When the graphic novel, Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes, won the Costa Biography Award for 2012, it was overdue acceptance of comics’ literary value.
Prior to Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir, Maus, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, comics were seen as the preserve of children.
It was 19 years before Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth caused a stir by winning the Guardian First Book Award. Graphic novels are the biggest expanding area in publishing, and Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes shows how easily the medium is suited to addressing weighty topics. Written by Mary M Talbot and illustrated by her husband, Bryan, Dotter draws a parallel between Mary and her father, and celebrated novelist James Joyce and his daughter, Lucia.
Mary’s father, James S Atherton, was a respected Joyce scholar. Mary’s mother was named Nora, as was Lucia’s. As an acclaimed scholar who has published on language, gender and power, Mary was drawn to Lucia’s story. Having taken early retirement from education in 2009, she was encouraged by Bryan, one of the fathers of modern comic-book culture in the UK, and the creator of such celebrated works as Luther Arkwright and Alice In Sunderland, to write the graphic novel.
“Initially, Bryan’s suggestion, which triggered the whole thing, was that I do a personal memoir, something about my relationship with my father. The Lucia Joyce element came about as I was trying to think of a way of making that more interesting. Because I wasn’t really convinced that my little story was going to be of interest on its own, and I thought bringing in something about fathers and daughters, and strengthening the Joycean thing by researching into Joyce’s daughter, you know, I thought that would add an element. For a long time, in fact, they were separate. I was feeling more interested in Lucia’s story, because it was new to me, than I was in my own.”
The more she delved into Lucia’s story, the more she noted the odd connections, such as shared parent names and an interest in ballet.
Because of her academic interests, Mary honed in on the father-daughter relationship, as well as issues around societal and gender roles in both her and Lucia’s cases, without labouring any parallels in their respective stories.
She says: “I mean, it wasn’t actually just Lucia and myself; it was also our mothers. That was quite significant, the difference between Nora Barnacle and my mother. That doesn’t come out as such a focus, but it’s there as part of the necessary attention to gender issues and gender politics.”
In the Atherton household, James was quick to pour scorn on his daughter, while the lack of encouragement from Lucia’s parents pushed her over the edge of madness.
“Both the Joyce parents had pretty conventional ideas when it came to the upbringing of the daughter, didn’t they?” says Mary.
“James Joyce may be a modernist icon, and all, but he was very conventional and very bourgeois about the upbringing of daughters.”
Mary’s story had a positive outcome and now, in this new phase in her life, she has found a creative outlet through comic books and has an account of the suffragette movement in the pipeline.
* Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes is published by Jonathan Cape.
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