The fact is no one should be able to read the intimate words that anyone writes to their partner—those outpourings are composed for two people only: the lover and the loved. But when you’re writing a novel about Nora Barnacle and James Joyce, and the letters are published and are, well, just there, they become impossible to ignore.
Whenever I told anyone I was writing a bio-fictional novel about Nora and Joyce, they would remark, with glow-eyed glee, “Oh, no doubt you’ll include the letters.” And, yes, I have included them. But not quite as you might think.
The first challenge for me as a novelist was that the letters are still under copyright—they were first published in 1975. The second challenge was that Nora’s half of the correspondence was not available, missing—perhaps destroyed—and I had to fill those gaps with imagined letters of my own. I mimicked Joyce’s real letters as closely as I could. I wrote Nora’s part of the correspondence using Joyce’s letters as a call-and-response guide. When he praised her for using certain stimulating phrases and words, I included them in her letters to him, in the voice I had invented for her.
People often react in a jokily titillated way to Joyce’s erotic utterances, or the “dirty letters,” as they are commonly referred to in Ireland and in Joyce circles. “My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or to fling you down under me on that soft belly of yours and fuck you up behind, like a hog riding a sow, glorying in the open shame of your upturned dress and white girlish drawers and in the confusion of your flushed cheeks and tangled hair,” he wrote to her in 1909. Of course, Joyce was enchanted by words and used them brilliantly, and the letters reflect that. He and Nora weren’t a pair of Edwardian prisses. They were Roman Catholic, yes, and both suffered the quashing of sexuality that the clergy excelled at, but privately, many Irish people were more pagan and earthy in their customs and thought processes than they let on. Eroticism existed in early twentieth-century Ireland, and Joyce and Nora were probably not the exceptional, lusty mavericks we might consider them to be.
Joyce frequented prostitutes as a teenager, and Nora had some experience of young men by the time she met her beloved Jim; she had walked out with at least three men that she told Joyce about. Both Joyce and Nora enjoyed the erotic writings of Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch, for whom masochism was named. They were two young people, proud of their bodies, in touch with their sensuality, and unafraid of sharing themselves wholly with each other.
The sensual letters that the two shared began in 1909 when Joyce, in Ireland on business, missed Nora terribly—she had remained in Trieste. He hinted to her that she might write something private to him, words that he didn’t dare write himself. Nora understood him perfectly and apparently she did write such a letter. In my version, she writes, among other things: “You think me too small and girlish, perhaps, to discipline a man. But when you get here I will order you to take off your clothes and, if you disobey me, I will sit on you and pin your arms down until you howl for forgiveness, and until your prick quivers and begs for my mercy, until I let it fuck me.”
I wonder if Joyce and Nora thought they had invented this lewd behavior—I thought I had when, as a teenager, I wrote frank letters to my boyfriend who lived about a mile away. I wonder if everyone has done this, especially now that so much of our communication happens through texts and emails. Certainly, those of us who are passionate about the power of words are often comfortable marking pages with smoldering sentences for our beloveds. When that former boyfriend emigrated, my letters were left behind—his mother told me that she had read and kept them, and I was a little appalled. Much as Joyce’s letters should not be ours to digest, I wanted to say, But they’re not yours to read or own. I didn’t, though. I didn’t say anything at all.
When researching my bio-fictional novel about Emily Dickinson, I read the erotic letters between Emily’s brother, Austin, and his mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd. The letters were direct, steamy, and quite mad in parts—for their paranoia and plotting—and I thought uncomfortably, No one on earth should be privy to these kinds of intimacies! When I first read Joyce’s letters to Nora, I was similarly gobsmacked. I recognized the frank language and the explicit, obscene imaginings. I liked, too, the intimate, tender spillover into poetic trances. But I was made wide-eyed, particularly, by his obsession with defecation as an erotic act. There are numerous references to Joyce’s love for what he calls “the most shameful and filthy act of the body.” Over and over he refers to being turned on by “shit,” “farts,” and “brown stains.” Even now, more familiar with the letters, I squirm a bit when I read this from Joyce to Nora: “The smallest things give me a great cockstand—a whorish movement of your mouth, a little brown stain on the seat of your white drawers, a sudden dirty word spluttered out by your wet lips, a sudden immodest noise made by you behind and then a bad smell slowly curling up out of your backside. At such moments I feel mad to do it in some filthy way, to feel your hot lecherous lips sucking away at me.” This was an utterly private sharing between lovers, the things they traded to bind themselves together, and Joyce’s fetish ought not bother me at all, as I shouldn’t know about it. Although, anyone who has read Molly Bloom’s wondrous speech in the Penelope episode of Ulysses might reasonably guess at Joyce’s delight in the coprophilic. When Molly wants money, she plans to let Bloom kiss her bottom, saying he can “stick his tongue 7 miles up my hole as hes there my brown part then Ill tell him I want £1.”
In Joyce’s letters, he blames Nora for making an animal of him, while begging her to write ever more impure things. He reminds her that he never uses obscene phrases in speaking. “When men tell in my presence here filthy or lecherous stories I hardly smile. Yet you seem to turn me into a beast. It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl, who first led the way.” This was not strictly true, as the letters seem to show that he planted the seed for the correspondence himself, but Joyce never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Stephen Joyce, grandson to James and Nora, was naturally upset at the publication of the erotic letters, particularly when a missing letter—from Joyce to Nora—emerged at a Sotheby’s auction in 2004. Stephen, Joyce’s literary executor, made it clear he would not permit the publication of the letter, calling its sale an invasion of privacy. Saying he thanked God he had no children of his own, he remarked, “Can you imagine trying to explain certain things to them? That would be a nice job, if their whole family’s private life was exposed.” When Stephen Joyce destroyed correspondence between his aunt Lucia and Samuel Beckett, he said, “I didn’t want to have greedy little eyes and greedy little fingers going over them.” And who could blame him? Few would relish the exposure of the pet names their grandfather had for their grandmother’s private parts, or hearing their beloved granny referred to as “darling brown-arsed fuckbird.”
Joyce worshipped Nora, and he wanted her to understand the wildest, worst parts of him; he wanted her collusion, while needing Nora to remain a compassionate and ever-loving spouse as well. His biographer Richard Ellmann said Joyce wanted Nora as “his queen and even his goddess; he must be able to pray to her.” The letters make all this clear—one moment he dreams of her “in filthy poses” provoking him with bawdy touches and expressions, the next he wants time to fly on quickly so he can be with her again: “I want to go back to my love, my life, my star, my little strange-eyed Ireland!”
Nora Barnacle was clearly a willing participant in the to-and-fro of the erotic letters. Her beloved Jim may have suggested the correspondence, but he didn’t need to school her. Nora knew, from their shared bed, exactly what would delight and titillate him. Once, when Joyce asked to watch her defecate and she complied, her shame meant she couldn’t look him in the eye afterward, so she may not have been as devoted to brown stains, and so on, as he was. But Nora—ever earthy and pragmatic—no doubt knew how to keep Joyce tethered to her. In my versions of her letters, Nora feeds back to Joyce some of his own sexual phrases and, crucially, is masterful with him, knowing that erotic dominance is a way to keep him bound tight to her while they are far apart. She also mentions their shared bed in Trieste, in case he forgets where he truly belongs.
We know we only have access to this most private world because we recognize the importance of every James Joyce utterance; the letters are literary artifacts as well as insights into Joyce’s sensual self. But what of Nora’s missing letters? The Joyces were wanderers—they moved house frequently and, in the war years, often suddenly. Who knows what got left behind and might yet turn up in a forgotten valise or trunk. How wonderful it would be if Nora Barnacle’s erotic letters were to be found, so that we might hear her voice and gain a penetrating insight into the woman that James Joyce loved, body, heart, and mind.
Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1970. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, she is a full-time writer and lives in County Galway with her husband and three children. She has won many prizes for her fiction, including the Short Story Prize in the UK and Ireland’s Francis MacManus Award, and is an editor at the flash e-zine Splonk. Her fifth novel, Nora, was published earlier this year by Harper Perennial.