Lucia Joyce: I Know Why The Caged Bird Rages

William Butler Yeats, when he was riding the bus, would occasionally go into a compositional trance. He would stare straight ahead and utter a low hum and beat time with his hands. People would come up to him and ask him if he was all right. Once, his young daughter, Anne, boarded a bus and found him in that condition among the passengers. She knew better than to disturb him. But when the bus stopped at their gate, she got off with him. He turned to her vaguely and said, “Oh, who is it you wish to see?” When I think of what it means to be an artist’s child, I remember that story.
JOAN ACOCELLA , “A Fire in the Brain”, The New Yorker, 2003.

Carol Shloss believes that Lucia’s case was cruelly mishandled. When Lucia fell ill, she at last captured her father’s sustained attention. He grieved over her incessantly. At the same time, he was in the middle of writing “Finnegans Wake,” and there were people around him—friends, patrons, assistants, on whom, since he was going blind, he was very dependent—who believed that the future of Western literature depended on his ability to finish this book. But he was not finishing it, because he was too busy worrying about Lucia. He was desperate to keep her at home. His friends—and also Nora, who bore the burden of caring for Lucia when she was at home, and who was the primary target of her fury—insisted that she be institutionalized. The entourage finally prevailed, and Joyce completed “Finnegans Wake.” In Shloss’s view, Lucia was the price paid for a book. 

JOAN ACOCELLA , “A Fire in the Brain”, The New Yorker, 2003.

On Bloomsday I didn’t mention James Joyce, either here or on any of my other pages. I rate him highly, although I have read only the first four books; Finnegan’s Wake seemed unreadable to me. But everybody talks about Joyce these days, even people who didn’t get past A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He has become as much of a totem of something – something I don’t quite understand – as an author. Which is fine but if that totemic quality serves no purpose other than to reinforce values that ought to be torn down, it doesn’t have a place at Suffolk Punch.

As a writer Joyce was extraordinary. I’ve read Dubliners, Portrait and Ulysses twice each (although in the case of Ulysses I confess it was because I didn’t understand it the first time). But as a human being I find I’m more interested in Joyce’s daughter Lucia than the man himself. She’s buried here in Northampton, in Kingsthorpe Cemetery. I’ve been there twice trying to locate her grave because I wanted to sit with her shade for a while and leave a symbolic key for Lucia to use; with it maybe she could free herself from the asylum in which history has left her.

Alan Moore called Lucia Joyce “the dancing heart of Northampton.” She lived here from 1951 to 1982, but unlike Moore she was not a resident by choice. Lucia was incarcerated in St. Andrew’s Hospital, still dogged by the diagnosis of mental illness that had been imposed on her in the 1930s; a number of experts had seen her, including Carl Jung, whose fascinating, but it seems to me poetic as much as scientific, expertise was rejected by Lucia. On those grounds alone she should be lauded as a feminist refuser like Ida Bauer.

I don’t mention the woman who famously sacked Freud for frivolous reasons. I’m not an expert on Lucia’s case, but I have worked in mental health as a carer; and as far as I can tell, Lucia was more of a victim of patriarchal authority than schizophrenia, hebephrenia, cyclothymia or “hormone imbalance”. (At one time or another she was diagnosed with all four, hormone imbalance being Dr. James Joyce’s suggestion. Another clinician said she was “markedly neurotic” - the old stand-by.) Most accounts suggest, as Carol Loeb Scloss does, that Lucia’s four-decade journey through a patriarchal health care system was engineered by Nora, but even that has a touch of unintentional sexism about it. Everywhere I go I see men being excused from responsibility for their actions by women who detect the presence of a manipulating evil matriarch in the shadows behind them.

Imagine what “experts” then and now would have made of Lucia had she been a man. Let’s look at some evidence: she often seemed distracted; she was shy as a child; she lacked confidence in her abilities; she had several crushes on different men (including Samuel Beckett – famous for writing plays in which people waited for nothing and lived in dustbins); she announced she was a lesbian; she threw a chair at her mother; and it was that last act which led to her being taken for the first time to a clinic – by her own brother Georgio. If Lucia had been a man she would have been taken to a bar, encouraged to join the army or given a good arse-whipping by her father. Then all would have been forgotten.

Of course her behaviour changed when she was in institutions. After brief periods of incarceration she set fire to her living room, became more frankly sexual, went to Dublin and lived homeless for six days. (I bet they don’t show you her doorways on the Bloomsday Walk.) But what would you do if you’d had your control taken away from you? If those you loved, who should have understood, betrayed you? If in trying to express something profound and painful you’d been rewarded with medical treatment you didn’t need and diagnoses you didn’t deserve?

After permanent institutionalisation she became violent occasionally, to the extent that she “had” to be put in straitjackets. More frustration; more anger. I saw it in the homes where I worked. The natural instinct of all human beings is to live freely, to make their own decisions, to come and go as they please. Some of the people I worked with could have done that if profit hadn’t been the prime motive of the companies who ran the homes, or the home managers had been more innovative in their thinking about care. Caught in rigid systems where they didn’t belong, tranked to the gills on medication that muddled their thinking, and forced to submit to the ministrations of people who, frequently, were twenty years younger and sixty IQ points lower than them, residents sometimes had no option other than to beat on the nearest person they could find or turn over a dining table. I used to be in the middle of those situations - sometimes getting my head pummelled – and I’d think, in their situation I’d do exactly the same.

But it’s over now, at least for Lucia Joyce. What worries me is that the lurch back towards conservative values seen in almost all areas of society these days will help to resurrect the abhorrent old ideas of “normal” behaviour that helped get Lucia jailed in the first place. Then other people might have to suffer all the deprivations, humiliations and indignities that Lucia suffered just because she had a bit of an attitude problem. I know it goes on still in some parts of the world, but we don’t want it here, where we’re just beginning to get rid of it.

The next time I go to Kingsthorpe I will find her plot first. Get a plan of the cemetery, whatever you do. Then I will be able to give her the key, if she hasn't found her own way out. I understand she’s buried near a woman who shot Mussolini – another one whose madness is highly questionable, also locked up by the (Male) Powers That Be. Apparently in the last century using mental health legislation to remove the cream of the female competition was quite the thing to do. 


Unknown said…
Next time you come to Kingsthorpe I will be happy to take you to Lucia's grave. And Violet Gibson's is indeed quite close by.

I have recently begun a blog based on her:

I am most impressed by your blog.
Anonymous said…

Early Day
Press Release

15th Bloomsday

A Celebration of Literature - Words - Wit - Wisdom - Where?

James Joyce's book 'Ulysses' depicts the events of one day when Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom took their epic journey through Dublin.

For millions of people, June 16 is an extraordinary day. On that day in 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom each took their epic journeys through Dublin in James Joyce's Ulysses, the world's most highly acclaimed modern novel.

"Bloomsday", as it is now known, has become a tradition for Joyce enthusiasts all over the world. From Tokyo to Sydney, San Francisco to Paris, Trieste to.... Northampton, dozens of cities around the globe hold their own Bloomsday festivities.

The celebrations usually include readings as well as staged re-enactments and street-side improvisations of scenes from the story.

To celebrate that special day, known as Bloomsday, the Irish Community Arts Project will present a reading by invited literary figures at the graveside of Lucia Anna Joyce who died in Northampton in 1982.

We remember this family as part of the Irish diaspora in this place.

This annual event will take place at 3pm on Saturday 16th June 2018 at Kingsthorpe Cemetery Northampton.

The Triskelion Theatre Company will perform in period costume.

Further details from

Peter Mulligan
Project Co-ordinator
The Irish Community Arts Project
Northampton Connolly Association
5 Woodland Avenue
Abington Park
Northampton NN3 2BY

Tel. 01604-715793


ps if you can bring a chair