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James Joyce's Women

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

The title James Joyce's Women sounds quite negative and possessive for International Women's Day but without certain key women, Ulysses might never have been published.

I find it very interesting that Joyce gave the last word to Molly Bloom which I think really balances the Bloom household of husband and wife but many books haven't given women much of a voice, and when it comes to James Joyce, it is not the character's soliloquy that finishes the book but the women who actually published it, when no one else would.

The women behind James Joyce's writing need no introduction as books, plays, films and documentaries have been made about James Joyce's Women.

Silvia Beach, the American bookseller in Paris that published Ulysses a hundred years ago is well remembered, as is her bookshop, Shakespeare and Company but she wasn't the first woman to publish Ulysses as parts of the book appeared in The Egoist magazine which was ran by two women who gave Joyce a voice.

Harriet Shaw Weaver

The Egoist's editor was a wealth feminist called Harriet Shaw Weaver who I believe also helped to finance Joyce's life.

There is a book about Silvia Beach called The Paris Bookseller, and as brave as she was to start her bookshop in 1919 as The Versailles Treaty was being signed, I am more impressed with her decision to close the store in 1941 when a Nazi officer attempted to buy a copy of one of Joyce's books. She refused him, knowing well that he would return in force, and she was forced to close both her bookshop and an important chapter of her life that had changed the course of modern literature.

Shakespeare and Company was reopened in 1951 by George Whitman.

Silvia Beach in Shakespeare and Company

From the end of The Great War to the occupation of France during World War II, Beach's bookstore published the controversial Ulysses but also Ernest Hemingway's first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems. Both Beach and her bookshop are important parts of modern literature and I was tempted to make my way to Shakespeare and Company in Paris for the centenary celebrations on Groundhog Day.

On International Women's Day, it is worth mentioning the women who literally made Joyce. His mother, his wife, his editors, supporters and publishers.

When Joyce wrote Molly's soliloquy, he must have done so after asking his wife Nora, a million questions, as Molly Bloom in the final chapter Penelope really goes to town, on what a woman wants and thinks, which I really wasn't expecting from a hundred year old book.

It is sometimes surprising how poorly represented female characters have been in film, television and literature and in 1985, the Bechdel Test was created by Alison Bechdel that judges women's roles and interactions in film.

In order to pass the Bechdel Test, a film has to have at least two women in it. These characters must speak to each other, and finally the women must speak about something other than a man. It's amazingly simple but surprising how many films still fail this simple test.

This cartoon clearly passes the test.

While Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea might obviously fail this test, it is surprising how little interaction exists between female characters on screen.

With Joyce's Ulysses, I think it is important to stress that the book would never have been published without people like Harriet Shaw Weaver and while the last word goes to Molly Bloom, Ulysses would literally not exist without James Joyce's Women.

International Women's Day 2022

A hundred years after Molly´s controversial soliloquy, we still see Hollywood slow to give women proper recognition, Sarah Conner and Sigourney Weaver might still be saving us from Terminators and Aliens but it took a long time to get Wonder Woman on the big screen and even longer for Marvel to give us Black Widow, after three Ironmen films, three Thor-de-force films, four Avengers, three Spidermen, and three Captain America films.

It is amazing how little is expected of writers, directors and producers and I loved when writer Martin McDonagh gave a little nod to the poor representations in films over the years.

Colin Farrell plays the part of an Irish screenwriter in Hollywood who is writing a story called Seven Pyschopaths and while the cast was fantastic, The five female roles never have any interaction and to be honest, I thought two of the stories revolve around the same woman.

No stranger to James Joyce, Colin Farrell has narrated an audio version of A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man in the past but in this role, he plays an alcoholic screenwriter trying to create something more meaningful about psychopaths than what Hollywood has typically portrayed and it is a fantastic funny take on traditional television and writing.

When Colin Farrell's character finally finishes writing his story, (shortly before the explosive climax and shoot-out) his friend played by Christopher Walken reviews the script and says:

Marty, I've been reading your movie. Your women characters are awful. None of them have anything to say for themselves. And most of them get either shot or stabbed to death within five minutes. And the ones that don't probably will later on.

Colin Farrel responds simplistically:

Well, it's a hard world for women. I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

Christopher Walken finishes with:

Yeah, it's a hard world for women, but most of the ones I know can string a sentence together.

It is a hard world but thanks to James Joyce and the many women who supported him, inspired him and published him we got much more than just a simple sentence or two, way back in 1922.

If you want to read more about James Joyce's Women, you could read James Joyce's Women by Fionnula Flanagan or check out the recent publications of The Paris Bookseller by Kerri Maher or Nora, A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce written by Nuala O'Connor

NOTE: The Bechdel Test is a fun test applied to films but its creator doesn't rely on it in her daily life and her favourite film is actually Groundhog Day.

Supported by

UNESCO City of Literature

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