James Joyce, who was born 135 years ago today (February 2nd) ,was, like most great artists, unusually observant. The mosaic of Dublin life, revealed throughout his work, is based on the behavioural minutiae of the city’s population, behaviour which he registered aurally and visually like no one before or since. And despite the vast expanse which is Joycean Studies, one suspects that not all from the great scope of his eye and ear has yet been fully noted or considered against the historical record of life in Edwardian Dublin.
The term sexual harassment, though unknown to Joyce, refers to something which is probably ancient but in any event certainly existed in early twentieth century Dublin. The phrase would have been immediately comprehensible to Joyce and, as with so many behaviours, reference to the phenomenon is found in his work.
Above any other category of women, those in service, that is to say household servants, women who would encounter tradesmen, delivery boys, male employers and their sons and who would be out and about on messages, were the ones most likely to encounter the problem. Women in service – and there were vast numbers in this category ‑ were away from their own families, isolated, and often lonely, which compounded their vulnerability and susceptibility. Their situation facilitated a pattern of eroticisation in male consideration.
When Leopold Bloom goes shopping in search of a prized offal delicacy to consume for his breakfast he encounters the servant girl of his neighbour Woods and quickly finds himself engaged in an erotic fantasy. As he contemplates the servant’s hips he imagines her swaying as she beats a carpet. (Poldy Bloom had for sure certain masochistic tendencies!) The reverie continues to address the girl’s ideal terms of engagement: “no followers allowed”. Better opportunities for engagement if the girl is isolated seems to be the underlying logic. Bloom, of course, is a decent cove and his erotic misdeeds are conducted in the privacy of his own imagination.
The main protagonist in Joyce’s story “Two Gallants” is less gentlemanly, engaging as he does in the calculated exploitation of a servant girl’s loneliness. The reader learns that the girl, who is a “slavey” in a Baggot Street house, has been sexually and emotionally exploited over a period by her supposed beau. The story focuses on a third and final piece of nastiness as the girl is cajoled into handing over the substantial sum of a half-sovereign, which will be used, one assumes, by the gallants for drink.
But perhaps the most poignant reference occurs in Joyce’s masterpiece novella “The Dead”. It is generally recognised that things did not go well for its main character, Gabriel Conroy, on the night of the misses Morkans’ annual Christmas party, held in their rooms above the cornfactor’s premises on Usher’s Island.
Some readers can’t stand Gabriel but others, like the present writer, are sympathetic. There has been much acknowledgement over the years of Miss Ivors’s cutting attack on him for preferring France to the West of Ireland and learning European languages instead of Irish, which culminated with the whispered insult “West Briton”. (I wonder could Miss Ivors’s attack could be construed as a form of sexual harassment.)
In the course of the evening Gabriel is assailed by self-doubt, apparently sparked by Miss Ivors’s attack. In the end, as snow falls across the country “on all the living and the dead” he realises his wife’s feelings for him will never match those she holds for the dead boy Michael Furey, who stood outside her widow in the cold and the rain wanting to die for love, not something one could easily imagine Gabriel undertaking with or without his galoshes. All in all a pretty devastating evening for the Daily Express’s book reviewer.
It is less frequently observed that Gabriel’s evening took on its bleak character from the moment he stepped into his aunts’ house. As he handed his coat to the young housemaid, Lily, whom he had known over many years, he attempted pleasantries:
‑Tell me Lily, he said in a friendly tone, do you still go to school?
‑Oh no sir, she answered. I’m done schooling this year and more.
‑O, then, said Gabriel gaily, I suppose we’ll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?
The girl glanced back at him over her shoulder and said with great bitterness:
‑The men that is now is only all palaver and what they can get out of you.
Gabriel is quite thrown out of his stride. The author comments that he coloured as if he felt that he had made a mistake. Lilly’s sour note cuts the ground from under him and his forced jollity. It sets the tone for his evening.
Joyce, in touching slightly on this theme was, as in so many aspects of his depiction of life in the dowdy city, reflecting a reality of its life. A letter written by a servant’s employer to a newspaper would seem to confirm this. It was published on October 28th 1915.
Much has been made of the low pay of women employed in factories in Dublin, the bad housing conditions under which the working classes live, and the drink evil … Overlooked [is] the most important point of all, that is the deplorable fact that there are at present in Dublin a large number of men – if I can call them men – who set themselves out to lead unfortunate girls astray. The happy hunting ground of these gentlemen is not confined to the neighbourhood of the North Wall, Amiens Street or Marlborough Street; they also infest the suburbs and molest girls, mostly servant girls, in such quarters as Rathmines, Ranelagh, Ballsbridge and Sandymount. The prowlers … are invariably well dressed and groomed … A specimen of this class molested a most respectable young woman in my employment – the wife of a soldier fighting for his country…Like all of his kind he was well dressed and in this particular instance sported white “spats” … A half starved or silly woman found stealing is promptly sent to jail, but there seems to be no redress or remedy for what I have referred to.