Sins of the father glossed over in a book of nots

John Stanislaus Joyce
March 27, 1998

This, as John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello admit in the foreword, is a book of nots: it is not the biography of a great man; nor is it literary criticism; nor is James Joyce its hidden subject. Though they are clear about what it is not, the authors have some difficulty in stating what it is. This uncertainty pervades the work, particularly in its opening chapters which deal with the deep family background and early years of John Stanislaus Joyce. These early chapters are therefore littered with phrases such as "it is highly possible", "it is not now known", "must be a mystery", "little is certain" as well as the almost ubiquitous "perhaps", and this tone of uncertainty and speculation continues through the biography.

The authors, from the title onwards, are keen to convince us that John Joyce is of interest in his own right, and yet are constantly aware that any interest in him arises from the fact that he is James Joyce's father; their main claim, indeed, is that he is the author of Joyce's works. At one level then, we might see this as the Joycean camp's belated response to the Yeatsians' account of John Butler Yeats in William Murphy's marvellous biography, Prodigal Father, (and how they must regret the pre-empting of that title). It is, however, difficult, on reading the Jackson and Costello biography, to see why anyone other than a Joycean would be interested in this voluminous tale of the worst kind of self-regarding, self-pitying pub bore, whereas Murphy's biography of John Butler Yeats has the advantage of a central figure interesting in his own right.

One of the problems of the Joyce book is that much of it is necessarily speculative; Jackson and Costello cannot with certainty place John Stanislaus at many of the important events of the time, much as they would like to. This is in itself an indication of his marginality to those events, which becomes ever clearer as the biography proceeds and John Stanislaus's story is abandoned for long stretches as the authors fill in historical background that has less and less to do with his life of improvidence and drinking. Given his marginality, they have to extrapolate from the scarce available evidence, and to speculate, often intelligently, about what a man of his class and time would have done. Their evident fondness for their subject also leads them at times to go against the only available evidence when it does not suit their view. An unfavourable account by Joseph Holloway of John's contribution to a St Patrick's Day concert in the Bohemian Club - "a tiresome never-ending topical rigmarole" - is thus flatly contradicted with the words "no doubt the Bohemians enjoyed it I John still could and did transform a social gathering".

This fondness for John accounts for the book's determination, in the face of all the evidence, to suggest that James Joyce's filial piety should determine how we respond to his father. While that filial piety is admirable, it is impossible for us to share it and, even on Joyce's part, it was not uncritical. There is some effort therefore to suggest that John was more skilled and less work-shy than is normally assumed, but this does not succeed. Stanislaus Joyce, who, though not unbiassed, was a first-hand witness, comes in for numerous attacks - the Joyce children as a whole are described as "voluble and frequently hostile" - and yet on the evidence that Jackson and Costello present Stanislaus's judgement of his father seems right. John Stanislaus Joyce was a wit, though that is little qualification to set beside his failings as a father and as a man, particularly as his wit was often little more than malice expressed with some invention and a good deal of profanity. He was also a drunkard, an abusive and neglectful father and husband, self-pityingly convinced that the world owed him a living. The Tuohy portrait of him, of which James was so proud and which provides the cover illustration of this book, is a fine painting because it captures his irascible, self-regarding quality; he seems about to rise from his chair having spotted another likely mark from whom to cadge a drink and who will be repaid with some well-worn story, most likely self-glorifying and expressing affront that the world has not treated him as well as he thinks he deserves.

Given Joyce's concern with genealogy and the fact that his works owe as much to the Ireland of his father as to the Ireland he experienced at first hand a biography of John has some merit, but in the end it has to be said that this biography is too long, too speculative and, unlike Joyce's work, too uncritical of its subject.

Eamonn Hughes is lecturer in English, Queen's University, Belfast.

John Stanislaus Joyce

Author - John Wyse Jackson with Peter Costello
ISBN - 1 85702 417 6
Publisher - Fourth Estate
Price - £20.00
Pages - 494

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