- Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom
Brenda Maddox's Nora intends to illuminate the shadowy figure of Nora Barnacle, the woman with whom James Joyce spent his life and on whom he modeled all of his important fictional female characters.
And Maddox does begin well. She presents a lively view of the Irish ferry on which the twenty-year-old Nora and the twenty-two-year-old Joyce would have fled Dublin in 1904; then she pauses to give Nora's Galway childhood. This early material is also lively and fresh and explains in part how the seemingly independent Nora could stay with Joyce, who managed to remain dependent on the charity of others his entire life.
Once the couple reach the Continent, however, and Maddox begins to detail their nomad travels from Trieste to Zurich, Rome, and Paris, readers begin to feel that they're rereading Ellmann' s James Joyce. Granted, Nora had no existence without Joyce, and where he went, she went (except for the solitary Dublin trip that occasioned the famous "dirty letter" exchange), but because there is no new material, Maddox has to resort to such speculative prefaces as "Nora undoubtedly thought that . . ." or "She probably felt . . . ," and the readers are left with no new insights.
The substructure of the book is built on the similarities between Nora's life and the lives of Joyce's characters—the subtitle is "The Real Life of Molly Bloom"—but this kind of extrapolating life from fiction is always risky even when an author uses himself as source material. It seems more invalid than usual when he uses his wife.
The final section of the book concerns the widowed Nora, and here readers can find some less shop-worn material. But it is also these last chapters that I personally found the most disappointing. I once covered the same ground as Maddox (combing through the dirty letters and the scraps in the British Museum, interviewing Zurich waitresses and Italo Svevo's gracious daughter), but I realized I didn't like Nora enough to write her story. In Maddox's book I had hoped to discover that I had judged harshly and that Nora did become independent after Joyce's death. Maddox does say that although extravagant as Joyce's wife, "Nora as a widow took a different attitude toward debt. She wanted none of it. . . ." Unfortunately there is no evidence of that change of heart, and Nora's 1943 letter to Harriet Weaver sounds just like any dozen of Joyce's: "It is impossible for us [she is with their son Giorgio] to get along on the money you are kind enough to advance us. . . ."
It is my understanding that Joyce's grandson Stephen censored Maddox's manuscript and that the out-of-court settlement forced Maddox to remove a final chapter on Lucia Joyce and to agree not to discuss or ever publish that material. In addition, Stephen apparently burned some of Lucia's letters to him and some letters that Samuel Beckett had written to Lucia. He told scholars at the Venice Joyce Symposium he would burn any other papers or letters he considered private. Perhaps in that private material lie important clues to the illusive personality of his grandmother, that woman who called Joyce "Jim" and who insisted that he should have stuck to a singing career. It is a shame for any scholarly sources to be so utterly lost, but it is doubly sad for someone to have come as close as [End Page 690] Maddox did and then fail, for under Stephen's censorship and without a newly discovered cache of Nora's letters, I am afraid that we learn little more about Nora Joyce from Maddox than we heard from Ellmann nearly thirty years ago.