who does deserve attention, though not of Abbs’s variety. The Joyce Girl would not have been given a second glance if not for the names and personal histories she so gracelessly and inexpertly wields throughout its pages. What Abbs has done in her book, and furthers in her articles, is to effectively use Lucia in a manner that only serves to further skew an already under-analysed, and perhaps undervalued story. If the book were pure fiction that might be fine, but the problem is Abbs herself does not seem to know where to draw the line between fact and fiction. This review, more than seeking to draw attention to the poor quality of The Joyce Girl’s form and content, wishes to emphatically instantiate that what Abbs is presenting is a fallacious representation of Lucia Joyce, her mental illness and her family.

Genevieve Sartor is a PhD candidate in the School of English, Trinity College Dublin