Nora and Lucia Joyce: what sort of mother abandons her daughter?

Baffled by Nora Joyce’s abandonment of her daughter, Annabel Abbs, author of The Joyce Girl, asks why some mothers can’t or won’t love their female offspring

109 years ago today, Lucia Joyce was born out of wedlock, to James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, in a pauper’s hospital in Trieste, Italy. Nora returned from hospital to a hovel where Joyce lay prostrate with rheumatic fever. Her fractious baby daughter had a squint, her toddler son was boisterous and demanding, she had no local friends or family, and she disliked the Italian heat.

Nora longed to be married and had been forced to lie about her marital status in order to give birth in a hospital. All in all, not an auspicious start. But was it bad enough to make her abandon her only daughter, 25 years later, when Lucia needed her most?

The breakdown in relations between Lucia and her mother preoccupied me for several years. As a mother of three daughters, I’m familiar with the challenges of this intimate but often complex relationship. As clinical psychologist Linda Blair says: “The mother-daughter relationship is the hardest and most complicated relationship there is.” My mother had a particularly fraught relationship with her own mother, whom she believes never loved her. I grew up imbued with the knowledge that some mothers never love their daughters.

And yet I was bewildered by how easily and ruthlessly Nora abandoned her daughter. Lucia, a talented, aspiring dancer was on the verge of success when she was struck down by mental illness at the age of 25, following a series of personal and professional setbacks. She spent the rest of her life in mental hospitals, finally dying in an English asylum hundreds of miles from friends and family.


It was her father who visited her, wrote to her, sent her gifts and enlisted friends to keep an eye on her. Nora was ominously quiet, although we know she helped care for Lucia initially. But after Joyce’s death Nora’s abandonment become callously clear. For the last 12 years of her life, Nora never visited Lucia. Not once. It appears that she never wrote to her and that she begrudged the expenditure on her daughter’s hospitals and carers. Why, I wondered, would a mother cease caring about a daughter?

Of course there was the shame associated with mental illness then. Was Nora too ashamed of Lucia to visit her? Letters from Joyce before his death suggest Nora was frightened of Lucia, whose rage was clearly directed at her mother. So was it fear that stopped her communicating with Lucia? At the same time as these questions plagued me, a close friend’s daughter was sectioned with severe mental illness. “She hates me and hits me and I can’t love her anymore,” confessed my friend, tearfully. And yet my friend persevered, giving up her job to care for a daughter whose rage (like Lucia’s) was vented on her mother. Her daughter recovered and their relationship is now recovering too.

Could the same have happened to Lucia, if Nora had persevered? I turned to a psychologist friend for help. “It’s possible they never bonded as mother and baby,” said my friend. She referred me to a recent Turkish study that found daughters who hadn’t bonded with their mothers during infancy were more likely to have psychological and personality problems in adulthood.

Then she suggested I look closely at the early days of Nora and Lucia’s relationship. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded. I was dependent on a few remaining letters, but I found several references to how difficult Lucia had been as a baby, to boils on Lucia’s face that embarrassed Nora, and to Joyce’s concern that Lucia was put quickly onto a bottle – unlike her brother who’d been breast-fed for eighteen months. When Lucia was two, Nora handed her children over to Joyce’s sister and then to a local girl, so she could take in laundry to make ends meet. The more I researched Lucia’s story, the more I wondered if Lucia’s breakdown, and Nora’s subsequent abandonment of her, were rooted in their early years together.

Back I went to my psychologist friend who suggested I explore the early childhood experiences of Nora, saying “If a mother can’t bond with her baby it’s highly likely to be related to her own experience with her own mother.” I scurried back to my books and found that Nora had been abandoned by her own mother, sent to live with her grandparents as a toddler. In a typically Catholic family where women produced baby after baby, it was common for some children to be fostered out to other family members.

Nora’s biographer, Brenda Maddox, believed Nora “felt cheated of mother-love herself”. But did the children at home fare any better? Mothers exhausted by childbirth, possibly malnourished, sometimes with undiagnosed post-natal depression, may not have bonded easily – resulting in unintentional emotional abandonment. Was this, I wondered, something symptomatic of the old Catholic culture with its insistence on wedlock and its prohibition of birth control? Had the Catholic emphasis on procreation resulted in generation after generation of “emotionally abandoned” children?

Oliver James, the eminent child psychologist, would probably answer in the affirmative. In his latest book, Not in your Genes, he says the crucial period for damaging your children is up to the age of three. In an earlier newspaper interview he blamed his mother for his later inner rage: “Basically I was fucked up by my mother. She had four children under the age of five and found it difficult to cope.”

And yet Nora only had two children. Nor was she incapable of bonding. She had a deeply important relationship with her son, Giorgio. My psychologist friend had an answer for this too, explaining that in cultures where sons are prized over daughters, mothers often expend more emotional effort on raising a boy. She highlighted Italy and Ireland as two European countries with historical reasons for once prizing males over females, giving rise to so-called Mama/Mammy cultures. So was this also part of the emotional geography of the Joyce family?

When I checked my sources again I found that, yes, Nora and Joyce had hoped for another son. And yes, according to a Joyce family friend, Lucia felt “of little importance … and only the brother counted.” My mother’s experience was not dissimilar. Although she wasn’t appreciated or supported by her mother, her brother had always enjoyed full maternal devotion.

But the final clue to Nora’s treatment of Lucia lies hidden in the text of Joyce’s Ulysses. In the infamous soliloquy at the end of the novel, Molly (widely agreed to be based on Nora) rambles at length about her feelings of jealousy towards her daughter, Milly.

Could Nora have envied Lucia’s youth, brains, talent, the opportunities she had? Joyce certainly thought so. In his private notes to Lucia’s psychoanalyst, he accused Nora of harbouring envious feelings towards their daughter. So was this why Nora abandoned Lucia to a mental asylum? My mother’s experience bears this out. She believes her own mother was driven to spite out of envy. For a generation of women forced to have children they didn’t want and denied the chance for any role in public life, it was almost unendurable to watch their daughters grasping new opportunities. As my mother excelled at school, so her own mother’s cruelty increased. As Lucia became increasingly successful as a dancer, so Nora saw how very limited her own opportunities had been. My mother won a competition to become a journalist on Vogue, enabling her to escape to London. Lucia didn’t have the same luck.

Although this isn’t an exclusively Irish problem, I can’t help wondering if it’s yet another reason for the very high figures of young, single women emigrating from Ireland during the last century.

We now know that a good mother-daughter relationship has long-term implications. A study from the University of Georgia found that, even more than other family dynamics, the mother-daughter relationship determines a girl’s future self-esteem and relationship skills. The same study found that overly critical mothers had daughters with reduced self-confidence, fewer social abilities and greater risk of mental health problems. I remind myself of this every time I’m on the brink of suggesting my teenage daughters dress/talk/behave in a different way. It’s a salutary lesson – and one I’ll always thank Nora and Lucia Joyce for.