And the Beatrices Go On - Frank McNally on the dark-haired beauties of Joyce, Dante, and Patrick Kavanagh

Mane attraction

Hard on the heels of our recent world exclusive about a hitherto unsuspected real-life model for Molly Bloom (Diary, June 16th), I was intrigued by a related exposé in July’s issue of the Literary Review.

It concerns the true identity of a dark-haired beauty who was among James Joyce’s students in Trieste, circa 1914, and who is long thought to have had a minority shareholding in the composite Molly.

Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann identified her as Amalia Popper (a name echoed by Amelia Capacete, the woman at the centre of our Molly scoop).

The daughter of a Jewish businessman called Leopoldo, she and her Dublin maestro had what Ellmann calls an “affair of [the] eyes”. And it seems probable that Joyce would have liked to extend it to other organs.


As it was, at their relationship’s most intense, they were sufficiently close that, according to his notebooks at least, he could feel her pain.

Arriving for their lesson one day, he was told she was in hospital having her appendix removed. The thought of the surgeon’s knife maiming her made him want to cry. “I see her full dark suffering eyes, beautiful as the eyes of an antelope,” he wrote; “O cruel wound!”

Alas, Joyce was soon stitched up too, after a fashion. By mid-1914, despite the summer temperatures, she was greeting him “wintrily”. The affair remained unconsummated and she married someone else.

But the mystery woman is not identified in Joyce’s notebooks. And in the July issue of LR, under the headline “Unveiling the Dark Lady of Trieste”, a writer named Adam Douglas advances an alternative theory.

A “rare-book specialist”, Douglas draws his evidence from presentation copies of Joyce’s first three books, recently discovered, all inscribed to one “Beatrice Randegger”.

Randegger was better known in pre-war Trieste by her maiden name “Bice Ricchetti”, Bice (pronounced “Beachy”) being an Italian diminutive of Beatrice.

She too was the daughter of a Jewish businessman. And not only was she also a student of Joyce, matching the amorous descriptions from his notebooks, but as revealed by another Joycean detective in 2021, she is his only student known to have an appendectomy during the period at issue!

Ricchetti changed her name when marrying Henry Victor Randegger, whose Protestant religion she then adopted. This may explain a line in Joyce’s play Exiles, where the protagonist’s female friend is a Beatrice. That itself looks like a tribute to his dark lady. But speaking of darkness, the play also mentions the protagonist’s mother’s habit of calling her “the black Protestant”.


Unrequited love for a beautiful dark-haired student was of course the inspiration for Ireland’s favourite ballad. In an early version, the poem was titled “Dark Haired Miriam Ran Away”. But her real name was “Hilda”, which even a poet would struggle to romanticise, hence perhaps the song being named after a road instead.

Patrick Kavanagh’s other gifts to the nation now include a fellowship awarded by his literary estate. Worth up to €8,000, it is aimed at “Irish poets in their middle years”. But when I tweeted that the other day, somebody inquired, reasonably: “How would they know?”

It would have been shock news to the subject of this week’s major anniversary, Percy Bysshe Shelley (Diary, July 8th), for example, that the middle years of his life were when he was aged 14 and 15. By contrast, a poet of more recent times, Leonard Cohen, had his musical middle years, if not his life’s, extended dramatically by unforeseen events.

Cohen hadn’t toured for 15 years when managerial embezzlement forced him back on the road and inspired a late burst of creativity that continued into his 80s. Playing Dublin in 2008, aged 75, he jokingly recalled his innocence during a previous visit when he was “just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream”.

Prior to a general advance in poet’s life expectancy, the European standard median was 35. That was Dante’s age when, as the famous opening of Inferno puts it: “In the middle of the journey of our life/I found myself astray in a dark wood.”

The heroine of Dante’s poem was also a Beatrice, which must have added to the attractions of that name for Joyce. And Dante was commemorating an unrequited love too.

His real-life Beatrice had died young. When he meets the fictionalised version again, in Heaven, she chides him for something unspecified, probably desiring her in a way incompatible with spiritual ideals.

A curious thing about Dante is that, in real life, he was also married, but to a woman named “Gemma”. And no, that’s not very poetic either. Even so, it has long puzzled scholars that, although Dante’s writing is full of references to the real people he knew, there is no mention anywhere of her.