The biographies of great writers have been slowly overshadowed by the biographies of bystanders—usually female bystanders. These biographies interest themselves not with women who wrote great books, but with women who happened to be there as they were being written, women like Zelda Fitzgerald, Vera Nabokov, Georgie Yeats, Vivienne Eliot, and Nora Joyce. * The latest engrossing contribution to the genre is Carol Shloss’Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake. Once the genre served as an original, quirky feminist corrective, but now, as it becomes more prevalent, it panders to a culture more enamored of family dysfunction and prurient gossip than art itself.
The premise of Lucia Joyce, like the rest of these biographies, is that the woman is an artist herself. The Great Man is not creating by himself, but somehow channeling the energies of the women around him. James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia, was a dancer. “She too had been an artist,” Shloss tells us, “who worked with a fervor and vision comparable to Joyce’s own.” Her accomplishments, in addition to dancing, were apparently a novel that’s been lost and a few illustrations. But Shloss’ evidence of her genius seems to be gleaned from her imitations of Charlie Chaplin at parties, a photograph of a dance performance in which she wore a sensational, mirrored, fish costume, and “excellent report cards” from her childhood. She herself felt quite rivalrous with her father. When friends called Joyce to congratulate him on winning his obscenity trial in the United States, enabling the publication of Ulysses, Lucia cut the phone wire, saying, “I am the artist!” It’s unclear whether this episode is rooted in mental unbalance or just petulance. Later, she behaves in ways that seem more clearly mad: She sets fires, throws a chair at her mother, unzips the pants of male visitors, sleeps with the gas on, sends telegraphs to dead people, and wanders through Dublin for days, sleeping on the street.
Inevitably, these biographies conflate brattiness, mental imbalance, and brilliance into a miasma of thwarted ability. One of the hallmarks of the woman-attached-to-great-men genre is that the Great Man has somehow prevented the female family member from achieving her potential. In this case, Joyce spirited his gifted daughter to London away from Paris, where, after years of dilettantish wandering, joining and quitting dance groups that sound suspiciously like cults, she somehow miraculously had been about to find her calling. He wouldn’t let her dance, and thus destroyed her spirit. Other male villains lurk in the margins: There are male artists like Samuel Beckett and Alexander Calder who sleep with Lucia and abandon her. There is also a brother who Shloss suggests—with astonishingly little evidence—may have sexually abused her, and seems ferociously bent on keeping her in an institution, so that she won’t tell the story of this abuse.
No matter how sensationalized the life, our appetite for these biographies is enormous. And there is no denying that the book is monumentally engaging, but why? We find something reassuring about the stories of the almost-artist, the brilliant “fantastic being,” who could have written Ulysses but somehow never got around to it. The ordinary woman, the daughter, wife, mother, whom people remember sparkling in conversation or wearing a particularly beautiful dress, is elevated to the status of artist. In a way, Lucia Joyce is the ultimate heroine of this genre—a dancer who doesn’t dance, a painter who doesn’t paint, and a writer who doesn’t write. Women readers, in particular, are endlessly drawn to these stories of doom and raw talent. It confirms some view we have of the world that is not nurturing our talent; it shifts the responsibility from us onto the shadowy male figures around us. It is the secret biography of our innermost aspirations, the half-written screenplays in our computers, the proverbial novels in drawers. But why have we been thwarted? Has someone physically prevented us from writing Ulysses, or are we just not talented or driven enough? The comforting, democratic message of these books is that you don’t have to write or paint or act to be “an artist.” It is enough to be. To Shloss, and her readers, “Lucia didn’t need books like Ulysses to become modern.” Ironically the rise of high modernism itself may have glorified the artist’s place outside of social convention, leading to all sorts of imitators who thought that behaving badly or eccentrically makes you an artist without having to bother with the art. For the first time, we can all be geniuses in the privacy of our own minds.
Of course, the biographies of great men’s women lend themselves to all kinds of romanticization—romanticization of the artistic process and romanticization of mental illness. It is, in these hefty, attractive books, with their dramatic, sepia covers, enormously glamorous to be mad. Had Lucia Joyce simply married and had children, and stayed in Paris and taught dance to eager young protégés, and pursued her art in a modest way, and grown fat and happy, in a little apartment with a view of the river, there would be no Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake.
In spite of its romanticism, the position of muse is very vague and largely thankless for the muse herself (see Francine Prose’s book The Lives of the Muses for more on this). It would be nice to think that Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake could not have been written without Lucia; but, of course, one suspects that they could have been. In this case, Lucia’s role as muse seems to consist of an afternoon where Lucia was dancing in a room where Joyce happened to be writing Finnegan’s Wake: “[T]here are two artists in his room, and both of them are working. Joyce is watching and learning … the place where she meets her father is not in consciousness but in some more primitive place before consciousness.” This is a pretty image, and Shloss embellishes it even further, “They understand each other, for they speak the same language, a language not yet arrived into words and concepts, but a language nonetheless, founded on the communicative body.”
And what about Lucia herself, petulant, mesmerizing, fragile, bratty Lucia? She liked to sleep outside under the stars, and walk around without underwear, and swim in the middle the night. Instead she spent 50-odd years in an institution. There is no poetry, no glory in this story, no secret communion, no mystical collaboration, no intangible collusion, between father and daughter, only pointless, run of the mill human suffering. Instead of the subtle literary pas de deux between Joyce and his daughter, the truth is far more painful and nonsensical: Awoman’s life was wasted. Books like this give a dishonest, literary gloss to what is a form of illicit voyeurism.
Correction, Dec. 7, 2004: In the original version of this article Katie Roiphe alluded to a biography of Valerie Eliot, but no life story of T.S. Eliot’s second wife exists. In 2001 Carole Seymour-James published a biography of T. S. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne, titled Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot. Return to the corrected sentence.