“Rosefrail and Fair” — Lucia Joyce, Dancer Daughter of James Joyce

Lucia Joyce, James Joyce's Daugher

This introduction to the life of Lucia Joyce, a professional dancer and the talented, troubled daughter of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle is excerpted from Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde  by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.

Sylvia Beach, publisher of Ulysses, wrote in Shakespeare and Company about James Joyce’s family:

“I was very fond of them all: Giorgio, with his gruffness, hiding or trying to hide his feelings; Lucia, the humorous one – neither of them happy in the strange circumstances in which they grow up; and Nora, the wife and mother, who scolded them all, including her husband, for their shiftlessness.”

People didn’t normally think of Lucia as the humorous one; she was generally seen as being rather tragic, and later in life was in a mental institution for many years. In her contribution to Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, Kay Boyle talks tenderly about how the fragile Lucia came to see her one day in 1928:

“Whether it had been suggested to her that she come, or whether she had come of her own accord, I did not know. But as she sat in the sunlight that came hot through the plate-glass window, I felt her tragically reaching, seeking for what could probably never be found and for a fearful moment I believed I was looking at my own reflection in a glass.

She was like the high, perishable, wishful tendril of a vine moving blindly up a wall, and the vine from which she sought escape was rooted in a territory that had for her  recognisable name. I thought of Joyce’s poem to his blue-veined daughter, and there in her delicate wrists I could see the veins, so vulnerable under the silky, transparent skin.

She was then (as perhaps I too was then, and as perhaps all daughters are until they cease being merely daughters) precariously only half a person, and the other half she sought for in panic first in one direction and then in another, not knowing in whose mind or flesh or in what alien country it might live.”


The poem that Boyle refers to comes from the small selection of Joyce’s early poems, Pomes Penyeach, which was published with Lucia’s illustrations and facsimiles of Joyce’s handwritten texts by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press in 1932, though Sylvia Beach had published a regular edition in 1927.

Harry and Caresse Crosby of the Black Sun Press had originally suggested the idea of a deluxe, illustrated, facsimile, limited edition to Joyce; he was happy for Lucia’s work to be published, happy for her to have something, to be something in her own right. Not that it was anything very much in her own right to illustrate her father’s work; her drawings would never otherwise have been published, and she would have been in no doubt about that.

Still, Joyce made sure she got a third of the royalties. Only twenty-five copies of the deluxe edition were printed, on lustrous Japanese nacre, with Lucia’s illuminated capitals delicately colored; all were signed by Joyce.

The British Library has number 25; it’s very beautiful. Number 3 was auctioned in 2015 with an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000 but failed to sell. This is the poem about Lucia that Kay Boyle referred to:

A Flower Given to My Daughter

Frail the white rose and frail are
Her hands that gave
Whose soul is sere and paler
Than time’s wan wave.

Rosefrail and fair – yet frailest
A wonder wild
In gentle eyes thou veilest,
My blueveined child.

Boyle knew Lucia on and off through her life; many years later, after Lucia’s death in 1983, Boyle had an exchange of letters about her with Joyce’s first major biographer, Richard Ellman; she told him how she and Samuel Beckett had spent an evening together sometime in 1932 when he tried to convince her that unhappiness and madness were not the same thing – Lucia was unhappy but that was not all there was to it. Boyle wrote to Ellman:

“One day, when we chance to meet again, I want to tell you of my first meeting with Samuel Beckett. It was in the sad time of Lucia’s first crisis, the beginning of it all, and Sam and I talked together at a crowded party in Walter Lowenfels’ apartment in Paris.

We both remember every word of that talk of over fifty years ago, talk which lasted from nine in the evening until two o’clock the next morning, during which he convinced me that there is such a thing as madness, and that love or understanding or any emotional response to that condition is not the cure.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

Everybody I can think of ever - meetings that made the avant-garde

Everybody I Can Think of Ever is available on 
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Soon after Beckett had arrived in Paris in November 1928 to take up his teaching post at the École Normale, he first met Lucia Joyce the same evening he met her father, at their apartment in Paris. He was introduced by fellow Dubliner Thomas MacGreevy, who had preceded Beckett as a lecturer there in 1926.

MacGreevy and Beckett quickly became close friends, a friendship that lasted their lifetimes. A large number of Beckett’s letters are to him, perhaps the only person, and almost certainly the only man he ever seems to have truly confided in.

As well as the Joyce family, while in Paris, MacGreevy became a friend of Sylvia Beach, Nancy Cunard, and especially Richard Aldington, husband of HD (Hilda Doolittle), who described Beckett as “the splendidly mad Irishman.” In Beckett Remembering, Beckett describes that first meeting, though he doesn’t mention Lucia.

“I was introduced to Joyce by Tom MacGreevy. He was very friendly – immediately, to the best of my recollection. I remember coming back very exhausted to the École Normale and, as usual, the door was closed and I climbed over the railings.

I remember that: coming back from my first meeting with Joyce. I remember walking back. And from then on we saw each other quite often. I can still remember his telephone number!”

Joyce was keen to ask Beckett about everything that had been going on in Dublin and was also keen to find an assistant to help him transcribe sections of what was then called Work in Progress but eventually became Finnegans Wake.

Joyce’s eyes were by now very weak and painful. Beckett says that he was never officially Joyce’s secretary, but he was at Joyce’s apartment a lot of the time. It was through Joyce that Beckett met Ezra Pound at one of Joyce’s favorite Paris restaurants. Pound was in a bad mood, possibly because he was having to dine at a restaurant favored by Joyce, who liked eating at the Trianon.

Beckett still remembered the dinner and Pound many years later, though not warmly: “The only time I remember having met Pound was one evening at dinner with the Joyces in the Trianon, Place de Rennes. He was having great trouble with a fond d’artichaut and was very aggressive and disdainful.”

When Beckett first met Lucia there was no suggestion of her madness, though she was already troubled and in conflict with her parents, particularly Nora, who did not want her to pursue the dancing career she felt was her chosen path. She and her brother Giorgio had been moved between several countries while they were younger and had to learn a new language every time – someone said that Lucia was illiterate in four languages.

And being the daughter of such a universally revered father was difficult for her. Nora saw her main duty as being to allow Jim the quiet and space he needed to write – the children came second. But despite her parents’ objections, Lucia took dancing lessons, and took them very seriously. She performed in public several times. Beckett went with the Joyces to a dance performance she was in at the Bal Bullier on May 28, 1929.

Joyce’s niece wrote about Lucia’s shimmering costume (there is a photograph of her wearing it on the front cover of her biography by Carol Loeb Shloss).

“It was in silver sequins edged with green. One leg was covered to the heel and the other came right through the costume, so that when she put one behind the other, she created the illusion of a fishtail. Green and silver were entwined in her hair.”

Not long after, Lucia began to have self-doubt,  and by November of that year she had given up dance forever. When she met Beckett, Lucia was twenty-two and he was twenty-three, but he was already much more mature than her; she was still a girl, having difficulty differentiating herself as an individual from the strong personalities of her mother and father.

Lucia was both attractive and attracted to men; Joyce’s niece said she was “pretty, with dark, curly shoulder-length hair and blue eyes with a slight cast but … attractive in spite of it.”

. . . . . . . . . . .

Lucia Joyce, dancer daughter of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

Lucia Joyce on Bloomsday;
Photograph by Berenice Abbott
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In photographs like the portrait by Berenice Abbott it’s easy to see the strabismus or squint in Lucia’s eye, which she had tried to have corrected, unsuccessfully. It does give her a rather wild look; any doctor inclined to think she was mad would not have a hard time convincing other people.

No one knows whether Beckett and Lucia slept together, but everyone agrees that she was the one pursuing him. Of course, there are precedents for artists becoming close to the daughters of their artistic mentors: Wagner and Liszt’s daughter Cosima; Ezra Pound and Dorothy, the daughter of Olivia Shakespear, Yeats’ mistress.

And there are many precedents for daughters looking for a partner who can substitute for their genius father. It might have been the perfect match, but Lucia seems to have pressured Beckett too much and for too long. He wrote to MacGreevy on July 17, 1930: 

“ . . . a letter from Lucia too. I don’t know what to do. She is unhappy she says. Now that you are gone there is no one to talk to about that. I do not dare go to Wales [the Joyce family were staying in Llandudno], and I promised I would if they were there on my way through. But that is impossible. There is no solution. What terrible instinct prompts them to have the genius of beauty at the right – or the wrong – moment!”

Years later she was still pursuing him, even though he had told her one day in May 1930 at her parents’ apartment that he only went there to see her father and not her. She was devastated and told her mother.

Nora took her daughter’s side; she told Beckett not to play with her daughter’s affections. James Joyce told him he was not welcome at their apartment anymore. The rift between the two writers lasted until Joyce finally realized that his daughter was genuinely ill and that a serious relationship with Beckett would have been a disaster.

Years later, Beckett described his relationship with Lucia to his biographer James Knowlson curtly and rather cruelly, as if she had meant very little to him. He minimizes the rift with Joyce and Lucia’s part in it. He says that when he went to Joyce’s apartment that day:

“Lucia was there, already very disturbed mentally. Sometimes she was perfectly normal. I had to tell her finally that I went to the house not to see her, but to see Joyce. Joyce was my interest. And, according to some accounts, Joyce was very upset . . .  And we used to walk, when she was perfectly normal. And then she had these crazy spells. I never saw her in them though. They all understood that she was incurable. But Joyce could never agree with them. He was all for trying different treatments, with Jung and so on.”

Despite his later attempts to play down Lucia’s importance to him, she undoubtedly played a big part in Beckett’s life. In 1932 he wrote a novel, only published posthumously, called Dream of Fair to Middling Women. In the novel there are three women, one of whom is called Syra-Cusa, representing Lucia – St Lucia of Syracuse is the patron saint of eyesight, a very good saint for Joyce, with his lifelong eye problems, to name his daughter for, but a cruel Joycean irony that she too had an eye problem in spite of, or perhaps because of it.

The narrator in the novel, obviously a version of Beckett himself, describes her – although she is fictional, she is quite similar to the actual Lucia whom Kay Boyle describes.

The Syra-Cusa: her body more perfect than dream creek, amaranth Lagoon. She flowed along in a nervous swagger, swinging a thin arm amply. The sinewy fetlock sprang, Brancusi bird, from the shod foot blue arch veins and small bones, rose like a Lied to the firm wrist of the reins, the Bilitis breasts. Her neck was scraggy and her head was null . . .

She was prone, when brought to dine out, to puke, but into her serviette, with decorum, because, supposedly, the craving of her viscera was not for food and drink. To take her arm, to flow together, out of step, down the asphalt bed, was a foundering in music, the slow ineffable flight of a dream-dive, a launching and terrible foundering in a rich rape of water. Her grace was supplejack, it was cuttystool and cavaletto, he trembled as on a springboard, jutting out, doomed, high of a dream-water. Would she sink or swim in Diana’s well? That depends what we mean by a maiden.

Like Joyce, Beckett here needs footnotes, two in particular: Brancusi was the sculptor whose drawing is on the title page of Harry and Caresse Crosby’s publication of Joyce’s Work in Progress, and Songs of Bilitis is an 1894 erotic, lesbian, fin de siècle sequence of prose poems written by Pierre Louÿs – a friend of André Gide, Oscar Wilde, and Claude Debussy – who claimed to have translated from a previously unknown Greek original. As for being a maiden, Lucia’s former love interest claimed that she was when she left him for Beckett.

But if Beckett thought he could get rid of Lucia so easily, he was mistaken. She continued to stalk him, as we would say now, for years. In a letter to MacGreevy of February 20, 1935 he is still saying: “She wrote wanting to see me. I have done nothing – except make détours.” In Middling Women, the narrator says:

We thought we had got rid of the Syra-Cusa. No such thing, here below, as riddance, good, bad or indifferent. Not having the stomach formally to disprove her letters merely, quickly, cite a circumstance of no importance to tickle our fauces. For days, holidays, she came not abroad, she stayed mewed up in her bedroom. What was she up to? Hold everything now. She was doing abstract drawing! Heavenly Father! Abstract drawing! Can you beat that one?

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Contributed by Francis Booth, the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:

Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth-Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938.

Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young Adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. 


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