Simon’s Irish Rose: Famine Songs, Blackfaced Minstrels, and Woman’s Repression in A Portrait
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man begins with Stephen’s father telling him a story. Stephen’s father has a hairy face, and is looking down through what looks like a glass. The father’s story, like the story of the first father, begins at an ideal point in time, when a very good time it was—or, as Mikhail Bakhtin calls it, “the epic absolute past … the single source and beginning of everything good.”1 It is designed to follow the road, past where Betty Byrne sold lemon platt, to a logical conclusion. The logic of the story that Mr. Dedalus begins to tell, and that continues from Stephen’s point of view, leads to the development of the artist, and points in the direction of separation, independence, success, and power. This is what Nancy Miller calls the “ambitious story.”2 Seeking to achieve its goal, the authorial voice—which is identified with the voice of the father even though it focuses on Stephen’s rebellious consciousness—represses stories that do not fit into or that threaten its plot line by overlooking, denying, displacing, reforming, or appropriating them.3 The little boy in the father’s story may require the services of Betty Byrne, or may need to overcome her temptations, but he requires no knowledge of her. Nor will we learn anything about Betty Byrne from Portrait. We know that Elizabeth Byrne was a real woman who appears in Thom’s Dublin Post Office Directory of 1886 as a grocer at 46 Main Street in Bray (where both Joyce and Stephen lived as children). But to develop her as a character in the novel would divert or threaten the (male) story line. It would raise questions such as: Was she a widow or a spinster? How old was she? Was she supporting a large family? Did she take over the business from her husband or her father? Did she build up the business herself? What did it mean for a single woman to be running a business of her own? What would she have said about the little boy from a well-to-do family who was brought in to buy lemon platt? While Stephen will rebel against traditional forms of authority and search for new kinds of stories, his father’s kind of story prevails. Betty Byrne is never mentioned again, and the stories of the women who are central to his childhood are repressed, transformed, and appropriated.
I want to look at the stories told about and by women in the opening pages of Portrait which introduce and initiate young Stephen: the stories of Mrs. Dedalus and Dante, but first the story of Lilly Dale, the woman of baby Stephen’s abbreviated song, whose very name is elided. And I want see how their stories, though central to Stephen’s world, are repressed by the authorial voice that is identified with the father and that tells the story of the artist as a young man. I also want to show on the basis of historical evidence what is repressed into the novel’s political unconscious and how it was repressed and managed by the popular discourses of the late nineteenth century.
After hearing the father’s story, cast into the form of an Irish children’s tale, baby Stephen tells a story in the form of a song, transforming “O, the wild rose blossoms / On the little green place,” to “O, the green wothe botheth.”4 The song is called “Lilly Dale,” and it begins:
Twas a calm, still night,
And the moon’s pale light,
Shone soft o’er hill and vale.
When friends mute with grief,
Stood round the death bed,
Of my poor lost Lilly Dale.
Oh! Lilly, sweet Lilly, dear Lilly Dale,
Now the wild rose blossoms o’er her little green grave,
Neath the trees in the flow’ry vale.5
But, although Stephen sings “Lilly Dale,” it is nonetheless his father’s song—obviously one he heard his father sing, and one that Simon Dedalus might have sung with his drinking companions before coming home to serenade his son. Even though Stephen changes the words, his song is not much different from his father’s. Nor is it much different from his fantasy of the “unsubstantial” Mercedes, or his idealization of the girl on the beach, or the lyric he writes as an aspiring artist, or the “ambitious” bildungsroman form in which his story is set. For Stephen is caught in the nets of a discourse that was being woven in the stories and songs in the opening section of Portrait—and that Joyce was exposing in a way that would become much more explicit in Ulysses.
“Lilly Dale” is about the love of a sweet, dead woman; the “green place” is actually a “green grave.” Singing about a sweet, dead woman, a very popular tradition, was a way of transforming her death into a beautiful, nostalgic song. Or, as Margot Norris points out in another context, it is a way of taking pleasure in her pain, and repressing her physical, social, and political reality.6 Nothing in the song leads us to imagine, let alone know, what Lilly Dale looked like, how old she was, whether she was a young maid or a married woman, what kind of a home she came from, or what she died of. Nonetheless, the range of possibilities is limited. “Lilly Dale” was written in 1852 and was very popular in the years after the Great Famine. So there is a fairly good chance that what Lilly died of—or the physical, social, and political reality well known by all who sang and heard her song but repressed by her lyric idealization—was starvation, some form of malnutrition, or one of the other very prevalent secondary effects of the potato famine: dysentery, scurvy, or cholera. As Mary Lowe-Evans convincingly argues, the Great Famine of 1845–51 established a discourse that deeply pervaded the Irish consciousness for two generations.7 This discourse was a way of expressing but also managing the feelings, thoughts, and behavior of those being exploited by the forces of colonization. And one of the ways they managed those feelings was through the sentimental idealization of social reality and death in popular songs.
“Lilly Dale” came to Ireland from America. It was written by H. S. Thompson, about whom nothing is known except that he also wrote the music for what became the Cornell alma mater. Like many songwriters, he probably sold his songs for a few dollars, leaving the profits to the managers, performers, and sheet music companies. And, if we may judge by the sheet music that spun off from and helped commodify “Lilly Dale,” it was enormously popular. It was published in 1852 and again in 1853, inspiring an illustrated Lily Dale Songster. It was transformed into “Lilly Dale arranged with Variations,” the “Lilly Dale Schottish,” the “Lilly Dale Quickstep,” and then published in Heart Songs in 1909 as one of the four hundred most popular American songs as selected by twenty thousand respondents to a national ad. It traveled to Europe as Sigmund Thalberg’s “Lilly Dale, Air Americain varié pour le Piano.”8 It was sung in London at Jullien’s famous concerts by Madame Anna Thillon after their American tour of 1850–54 (the sheet music with Anna Thillon’s picture on the cover also lists W. H. Currie ‘s 1853 adaptation “The Grave of Lilly Dale”). And the song was popular in English and Irish concert halls, music halls, pubs, and parlors at least until 1886, when Simon Dedalus would sing it to young Stephen.
The point of this brief history is not only that dead maidens made good songs. It is that they made especially good songs, lively dances, and music hall numbers when their gender, class, exploitation, and suffering were repressed, sentimentalized, idealized, or sublimated. And Simon Dedalus, like many Dublin men who spent their time (and their family’s money) drinking and singing in the pubs, gave beautiful form to the stories of dead—safe—women, repressing and sublimating into art the reality of gender, poverty, deprivation, overwork, exploitation, and colonization.
But there is more to the social and political reality that Stephen’s father may have been repressing. Simon Dedalus was shaped by social pressures: his class, his colonized status, the lack of opportunities, the need to prove his manhood, as well as the pressures to conform, to repress his sexual urges, to have a large family, and passively to accept his social status. The social picture I want to fill out begins with the fact that he was modeled on Joyce’s father, who, typical of many men of his class, went from relative prosperity in 1880, when he married, to poverty by the time his wife died in 1903. During the twenty-three years of their marriage, May Joyce experienced seventeen pregnancies. Indeed, Ruth Bauerle points out that she was pregnant at least fourteen times during the first fifteen years, as they were forced to move from one house to another, and the houses became smaller, and the family became larger, and (I would add) her husband spent more of his money in the pubs singing songs such as “Lilly Dale.” Bauerle also asks a series of illuminating questions: “Did John Stanislaus, returning home truculent and vengeful, forcibly demand conjugal rights of his overburdened wife? He could attempt to kill her. He could shout, as she lay dying, ‘Die and be damned to you!’ The children were witnesses to, even participants in these violent scenes. Can we doubt that he insisted on his sexual rights with verbal and possibly physical violence? Given the small, crowded homes, could the children—especially James, the sensitive eldest—escape hearing scenes of mate rape?”9 And we might also ask whether Joyce could have separated this image of his father from the image of the father who sang “Lilly Dale” to Stephen when he was an infant. Or whether “mate rape” wasn’t a normal and accepted part of the treatment of Irish-Catholic wives and therefore inherent in Simon Dedalus’s characterization. Women dying of starvation, women dying in childbirth, women dying from overwork, women being exploited and raped by lovers and husbands who sang songs of pure love and beautiful dead women: these are some of the social realities that Mr. Dedalus might well have been suppressing, and that contribute to the novel’s political unconscious.
There is still another layer of social reality repressed in the song of Stephen’s father. “Lilly Dale” was originally an American “plantation”—that is, minstrel—song. So what is also being repressed is race and the dark side of colonialism. According to Charles Hamm, the prototype of “Lilly Dale” was “Miss Lucy Neal,” written in 1844 by the American James Sanford and popularized, though not for long, by the crusading Englishman Henry Russell. But unlike in the sentimental “Lilly Dale,” the social and historical content is manifest. It begins:
I was born in Alabama
My master’s name was Meal
He used to own a yallow gal,
Her name was Lucy Neale.
In the next nine stanzas the singer tells how he fell in love with Lucy, how they were separated when his master sold him, and how, unable to find his way back, he hears that:
Miss Lucy she was taken sick,
She eat too much corn meal.
The Doctor he did gib her up.10
Nor would audiences, hearing the tragic announcement of her death in the final stanza, have judged this a case of overeating. Slaves were often underfed when rations were too closely calculated by an owner trying to maximize his profit, or when times were hard, or when extravagances came to more than was anticipated. John Blassingame quotes a “carefully reasoned economic treatise written in 1844,” which says that, while free laborers required a hundred dollars a year for food and clothing, a slave could be and often was supported on twenty.11 Moreover, most slave autobiographers report that they had at least one owner who did not give them enough food, and that with other owners provisions sometimes ran low.12 The young slave woman, then, died of malnutrition—as did many young Irish women during the potato famine. So the migration of “Lilly Dale” from the world of American slavery to the world of the Irish famine has a historical logic. Indeed, as I will show, there is a deep relationship between enslaved Africans and colonized Irish, not only in their manner of exploitation but in the popular discourse of the colonizers.
The cover of the London song sheet, which pictured Anna Thillon singing at one of Jullien’s concerts, also promoted “Lilly Dale” as one of the “Christy Minstrel New Songs.” The Christy Minstrels were a popular group that spawned a large number of plagiarists and soon became the generic name for the “nigger” minstrelsy. Although they often played as part of a music hall program, they also developed their own independent minstrel shows which, in contrast to the music halls, were legitimate, and hence respectable, theater, and could appeal to a wider spectrum of society. Indeed, minstrel shows were so respectable that Gabriel Conroy would take his wife to see them—and she would tweak him about the “galoshes” he made her wear: “The word reminds her of Christy Minstrels.”13 The Christy Minstrels probably brought “Lilly Dale” to Ireland in the 1850s, about the same time as Anna Thillon’s London concert, where it remained popular in concert tours, music halls, and minstrel shows for at least thirty years. It is very likely, then, that Simon Dedalus would have heard and seen it during the 1850s performed not only by a concert artiste but also by a blackface minstrel playing the role of a slave. And the sheet music which he might have seen on the pianos of both parlors and pubs was associated with both kinds of performance.
What would Simon Dedalus have thought and felt about the representation of black slaves on the Irish minstrel stage? And how would he have reconciled the image of a blackface Lilly Dale with the pure white image that would have come to mind when he heard the song on the concert stage or when he imitated that formal style in a pub such as the Ormond? To answer these questions we must see what happened when the minstrels came from America to England and then to Ireland. And this rather long digression will lead us to understand much about some popular discourses that inform the novel and about their dynamics of repression.
In the United States minstrels were tied to the social reality of southern slavery. According to Charles Hamm, early minstrels represented the black slave as a “ridiculous, grotesque, marginally human creature,” but this image was displaced, especially by singers who communicated their grief over the death of a beloved in the tradition of the sentimental ballad.14 It seems, however, that the representations continually alternated and overlapped. Sometimes slaves were represented as people with human emotions suffering tragedies brought about by their inhumane treatment. But at other times they were animalistic caricatures, heightened by the incongruity of the black face and the cultured style, the lyric voice and stereotyped gestures. Moreover, the minstrel could satisfy the need of free white Americans, no matter how they were exploited, to see slaves as radically Other, especially when free blacks threatened whites in the northern job market, and it is important to note that minstrels first became popular during the depression of 1842. When a man in blackface sang a sentimental ballad such as “Lilly Dale” without dialect or reference to the social reality of slaves, he could evoke sympathy for a fellow human being. But, incongruously dressed in formal attire and singing in the style of a concert performer, he would also evoke laughter at high culture, like that of Julien’s “epic” concerts, where Madame Anna Thillon sang “Lilly Dale” on the American tour before taking it to England. And by exploiting the black stereotype to satirize high culture, he enabled whites of the working class to feel superior to their black counterparts, if not temporarily satisfied with the system that exploited them both.
According to Michael Pickering, in Britain, where there were few black people, the popularity of the minstrels was in large part due to a curiosity about the New World.15 And at least in industrialized England—where comparisons between slave labor and wage slavery were common—“minstrelsy was as much about English social relations as it was about a scantily known Afro-American population. … Race relations abroad were perceived in the light of class relations at home. It is this which links, in official and popular discourses, the derogatory images of ‘negroes,’ Jews, Irish, hooligans, working-class ‘roughs,’ criminals and whores: essentially they all belonged to a perpetually lower order that was defined by its antithetical contrast with English gentility.”16 Moreover, the minstrel could offer the lower classes, the unemployed, and the disaffected an “inverted image of all that was held comely, respectable, and proper in a civilised society and all that meant success in a commercial world and an enterprise culture”17—that is, the work ethic. Mark Osteen, focusing on the big spenders in the “Cyclops” chapter of Ulysses but also explaining the dissipation of Simon Dedalus, points out that in colonized Ireland, rejecting the work ethic was a way of rejecting British values. Drinking to excess was related to a “potlatch” competition in buying drinks; it was a “sacrificial politics,” a self-defeating “impulse for independence.”18 And this helps us understand at least part of what Simon Dedalus felt while watching the comic excesses of the blackface minstrel with his gratuitously genteel love song to an idealized dead woman.
But the British minstrels had yet another dimension: blacking up in England was a form of masking assimilated into popular custom and vernacular drama. It was a form of license. The minstrel performance took place in “a cultural space bracketed off from the moral rules and regulated behavior of mundane reality, but it did this at once via an association with black people in a new dynamic theatrical format and within a developing professionalism and commercial provision of popular entertainment. It was the coalescence of all these factors which made the minstrel mask so volatile in its meanings.”19 And the meanings became even more volatile as a result of the creative disparities, the contradictions arising from the mixture of dress, song, and language. As Pickering writes: “The humor of minstrelsy … hinged crucially on the incongruity of blackface impersonations, as did the whole effect of ‘coon’ love songs, which in varying degrees comically subverted the tone and content of the Victorian parlour ballad, not only by treating the theme of romance with a flippant lightheartedness, but also by using the coon buffoon caricature to ironically send up a mawkish sentimentalism. “20
The British masking tradition resulted in carnivalesque fusions that broke down traditional hierarchies—but at the same time reaffirmed them.21 Music halls and minstrels were subversive, but they were capable of managing subversive feelings. They appealed to people of all classes, who enjoyed sitting together under the same roof, but the classes were segregated according to the price of their seats. The cross-class appeal was heightened by characters addressing each different part of the audience. But they held the spirit of democracy in check by pitting one class against the other in a spirit of sport.
Moreover, the spontaneity that drew audiences together could be exposed as manipulative and exploitive in the very act that engaged the audience as happy accomplices to the manipulation and exploitation. J. S. Bratton describes a music hall song that epitomizes one form of this contradiction.
I’ve just been informed by the manager here
That the reason I’m back at the Empire this year,
Is because it states on my contract quite clear,
I must sing a song with a chorus;
I’ve found one at last—it’s a terrible thing,
But still it must go with a rush and a swing;
So when I’ve sung it once, for goodness sakes sing,
And bring down the roof that is o’er us.
If the song doesn’t go, well I do, that’s all,
So here and outside this chorus please bawl:
O, O, Capital O, Why should it be so I really don’t know,
O, O; now let it go!
If you don’t know the chorus, sing O, O, O.22
As Bratton points out:
The singer and the audience, the management and the song, are described as being locked into a network of relationships that is acknowledged as exploitive and phoney, even as the song is generated and enjoyed. The spontaneous audience participation supposedly at the heart of music hall’s “popular” status … is exposed as a deliberate fabrication written into the contract by the management, which rewards the performer according to his ability to sell his manufactured bonhomie to the audience. But the song is not a bitter denunciation of the system; the response it invites is the same participation at which it scoffs, and the singer would have failed indeed if the audience were not singing heartily by the end.23
Bratton illuminates what historians of popular culture, building on Antonio Gramsci, see as a site of exchange, negotiation, and continuing struggle for ideological hegemony.24 In the Irish music halls this struggle takes another form as the English, who brought the shows from Liverpool to Dublin, became the butt of satiric laughter. For audiences would enjoy the satire of English ideology at the same time they were literally buying into it. Indeed, Cheryl Herr argues that the music hall ultimately “served … to contain lower-class frustration by making expression into a form of commodity to be purchased by the worker.” While it consciously satirized the English upper classes, it “manipulated the Irish into enacting roles more beneficial to the ruler than the rule. … If laborers … could be made to accept, however ironically, the minimal utopia of an urban garden (as portrayed in the music hall song, ‘That Little Back Garden of Mine’) and a secure but colorless marriage (as in ‘My Old Dutch’) so much the better.”25
Two of the figures Irish audiences most loved and bought into were the stage Irishman and the blackface minstrel. And these two figures are deeply related. As Perry Curtis shows, the Irish were considered “white Negroes” by the English. They were told that, according to a well-respected scientific formula, they had a high “index of Negrescence.” And they saw themselves “simianized,” depicted with apelike characteristics, in Victorian cartoons in magazines ranging from Punch to the penny weeklies.26 Building on Curtis, Elsie Mitchie points out that the Irish were identified as blacks in the dominant English discourse that pervaded the novels of the Bronte sisters as well as the popular press. They were called “blacks” and “white monkeys,” caricatured as apes, and identified with “primitive” Africans (as American slaves had been) as a way of justifying the masters’ treatment—especially during the famine.27 And Harriet Jacobs claimed, “I would ten thousand times rather that my children should be the half-starved paupers of Ireland than to be the most pampered of the slaves in America.”28
Irish audiences, then, could sympathize with black American slaves as a result of being lower class and colonized. But their enjoyment (like that of the exploited American workers) may have come from the opportunity to distance themselves from the blacks being represented. If their enjoyment was based on distancing themselves from the scapegoat, the English were not only making money on the popularity of minstrels but also finding another way to contain the frustration of their colony. The blackface minstrel—who sang songs such as “Lilly Dale” in the attire, manners, and diction of a middle-class white gentleman—could generate both tears and laughter. He could effect identification but also a distancing that resulted in a repression of the social reality, or the relation between black slaves and white Irishmen. But the repression was more complex, for fantasizing the death of a young woman was a way of repressing the reality of her exploitation and the audience’s complicity in it. Moreover, the linking of simianized slaves, colonized Irishmen, and exploited women establishes the mutuality of simianization and feminization. It suggests that forces of self-hatred, displacement, and projection are at work in the desire for a beautiful woman’s death. The minstrel’s obvious satirizing of the sentimental style of the concert stage (where Simon Dedalus might also have heard “Lilly Dale”) competed with but did not undermine the powers of repression inherent in the colonialized discourse of the most popular forms of entertainment.
Cheryl Herr persuasively argues in Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture that Joyce recognized the subversive potential of the music halls as well as of the minstrels. But Simon Dedalus did not. From all we know of him in Portrait and from hearing of the way he and his cohorts sang in the “Sirens” episode of Ulysses, he took his sentimentalism straight. He would have wrung every tear out of the song he sang to his young son, using the emotion as a way of displaying his voice. And the tears would have been some measure of the social reality he repressed.
Stephen is introduced and initiated by a father’s story that takes Baby Tuckoo past Betty Byrne and a father’s song that entertains him as he sings it in his childish way. The story and song characterize the father as nurturing, protective, and benevolent. And this characterization is achieved at least in part by the repression of the women’s stories and of the physical, social, and political reality in which they played an important part. But Stephen is also initiated by what one might call a mothers’ story and a mothers’ song, or chant. I am pluralizing mother to focus on the relationship between Stephen’s mother and his nurturing Dante, who gave him cachous and fed his imagination by teaching him about far-off places. But I am also pluralizing mother to show how women are generalized as well as repressed and idealized in the opening pages, and how such generalization is a form of devaluation and marginalization, and leads to their characterization as agents of repression.
While the father’s song and story reflect him as nurturing, protective, and benevolent, the mothers’ story and song reflect them as repressive, threatening, and malevolent. When Stephen says that he is going to marry Eileen someday, his mother revises his story: “O, Stephen will apologise” (P, 8). Dante threatens with an alternative version: “O, if not the eagles will come and pull out his eyes” (P, 8). And their story is followed by a terrifying chant—“Pull out his eyes, / Apologise” (P, 8)—which is not attributed to any character and issues from some generalized authority.
The implications of the women’s story and the song (which they do not sing but for which they are nonetheless held responsible) become clear when we see how Joyce revised his original epiphany. In the original, Mr. Vance is the active agent who revises Stephen’s story and provides the threatening alternative: he comes in with a stick, saying “he’ll have to apologise. … Or else … the eagles’l come and pull out his eyes.” Then Mrs. Joyce assents: “O yes. … I’m sure he will apologise.” And Joyce, hiding under the table, chants to himself: “Pull out his eyes, / Apologise.”29 By giving Mrs. Dedalus Mr. Vance’s lines, Joyce turns her from an assenting subordinate into an active agent of repression. By giving Dante the young boy’s lines, he shows how the women who nurture Stephen not only are implicated but actively contribute to the very power that represses them—most specifically by becoming the locus of guilt for the next generation of repressed men. And by displacing the source of the terrifying chant, he shows the women to be agents of an unidentifiable, generalized, ubiquitous, terrifying force, which should be labeled totalitarian. He shows that they are repressing not only the particular desire to marry a Protestant but, as we see throughout Stephen’s development, sexual desire in general. But he also shows how they are identified with the pervasive and incomprehensible forces that victimize them.
To understand more fully the totalitarian nature of this repression, its interrelated sources, and the way it was internalized by those whom it most repressed, we need to turn back to the time in which the mothers of Mrs. Dedalus and Dante were having children, and to the discourse of the Great Famine. In Crimes against Fertility: Joyce and Population Control, Mary Lowe-Evans shows how the English had accepted as part of their laissez-faire policy the Malthusian doctrine—that overpopulation would be controlled naturally as it outstripped the food supply—as a way of dealing with the growing population of Ireland. Laissez-faire was a form of repression that depended on the repression of social recognition and responsibility. It naturalized, generalized, and therefore suppressed the locus and agency of repression, which is how it achieved its totalitarian form.
From 1845 to 1851 the Irish population was diminished and physically as well as psychologically enervated as a result of starvation, malnutrition, epidemics of dysentery and scurvy and cholera, lack of fuel and bedding, ubiquitous corpses, enormous rats, a general feeling of despair, and—except for those who emigrated—a paralyzing passivity. Contributing to the despair and passivity was the impotence of the starving Irish as they daily faced the fact that there was plenty of food in Ireland. For it was only the potato—the most sustaining crop they could grow on the little land allotted them—that was blighted. The crops of the landlords flourished and brought prices in the English markets that the Irish could not afford.
What also contributed to the apathy and passivity, and hence the repression, was the Irish church. Cheryl Herr describes the range and pervasiveness of its repressive discourse. One of the ways it contributed to the passivity was through a form of idealization reflected in a letter written by the bishop of West Cork. In his history of Ireland (which Joyce owned), Michael Davitt tells of John O’Connell, M. P. (eldest son of the Liberator), reading this letter in Conciliation Hall, Dublin: ‘“The famine is spreading with fearful rapidity, and scores of persons are dying of starvation and fever, but the tenants are bravely paying their rents.’ Whereupon O’Connell exclaimed, in proud tones, ‘I thank God I live among a people who would rather die of hunger than defraud their landlords of their rent!’”30
Idealization, sentimentalization, the repression of social reality, and the repression of most active choices (including emigration) led to the passivity and paralysis that Joyce illuminated in Dubliners and Portrait and that he associated with the church. He also illuminated the church’s most potent, pervasive, and successfully naturalized form of repression: the promotion of large families linked to the repression of sexual desire. It is important to focus on the implications of this paradox, or apparent paradox. For, while to “increase and multiply” (as Leopold Bloom would put it) seems at odds with the English desire to decrease the Irish population, it was a way of contributing to the Malthusian momentum. And of course it meant contributing to the supply of cheap labor. Moreover, it also contributed to Irish passivity. The price of large families was largely paid by women. And, while the price of sexual repression was paid by both genders, the men, once married, achieved the most, and sometimes the only, gratification, for they could leave the family behind all day and gain their conjugal rights when they returned at night.
Sexual repression—requiring celibacy until marriage, considering masturbation a form of perversion and the body a source of sin—was part of the church’s discourse, from sermons to the confessional, that is, from the most public to the most private places of association. And the contradictory message—be chaste and multiply—was a form of obfuscation which Joyce would expose in Ulysses. The church, then, added a psychological burden of confusion and obfuscation to the physical and psychological burdens of the large families that survived the Great Famine. When we consider how the church enlisted mothers and nurturing women to become its potent advocates, we can better understand the discourse of control, and what Joyce did first by picturing Stephen’s mother and Dante as agents of the repression, and then by displacing the dramatic source of the terrifying—indeed paralyzing—chant. He helps us understand how the discourse of the church served the empire, and how the blame for its complicity and its victimization is projected onto the victims. If victimized lovers are idealized through beautiful songs of their death, victimized mothers are transformed into threatening agents of repression.
Dante requires special attention, for she is not a mother but a de facto spinster because of her power in the opening scene, and because of the role she plays in the climactic scene of little Stephen’s life.31 At the Christmas dinner the ineffectual men, Stephen’s father and Mr. Casey, begin by talking of Christy, who manufactured “champagne for those fellows”—that is, bombs for the Fenians (P, 28). They go on to vituperate against the priests for betraying Parnell and rending him “like rats in the sewer” (P, 34). This leads into Mr. Casey’s story, which concludes with his bending down to the “harridan” who was “bawling and screaming” about Kitty O’Shea and spitting a mouthful of tobacco juice, “Phth … right into her eye” (P, 37).
Dante opposes the men, but it is important to realize that she collaborates in telling their story by goading them on. One response actually incites Mr. Casey to tell the story of the famous spit. “I will defend my church and my religion,” Dante tells Mrs. Dedalus, “when it is insulted and spit upon by renegade catholics” (P, 34). And her reactions are voiced in the violent language of the church against the Protestant Parnell: “It would be better for him that a millstone were tied about his neck and that he were cast into the depths of the sea rather than he should scandalise one of these, my least little ones. That is the language of the Holy Ghost” (P, 32). Indeed, she slams out of the room shouting, “Devil out of hell! We won! We crushed him to death!” bringing tears to the men’s eyes (P, 39).
Mr. Casey and Dante become caricatures as they caricature the very language that builds on violence and denies them individual self-realization. But Mr. Casey’s characterization is positive, indeed heroic, in contrast to Dante’s. He may be a blowhard, but we empathize with his outrage, exult in his victory, and share in his laughter. Moreover, he gets the chance to tell his own story—and to picture himself as a kind of hero. Dante, by contrast, is identified with the harridan, the villain of Mr. Casey’s story, and with the power of the church, even though she is victimized by its patriarchy and colonialist complicity. She is not allowed a story of her own. In fact, her story is shaped by Stephen’s father, who was identified with the authorial voice in the opening of the novel. Mr. Dedalus had told Stephen that Dante “was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got the money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies” (P, 278). That is, he situated her in the unknown American frontier which excited the imagination of both the colonizers and the colonized. Ironically, he identified her not with the cowboys but, since she is rescued by her brother, with the Indians of the captivity stories. He also identified her by association with Africans and slavery. And, conversely and paradoxically, he identified her by implication with those who profited from slavery and colonialism, thereby identifying the victim with the forces of colonialism. But how did Dante get to America? Why did she enter the convent? Did she choose the convent as a positive alternative to the patriarchal family, as so many women did in the nineteenth century? What did she do in the convent? Did she come out of the convent willingly? What are we to make of her being rescued by a brother who exploited “savages”?
It helps to know that Dante was modeled on a woman “embittered by a disastrous marriage,” who had been on the verge of becoming a nun in America when her brother, having made a fortune in Africa, died and left her £3o,ooo.32 But it helps more to know that the Allegheny convents were not what was pictured by the male imagination, that they were not houses of captivity or benighted retreats from the world but centers of care and learning, that they adapted to the customs and needs of the New World rather than perpetuate the traditions of the European closed convent, that they developed the first professionally trained nurses in the country, that they had the most advanced education for wealthy girls, that the tuition helped pay for educating the poor, that some sisters managed businesses to support their charitable work, that many orders had their own constitutions, which meant they were under the jurisdiction of neither a European motherhouse nor a bishop and were therefore freer than nuns, and perhaps all women, anywhere else in the world.33
Knowing all this might lead us to imagine a story for Mrs. Riordan that neither Stephen’s father nor the novel’s primary narrator could tell. Dante would probably have been one of the poor girls, educated in sewing rather than Latin. But when she entered the order, her education would have changed. Indeed, we know she was exposed to books, had an appetite for knowledge and an attraction for what was beyond. After all, she taught Stephen “where the Mozambique Channel was and what was the longest river in America and what was the highest mountain on the moon (P, 10–11). Had she not been rescued by a brother who made a fortune exploiting “savages,” she might well not have become the narrow-minded harridan pictured in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I do not mean to rewrite Dante’s story, only to show how it is shaped to identify her with the repressive power of the church and the forces of colonialism, how she becomes an instrument to perpetuate a power from which as an Irish-Catholic woman she is most excluded, how indeed she becomes its scapegoat in the novel’s most dramatic scene. As with Betty Byrne, Lilly Dale, and Mrs. Dedalus, her story has been repressed, transformed, and appropriated to fit into the “ambitious” story of a young man seeking independence and power.
All four characters had stories that were central to the physical, social, and political reality of Stephen’s world. But Betty Byrne is not recognized as a businesswoman. Lilly Dale’s death is sentimentalized to repress its relation to the reality of women’s overwork and sexual exploitation, of malnutrition and starvation, of colonization and slavery, of the discourses that feminized and simianized the colonized Irish. And the forces of repression are projected onto Stephen’s mother and the nurturing Dante, who, while having internalized the ideology of the British colonizers and the Irish church, were among the most excluded and victimized by them. The women who participate in Stephen’s introduction and initiation are appropriated by an authorial voice which positions them in Stephen’s “ambitious” story, the bildungsroman, where a young man grows from innocence and marginality to experience and a position of social recognition and power. But the women are also repressed, transformed, and appropriated by equally powerful elements that enhance the authorial voice: the popular discourses of Ireland in the late nineteenth century, which would become more and more central to Joyce’s interrogations in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.
I thank the following people for leading me into new fields of scholarship: Mary Lowe-Evans, Ruth Bauerle (an authority on Joyce and music), Rosemary Cullen (curator of Brown University’s John Hay Library), Sheila M. Hogg (Assistant Music Librarian at Brown University’s Orwig Music Library), Cheryl Herr, Elsie Mitchie (who helped me with facts of Irish history and theories of colonialization), and Ulrich Schneider (an authority on popular culture in Ireland, who led me to understand the theoretical complexities of studying popular culture and the uses of Antonio Gramsci).
1. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 13–15.
2. Nancy K. Miller, “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction,” PMLA 96 (1981): 36–48.
3. In The Politics of Narration: James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Virginia Woolf (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), I argue that the authorial voice contends with a rebellious voice that disrupts and subverts the ambitious story in ways that Joyce would develop in Ulysses, but the authorial voice prevails.
4. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Text, Criticism, and Notes, ed. Chester G. Anderson (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 7; hereafter cited in the text as P.
5. H. S. Thompson, Lilly Dale (Oliver Ditson: Boston, 1852).
6. Margot Norris, “Stifled Back Answers: The Gender Politics of Art in Joyce’s ‘The Dead,’” Modern Fiction Studies 35 (Autumn 1989): 479–503.
7. Mary Lowe-Evans, Crimes against Fertility: Joyce and Population Control (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989).
8. Annotation to H. S. Thompson, Lilly Dale (Boston: Oliver Ditson, 1852), by S. Foster Damon, in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays, John Hay Library, Brown University. Heart Songs Dear to the American People, published by Joe Mitchell Chappie (Boston, 1909), reprinted with introduction by Charles Hamm (New York: Da Capo Press, 1983).
9. Ruth Bauerle, “Date Rape, Mate Rape: A Liturgical Interpretation of The Dead,’” in New Alliances in Joyce Studies: “When It’s Aped to Foul a Delfian,” ed. Bonnie Kime Scott (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1988), 119–20. Bauerle’s own citation in this passage is to Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 136.
10. Charles Hamm, Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), 137. According to Hamm “Mary Blane,” sung by the Irishman J. W. Raynor, was an earlier example of the song in which the singer’s lover did not die but was sold: “I often asked for Mary Blane, / My Massa he did scold, / And said you saucy nigger boy, / If you must know, she’s sold.” Both “Mary Blane” and “Miss Lucy Neal” were representative of a new group of songs in pseudo-black dialect emerging in the 1840s but tied to the sentimental ballad, which treated black characters sympathetically and portrayed a “whole gallery” of southern slave women. “Lilly Dale,” Hamm contends, was an offshoot that had no connection with black minstrelsy, since there is no trace of dialect or reference to slaves or the South (136). Nonetheless, it is listed in Minstrel Songs Old and New, which was published in 1910 by Oliver Ditson of Boston, the original publisher of “Lilly Dale,” and in other standard minstrel listings. And the Lilly Dale Songster is illustrated with pictures of blackface singers and dancers in courtly dress.
11. John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 265.
12. Ibid., 254. There is an even more cynical explanation of Lucy Neal’s death. Frederick Douglass describes how, when slaves ran through their food allowances and applied for more, the enraged master would often compel them to eat until they got sick (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. [New York: New American Library, 1987], 301).
13. James Joyce, Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes, ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz (New York: Viking Press, 1969), 181. Music hall owners and managers tried to woo the middle class by breaking with the public house tradition, banning the sale of drinks from the auditorium, replacing tables with rows of seats, cleaning up the songs and skits, controlling the audience’s behavior, inviting dignitaries, and opening the show with the national anthem. Yet, as Dagmar Höher argues, the middle class did not flock to the music halls in the 1890s, for there were a considerable number of anti-music hall campaigns (“The Composition of Music Hall Audiences, 1850–1900,” in Music Hall: The Business of Pleasure, ed. Peter Bailey [Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1986], 86). Höher is referring only to the English music halls, but in Ireland the middle class was at least as conservative. Eugene Watters and Matthew Murtagh describe Dan Lowrey’s continual battle to gain legitimacy for his Star of Erin, especially since the legitimate theaters were rightly concerned about the competition of “people’s fun” (Infinite Variety: Dan Lowrey’s Music Hall 1879–97 [Dublin: Gill and MacMillan, 1975], 38). More important, the church had a great deal of control. And, as Cheryl Herr points out, the music hall was considered antinationalistic, a way of importing English performers into Irish culture (Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986]).
14. Hamm, Yesterdays, 136.
15. Michael Pickering, “White Skin, Black Masks: ‘Nigger’ Minstrelsy,” in Music Hall: Performance and Style, ed. J. S. Bratton (Philadelphia: Milton Keynes and Open University Press, 1986), 84. Hans Nathan traces the literary interest in black people back to Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko (1695); what he describes as a “humanitarian trend” in the eighteenth century “culminated in a vogue for the oppressed” (Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962], 4). But Nathan’s history lacks the social density of Pickering’s. Also see J. S. Bratton, “English Ethiopians: British Audiences and Black-Face Acts, 1835–1865,” in The Yearbook of English Studies: Literature and Its Audience, II, ed. G. K. Hunter and C. J. Rawson (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1981), 11:127–42.
16. Pickering, “White Skin, Black Masks,” 84.
17. Ibid., 88.
18. Mark Osteen, “Narrative Gifts: ‘Cyclops’ and the Economy of Excess,” in Joyce Studies Annual 1990, ed. Thomas F. Staley (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), 162–96.
19. Pickering, “White Skin, Black Masks,” 79.
20. Ibid., 79.
21. It is important to recognize the variety of forces at work in the music halls and minstrel shows and to understand the creative dynamic, the dissonant fusions of styles and messages that undermine traditional hierarchies. But the carnival tradition, from which the masking tradition derives, is at best ambiguous, for it was traditionally licensed by authority. The Roman Saturnalia, the Kalends of January, and the English Feast of Fools were legitimized ways to release pent-up energies. They were situated outside of normal time. But, at a predetermined moment in time, order would be restored. Also, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s introduction to The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).
22. Words and music by J. W. Knowles, song by Wilkie Bard (1903); quoted in J. S. Bratton, Introduction to Music Hall: Performance and Style, ed. J. S. Bratton (Philadelphia: Taylor and Francis, 1986), vii.
23. Bratton, Introduction, vii.
24. For an excellent survey of theoretical issues in the study of popular culture, see Peter Bailey, “Leisure, Culture, and the Historian: Reviewing the First Generation of Leisure Historiography in Britain,” Leisure Studies 8 (1989): 107–25; his discussion of Gramsci is on 113.
25. Cheryl Herr, Joyce’s Anatomy of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 190.
26. Perry Curtis, Apes and Angels: The Irishman in Victorian Caricature (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1971).
27. Elsie Mitchie, “Heathcliff, Rochester, and the Simianization of the Irish,” Novel 25 (Winter 1992): 125–40.
28. Harriet Jacobs [Linda Brent], “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” in The Classic Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: New American Library, 1987), 363. American slaves identified themselves with the Irish, or at least made use of the discourse regarding them. Recalling his departure from Colonel Lloyd’s plantation for Baltimore at eight years of age, Frederick Douglass called up the proverb: “Being hanged in England is better than dying a natural death in Ireland” (Narrative, 272).
29. James Joyce, “Epiphanies,” in The Workshop of Daedalus: James Joyce and the Raw Materials for “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” ed. Robert Scholes and Richard Kain (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965), 11.
30. Quoted in Lowe-Evans, Crimes against Fertility, 29.
31. The discussion that follows has been adapted from my Politics of Narration.
32. Ellmann, James Joyce, 25.
33. See Mary Ewens, The Role of the Nun in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Arno Press, 1978). I also learned about American nuns from conversations with James Kenneally, who has long been a historian of Catholic women.