Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2023

Nora, a Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce (2021), by Nuala O’Connor

This is just a quick review because I am a bit preoccupied with rescuing some data from a trial software program before I lose access to it. (Because #LongBoringStory I am not going to pay for it all over again!)

Nora is, as the subtitle says, a love story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, known to booklovers as the author of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, even if they haven’t read them. Nora was selected for the One Dublin, One Book program and I won a copy of it in a giveaway for Reading Ireland Month from Cathy at 746 Books.

#Digression: Intrigued, I looked up the previous books chosen for the One Dublin, One Book program. It turns out that I’ve read or have on the TBR some of the titles chosen over the years, and a couple are reviewed on this blog:

  • 2006: At Swim Two Birds (1939) by Flann O’Brien
  • 2007: A Long Long Way (2005) by Sebastian Barry, on the TBR
  • 2008: Gulliver’s Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, read ages ago
  • 2010: The Picture of Dorian Grey (1890) by Oscar Wilde, read ages ago
  • 2012: Dubliners (1914) by James Joyce
  • 2019: The Country Girls Trilogy (1960) by Edna O’Brien, on my wishlist

Sales must be wonderful for the contemporary authors whose books are chosen. This year’s choice BTW is an historical novel called The Coroner’s Daughter by Andrew Hughes.

Ok, back to Nora

The novel is written entirely from Nora’s point of view, in first person. Blurbers suggest that the portrayal is reasonably faithful to real life, and the story traces the couple’s meeting in Ireland in 1904, and their peripatetic, often poverty-stricken lifestyle in Europe and the UK.  It shows Joyce’s determination to live by the pen, and the extraordinary impact that publication had on their precarious finances.  It also shows Nora’s loyalty in the face of (a-hem) unreasonable behaviour by Joyce, and it makes the case that she was his muse and that, without her, his masterpieces would not have been written.  Although she was an uneducated, unsophisticated woman who (under sufferance) read only bits and pieces of his work — and she never contemplated helping him with the writing even when his eyes were intolerably bad — she was intelligent and made good company when they were gadding about socially.

(I have a bio of James Joyce by Richard Ellman but I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

Nora begins with one of ‘quite a few’ explicit sex scenes, which suggests that the relationship with James Joyce began with and was sustained by physical attraction.  But since the narrative includes countless (somewhat wearying) grievances, it also suggests that there was an element of entrapment on her part.  Joyce refused to marry Nora until late in their lives together, for philosophical reasons (especially his hatred of religion in general and the church in Ireland in particular). When he did agree to marry, it was for pragmatic reasons to do with the legitimacy of his forthcoming grandchild (and his son’s concern about the inheritance.) So when Nora was utterly fed up with his drinking, his spendthrift ways, his ingratitude and his lack of concern for the family’s welfare, she could not contemplate leaving him and going back to her mother in Ireland with two illegitimate children in tow.  Apart from anything else she had no money, and taking in washing was her only source of work. She always recovered from these bouts of exasperation, and the novel makes a convincing case that though they had nothing much in common,  theirs was a solid bond.

Still, James Joyce does not come out of the novel well.  Not at all.

Nora appears to have coped reasonably well with moving around in Trieste, Zurich and Paris, but their children less so.  She had a fraught relationship with her daughter Lucia, who was only diagnosed with schizophrenia in adulthood, and the couple did not agree on her treatment.  Nora had a horror of asylums because of a childhood visit to a relation, but Joyce — with some justification since Lucia was violent — insisted.  (To read the real life story of Lucia at Wikipedia is to be reminded how primitive health care was, for people with mental illness in the 20th century.)

Joyce and Barnacle lived through both world wars, but apart from relocating from Trieste to (neutral) Zurich in WW2, these tumultuous events don’t feature much in the narrative.  Perhaps from an Irish point-of-view WW1 history is subsumed by the declaration of the Republic in 1918 and subsequent events, and Ireland was neutral in WW2.  But still, to be living anywhere in Europe in WW2 in particular is to be under the existential threat of fascism.  Still, at 400+ pages, Nora is long enough!

Kim reviewed it at Reading Matters too.

Author: Nuala O’Connor
Title: Nora, a Love Story of Nora Barnacle and James Joyce
Cover design by Milan Bozic (I don’t think it’s a photo of the real Nora Barnacle but am open to correction).
Publisher: New Island, 2022, first published in 2021
ISBN: 9781848408500, 431 pages including some Book Club questions
Source: won in a giveaway at 746 Books, thanks again Cathy!


Responses

  1. Sounds interesting but for some reason not interesting enough for me to make it priority reading. I remember reading a bit about their relationship … fascinating. I love the bit about being uneducated but intelligent and able to hold her own in socialising.

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    • Well, we have to remember that until there was universal secondary education, there were many highly intelligent people (and not just women) amongst those who’d had only a rudimentary education. Even in the middle classes, access to tertiary education has been comparatively recent, difficult for many until Whitlam abolished fees in the 1970s.
      Mind you, by this account, she doesn’t seem to have been an autodidact. She appears to have learned the lingua franca wherever she was, but JJ is portrayed as being a bit scornful about her populist reading choices so I’m guessing she didn’t work her way through the classics. Not many of us would if we were abandoned to look after the children and take in washing while a husband went down the pub with his pals…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to read your thoughts on this one, Lisa. In my review, I said the book was slightly too long, but certain scenes and incidents from the novel have stayed with me long after reading it, which is why it made my Top 10 favourite books of 2022.

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    • Thanks, Kim:)I’m guessing that one of the things you liked about her was that she never lost her essential ‘Irishness’.

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      • I think it was more I appreciated her stoicism and her resilience.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    The role of the Irish involvement in both World Wars was more complex than it may seem. Google says-“Over 200,000 men from the island of Ireland served in the British military during the First World War. Around 35,000 lost their lives. Those who returned found that commemoration of their service was controversial in a way that it was not in Britain.”

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    • Yep… many were caught between the Civil War on home soil and the Great War in Europe. Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way is a great fictional depiction of this dilemma.

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      • Also, there was the phenomenon of ‘English people living in Ireland’ not necessarily wealthy people in Big Houses but people of English descent who considered themselves English, spoke English and maintained English traditions, as distinct from those of Irish descent. There were also ‘expat’ English people working there long term who had ‘English’ children born there. My own family history is very messy but the Anglo-Irish ones include people who fought (and died) in both world wars.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I really do like the sound of this one. Lovely review. Thanks!

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  5. I often enjoy writer’s lives, and fictional ones can be more lively. I might try this if I come across it though I have other Joyce related stuff on my shelves I should deal with first

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    • I really should have read the JJ bio that I have first.
      But then, I have so many Australian LitBios that I should read first.
      And so it goes on…

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  6. Theirs was a really interesting relationship and this does sound well done. I keep meaning to read the Ellman biography you mention too!

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