On this day…21 December

On 21 December 1922 Joyce wrote to Aunt Josephine asking for information about people.

Joyce’s Aunt Josephine had been an important source of information about Dublin while Ulysses was being written. Now, as Joyce was thinking about something new to write, he asked her if she would supply him with information about people she had known who were connected with the Joyce family.

In October 1922 Aunt Josephine had written a letter to Joyce complaining to him about several family matters. Joyce replied to her, responding to the various complaints she’d made, and then wrote again, in a more conciliatory tone, in November. These two letters were written from Nice where, he later claimed, he had started work on what was to become Finnegans Wake.

In a letter on 10 November 1922, Joyce encouraged Aunt Josephine to continue her efforts to read Ulysses, telling her to read the Odyssey and Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses first. At the end of that letter he asked her to send him ‘any news you like,’ and he listed programmes, pawn tickets, press cuttings and handbills as examples. He claimed that he liked reading them, but it seems clear that this was a way for him to keep in touch with Dublin and a way of obtaining material for new writing.

Back in Paris again, he wrote to her on 21 December to send Christmas and New Year greetings. He told her he had been collecting his notes as well as his eyesight would allow, and that he had come across the names of several people connected with the family who were of the older generation when Joyce himself was only a boy. He wondered if she would mind writing down information about these people for him.

Aunt Josephine had already provided similar information about a Major Powell who was the model for Molly Bloom’s father, Major Tweedy, in Ulysses. Major (actually Sergeant-Major) Powell was the grandfather of Brendan Gallagher, who knew Joyce when the Joyces were living on North Richmond Street. Joyce had sent Aunt Josephine questions about Powell and used the information to flesh out the character of Major Tweedy.

Now Joyce suggested he would send her an exercise book with the names of the people he was interested in at the top of the pages and asked if Aunt Josephine would scribble her thoughts about them underneath. Asking for ‘anything noteworthy’ he suggested things like ‘details of dress, defects, hobbies, appearance, manner of death, voice, where they lived.’ He said they all belonged to a vanished world and added that most of them seemed to have been ‘very curious types.’

Joyce claimed not to be in any hurry for the information, suggesting that she could return the exercise book in six months if she liked, but he acknowledged that she was probably the only one who was likely to know anything about any of them, and that he would be greatly obliged if she could fill in some details.

He wrote to Aunt Josephine again at the start of April 1923, this time sending the exercise book for her to fill in. He repeated that he was in no hurry but would like to have it back within a few months.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – new and revised edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I edited by Stuart Gilbert, vol. III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.