The English woman who bankrolled James Joyce

First Joyce and later Ireland were beneficiaries of Harriet Shaw Weaver’s generosity

Harriet Shaw Weaver was a wealthy English feminist interested in social and political affairs. She subscribed to The Freewoman and saved it financially as it changed its name to The New Freewoman, later becoming The Egoist with Harriet as editor.

Harriet Weaver came into contact with James Joyce in 1914 when The Egoist began to serialise his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ezra Pound was involved with the Journal and on WB Yeats’ recommendation had written to Joyce in Trieste seeking material for the magazine. Pound wrote to her: “Permit me to sympathise with you in your newfound painful position as editor”. She dedicated herself to protecting writers from censorship by refusing to cede to printer’s objections. Joyce sent her succeeding chapters through Switzerland, as the first World War was about to break out. Joyce wrote: “It is very kind of you to take so much trouble in the matter”.

Outgoings at the Egoist were a multiple of 10 to income. It became a monthly to defray costs. Though Harriet was wealthy she liked to manage her finances carefully. She paid Joyce £50 for serialising Portrait. He wrote: “I have no words to thank you for your generosity and kindness”.

In 1914 Grant Richards finally published his Dubliners after a painful nine-year delay. Harriet’s confidence in his work remained unshaken as Joyce wrote to her “I have been wondering why the Egoist couldn’t do it”. He told her that he had never received any payment for his published work, adding “I dislike the prospect of waiting another nine years for the same result. I am writing a book Ulysses and I want the other published and out of the way once and all.”

Harriet then decided that she wanted to give Joyce a steady income and settled £5,000 of war loans secretly on him as capital. He wondered who the patron was but she kept that secret until July 1919.

They had been corresponding for the previous five years at a business level. But the relationship became more personal as he began to write her about his birthdays, his health and his frustrations about his current work on Ulysses. They then exchanged photographs of each other. She was five years older than he. James offered her the manuscript of A Portrait. James was convinced of his uniqueness as a writer and Harriet acknowledged this in her matter-of-fact style. She then decided to suspend publishing The Egoist and concentrate on publishing A Portrait of the Artist, the manuscript of which arrived to her in 44 parcels. It was published by Harriet in 1917. She settled more money on him for his living quarters in Paris. Harriet was still unacquainted with Joyce’s darker side of expensive living.

Joyce’s main concern then became the publication of Ulysses. The Little Review in America had published extracts and ended in court for the July-August extract. It lost the case in February 1921. Huebesh, the American publisher, withdrew from publishing Ulysses and Joyce offered it to Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris and also to Harriet’s Egoist Press in London for a limited English edition. Harriet wired Joyce £200, which calmed him.

It was at this time that Harriet learned from Wyndham Lewis about the lavish lifestyle Joyce enjoyed in Paris, usually ending up being very drunk most evenings. Harriet wrote to Joyce on the evils of drink, leaving him shattered. He felt that he had to defend himself somewhat and wrote confessionally to her on June 24th, 1921: “My head is full of pebbles and rubbish. The tasks I set myself technically in writing a book from different points of view in as many styles, all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance. I want to finish the book and try to settle my entangled material affairs. After that I want a good long rest in which to forget Ulysses completely.

“I now end this long rambling shambling speech having said nothing of the darker aspects of my detestable character. I suppose the law should now take its course with me because it must now seem to you a waste of rope to accomplish the dissolution of a person has now dissolved visibly and possess scarcely as much ‘pandability’ as an inhabited dressing gown’.”

Harriet was a rational person, who once she had shown loyalty, was incapable of withdrawing it. This proved lucky for Joyce. Sylvia Beach was worried about how the novel would sell. Harriet decided to postpone the English edition as Joyce wanted it to appear on his birthday, February 22nd, 1922. On February 12th he sent her a copy of the book numbered one. She was honoured. Harriet worried about his future and felt he needed a large private income. She settled £1,500 on him and promised more as his deteriorating eyesight and poor living conditions continued to worry her. Joyce came to London for a holiday in August 1922 and impressed Harriet with his charm, wit and dignity. She and Nora Barnacle got on very well.

Harriet wondered whether she might be prosecuted for publishing an obscene text in Ulysses and suffer the indignity of having her house raided by the police. When her Egoist edition appeared she sold it directly to London shops. It got mixed reviews. Shane Leslie wrote that it was “an assault on human decency”. It was seized by customs officials and Harriet did not claim it, presuming it had been destroyed. It was now banned in England and America so Joyce’s income was poor, leading Harriet to invest £21,000 as capital for his regular income. His own attitude was that as an exceptional artist he was entitled at somebody else’s expense, to a living appropriate to his status. Harriet was relieved to be able to part with her unearned income. Neither of them liked keeping money.

Harriet closed the Egoist Press and sold the rights of Dubliners, Exiles, Chamber Music plus stock to Jonathan Cape. She was no longer his publisher but his friend. Her settlement to him was finalised in May 1924.

Joyce began to send pages of his new work “Work in Progress” to Harriet for corrections and comments. She became a regular visitor to Paris including travelling for Joyce’s birthday in 1925, where for the first time she saw him drunk. It upset her but was not enough to wreck their friendship. She also met and liked Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier.

Their letter-writing continued with details about his domestic life and health to the fore. He continued to send her pages of his Work in Progress, which she corrected for mistakes. She was confident enough to write to him in 1926: “It seems to me that you are wasting your genius. I daresay I am wrong”. But she felt that he should continue with it.

Joyce encouraged her to criticize the book but punished her for doing so. She then felt that she should cease giving her opinion. On a visit to Paris in 1927 Harriet told Joyce that he could count on her as long as she lived. He spent many days explaining what the book was about, after which she warmed to it again. He wrote to her saying that he was very glad she came to Paris because “at least I know where I stand”. When Nora Barnacle was suspected of having cancer, Harriet came to Paris for two months.

Copyright problems arose again when Joyce wanted to reserve copyright of Work in Progress by publishing in the US. This upset Sylvia Beach who felt that as she had been helping Joyce for so long that she should have been the choice for publishing it. This caused a rift between Sylvia and Harriet as the former realised that Harriet was so devoted to Joyce that she was always on his side. Paul Leon, by then also engaged in looking after Joyce’s literary affairs, saw eye to eye with Harriet. Sylvia’s business was affected by the Wall St Crash.

Joyce’s financial affairs remained chaotic as usual. He now wanted Harriet to agree to give him some more of the capital she had invested to provide him with a regular income. She replied that now that his son Georgio was to marry, she hoped that his expenses would lessen. Joyce did not reply for seven weeks.

Joyce and Nora came to London to be married in July 1930. Harriet witnessed James drink too much and tip the waiter a £5 note. She tried unsuccessfully to get him to drink water first at dinner and then his normal two bottles of wine.

Around that time Joyce made the momentous decision to appoint Harriet as his literary executrix. He wrote: “I shall leave all my manuscripts to Harriet Shaw Weaver and direct that she shall have sole decision in all literary matters relating to my published and unpublished work”.

When Joyce’s father died he wrote to Harriet on January 17th, 1931, saying, “I am thinking of abandoning work altogether and leaving the thing unfinished with blanks. Why go on writing about a place I dare not go to at such a moment? My father had an extraordinary affection for me. He was the silliest man I ever knew and yet cruelly shrewd. He thought and talked of me up to his last breath. I got from him his portraits, a waist coat, a good tenor voice and an extravagant disposition. It is not his death that crushed me so much but self-accusations.”

Harriet sought to get him to persevere though he concluded that she also condemned him utterly. Nevertheless he regarded her as the elective angel who had confirmed his faith in his own genius. She never felt that their friendship gave her any rights with him as she wrote off his recent debts to her.

When Harriet came to Paris in December 1936 she and Joyce had not met for two years. Both James and his wife were in poor health. Harriet promised him that she would help him until the new book was published. Their easy relationship was never re-established and they never met again, though they continued to exchange letters.

Finnegans Wake was published on May 4th , 1939 by Faber & Faber of London. Harriet wrote to Joyce in March defending herself against his feelings that she was in any way responsible for Lucia’s troubles. When she heard that the Joyces had gone to Zurich she was relieved. Within a month Harrier heard the announcement on BBC Radio of Joyce’s sudden death on January 13th, 1941. She immediately sent £250 to Nora to cover the funeral costs.

Harriet’s burden did not decrease now that Joyce had died. After a short period she began to think of her role as his literary executor. In which library should she deposit his manuscripts and papers? Favouring the British Museum, she consulted TS Eliot who put the idea of a Dublin library into her mind. She then favoured Dublin and consulted Con Curran on which Dublin library would be most appropriate. He agreed with Eliot that Dublin was the appropriate location and advocated the National Library of Ireland. She appointed solicitor Fred Monroe as her attorney. Matters of copyright and royalties had to be dealt with. She dealt with this business in a cautious way and succeeded in getting regular income for Nora. This ongoing work helped Harriet through the negative painful experiences she had recently encountered with Joyce.

After the war Harriet was immersed in work for Joyce as scholars and institutions vied for Joycean material. In 1949 she went again to Paris for the La Hune Exhibition on Joyce organised by Maria Jolas to raise money for Nora. It had had been 13 years since Harriet had met Nora.

Harriet learned that Nora was unhappy about her intention to donate the manuscript of Finnegans Wake to the NLI. Nora had been badly hurt by the refusal of the Irish government to repatriate her husband’s body. But she acknowledged Harriet’s right to act as she wished.

In 1950 Harriet went to Paris and saw Giorgio Joyce as his mother was then very ill. He reiterated his own and his mother’s wish that the manuscript of Finnegans Wake should not go to Dublin. In the end, though the NLI had been told to expect the manuscript, Harriet felt obliged to donate it to the British Museum.

Harriet also had the manuscript of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man which she had not mentioned to the Joyces. She decided to donate this to the NLI together with other material including Lucia’s Chaucer ABC. Richard Hayes of the NLI responded by writing on June 27th, 1951: “We do appreciate here the wonderful support you gave for so many years to Mr Joyce’s work and Ireland is under a very great debt to you for all that. The Joyce family seems determined that we shall have as little as possible; why I do not know. You must do what you think is best. I wonder what Joyce himself would have wished.”

The material was handed over at the Irish Embassy in London. Harriet was as usual her demure self until the Ambassador FH Boland began to speak of the Joyce that he had encountered so often in Paris. Then she perked up in enjoyment and promised to add to her donation her no 1. copy of Ulysses that Joyce had given her so many years ago. Harriet continued to work as literary executor, having also been appointed by Giorgio and Lucia as administrator of the Joyce estate. In 1959 she fell and entered a nursing home. She died on October 14th, 1961, aged 85.

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