Joyce, Nora (1884–1951)

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Joyce, Nora (1884–1951)

Wife of Irish novelist James Joyce and the inspiration for many of the female characters in his works. Name variations: Nora Joseph Barnacle; Norah Barnacle. Born on March 22 (or 23), 1884, in Galway, Ireland; died on April 10, 1951, in Zurich, Switzerland; daughter of Thomas Barnacle (a baker) and Honoraria "Annie" (Healy) Barnacle (a dressmaker); married James Joyce (d. 1941, the writer), in 1931; children: Giorgio Joyce (b. 1905); Lucia Joyce (1907–1982).

Ran away with James Joyce (1904); birth of first child (1905); settled in Paris (1920); fled to Switzerland (1940); widowed (1941).

Nora Barnacle Joyce is one of modern literature's most intriguing real-life personalities, though she wrote no more words than those within a meager amount of letters to her husband, James Joyce. As the lifelong companion to a man whom some scholars deem the 20th century's most masterful and influential writer in the English language, Nora Joyce gambled and sacrificed a great deal for her husband's art, fleeing a harsh, repressive Ireland with him in 1904 and living for years in poverty on the Continent. Moreover, James Joyce was blessed with a less-than-easygoing personality, and drank prodigiously; Nora Joyce seemed to deal effortlessly with these traits and also became a lifeline to him when his eyesight failed. In turn, James Joyce was passionately devoted to his wife—whom he only formally wed after their children were adults—and scholars and their contemporaries note that her voice—which teased, hectored, and assailed him—is clearly echoed in that of his similarly frank and memorable female characters.

Nora Barnacle was born in Galway in 1884 into a relatively prosperous family. Her father was a baker, but her mother Annie Healy Barnacle , a dressmaker by profession, believed she had married "beneath" her, for Tom Barnacle was fond of drink, and the family moved often, never owning their own quarters. When her mother gave birth to another daughter and then twin girls not long after, Nora was sent to live with her prosperous grandmother in a home near the Galway docks. At age five, she was sent to the nearby Convent of Mercy for her education. She did well enough until she completed the curriculum at the age of 12, but few women in her day in Ireland went on to higher education. To pursue a university degree was even rarer. The sisters of the convent found Nora a job as a "porteress" at another convent, which was a cloistered nunnery. Around this time, her mother, exasperated by her husband's drinking, left him. Both this event and the death of two of her first boyfriends made an indelible impression on Nora during her teen years. Later, in James Joyce's story "The Dead" in Dubliners, Gretta Conroy cries as she tells her paramour about the death of her 17-year-old beau years before, and her belief that he died from lovesickness.

Barnacle was a headstrong teenager, tall, and often described as striking in appearance. She probably worked as a laundress in Galway, and may have been employed in a bookbindery for a period. Her voice was also memorable to those who knew her, described as low in register and resonant, and with the lilt of western Ireland. She used this voice freely, and as a young woman was known for her strong opinions and sharp wit. Yet Barnacle's behavior sometimes exceeded the bounds of conservative Catholic Galway. She and a friend liked to dress in men's clothes to explore the city at night (in an era when young women were usually not allowed out after dark without an escort), and her strict uncles found her a challenge. When one of them beat her after she was found to be dating a Protestant, she ran away to Dublin.

There, Barnacle worked as a chambermaid at Finn's Hotel, and she received room and board in addition to a small wage. On Nassau Street on June 10, 1904, she met James Joyce. He was a young Irish writer with a degree from University College, recently returned from Paris. He asked her out, but she stood him up. He sent a letter to her at Finn's, and she accepted a second invitation. That day may have been June 16, 1904, a day immortalized in Joyce's later fiction as the day in which the entirety of his novel Ulysses takes place. (Nearly a century later, lovers of Joyce's fiction celebrate June 16 around the world as "Bloomsday.") Over the next few months, they wrote innumerable letters to one another on a daily basis; at that time, there were five postal deliveries a day in Dublin. They talked of running off together, and he began inquiring about English-teaching positions abroad. On October 8, 1904, they sailed from Dublin, a great act of daring, especially for the 20-year-old Barnacle (Joyce was 22). Her family could have forcibly brought her back, had they heard of her plan; more ominously, unmarried women had very little protection or means to support themselves in this era. His friends assumed he would soon abandon her, and leave her penniless in a foreign country whose language she did not understand. Without the benefit of matrimony, she had no protection whatsoever. Had she become pregnant, her situation would have been even more dire.

But James Joyce did not leave her. By most accounts, he was deeply devoted to her all his life and found it difficult to write or even function without her nearby. All of his fiction was intensely Irish in flavor, and since he returned to Ireland only once more in his lifetime, it has been said that her purpose in his life was to remind him of his native land every time she opened her mouth. James Joyce was, however, fervently anti-Catholic, and would not make their union legal. They settled in Trieste, an Italian-speaking port on the Adriatic that was then part of Austria. There their first child Giorgio was born in 1905. Because they were unmarried, they were forced out of their lodgings. Two years later a daughter, Lucia Joyce , was born. For several of these early years, James Joyce spent his day teaching English and working on his fiction. They often lived in cramped rooms, and both were notoriously poor at managing their meager finances: they dined out every night and dressed well, and he was known to be a stupendous drinker. For many years, they were supported by James Joyce's devoted brother Stanislaus, who later moved to Trieste. In 1914, James Joyce's autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published in serial form. The 15 short stories that made up his next book, Dubliners, was also issued that same year, though not in Ireland where it was pilloried for its unflattering portrayal of the Irish and their Catholic faith. Both caused a literary sensation for the writer's innovative use of the English language, usually expressed through the dialogue or interior monologues of his garrulous characters.

His works also made use of psychological insight, and he was hailed as a modernist writer of the first order.

In 1915, the family departed from Trieste because of World War I. For much of his adult life, James Joyce was plagued by eye problems, and he underwent the first of many surgeries to correct glaucoma, ilitis, and conjunctivitis in 1917. In 1920, the family moved to Paris, where the writer befriended Sylvia Beach , an American expatriate who owned a book store called Shakespeare and Company. She printed and issued his next novel, Ulysses, in 1922 after his numerous attempts to find a publisher in England had failed; few would touch it for fear of facing prosecution for obscenity. The work was considered extremely shocking in its day for Joyce's intense themes and ribald language. In all of these works as well as his last, Finnegans Wake, the spirited, headstrong female characters were clearly modeled on Nora Barnacle Joyce. In the 1918 play Exiles, she is Bertha; in Ulysses, the memorable Molly Bloom. Contemporaries of the Joyces called their union one of great passion and interdependence. He read his work aloud to her nightly, usually before heading off to a cafe to imbibe several bottles of wine, and she both assisted him in his writing when his eyesight grew poor and bundled him into taxicabs when she found him too drunk to find his own way home. Sometimes she tried to leave him, and when their children were young she would threaten to have them baptized to anger him.

The Joyces spent very little time apart after sailing that October day from Dublin in 1904, except for one period when he returned to Ireland to try to find a publisher for Dubliners in 1909. Their correspondence during this 1909 interval was quite lascivious, and in his later characters like Molly Bloom there are clear echoes of Nora Barnacle's expressions and unabashed sexuality. Reportedly she never read Ulysses, however; she may have considered many of Molly's thoughts and utterances far too close for comfort.

Barnacle herself returned to Ireland only twice, once in 1912 and again in 1922 during a period of political turmoil. Their 17-year-old son Giorgio faced danger of being conscripted right off the street as Ireland battled for independence from England. Civilians in Galway were in great danger, and James Joyce, knowing of the peril from news reports, was understandably agitated. Their children, however, came away with a great deal of contempt for the country. They were far more comfortable in Paris, where the Joyces belonged to an impressive circle of writers and expatriates, among them Ernest Hemingway, who often drank with James Joyce. For years, the family had been supported financially by Harriet Shaw Weaver , a wealthy English woman who was a fervent believer in James Joyce's literary genius. But the couple were usually unable to manage whatever largesse came their way, and quickly squandered it on clothes and vacations that made good use of the grandest hotels in Europe.

Among their Parisian circle were two wealthy Americans, Leon Fleischmann, who was in the publishing business, and his glamorous American heiress wife, Helen Kastor . Though they had a young son, Kastor scandalously left her husband for Giorgio, several years her junior. The Joyces, who had actually grown rather strait-laced in their middle age, were extremely dismayed, but came to accept the union by the time of the couple's marriage in 1930. Furthermore, Kastor's brother was a friend of Bennett Cerf, who would become instrumental in getting Ulysses finally published in America after several years of official censorship. Cerf's company, Random House, took the book and made it into a test case for obscenity; a federal district judge ruled in the book's favor in late 1933. Time magazine then put James Joyce on its cover and hailed the novel as a great literary achievement.

Nora Barnacle and James Joyce formally wed in 1931. The reason for the civil service, held in London and widely reported in the popular press, was to solidify the rights of inheritance of their two children. Though it was widely known back in Galway that an unmarried Nora Barnacle had run off with a writer back in 1904, the couple apparently claimed for years that they had wed in Trieste. Later, however, their grown children were shocked to learn that they were illegitimate. The strain may have exacerbated daughter Lucia's mental illness, and her behavior grew increasingly erratic after this point. On one occasion she suddenly threw a chair at her mother, and began to disappear for days at a time.

Over the next several years Lucia was hospitalized at some of Europe's most luxurious sanitariums, often at great expense. She was even treated at one by eminent psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and it became clear that she suffered from schizophrenia. The ongoing crisis was extremely difficult for Nora Joyce. She blamed her husband for the problems, the way in which he had constantly uprooted the family for years, forcing a nomadic existence upon the children, and for the cramped living quarters, which meant that Lucia had to share a bedroom with her parents until far into her adolescence. When Lucia's mental illness became known, there were rumors that she had been the victim of incest, and though some of her father's fiction does touch upon this as a literary theme, his biographers discount any actual capacity to carry such thoughts out in reality. Only in 1936 did James Joyce finally relent and commit her permanently to a hospital in Northampton, England; Nora Joyce never saw her daughter again, since her daughter was so hostile to her the doctors strongly advised against it.

The Joyces continued to live in Paris through the late 1930s, and celebrated the publication and positive critical reception of his last book, Finnegans Wake, in 1939. It had taken him 17 years to write and, during that period, was referred to in his correspondence as "Work in Progress"; only Nora Joyce knew of its title and kept it a secret, for her husband attached great significance to names. The book concludes with the words "Is there one who understands me?"—the same phrase he had uttered to her in persuading her to run off with him to the Continent in 1904.

With the outbreak of World War II, the family's situation deteriorated. Failing health added to their problems: James Joyce had suffered from a stomach ulcer for years, and believed his pain to be psychosomatic. Nora Joyce was afflicted with arthritis. Giorgio's wife, Helen, grew increasingly erratic and was eventually locked up by the Paris police; her American family rescued her not long before the Nazis occupied France. Her fate as a Jewish woman, and a mentally ill person as well, would not have been kind. After this, the Joyces assumed responsibility for their grandson, Stephen, as well as for Giorgio, who had never worked. In December of 1940, they all moved to Switzerland under great duress; they also tried to remove Lucia from a sanitarium in Brittany, but the occupying Germans would not grant her an exit visa. James Joyce died the following January in Zurich. Nora honored his wishes and, though she herself had resumed practicing her religion in her middle age, did not give her husband the Catholic burial that some assumed he should have, instead allowing him to have his final act of defiance.

Nora Joyce survived the next ten years under great strain at times. The war had cut off her access to her late husband's resources, and she could not pay for Lucia's hospital bills; Giorgio had no income or inclination toward much of a career outside of singing. Furthermore, many of the intellectuals who had adored James Joyce for his literary talents had never been as taken with her as her husband had been, and privately derided her as uneducated and vulgar. Many shunned her socially after she was widowed; others demanded repayment for money they had lent the Joyces, though it was clear she was in dire financial straits until his will emerged from probate. Her son reported that she spent a great deal of time visiting Joyce's grave in Zurich's Fluntern cemetery during these years. Harriet Weaver, the executor of James Joyce's personal and literary estate, managed to send Nora some funds, though it was illegal to send money abroad from England during the war. Some urged Nora Joyce to return to Ireland—an idea she found abhorrent. She was also loathe to leave his grave behind with no family to visit. After his will was settled and the war had ended in 1945, her elder years were further saddened when her grandson, whom she had virtually raised and whose company she greatly enjoyed, decided to join his recovered mother, Helen Kastor, in America. Furthermore, Giorgio had inherited his father's alcoholic tendencies.

Nora Joyce, who had suffered from cancer in the late 1920s and had undergone a hysterectomy, died on April 10, 1951. She was buried in the same cemetery as James Joyce, but only in 1966 did officials at Fluntern inter them in plots next to one another; there had been no space near his at the time of her death. Giorgio Joyce lived in Germany until his death in 1976. Lucia Joyce died, still institutionalized, in 1982.


Maddox, Brenda. Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce. NY: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan