NEW YORK — "People say I have helped him to be a genius. What they'll be saying next is that if it hadn't been for that ignoramus of a woman what a man he would have been! But never you mind. I could tell them a thing or two about him after 20 years."
Nora Joyce was speaking about her husband, James Joyce. With characteristic frankness, she acknowledged what she knew to be true: that Joyce's admirers found her an unsuitable companion for her brilliant husband.
But, with equally characteristic self-confidence, Nora Joyce knew the power she wielded over him. She knew his dependency, his most intimate fears and insecurities. She knew she was his haven. She probably also knew she provided the inspiration and voice for the female characters in his books.
"Very early on, I realized it was her tremendous assurance and confidence that attracted Joyce," said Brenda Maddox, author of "Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom," published this month by Houghton Mifflin. "When someone is analyzing himself to the extent Joyce did and scarcely dares move, the attraction of someone who just does it is devastatingly attractive."
Maddox's biography does much to dispel the myth that Nora Joyce was a slovenly, illiterate, uncultured chambermaid from western Ireland who had neither the affinity for nor the interest in Joyce's literary masterpieces, and could not even cook. Such was said by the literary crowd, critics, some members of Joyce's family and even by some friends.
Maddox's biography documents Nora Joyce's culinary skill but, more to the point, it also depicts a woman of formidable strength, courage and wit who withstood 37 years with a hard-drinking, profligate, self-involved writer, and did so with her senses of humor and self intact.
She bore two children during the early stages of Joyce's career, when recognition of his books and, consequently, money were scarce. She raised them in makeshift homes in five different countries, moving whenever Joyce needed a change of scenery, or when they were evicted for failing to pay their rent. She learned three European languages. She remained a pillar of strength as her daughter went mad and her son became an alcoholic, always tending to her husband's all-consuming needs.
Maddox's interest in Joyce's wife was kindled when she read the late Richard Ellmann's revised biography, "James Joyce," in 1982. She put down the book wondering how, in the early 1900s, this convent-educated girl could have run away with a man who would not marry her. She wondered why they bothered with a civil marriage ceremony, two children and 27 years after their flight. She wanted to know how Nora survived living with Joyce, especially if it were true that she cared little, if at all, for his writing.
In addition to these questions, there were parallels between Maddox's family and the Joyces. Maddox's maternal grandparents had also fled their families to live together for many years before finally marrying.
Maddox shared another, more painful bond with the Joyces. Her stepdaughter is a schizophrenic, as was the Joyces' second child, Lucia, who spent most of her adult life in an asylum.
Maddox is quick to point out that she would hate to be "so selfish that the only things you can have sympathy for are the things that have happened to you. (But) I certainly understood from my stepdaughter's breakdown how a family could live with schizophrenia without recognizing it and hoping it isn't so. Many times they are reasonable, charming people."
Maddox has written extensively on women and marriage as a journalist for the Economist and as an author of five books, including one on gay marriages and another on stepparenting.
"I'm interested in marriage," Maddox explained. "What is the unspoken bargain? What do you get out of it? What do you think you are expected to give for what you get?"
While intrigued by the Joyces' seeming incompatibility, Maddox also had a sense when she read Joyce "that there had to be a fabulous female personality there, which was certainly underreported. In Ellmann, she appears in the footnotes. If a joke of hers is reported, it's as if she knew not what she said, (that) she doesn't even know she's funny. She did. Joyce did. I don't think Joyce ever underestimated Nora."
Tracing Nora Joyce's life from her early days in Galway to her final days in a clinic in Zurich, where she died afflicted with acute arthritis, Maddox examines Joyce's emotional and physical dependence on Nora, particularly as his eyes failed him.
"She was his eyes and ears," said Maddox. "She went to the parties and she could tell him who the phonies were. He relied on her increasingly to tell him about the real world and about the total world of women."