How could I tell Madame that my father thought it enough for a woman to be able to write a letter with elegance and put up an umbrella with ease? That although he had once celebrated my successes, something had changed now. That although he liked me to dance privately for him, he didn’t like me flaunting myself on stage. That my mother thought women who danced were little more than prostitutes. How could I tell her all this?
In her debut novel, The Joyce Girl, Annabel Abbs explores the little-known life of Lucia Joyce, daughter of the acclaimed writer, James Joyce and lover of Samuel Beckett.
The novel begins in September 1934 in Zurich where Lucia is a patient of the psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He asks her to write an account of the years her family spent in Robiac Square, Paris, when Lucia was a promising dancer: “When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.”
Despite Lucia’s talent, life at Robiac Square revolves around James Joyce: his work, his assistants, his social life. Early in the novel, during one of many dinners at a local restaurant with a group of friends, a discussion takes place regarding Josephine Baker:
“She’s a modern young woman and she’s earning her own money. I say good for her.” Stella raised her glass of champagne but quickly lowered it when she saw Mama glaring.
“She’s had herself two husbands already and they say she has a lover now. What sort of a lady is that, I ask you?”
“That’s why she can dance on stage wearing only a feather. If she wasn’t married, it wouldn’t be allowed,” said Kitten quietly. “Pa says marriage is the only way a woman can be free, even today, even in Paris. All these liberated women, all these flappers – Pa says they’re not truly free at all.”
I was about to interject with my own views on how free one could feel when lost in movement, how liberating it was to dance whether you were rich or poor, clothed or unclothed, when Georgio cut me short.
Here, in one short conversation, is Lucia’s problem: a young, single, talented woman in Paris in the 1920s should be free to dance and live her life but Lucia’s ambition is thwarted by the men in her life – her father’s insistence that she’s his muse; her brother’s behaviour which drives her mother, Nora, to be more controlling of her, and her obsession with Samuel Beckett.
Lucia’s parents are selfish and over-protective. Nora is often caustic towards her, criticising her behaviour, particularly anything she deems overtly sexual. As the novel progresses, this includes dancing in public. Lucia’s seemingly constant thoughts about Beckett and the possibility of them marrying are partly caused by her desire for freedom from her parents and the hope that he will allow her to continue dancing. However, the world which she conjures for herself only traps her further, her thoughts with regards to Beckett’s behaviour towards her tormenting her as the dancing career she longs for slips further away.
The Joyce Girl is a fascinating portrait of a talented young woman destroyed by a patriarchal society intent on containing her and when it seems she can’t be contained, labelling her mentally unstable and imprisoning her within asylum walls. My copy of the novel arrived with a postcard from Abbs on which she wrote, ‘On the reverse of this card are some of the characters from my novel – all the men achieved recognition. None of the women.’ Interestingly, there is a brief mention of Zelda Fitzgerald, dancer and writer, who was married to F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald dances at the same studio as Lucia and Abbs has them bump into each other outside. It’s not difficult to draw parallels in terms of society’s treatment of these women both as ambitious, talented dancers and their apparent mental health problems.
Abbs has created a convincing portrayal of a young woman virtually erased from history. It’s infuriating and heart breaking in equal measure.
All profits from the first year royalties from the novel are being donated to YoungMinds in memory of Lucia Joyce.
Thanks to Impress Books for the review copy.