Brenda Maddox’s enjoyable biography of Nora Joyce left me worrying about two questions.* Did her subject warrant 526 pages? And was the great Richard Ellmann, along with other scholars, guilty of gross invasion of privacy when he published James Joyce’s coprophiliac letters to Nora?

Both these questions are of personal significance for me. Last year I published 738 pages about Victor Gollancz and have since wearied of defending myself against the charge of overdoing it. The standard defence now is that it was not my fault that he lived a long and full life. (I’m happy to say that most of the accusers had not read the book.) In researching and writing the thing I had to tell the truth about his two extra-marital affairs, while respecting the right to anonymity of the women involved. Indeed, I knew more about his sex-life than I was prepared to disclose, my approach being that of Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby. There are few of us who would relish the public exposure of the most intimate details of our sexual behaviour, however harmless. Mind you, if anyone ever invites me to write a biography of Rupert Murdoch, I would be sorely tempted to take my lead from Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid.

The ethics of this last matter preoccupy me greatly at the moment, as I try to take the correct decisions about my recently deceased father’s personal papers. It had never occurred to me that any researcher would be much interested in him except in academic terms, but an astounding spread of obituaries in Ireland and Britain suggest that a biography is quite likely. As the person who controls access, I am poacher turned gamekeeper.

So was Nora worth all Mrs Maddox’s great labour, bearing in mind that in many respects Nora’s was quite a dull life? On balance yes, but not for quite the reasons she suggests. The international Joyce industry includes people perfectly capable of churning out articles on Joyce’s toenails (or faeces perhaps, while we are on the subject) and earning tenure in consequence. So there is nothing excessive about a large book on the central inspiration in his life. But try as she might, Mrs Maddox does not convince me that Nora is interesting in her own right: the fascinating aspect of the book is the light it casts on James and the way in which he extracted from Nora every drop of her experience and fashioned this raw material into literature. There is a lot of trivial material – hats and gowns and so on – in this book, but it is justifiable because of its importance to Joyce. Certainly I never found the book boring, even though its demotic prose sometimes jarred.

In her thorough and straightforward way Mrs Maddox has applied herself to the ethical question of the publication of the so-called ‘dirty letters’, but she seems to have come to no clear conclusion. These letters, written to Nora in 1909, are hard pornography: even eighty years later they would do a roaring trade in the shit/bizarre section of an Amsterdam bookshop. Ellmann’s view was that the literary reasons overrode all objections: this extraordinary opportunity to understand Joyce’s sexual feelings could only aid scholarship. Stephen Joyce, the only grandchild, bitterly condemns all those who played a part in publishing them, and asserts that his grandparents would have agreed with him. He is probably only half-right: James was hardly noticed for his reticence. Nora is a different matter. She was sufficiently pleased at being famous to put up with having her privacy invaded. But to this extent? For as Mrs Maddox puts it, these letters include descriptions ‘of every secret crevice and odour of Joyce’s wife’s body’. What is more, although Nora’s half of the correspondence has not survived, James refers to her letters constantly and they can virtually be reconstructed. It is clear that she wrote even cruder letters than he did, so her later complaints about his dirty mind were somewhat disingenuous. Yet the fantasies would appear to have been largely his: essentially she was humouring him.

I feel very torn on the rights and wrongs of all this, although I have been thinking for years about how a biographer should keep a balance between honesty and common decency. My parents used to argue about the issue a great deal. My father was a historian who towards the end of his career founded an Archives Department in University College, Dublin. Indeed, in his old age he became a compulsive archiver: the meanest milk bill was saved and listed. Having been thoroughly indoctrinated by him, I felt deeply guilty as I threw out the absolute dross before entrusting the rest to the Archives Department. His influence over me saved one category of stuff – odd bits of paper that made me feel uncomfortable because they appeared to give a distorted picture of the truth about relationships. If I yielded to the temptation to dump those bits of paper, I could not maintain my self-respect as a biographer.

My father would have been perfectly happy to let anyone see anything he wrote, however intimately he was writing: all was grist to Clio’s mill. But I have to take a broader view. Probably 95 per cent of the material poses no problems and no restrictions on access are necessary. But what about the rest? For instance, for the last decade of his life he wrote in a detached and reflective way about the past, about history, about his family, ex-colleagues, friends and enemies and about himself. He was often critical in his assessments of himself and others. Sometimes he was cruelly funny, especially if he was drunk. Some of the stuff is libellous. So in the name of common decency one puts a suitable embargo on sensitive material.

But then what of his love letters to my mother? Nothing scandalous there, but much that is very intimate, and my mother, although she greatly enjoyed biography, was unenthusiastic about having her life examined too closely. The issue of whether love letters should go to the Archives she settled in a characteristic manner. She got furious one day and burned all her letters to him, but though she had threatened at times to burn his to her, she did not. And I doubt if hers are a great loss: she was always cagey in writing and her letters were bland and pale reflections of a brilliant, vibrant and mischievously funny woman. My father’s letters, on the other hand, are marvellously unself-conscious in their abandonment to passion, and I think secretly she would have wanted the survival of the written testimony that he was cracked about her. But she would certainly not have liked them to be available to any Tom, Dick or Harry of a researcher. So I have to brood on that a bit longer.

Where I will side with him rather than her is in accepting that truth is more important than the feelings of individuals. On that issue they were polar opposites. On the same television programme he once announced quite happily that his mother had been a bully and a liar, while my mother was deftly avoiding admitting that her father had been illiterate. She feared that some distant rural cousins might feel ashamed. He and I felt that if they did they should be ashamed of themselves.

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