The Joyce Girl and the mad wives of modernism

Annabel Abbs' debut novel explores the life of Lucia Joyce - daughter of James - whose desire for an independent life is denied, much like those of Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot.

Sian Norris
22 September 2016

Having spent the last three years working on a novel about the women living on the 1920s Parisian Left Bank, it’s fair to say I’ve become a bit of an expert on the intricacies of these fascinating women’s lives. So it was with a great deal of interest that I picked up Annabel Abbs’ debut, The Joyce Girl.  Through my own research, I was fairly familiar with the details of her heroine Lucia Joyce’s life. I knew, for example, that she was taught ballet by Zelda Fitzgerald’s teacher; and that she was in love with her father’s literary heir Samuel Beckett.

 And, of course, I knew that she went mad.

In her novel, Abbs breathes life into Lucia - telling her story in a breathless, energetic voice. Her writing is full of the rich, sensual atmosphere of 1920s Paris, and she provides a new insight into the world of the Joyce family. Most importantly, Abbs explores the overlapping oppressions that drove Lucia, and so many women like her, into “madness”.  

The Joyce Girl high res.jpg

The novel opens in 1934, with Lucia receiving psychiatric treatment in Dr. Jung’s office. Having remained silent during so many appointments, she has now decided to speak: 

            Three times a week I come by boat and sit with him. And still I haven’t spoken. But today something inside me stirs and my silence feels oppressive.

Silence is a theme which occurs throughout the novel - and is a common aspect of Jung’s and Freud’s psychoanalysis of women during that time. Freud and Jung noted that many of the hysterical young women they treated suffered ‘aphonia’: an inability to speak following a trauma. It’s unclear in Abbs’ narrative whether Lucia is suffering aphonia. I prefer to think that she has until this point been using muteness as a weapon. Throughout her life Lucia has been effectively silenced. Now that men demand her voice, she can exert power by refusing to give it. 

After this first meeting with Jung, Abbs transports us to the late 1920s and Lucia’s early life: a young woman launching her career as a modern dancer. Living in Paris with her father, mother and brother, Lucia bursts from the page. She’s a woman possessed with vitality and ambition. Abbs describes Lucia as always in motion - she never stops twirling and stretching and jumping. She’s an irresistible character; a young woman on the brink of a bright future: 

            I tossed the newspaper onto the sofa and began spinning around the parlour, turning in wide, emphatic circles. The applause was still ringing in my ears, the euphoria still tripping through my veins. I raised my arms and spun -

However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear the pressures borne on Lucia by her family and by 1920s Paris society are silencing her. Her ambition to be a dancer is constantly thwarted by her family. Her mother thinks dancers are whores, and her father jealously guards Lucia as his muse: 

            He didn’t want me to dance for anyone else. That’s why he wanted me to dance at home and not on the stage. He wanted me all to himself. 

The people of Paris say of Lucia: ‘everyone knows she is her father’s muse.’ But Lucia doesn’t want to be a muse. Lucia wants to be the artist; to be a creative woman in her own right.

As her ambitions become more and more curtailed by her family’s demands, Abbs shows Lucia’s mental state begin to deteriorate through her flowering love for Samuel Beckett. At first, the reader sees their love and attraction as mutual - he clearly desires her as much as she desires him: 

            every night after he left the flat, it was as though a light had gone out. I fumbled in the gloam for several minutes, adjusting to the space without him. 

However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Lucia’s idea of Beckett and her relationship to him exists chiefly in her own imagination as a fantasy of escape. When it is revealed as just that - a fantasy - her mental state starts to unravel: 

            And suddenly I saw everything I’d hoped for and dreamed of splitting into a thousand little pieces.

            I saw my wedding bouquet exploding above my head, and pale pink rosebuds falling listlessly to the ground […] I saw Mrs Beckett dissolving like an apparition. Vanishing limb by limb.

The visceral sense of her disappearance is key. Already, Lucia’s sense of self has been shaken by her father’s insistence of treating her as his muse. In her father’s eyes, she is a character to be put in his book, not a fully-formed woman with her own ambitions, wants and desires. With her dancing self almost obliterated by her family’s force, she tried to re-construct herself as ‘Mrs Beckett’. When his lack of love for her destroys that new vision of self, she is crushed. 

Lucia’s story is one of a woman whose ambitions, desires, needs and wants have been repeatedly ignored, suppressed and silenced by the men in her life. It’s the story of a woman being used as a character in other people’s narratives (‘He watched me all the time’ she says of her father: ‘Wait until the book comes out. You’ll find me there on every page.’) while being denied her own story. Towards the end of the novel, she says she wants to be: 

            Not someone’s muse. Just me, myself.

In this way, her biography is not dissimilar to those two other women of modernism whose names are also always attached to the more celebrated men they were related to: Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot. 

In her absorbing and remarkable book, Heroines, the writer Kate Zambreno examines Zelda’s and Scott’s marriage and dares us to ask many of the same questions Abbs does in her own novel. How would it feel to be seen as nothing more than material for your husband’s characters (or, in Lucia’s case, her father’s)? How would it feel to have your own talent and ambition squashed and silenced in favour of your husband’s? Wouldn’t you get tired of being nothing more than a character? 

Wouldn’t you be angry when your worth as a character ran out, and your husband’s response is to lock you away?


Like Lucia, Zelda was an intensely ambitious woman. However, in common with so many women of the period, she was denied the opportunity to channel that ambition and creativity. Zelda is often portrayed by history as flitting between painting and writing and dancing – unable to settle to any one thing. Never mind that her novel is a sensitively written, modernist work. Never mind that her paintings were exhibited. Never mind that she was a skilled dancer and invited to perform as a soloist - with permission refused by Scott. 


Zambreno explores how Scott exploited Zelda’s ambitions and put her writing in his own. This involved scouring her letters and journals for phrases and sentences that would then turn up in his own novels. At first Zelda semi-agreed to this, writing in a mock-serious review of The Beautiful and the Damned:

            It seems to me that on one page I recognised a portion an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr Fitzgerald - I believe that is how he spells his name - seems to believe plagiarism begins at home.

One can understand how being a muse might feel flattering… for a while. Just as Lucia delights in her father’s attention… for a while. But how galling it must quickly become to see your own writing ignored and dismissed, while at the same time as your husband is hailed as a modernist master. How frustrating it must be, as Sally Cline describes in her excellent biography of Zelda, to see your own short stories and articles published under your husband’s name. And, ultimately, how maddening it would be to see yourself used as a character in your husband’s books while at the same time that husband wants to put you in an asylum. 

Both Zelda and Lucia raged against being silenced; against being turned into characters and denied their humanity as women. They shouted and screamed and demanded attention - throwing furniture and threatening chaos because for too long they’d been treated as ciphers and models and concepts. Their humanity, their creativity and their ambition was refused. Is it any wonder they were angry? Is it any wonder they raged against a society and the men which denied them their freedom? As Zambreno argues: 

            Where is it supposed to go? All of this fury? A woman’s anger: it must be contained, repressed, diffused.

In Zelda and Lucia, we see how women’s anger is seen as so dangerous, so transgressive, that when it is expressed it’s called madness and the women are locked up. 

It’s likely that Zelda and Lucia met - they were both taught ballet by Madame Egorova and indeed Abbs suggests a meeting in her novel. What’s less likely is that they met Vivienne Eliot - another silenced wife of modernism whose husband put her in his work and then put her away

Through her marriage, writes Zambreno:

            Viv’s early inner spirit [was] squelched and doomed into sickness and submission. 

Like Zelda and Scott, there is evidence to suggest that Vivienne and T S Eliot enjoyed some collaboration on his poems, with Vivienne acting as editor and secretary on The Wasteland. What’s not in doubt is that Eliot used Vivienne as a character in his work, the woman whose ‘nerves are very bad tonight.’ 

But Vivienne was more than a character - more than raw material for her husband to use as he saw fit. Like Zelda and Lucia, she was a creative person in her own right. Her stories were published in The Criterion, and she kept journals before and after her marriage. Any journals she kept during her marriage are missing. Despite Vivienne leaving her papers to the Bodleian library, it’s very difficult to access her work. Eliot was determined to ensure that her voice was quashed: warning his estate executor to ‘suppress everything’.  

In one heartbreaking section of Heroines, Zambreno describes a late conversation between Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, where she shouted to him: 

            ‘Because I want to live some place that I can be my own self.’

In her cry, we hear the voices of Lucia Joyce, Vivienne Eliot, and all the silenced women whose creativity, passion and ambition was squelched by the men in their lives. It’s this frustration and anger that Abbs captures so well in her novel. Lucia’s mental state unravels as freedom and ambition is slowly taken away from her. Like Zelda, like Viv, Lucia was driven “mad” by a patriarchal oppression that destroyed her desires and dreams. 

Through Abbs’ novel, we finally get to hear Lucia’s anger, as well as her joy and ambitions. In her story lies the forgotten narratives of so many more nameless women born in the wrong time, living with the wrong men.

It’s good to know that through novels like The Joyce Girl, Zambreno’s Heroines and the continued publication of Zelda Fitzgerald’s work, today these women’s stories are being heard more than ever before. 

Those women who were once so silenced, are finally getting their say.

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