On 24 September 1926 Joyce suggested to Harriet Weaver that she might commission a piece for his Work in Progress.
Joyce was writing from the Hôtel Astoria & Claridge in Brussels where he was staying as part of his tour of Belgium, taking in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels as well as visiting the site of the battle of Waterloo. In a letter to Weaver on 24 September he suggests that she might order a piece of writing from him, in the way that painters and sculptors seem to have been successfully commissioned to do their work in the past. He even adds a sample order for a painting of Tristan or a bust of Ham.
Weaver replied a week later from Penrith, in Cumbria, acknowledging that it was a strange request but nonetheless ordering a piece of writing. She writes in a Wake-style language asking him to “Kindly supply the undersigned with one full length grave account of his esteemed Highness Rhaggerick O’Hoggnor’s Hogg Tomb as per photos enclosed,” and she signs herself Henriette Véavère.
The photographs she enclosed were postcards of the so-called ‘Giant’s Grave’ in the graveyard at St Andrew’s Church in Penrith. The grave consists of six stones: two tall uprights with two pairs of hog-backed stones in between. Though they are now grouped together, it seems the six stones were originally separate. The hogback stones date from the tenth century Norse period and represent Viking houses. They were used as gravestones, the grave thus becoming the home of the dead person. The grave was associated with a ruler of Rheged, an area that included Cumbria, hence the ‘Rhaggerick’ in Weaver’s order.
Joyce wrote to her again on 15 November enclosing a piece in fulfilment of her ‘order.’ The piece he sent her was to be given pride of place in the final Finnegans Wake: in fact, it consists of an early version of the opening lines of the book. Joyce also added an extensive ‘key’ with explanations of many of the references he’d included.
But if this small piece was his immediate response to her ‘order,’ Joyce considered the entire book to have been a commission from her. When the book was finally published on 4 May 1939, Joyce sent a copy to Weaver, with a note referring back to her commission more than twelve years before, saying that the order had now been executed and the goods delivered with the hope that they would be found satisfactory.
For Weaver, though she played along with Joyce’s idea of a Renaissance-style commission from wealthy patron to struggling artist, it would have been preferable to commission another book, one that was not the one Joyce was working on, and she stated this clearly in a postscript to her ‘order’ of 1 October 1926. However, Joyce blithely ignored that part of her order.
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.