How celebratory to see Edna O’Brien assemble the women in James Joyce’s life on the Abbey stage to mark the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. However, another important Joycean anniversary also falls this year, even if it is still a little below the radar.
On December 12, it will be 40 years since the death of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, in Northampton, England. If one detail sums up her lonely later years, it is this: the only flower on her coffin was a single white rose sent from Dublin by Joycean scholar, Senator David Norris.
Yet as a young woman, she was celebrated as a remarkable artist when her modern dance performances caused a sensation in Paris, the south of France, and Italy. Even so, the adjective ‘troubled’ has attached itself to her name so tenaciously that her early genius is almost forgotten.
It might have been very different. In March 1928, Europe’s international newspaper, the Paris Times, was so taken by her innovative spirit it suggested James Joyce might not be remembered as a famous writer, but as the father of his singularly talented daughter Lucia Joyce.
“When she reaches her full capacity for rhythmic dancing, James Joyce may yet be known as his daughter’s father,” it enthused in a piece that feted the creativity and originality of a young woman destined for greatness.
“She dances all day long with [artists’ group] Les Six de Rythme et Couleur … When she is not dancing, she is planning costumes, working out color [sic] schemes, designing color effects. She has Joyce’s enthusiasm, energy, and a not-yet-determined amount of his genius,” it went on.
Lucia, herself, was in no doubt about her talent. “C’est moi qui est l’artiste (I am the one who is the artist),” she joyfully exclaimed in the late 1920s. She was not alone in that assessment either: “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain,” her father wrote, although he did acknowledge that she was “an innovator, not yet understood”.
The Dublin of the time might have been offered an opportunity to make up its own mind as WB Yeats, on the lookout for dancers for his Abbey Theatre Ballets, considered inviting her to perform in the city.
The tantalising prospect of another Joyce making waves in Dublin was revealed by dance historian Deirdre Mulrooney who discovered that Lucia Joyce featured in a letter Yeats wrote to his wife Georgie Hyde-Lee (“another extraordinary and overlooked woman”, she comments). A month before Lucia Joyce featured with a photo on page three of the Paris Times, Yeats wrote: “Tom [MacGreevy] has written praising above all other public dancers, James Joyce’s daughter. We may use her someday.”
Tom MacGreevy, a poet and avant garde dance expert from Tarbert in Co Kerry — not a sentence you write every day — knew James Joyce and was aware of his daughter’s skill and originality. He had seen her with her father, Samuel Beckett, and other guests when she performed at Paris’s first international festival of dance in 1929. She was runner-up to a French winner, but she must have been heartened by the audience who shouted: “Nous reclamons l’Irlandaise! Un peu de justice, Messieurs!” (“We claim the Irish woman! A bit of justice, gentlemen”).
Her performance made an impression on reviewers too. Charles Saint Cyr wrote that Lucia, then 22, was the only one in the competition with the talent to be a professional dancer. “This very remarkable artist, totally subtle and barbaric, gives proof of an unmistakeable personality.” By then, Lucia had already been dancing since she was 15 when, in 1922, she trained with Raymond Duncan, a counter-culture guru, who, to quote dance historian, Deirdre Mulrooney, “dressed as if were a contemporary of Ulysses, wearing a toga and sandals”.
Little wonder that the woman herself drew inspiration for her movements from Grecian urns and counted surrealists, artists, and innovators among her circle of friends. Her biographer Carol Loeb Shloss says she introduced her father to a Paris he would never, otherwise, have seen and argues that she was pivotal to Finnegans Wake.
Her 2005 book, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake, also does something much more subversive. It upturns the worn image of Lucia as the “mad daughter of a genius”. Instead, she emerges as a kindred spirit who, with some encouragement, might have done so much more.
If she were alive today, Shloss mused in Deirdre Mulrooney’s excellent 2018 radio documentary, Lucia Joyce might have popped a pill and be dancing with such modern dancing luminaries as Merce Cunningham.
To continue on the heart-breaking path of ‘what ifs’, it is also possible that Lucia Joyce might have been released earlier from a mental asylum had the Nazis not occupied Paris during the Second World War. Her father’s attempts to get her out of France to the safety of neutral Switzerland are well-known.
When he died in 1941, Lucia lost her only family ally. Her brother Giorgio visited her only once and her mother Nora never went at all. The relationship between family members is well-worn territory explained, in part perhaps, by the belief that a young woman could never be an artist in her own right.
There is a tendency to return to that controversial ground, but what is more important now is the ongoing act of reclamation of Lucia Joyce, the pioneering dancer.
Her story is not just one of many broken relationships, including one with Samuel Beckett, and of fragile mental health. That is not to deny her difficulties, although it’s worth recalling that experts in the field had difficulty diagnosing it.
“There is nothing mentally wrong with her now,” wrote one. Another noted that after seven months he did not feel he could sign his name to a conclusive statement about her. Yet, she was institutionalised for years and subjected to a range of treatments, including solitary confinements, injections with bovine serum, and periods in a straitjacket.
If there continues to be an appetite for the constant retelling of her experiences in mental asylums — and it lingers — they should be framed as part of a much larger story of an exceptional woman whose light was so brutally and unfairly extinguished.
It really could have been otherwise. As Deirdre Mulrooney points out, like Lucia, German expressionist dancer, Mary Wigman, had a few broken engagements and a nervous breakdown but survived hers to become one of the most important figures in modern dance.
It’s late in the day, but the slow rehabilitation of Lucia Joyce, the brilliant dancer, is well underway. On the anniversary of her death, Mulrooney is planning a ‘St Lucia Day’ — Lucia died on the eve of the saint’s feast day — to honour her singular talent at the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street in Dublin. Ironically, it is just opposite Senator Norris’s Georgian home. This time, here’s hoping he won’t be the only one to honour her with white roses.