James Joyce's "wonder wild"
Most accounts of James Joyce's family portray Lucia Joyce as the mad daughter of a genius. Lucia's father not only loved her but shared with her a deep creative bond. His daughter, Joyce wrote, had a mind "as clear and as unsparing as the lightning."
Lucia was a gifted, if thwarted, artist in her own right, a child who became her father's tragic muse.
Born at a pauper's hospital in Trieste in 1907, and educated in Italy, Switzerland, and Paris as her father pursued his art, Lucia was determined to strike out on her own. She chose dance as her medium, pursuing her studies in an art form very different from the literary ones celebrated in the Joyce circle and emerging as a harbinger of modern expressive dance in Paris.
Joyce described his daughter as a wild, beautiful, "fantastic being" who spoke "a curious abbreviated language of her own" that he instinctively understood because it was also his language.
Lucia grew up in a disorderly household. Joyce had turned his back on Ireland in 1904, when he was twenty-two, convinced that he was a genius but that his countrymen would never recognize this. He persuaded Nora Barnacle, his wife-to-be, to sail with him to Trieste. There, over the next decade, he completed “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Lucia at bottom left
With the publication of “Portrait,” in 1916, Joyce acquired rich patrons, but until then the Joyces were poor. Lucia was a sickly and difficult child who was cross-eyed. Joyce loved Lucia, spoiled her, sang to her, but he had a difficult time staying sober and the family was evicted from apartment after apartment. The First World War forced the Joyces to move to Zurich; after the war, they settled in Paris.
Lucia spent much of her adolescence locked with her father in a room while he wrote "Finnegans Wake."
When Lucia was fifteen, she began taking dance lessons, and this became her main interest during her teens and early twenties. She started at the Dalcroze Institute in Paris, then moved on to study with Raymond Duncan, Isadora’s older brother. Eventually, she hooked up with a commune of young women who performed as Les Six de Rythme et Couleur. However briefly, Lucia was a professional dancer and is said to have excelled.
The publication of “Ulysses,” in 1922, made Joyce a star, and there were plenty of artistic types in Paris who thought it would be nice to be attached to his family and thus pursued Lucia. However, in the space of about two years Lucia was rejected by three men: her father’s assistant, Samuel Beckett, who told her he wasn’t interested in her in that way [When Samuel Beckett died in 1989, a striking snapshot of a woman dancing, clad from head to toe in silver fish scales, was found among his papers. Beckett had kept this memento of his affair with Lucia for more than 60 years.]; her drawing teacher, Alexander Calder, who bedded her but soon went back to his fiancée; and another artist, Albert Hubbell, who had an affair with her and then went back to his wife. Lucia became more promiscuous and experimental and announced that she was a lesbian.
During these romantic travails, she became more distressed over her eyes. She had an operation, but her condition didn't change.
On Joyce’s fiftieth birthday, Lucia picked up a chair and threw it at her mother, whereupon her brother took her to a medical clinic and checked her in. For the next three years, Lucia went back and forth between home and hospital.
One night in 1933, she was at home when the news came that a United States District Court had declared that “Ulysses” was not obscene and could be published in the U.S. The Joyces’ phone rang with congratulatory calls. Lucia cut the phone wires—“I’m the artist,” she said—and when they were repaired she cut them again.
As her behavior grew worse, her hospitalizations became longer. She went from French clinics to Swiss sanitariums. One doctor said she was “hebephrenic,” which at that time was a type of schizophrenia used to describe patients who showed “naughty” behavior. Another diagnostician said she was “not lunatic but markedly neurotic.” A third thought the problem was “cyclothymia,” akin to manic-depressive illness.
Joyce tried to help his daughter by seeking out Europe's most advanced psychiatric doctors, including Carl Jung. She became Jung's patient in 1934. Jung said Lucia and her father were like two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that he was diving and she was falling.
At one point in 1935, when she seemed more stable, her parents let her visit some cousins in Bray, a seaside town near Dublin. There she set a peat fire in the living room, and when her cousins’ boyfriends came to call she tried to unbutton their trousers. She also, night after night, turned on the gas tap, in a sort of suicidal game. Then she disappeared to Dublin, where she walked the streets for six days, sleeping in doorways.
Soon afterward, the Joyces put her in an asylum in Ivry, outside Paris. She was twenty-eight, and she never lived outside of a hospital again. She changed hospitals a few times, but her condition remained the same. She was quiet for the most part, though periodically she would go into a rage—breaking windows, attacking people—and then she would be put in a straitjacket until she calmed down. This went on for forty-seven years, until her death, in 1982, at the age of seventy-five.
James, Lucia, and Nora Joyce
Joyce believed that Lucia’s problems were somehow inherited from him: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.” He tried to find ways to heal her and please her. He bought her a fur coat (“My wish for you is warmth and beauty”), and when she lost it he bought her another one. To replace dancing, he persuaded her to take up book illustration and he secretly gave publishers the money to pay her for her work.
Joyce didn’t think Lucia was crazy; he thought she was special—“a fantastic being,” with her own private language. “I understand it,” he said, “or most of it.” In 1935, three-quarters of Joyce’s income was going to Lucia’s care. When the Germans invaded France, in 1940, and the family had to flee to Switzerland, Joyce practically killed himself in the vain effort to arrange for Lucia to go with them. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer.
After Joyce’s death, his friends and relatives destroyed his letters to, from, and about Lucia. Joyce's grandson Stephen even removed letters from a public collection in the National Library of Ireland. None of Lucia’s letters survive as original documents. Nor is there any trace of her diaries or poems, or of a novel that she is said to have been writing.
In 1998 Stephen Joyce declared that he had destroyed Lucia's letters, despite pleas from William Butler Yeats's son, Michael, and Ezra Pound's daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz. The correspondence obviously meant a lot to James Joyce: "I am grateful for your letters," he wrote in 1935 to friend Harriet Weaver, "but the only ones which enlighten me, even if they are wild, are Lucia's own."