Novelist Annabel Abbs and her book about Lucia Joyce
PUBLISHED: 12:12 16 November 2016 | UPDATED: 12:12 16 November 2016
Sussex-based debut novelist Annabel Abbs has written a novel about Lucia, daughter of James Joyce, who wrote part of Finnegans Wake in Bognor Regis.
Lucia Joyce has, at least until now, been consigned to the margins of cultural history. Beloved daughter of an Irish literary genius, unrequited lover of Samuel Beckett, she was herself a visionary early proponent of modern dance, yet she was institutionalised by 25. She had danced too close to the sun.
A luminous, affecting new novel by Sussex-based debut author Annabel Abbs seeks to thrust Lucia into the spotlight enjoyed by the men in her life. For a first novel – and by a self-taught writer – it is both accomplished and very brave: Joyce and Beckett are neither of them short on fans and neither comes out of the book unscathed.
Annabel explains that she stumbled across Lucia in a graphic novel, Dotter of Her Father’s Eye. “I didn’t know James Joyce had a daughter, I didn’t know he had a daughter who danced, in fact I knew nothing, I’d never heard of her.” She read and re-read Carol Loeb Shloss’ 2003 biography but still felt she knew nothing about the real woman, largely because the biographer was stymied by the dearth of material – all of Lucia’s letters, diaries and medical notes had been destroyed by Joyce’s acolytes. “So there was nothing left of her, it was like looking into a black hole. And I thought ‘Right, I’m going to put her back on the map.’”
It’s a dual narrative, telling Lucia’s story from 1928 to 1932 in jazz age Paris juxtaposed with her analysis by Carl Jung in Switzerland, 1934. In 1928 Lucia is a triumph, she and her father poring over the rhapsodising reviews of one of her dance performances. She is in love with a young composer. In the Switzerland chapters, a few short years later, she is bitter, oppressed, eccentric. It’s unclear in what way her family circumstances have affected her psyche.
There were certainly some strange dynamics in the Joyce household. The family moved often and Lucia lived in several European countries as a child before they settled in Paris. But she was clever, which perhaps encouraged her mother’s animosity. Annabel says: “Her mother was largely uneducated and Lucia was very bright. There was a letter that Joyce wrote to Jung saying that he suspected Nora of being jealous of Lucia.”
When she became unwell (she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but there was and is some debate about her condition), Joyce worried that “Whatever spark or gift I possess has been transmitted to Lucia and it has kindled a fire in her brain.”
Lucia languished and finally died in a mental home in Northamptonshire, largely unvisited apart from Joyce scholars who wanted to interview her about her father. That infuriated Annabel, who says: “So many of the men in her life had gone on to be these legendary characters. People might not know much about them but they’ve all heard of them, and she was just left – and no-one’s heard of her. I was fuelled by rage at how she’d been treated. I was sympathetic to her, and also there were other little things. My father [Peter Abbs] was also a poet and moved us around a lot. There were little things that resonated and I also thought it was a good story.”
It is a mystery story of sorts and Annabel had to turn detective, scouring biographies of the illustrious figures who made up Lucia’s wider social circle to “create a life and a story from these little lines here and there”. She even learnt jazz dancing as well as visiting Lucia’s homes in Paris, Zurich and Trieste “to try and imagine myself into her life and into her head. I had to do a lot of things that were peripheral to her life to try to pull her together”.
It seems that Lucia was trapped in many ways – in bohemian, post-war Paris she got little sips of freedom but was never allowed to drink from the well of abandon. Nevertheless, she did have affairs: some chaste, all disastrous. The love of her life, at least in the novel, was Samuel Beckett, who worked for a time as her father’s assistant and came to the house often. He behaved shabbily towards her, leading her on before telling her that her father had been the attraction all along. He never spoke about her.
Shortly before publication Annabel received a letter from the Beckett estate “demanding that I remove him entirely as a character and take out all references to him. I thought this is a bit like asking Jane Austen to take Darcy out of Pride and Prejudice – you just can’t take the main love interest out four weeks before publication!”
A lawyer reassured Annabel there was no case to answer but it sounds like a rough ride for a debut novelist. Annabel admits to many sleepless nights in the run-up to publication.
Annabel grew up in Hove and Lewes – her father was a professor at the University of Sussex. She and her family – her husband, Matthew, is from Worthing and they have four children – now split their time between East Sussex and London: “About 12 years ago we were in London and we were really missing Sussex, I can’t even begin to tell you how, it was like a deep physical longing to be back there. We bought a cottage between Eastbourne and Lewes and we’re there every school holiday, every weekend.
“A lot of The Joyce Girl was imagined as I walked over the South Downs and up and down the Wealden Way and the Vanguard Way. I needed the break from 1920s Paris.”
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