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Lucia Joyce (1907-1982) – Portrait of a Troubled Daughter

Lucia Joyce

The tragic tale of the deeply-troubled daughter of James Joyce, Ireland’s most famous writer, and her unrequited love for Samuel Beckett.




James Joyce and Nora Barnacle were standing on the platform with their two children, Giorgio and Lucia. It was May 1932 and Paris smelled of spring, but it was clammy and smoky in the Gare du Nord. The Joyces were about to board a train to Calais, from where they would sail for England and a new life in London.

As they watched the porters pile their luggage onto the train, something within the mind of 25-year-old Lucia Joyce tripped. ‘I don’t want to leave Paris’, she began. ‘I hate England’.

Her initial agitation rapidly metamorphosed into a full-blown tantrum in what her father later described as ‘a bad crise de nerfs’. Greatly embarrassed by such a public spectacle, the Joyces were obliged to remove their trunks from the train and call off their London trip.

The Joyce’s discomfiture at this public tantrum was understandable for James was by then one of the world’s most famous novelists. And both he and Nora hated to create a scene. But the central figure of this scene was Lucia, a tragic young woman whose downward spiral was precipitated by a string of failed relationships and an unrequited love for her father’s one time secretary, a young man called Samuel Beckett. James and Nora had further cause for concern at their daughter’s increasing wildness. At least one doctor had already diagnosed Lucia as a schizophrenic.

The sad tale of Lucia Joyce was very nearly airbrushed from history. Her reincarnation began with the publication in 2003 of a biography by Carol Loeb Schloss, a Joycean scholar who believes Lucia was the muse for Joyce’s comic masterpiece ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.




Lucia Anna Joyce was born in a pauper’s ward at a hospital in Trieste in 1907. Her parents, James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, were not married. They had moved to the Italian port-city two years earlier, having abandoned Dublin, their native city, where Joyce’s works had been continually rejected by publishers.

The Joyces ran a disorderly household. They were effectively broke throughout the Giorgio and Lucia’s childhood. Joyce was constantly scribbling unpublished manuscripts, including early drafts of “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” They rarely stayed in the same place for long, flitting between cheap hotels and rented rooms, constantly fending off eviction notices and surviving on handouts. The penniless author had a few ill-starred attempts at business, including a failed bid to import Donegal Tweed into Europe. In the evenings he frequently went out and got drunk.

By the age of seven, Lucia had lived in five different places. Perhaps on account of these unsettled times, she was a rather sad and insecure young girl. She was also stricken with strabismus, which made her slightly cross-eyed, like her mother, and which may account for those reports of her childhood habit of staring into space.

More alarming was her confusion of language. Being Joyce’s daughter, it was perhaps inevitable that Lucia would grow up speaking a certain amount of gobbledygook. But on account of her family living in so many different countries – they moved from Italy to France and then to Switzerland – she became multi-lingual and yet she never really mastered any one of these languages. As Padraic Colum, the Longford poet and one of her father’s best friends, observed, ‘she would slip from English into French, and from French into Italian, in the course of going from one side of the room to the other.’

With her father, Lucia only ever spoke in Triestian Italian, a rather obscure dialect. The two became extremely close. Lucia worshipped him and longed for his attention. He was fascinated by her, describing this ‘fantastic being’ as a ‘wonder wild’ with a mind ‘as clear and as unsparing as the lightning.’ He was convinced that she was the true inheritor of his genius.

With the publication of ‘Portrait’ in 1916, Joyce acquired wealthy patrons and literary recognition for the first time. It became trickier for him to spend time with his family. Lucia’s hungry mind was deprived of its main source of learning. Unfortunately for Lucia, Joyce did not see any need to formally educate his daughter, believing ‘it was enough if a woman could write a letter and carry an umbrella gracefully.’ As such, she grew up with no structure to her life at all, socially, domestically or intellectually. She met her father’s sophisticated friends and tried but failed to fathom the depth of their conversation. Joyce’s friends recalled her as a rather silent child, although her father said she was a ‘saucebox’ who rarely drew breath when the Joyces were home alone.

At length, this tall, pale and skinny girl sought to make her mark by alternative means. It began with her humorous impersonations of Charlie Chaplin and then, at the age of 15, she began to dance. She started with a course of eurhythmics at the Jaques-Dalcroze Institute in Paris. Over the next seven years, the restless young lady would enroll at nine different dance schools, her teachers including Isadora Duncan‘s toga-clad brother, Raymond, and Margaret Morris, the granddaughter of William. During the 1920s, the Parisian dance scene was going through a radically innovative and anti-balletic phase. Lucia became one of a group of experimental dancers who toured Europe. She excelled in sauvage roles. Her style was erotic rather than sensuous; one Parisian critic described it as ‘subtle and barbaric’. In 1927 she had a role as a toy soldier in Jean Renoir‘s film ‘The Little Match Girl.’ The following year, a reporter for The Paris Times wrote: ‘When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father.’

Lucia’s parents were uncertain about her dance career. Joyce felt it ‘unseemly’ for a woman and Nora often asked her to give it up. In 1931, perhaps hoping to appease her parents, the 22-year-old Lucia embarked on a backbreaking course of ballet instruction in St. Petersburg. She worked flat out but ultimately she had started too late in life to master the discipline. Despondent, she gave up her dancing career and entered into what her father called ‘a month’s tears.’

Meanwhile, Lucia was struggling with her private life. The publication of “Ulysses” in 1922 had made Joyce a global star, one of the most famous living authors in the world. A steady stream of writers, artists and intellectuals now came into the Joyce household. Amongst these was an American heiress, Helen Fleischman, who, despite being married and eleven years his senior, moved in with Lucia’s brother Giorgio. Lucia, who had been very close to her brother, was deeply saddened by the rift that now emerged between them. Desperate to find someone she could trust, she began to seek a lover.

Shortly before her death in 1982, Lucia received a visit from a man writing a biography of her father. As they walked together around the mental asylum in Northampton where she had lived for thirty years, Lucia confided in him: ‘My love was Samuel Beckett – I wasn’t able to marry him.’ It was certainly a dramatic twist for anyone interested in that period of Beckett’s life when, aged 21, he briefly became secretary to James Joyce in Paris.

When the Dublin playwright subsequently based a character on Lucia in his ‘Dream of Fair to Middling Women’, he described her as ‘a cursed nuisance’ living ‘between a comb and a glass’. Whether Beckett and Lucia ever actually enjoyed a romantic moment is unknown. Lucia fell in love with the slender young Irishman shortly after his arrival. A man of innate kindness, Beckett duly took the bosses’ daughter out to restaurants and theatres and attended her last ever dance performance in Brussels in 1929. When Beckett died in 1989, his papers included a striking snapshot of this wild young dancing woman, clad from head to toe in silver fish scales.

But Beckett could not give Lucia Joyce his love. Distraught by the rejection, Lucia embarked on by two further equally doomed affairs. The first was with her drawing teacher, the sculptor Alexander Calder, who slept with her but swiftly retreated to his fiancée. The second was with the artist, Albert Hubbell, who similarly went back to his wife. As Lucia’s mind began to unravel, so she became more experimental. She began meeting a sailor at the Eiffel Tower. She told her friends that she was a lesbian.

Things did not improve on the home front, particularly when Lucia learned that her parents had just got married. She had always assumed they were married and was appalled by her illegitimacy. ‘If I am a bastard’, she apparently screamed at Nora, ‘who made me one?’

Her fathers’ fame was such that he could devote less and less time to her. The intellects of the world were clamouring for him to finish ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, which many believed would be the most important book of the 20th century. As he was going blind, he was now surrounded by friends, patrons and assistants, all willing him to get the book finished. The Joycean machine – at Nora’s insistence – was not to be derailed by his daughter.

Now in her mid 20s, Lucia Joyce was increasingly distressed. She had her crooked eye operated on but nothing changed. She raged at the shadows and flirted with suicide. She vomited at the dinner table. She cut the family telephone lines and set fire to the curtains. She repeatedly punched Nora. And then she threw that loud public tantrum at the Gare du Nord.

In 1932, Lucia accepted a marriage proposal from Alec Ponisovsky, her father’s Russian teacher. However, when Lucia continued to speak of her love for Beckett, Ponisovsky fled with another woman. Lucia collapsed into a catatonic trance for several days.

On Joyce’s fiftieth birthday, Lucia picked up a chair and hurled it at her mother. The event prompted Giorgio to check her into a medical clinic and so ended Lucia’s fleeting chances of a normal life. In the 1930s, such institutions were not well prepared to handle emotionally disturbed young women. Over the next three years, she was constantly carted between home and hospital. In the latter, she was miscellaneously drugged, strait-jacketed and locked away in solitary confinement. Her mind went into rapid decline. She may have also become a barbiturate addict.

Joyce was profoundly upset by his daughter’s antics. He could not finish ‘Finnegans Wake’ and became convinced that her problems were somehow inherited from him: ‘Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.’ He tried to keep her mind focused, asking her to illustrate ‘Pomes Penyeach’.

Appalled by the prospect that she might be permanently incarcerated in a mental home, Joyce sent her to be diagnosed in a series of French clinics and Swiss sanitoria. She was briefly analyzed by the eminent Carl Jung, who said she and her father were like two people heading to the bottom of a river, except that he was diving and she was falling. (‘To think that such a big, fat materialistic Swiss man should try to get hold of my soul,’ remarked Lucia later). Although some suggested manic depression and others simple neurosis, the overall diagnoses increasingly pointed to schizophrenia.

In 1935, Lucia was sent to Ireland to stay with her father’s sister Eileen Schaurek in Bray. She caused chaos by lighting a peat fire on the living room floor and was then caught unbuttoning the trousers on a group of visiting young men. She painted her room black and swallowed a whole bottle of aspirin. She would turn on the gas jets, night after night, as a sort of suicidal prank. And then she ran away and became a street-tramp in Dublin for six days, sleeping in doorways and staring at the Liffey. When her cousins finally tracked her down, she apparently requested that she be taken to a nursing home. Her father was defeated and 28-year-old Lucia was placed in a Parisian asylum where treatments included injections with sea water, hormones and animal serum. She never lived on the outside again.

With Lucia in the asylum, Joyce completed ‘Finngean’s Wake’. Lucia’s character is discernible in the novel as the “Rainbow Girl”, or Issy the temptress, who magically breaks up into the colours of the rainbow. It is she who delivers the famous words: ‘My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair!’

Joyce spent three-quarters of his income on Lucia’s care. Now blind and near death, he was still determined to rescue her. This became impossible when the Nazis invaded France in 1940. The Joyces fled to Switzerland but James was unable to get Lucia out in time. A month after the family arrived in Zurich, he died of a perforated ulcer.

After her father’s death, Lucia was abandoned in her Parisian asylum by her mother and brother. In 1951, Harriet Weaver, Joyce’s patron, became her guardian and Lucia was moved to a mental hospital in Northampton, England. This was the same hospital where Violet Gibson was held; she had tried to kill Mussolini in the 1920s.

She remained there until she was finally ‘consumed by the dark star she orbited’ and died in 1982. Lucia’s family subsequently ensured that all the letters Joyce and his daughter wrote to one another were destroyed. None of her other letters, poems or writings have survived and there is no trace of the novel that this tragic young woman is said to have been writing. Her memory is however encapsulated in the Lucia Foundation, a Dublin-based organisation dedicated to helping those affected by schizophrenia and related illnesses.




With thanks to Ally Bunbury for her excellent research.




Lucia’s story provided the inspiration for a critically acclaimed multimedia show, ‘Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth by Day’, which had its European premiere at the 2009 Kilkenny Arts Festival. The play was written and directed by Sharon Fogarty, and performed by New York’s legendary Mabou Mines company. It boasts a score by composer Carter Burwell, well known for his soundtracks for Coen Brothers films such as Fargo and Oh Brother Where Art Thou?