Maurice Earls writes: Everyone agrees that James Joyce, who was born 140 years ago today (February 2nd), was unusually observant. Somehow he captured what he observed, the people, the places, the moods, the furniture, the pain, the tone, the feelings, everything, in words. The detailed mosaic, particularly of lower middle-class life in Edwardian Dublin, preserved in his work continues to amaze.
It could be said that Ulysses, first published one hundred years ago today on Joyce’s fortieth birthday, is contemporary Ireland’s foundational text. Certainly, it has been pored over in Ireland and internationally like no other work, except for that other foundational text, the Bible. Whether there is much overlap among the devotees of both works, I cannot say, but certain subjects feature in both works. One which could be mentioned is the harassment and assault of women. In Edwardian Dublin, as evidenced from Joyce’s work and other sources, sexual harassment was a social phenomenon.
Above any other category of women, those in service, that is to say household servants, the young women who would meet 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 male eroticisation and targeting.
When Leopold Bloom goes to the local butcher in search of a prized delicacy 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. The reverie continues to consider the girl’s ideal terms of engagement: “no followers allowed”. Better opportunities for sexual exploitation if the girl is isolated and doesn’t have her own fellah 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. Or are they? It seems Molly arranged for their servant Mary Driscoll ‑ described by her mistress as a slut ‑ to be dismissed on a trumped-up charge of theft following an apparently well-grounded suspicion that Bloom was interfering with the girl under Molly’s own roof, no less.
He surprised me in the rere of the premises, your honour, when the missus was out shopping one morning with a request for a safety pin. He held me and I was discoloured in four places as a result.
The words, which are Bloom’s own from the Circe fantasy episode, are apparently confirmed by Molly in her soliloquy. Interestingly, Molly is not especially critical of Bloom and allocates most blame to Mary, whom she accuses of “padding out her false bottom” for enticement purposes.
Bloom’s sexual fantasies were predominantly masochistic and, it is telling, that where he features, whether in reality or in fantasy, as primary agent, it is with relatively powerless housemaids.
The main protagonist in Joyce’s story “Two Gallants” is decidedly unpleasant, perhaps even sadistic, 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.
For this reader the most poignant reference to the experience of male sexual unpleasantness, and it is one which involves little or no detail, occurs in Joyce’s masterpiece novella “The Dead”.
It is generally recognised that things did not go well for the story’s main character, Gabriel Conroy, on the night of the misses Morkans’ annual Christmas party, held in their rooms above the corn factor’s premises on Usher’s Island. Some readers can’t stand Gabriel but others, like the present writer, are sympathetic. There has been much discussion 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 be construed as a form of sexual harassment ‑ or maybe it was just plain 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 that 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 goloshes. 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 some 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 off his stride. The author comments that he coloured as if he felt that he had made a mistake. Lily’s sour note cuts the ground from under him and his jaunty pleasantries. It sets the tone for his evening.
Joyce, in touching on the sexual vulnerability of young women in service was, as in so many aspects of his depiction of life in the dowdy and somewhat purposeless city of Dublin, 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 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.
An earlier version of this blog was published in February 2016.