The revised edition of Richard Ellmann's classic James Joyce was published nearly a quarter of a century after the original 1959 biography, and it was so well-received that it promised to secure Ellmann's pre-eminence among a second generation of critics. That was unfortunate, because the revised biography did not alter Ellmann's original argument, which held that Joyce's books had little or nothing to say about the Europe in which they were composed. Bernard MacCabe, one of the few reviewers to complain about Ellmann's book, noted this "old fashioned quality," contending that "in the 1980s we expect a more thorough attention . . . to social and political life in Joyce's Ireland."
James Joyce: The Years of Growth should begin to satisfy critics like MacCabe. Peter Costello claims that his "main interest . . . is in the social, cultural and political environment in which James Joyce was reared." Justly, he ranks himself in the "revisionist" school of modern Irish historiography, which, through critics like Seamus Deane and Declan Kiberd, has re-evaluated [End Page 399] Joyce in the context of Irish nationalism. Readers will get a fairly good idea what it was like to live in Ireland around the turn of the century. Costello has the native's insights, and he draws on them often. For example, his examination of "the wretchedness of the Barnacle family" leads to a discussion of the history and general economic condition of Galway City. But all in all the book is closer to Ellmann's design than Costello might realize.
Despite his commitment to historical context, Costello continues Ellmann's pursuit after "the connections between the writer's [private] life and his creations." Like Ellmann, Costello speculates when facts are not known, but he promises to admit when he makes things up, so the reader will not be duped. He is true to his word, but his speculations do not improve on Ellmann's. In one place he imagines that John Joyce raped his daughters, concluding that "[t]hose who have detected a theme of incest in Finnegans Wake need look no further than the household of John Stanislaus Joyce in the winter of 1903." Costello's intent probably is to deflect speculation about James Joyce and his daughter, but the charge of rape hardly advances our understanding of anything, and it may harm our understanding, because it may be wrong (Costello's notes do not indicate a source for his accusation).
In some places Costello out-Ellmanns Ellmann. In fact, the main contribution of his book is to correct and augment Ellmann's work. The most noteworthy and significant example is his identification of the origin for Emma Clery. Ellmann held that Emma, who shunned Stephen's proposal for a one-night stand, was based on Mary Sheehy, an upper-middle-class Catholic woman. In his most original chapter, Costello ably demonstrates that Emma was probably based on Mary Elizabeth Clery, another upper-middle-class Catholic woman. This chapter is a fine and entertaining bit of detective work. But it does not modify our reading of Emma Clery, because what we need to know of Emma's character we can glean from Stephen Hero: that she conforms to the conventions governing Dublin women of her class. We would be better off exploring this class of Dubliners than the details of Mary Sheehy's or Mary Clery's life. No doubt the latter would contribute to the former, as Costello illustrates when he remarks that "there were few [job] openings for women graduates in those days, and after leaving college Mary had to fall back on teaching . . . an experience she disliked. . . . On 16th February 1909 she was married." Although Costello does not point it out, these observations contribute to the historical context of Stephen's list of occupations allowed women: prostitution, the life of a mistress, marriage, and the convent. Inadvertently, Costello teaches us two lessons about literary biography: identifying the real origins of fictional characters is a slippery business, and such identifications should be used to historicize the fiction...