On 22 September 1926 Joyce visited the site of the Battle of Waterloo.
Joyce spent two and a half weeks in September 1926 visiting Belgium, staying in Ghent in East Flanders, Antwerp, and Brussels. While in Brussels he went to visit the battlefield of Waterloo on 22 September.
Joyce arrived in Ghent on 13 September and moved on to Antwerp three days later. He re-christened Antwerp ‘Gnantwerp’ after being devoured by mosquitoes there. Ghent and Antwerp are both Flemish-speaking towns, and Joyce had been working on his Flemish in advance of his visit. He claimed to have finished a 64-lesson course while in Brussels, and he told Harriet Weaver that he planned to use bits of the Flemish language for the character ‘Sookerson’ in Finnegans Wake.
Arriving in Brussels on 20 September Joyce stayed for nine days after which he returned to Paris. On 22 September Joyce, accompanied by Nora, Giorgio and Lucia, took the bus the ten miles or so from Brussels to the site of the Battle of Waterloo. Joyce was observed on this trip by the American writer Thomas Wolfe who didn’t dare approach Joyce but who gave a detailed description of the Joyce’s on their day out in a letter to Aline Bernstein.
Arriving at the site of the battle, Joyce walked next to the old guide who showed them around, and asked a number of questions. On the way back to Brussels Joyce sat with the bus driver and asked him questions as well. There are many references in Finnegans Wake to Waterloo which appears in different places as ‘maidenloo,’ ‘Mockerloo,’ ‘Waherlow,’ ‘whatholoosed,’ ‘wodhalooing,’ ‘waldalure,’ ‘waterloogged,’ and ‘Walhalloo’ among others.
Other places associated with the campaign around Waterloo are also referred to in the Wake, for instance La Belle Alliance, Hougomont and La Haye Saint, Mont St Jean, Quatre Bras. And the main protagonists in the campaign – Emperor Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington, and Field Marshal Blücher – are also referred to repeatedly throughout the Wake.
Napoleon had managed to escape from exile on the island of Elba in February 1815 and returned to France where he led French forces against the coalition. The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815, part of a campaign in the area that lasted from 16 to 19 June. British forces under the Dublin-born Duke of Wellington were supported by Prussian troops under the command of Field Marshal Blücher against Napoleon’s forces. After his defeat, Napoleon was imprisoned on the island of St Helena where he died in 1821.
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, London: Faber & Faber, 1957.
Mink, Louis O: A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.