Who Was The Joyce Girl? A Conversation with Annabel Abbs

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Author Annabel Abbs writes powerful stories that capture the lives and struggles of remarkable women. Her first novel, The Joyce Girl, tells the fictionalised story of Lucia Joyce, forgotten daughter of author James Joyce. Abbs gives voice to Lucia and enables her to tell her own story—a fascinating, heartbreaking tale of thwarted ambition, passionate creativity, and the power of love to inspire and destroy.

Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall discussion of The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020. To preface the conversation, she spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby about the life of Lucia, what it means to be a self-taught writer, and the amazing but overlooked artists who Abbs finds inspiring.

AE: Can you tell us a bit about The Joyce Girl?

AA: It’s a fictional re-working of a critical period in the life of the only daughter of James Joyce (the Irish author of the great modernist novel, Ulysses), Lucia Joyce. The novel is deeply researched, but all of Lucia’s letters, medical notes, diaries were destroyed, so there was very little of her left. During this period—1928 to 1934—she lived with her family in Paris where she was training to be a dancer. She was supposed to be a very good dancer and had performed in dance tours in Italy and Belgium as well as at various theatres in Paris. But during this time she stopped dancing, and I wanted to understand why she had given up something she loved. At the same time her father was grappling with his final book, Finnegans Wake, which took 17 years to write. Lucia was also believed to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett at this time, and then with Alexander Calder, who became her drawing teacher when she gave up dance. Later on, she told other people she had been engaged to each of them.

AE: How much of the story is biographical and how much is fiction? Why did you choose a mixture of the two, rather than fully in a biography format?

AA: Lucia is already the subject of a biography written by a Joyce scholar, and although I relied heavily on it, the book is constrained by the absence of material in Lucia’s voice. No new material has come to light, so I felt wary about writing a second biography. I felt her story lent itself to a fictional re-telling where I could slip beneath her skin and imagine her experience—at the centre of an oddly dysfunctional exiled family but in the wild excitement of Paris at its creative apotheosis. All the characters are based on real people and all the main events of the novel actually took place, so the biographical facts acted as my scaffolding leaving me free to imagine Lucia’s thoughts, feelings and responses.

AE: What was it like to write the characters of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Carl Jung? How did that experience compare to writing Lucia, particularly as a figure whose personal character is likely less well-known but is more central to this story?

AA: Lucia was the hardest character to write. Not only had her own letters and diaries been destroyed but so had hundreds of letters that mentioned her or discussed her predicament. I felt as though I was looking for her through an endless telescope. I had quite a few photographs and one snippet of autobiography that I used to look at in a London archive, but it was hard to fathom her from so little. Joyce, Beckett and Jung have tens of biographies between them, as well as collected letters, interviews, voice recordings and numerous scholarly works. I read four biographies of Beckett, and hundreds of his letters, as well as attending an entire season of his plays, going to something every day for a month. I had a much clearer sense of their characters, their foibles, their likes and dislikes.

Lucia came to me in that strange liminal time between wake and sleep. It sounds weird, but in those few minutes I found a version of her—my version.

AE: Many would consider James Joyce and Samuel Beckett to be household names—yet not Lucia Joyce. Why do we have so few details about her life? What initially drew you to tell Lucia’s story—and what draws you to continue that discussion today?

AA: Yes, Joyce and Beckett are household names, as is Carl Jung—who she was sent to in 1934 as she became more and more fragile. This juxtaposition made me uncomfortable—the way the men in her life had become legendary figures while she had been erased from history, barely a footnote in most scholarly works on Joyce. There was considerable evidence that Joyce had been hugely influenced by Lucia, and inspired by her dancing. References to it appear throughout Finnegans Wake. I felt this needed acknowledging. I was indignant at the attempts to wipe out all trace of her. But the stigma of mental illness was very strong then. Lucia’s story is really about what happens when you live in the shadow of another person, what happens when your own creativity is thwarted, and the dark underbelly of jazz-age Paris. There was an entire community of extraordinary dancers (mostly women) in Paris at the time, most of whom have been forgotten. We still think of 1920s Paris as being very much the playground of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Picasso. But there were just as many women trying to live in a new, more emancipated way. I’d like to see them all resurrected.

AE: How does your own work as a dancer compare with Lucia’s point of view? When researching Lucia’s life, did you find that you and she had any similar experiences from working in that field?

AA: I’d done some dance before but not the freeform modern dance that Lucia trained in. So I tracked down someone who had trained with the same woman as Lucia. She was nearly 90 and she introduced me to a group of dancers (most of them very elderly!) and a teacher who taught me to dance the same method. It’s called the Margaret Morris Method (Margaret Morris was the name of the woman who devised this style of dance) and it’s still going in some parts of the world. It’s a very expressive form of movement, with lots of improvisation. I loved it, and it gave me an immediate understanding of how Lucia must have felt when she danced. It’s nothing like ballet. It’s very free, very creative. It was Lucia’s voice, I realized. She spoke through her body while her father spoke through words.

AE: You mentioned that Lucia served as her father’s muse for Finnegans Wake. Can you elaborate on this, based on your research about their lives and relationship? 

AA: Joyce attended all Lucia’s performances and there are accounts of her dancing in his study while he wrote. Finnegans Wake is full of references to dance and when she was initially hospitalized he visited her every Sunday and they danced together. Later, Lucia said that all the bits in Finnegans Wake about dance, love and madness were about her. Dance seemed to be how they communicated when words failed them, it seemed to be a bond between them. What struck me was how they were both breaking boundaries. He was writing a book about the ‘dark night of the soul’ using language as it had never been used before (or since) and she was dancing using movement as it had never been seen before. Her dance was as radical as his writing.

AE: What do you think of the concept of “the muse” in general—as a typically feminine figure that’s been woven into our concept of authorship in classical and contemporary literature? Do you see the archetype as empowering? Damaging?

AA: The notion of the muse (usually female, often supine) seems quaintly old-fashioned now, thank goodness! It’s a notion that requires a person to be both subject and object, making it inherently problematic. I find it hard to see the traditional muse as anything other than passive and possessed. On the other hand, in the past being a ‘muse’ offered women the chance to do something a little more interesting than they might otherwise have done and to have exposure to a circle of artists and writers. So I’m reluctant to write them off. All too often they were aspiring artists themselves. They frequently had an enormous impact on the works they inspired, but received no credit for this. This is what bothers me—how little agency they seem to have had and how little credit they received.

Does anyone call themselves a muse now?

AE: You’ve famously decided against formal writing courses and MA programs, instead building your own curriculum and structure. How long did it take you to figure out what worked for you? How do you keep yourself motivated?

AA: I had too many family commitments to do a course, although I would dearly have loved the support network that comes with doing a Creative Writing Masters! Instead I bought some books and devised some creative writing exercises that I did whenever I was stuck. And I read like crazy, copying out lines and paragraphs and then dismantling them so I could better understand the author’s craft. I also edited and rewrote, over and over. I was kept motivated by my rage at how Lucia had been treated. Whenever I stalled (which was often), I took out a photograph of Lucia in the mental hospital where she died, and was re-fuelled with anger. Then I got back to work.

I think you need to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos, uncertainty and isolation if you take this route. COVID-19 lockdown is a good dry run!

AE: Who are some female writers and artists from history who inspire you, but who have been overlooked or overshadowed in their time? Who are the female artists and authors who inspire you today?

AA: Oh so many…where to start? Overlooked…all the best-selling female poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many women wrote and published hugely popular poetry, but very little made it into the cannon. It frequently lacks the muscular style of their male counterparts but why do we rate muscular more highly than emotional? Letitia Landon is my current favourite—she wrote under the initials L.E.L and died tragically at the age of 36. I’ve also been researching and writing about a painter called Gwen John who also worked in 1920s Paris but was completely overshadowed by her brother, Augustus John.

Finally, I’ve spent much of lockdown looking at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe—all that open space has helped keep me sane in my London house—and reading Hilary Mantel, one of the best historical novelists writing today (in my view!).


Annabel Abbs will be streaming a Town Hall conversation about her book The Joyce Girl on 6/9/2020.

 

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