- Joyce & the Law
JAMES JOYCE AND THE LAW: Lord, where to begin? He was born in 1882, year of the Phoenix Park Murders, one of those crime-of-the-century affairs, in which his father’s (and, eventually and inevitably, his own) hero, Charles Stewart Parnell, was condemned in the press and then exonerated in court, largely because his accuser, put on the stand, did not know how to spell “hesitancy,” which word, forty-odd years later, became one of the main motives of Finnegans Wake. Parnell went on to get embroiled in another court case, charged with being the third party in an adulterous affair. This time he was guilty; the verdict, which ruined him politically and probably killed him, divided Ireland and, as recorded in the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as A Young Man, the Joyce family with it. [End Page 553]
Joyce himself was luckier with the law. An Irish exile who, Irish Free State or no Irish Free State, kept his British passport all his life and was thereby open to charges of both draft-dodging (his brother Stanislaus protested loudly and, for his honesty, spent the war in a concentration camp) and public immorality (his marriage to Nora Barnacle was common-law, a fact that became widely known when they later married legally for inheritance reasons; the family back home was incensed), Joyce went well beyond insouciance about such potential legal perils. When in Zurich he twice sued an official of the British embassy over a not-worth-the-trouble-of-explaining dispute concerning a pair of pants and, results being unsatisfactory, petitioned Prime Minister Lloyd George, who at the time might have been pardoned for being more concerned with the business of fighting the Great War.
Later, legal skirmishes over the unauthorized publication of Ulysses changed copyright law in ways which are still being played out today, and later still, in 1934, the book’s legal admission into the United States (“The New Deal in the law of letters is here,” began the introduction by litigant Morris L. Ernst) changed or helped change American obscenity laws up to the present: although, yes, very likely The Kinsey Report, Playboy, Lolita, Deep Throat, and internet pornography would eventually all have made their way on their own, Ulysses opened the door.
Not that that settled matters. Even today, you should not aspire to be a Joyce scholar without taking into account complications which may arise from Joyce’s litigious grandson Stephen; it is one reason why the estimable Robert Spoo left off being editor of The James Joyce Quarterly to enroll in law school.
A mighty maze, in short: two tangled branches, intertwined and still intertwining. Joyce and The Law offers a collection of essays on the subject by fifteen writers all of whom strike this reader (to be sure, no, if you’ll excuse me, judge in matters of law) as exceptionally up to the mark in their legal expertise at least. This is a good book.
So, in order, beginning with Janine Utell’s “Criminal Conversation: Marriage, Adultery and the Law.” Few Joyce critics could resist making more than was perhaps really called for out of that “Conversation,” the legal term for adulterous sex; Utell at least gets it out of her system quickly and settles down to an informed study of how Joyce felt about sex vis-à-vis the law at the time, and what that law was. Joyce was, [End Page 554] essentially, a believer in free love—his non-marriage to Nora, leaving their children officially illegitimate, was a matter of principle—though to be sure inconvenienced in this regard by a streak of intense sexual jealousy. No wronged husband of Victorian melodrama ever outdid his agony and outrage when becoming suspicious that Nora had once two-timed him; Ulysses is named Ulysses because its protagonist, like Homer’s, has or might have an unfaithful wife. Utell addresses the contradiction—or, simply, hypocrisy—for which, at one point, she blames the law: “The play [Joyce’s Exiles] calls...