Music and The Joyce Girl

James Joyce’s writings brim with musical allusions: Ulysses is replete with lyrics from popular songs of 1904 Dublin; he titled a collection of poetry ‘Chamber Music’, and his novel Finnegans Wake after an Irish ballad; another Irish ballad, the ‘Lass of Aughrim’, haunts a social gathering in ‘The Dead’, a short story from Dubliners.

Music was also central to the life of Joyce’s daughter, Lucia. The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, a fictionalised account of Lucia Joyce’s life, brings Lucia’s passion for music to the fore.

The Joyce Girl switches between Lucia’s life with her family in Paris, 1928, and her therapy sessions in Switzerland, further to the onset of mental illness, in 1934. It is while Lucia is living in Paris, immersed in the city’s musical culture, that she hears the music of the time as a liberating call. As an aspiring dancer, the Paris jazz scene, represented in the novel by Josephine Baker, allows her to feel free and get lost in the rhythms and movements of her body.

Lucia’s parents disapprove of Josephine Baker, a dancing sensation known for performing in little more than her famous banana skirt. For Lucia, however, Baker shows ‘how liberating it [is] to dance whether you’re poor or rich, clothed or unclothed.’

Josephine Baker performing her banana dance (please ignore the dreary commentary!)

Another dance sensation sweeping Paris is the Charleston, which Lucia offers to teach ‘Mr Beckett’ (whom only later will she call ‘Sam’). She imagines their bodies brought closer by the music: ‘his hand in mine, his skin against mine, our hips swivelling side by side’. In this passage, Lucia’s desire for Mr Beckett and her passion for the music are similarly entangled and moving in sync.

An example of the Charleston (including a useful ‘How to’ for all retro dance craze fans [however, please do not attempt to dance on top of taxis; we accept no responsibility for accidents])

The music surrounding Lucia crosses the worlds of popular and high culture. She has the affection of an aspiring composer, Emile Fernandez, who longs to combine stylistic elements of jazz and classical music in his work. Lucia, bothered by Emile’s attention, dances to the music of Debussy. Her instructor tells her to feel its ‘joy, … subtle rhythms and … bold expressions’.

Pierre Boulez conducts Claude Debussy’s ‘Jeux ‘.

Music is also present in Lucia’s life through the influence of her father. Just as the titles of some of Joyce’s books are musical allusions, so is the name of his daughter: she tells Mr Beckett, that Joyce named ‘her after Lucia di Lammermoor from the Donizetti opera’. Lucia di Lammermoor is a tragic figure in the opera;  she is denied a relationship with her beloved and driven to madness and death. Although music is liberating for Lucia as a dancer, her name shows that it is also an influence which escapes her control: a part of her inheritance. Her description of Donizetti’s opera perhaps slightly betrays her ambivalence to this: ‘It’s very sad but the music’s wonderful. It’s one of my favourite operas’. (1)

Maria Callas sings ‘Il dolce suono…’ from ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

Another paternal musical influence on Lucia is her father’s love of Irish ballads, which he would sing around the house while she was growing up, in the family’s Trieste home.

[We weren’t sure which ballad to put here. If anyone has any suggestions then please get in touch!]

Music seems to become more distant to Lucia as her mental illness worsens. In the first half of The Joyce Girl Lucia engages directly with the music, but in the second half it seems to become a mere accompaniment to anxiety-inducing social events: her brother’s singing recitals; the concerts of tenor John Sullivan (a favourite singer of her father’s). As the distress in her romantic life gets louder, her musical life as a dancer quietens. While Lucia frets over her relationship with a potential new love, the artist Alexander Calder, she ignores her father rambling on about the ‘amazing tenor voice’ of  Sullivan.

John Sullivan sings ‘O muto asil’ from Rossini’s ‘William Tell’.

One of the final musical references in The Joyce Girl is to ‘The Joyce Book’, a collection of Joyce’s poems set to music by different composers. The intention was for Lucia to contribute illustrations to the book so that she might ‘be a part of this illustrious crowd of artistic brilliance’. Unfortunately, her contributions arrived too late for the publisher to include them. Nevertheless, Albert Roussel’s setting of one of the poems, ‘A Flower Given to my Daughter’ seems, indirectly, to capture in music a similar fragility to that of Lucia’s mental state (unfortunately, it’s not available as a video, but it is available to hear on the playlist mentioned below).

At the risk of ending on a maudlin note, Lucia has a love for music which is celebrated in The Joyce Girl‘s descriptions of her enthusiasm for dance. For more on the book and details of how to buy it, please go here:

A playlist containing music mentioned in The Joyce Girl, music by the composers referenced, and some music from the time, can be found here:

(1) Indeed, later in The Joyce Girl the story of Lucia di Lammermoor, stripped of its music, will return to haunt Lucia’s unconscious in the form of a powerful nightmare.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s