16 June 2022

Bloomsday and recalling
James Joyce’s forgotten
months in a flat in London

Ulysses, a wine label in Malta seen in a restaurant in Valletta … today is Bloomsday and this year marks the centenary of ‘Ulysses’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.’

The opening line of Ulysses is known to many people, even if they have never read Ulysses. But of course, Buck Mulligan has no link at all with the Bucks of Buckinghamshire; nor could James Joyce have ever known about the plans for Milton Keynes.

Nor, for that matter, did Buck Mulligan, Leopold Bloom or James Joyce have any associations with Ulysses, a wine label I came across in Malta earlier this year.

Today is Bloomsday, and this year marks the centenary of the publication of Ulysses. I normally associate James Joyce with Dublin, whose streets he celebrates in Ulysses, Trieste and Zurich, where he lived in exile, and Paris, where Ulysses was first published 100 years ago in 1922.

But until two of us visited London last week, I had forgotten that Joyce also lived in London in 1931. Ulysses celebrated the day James Joyce and Nora Barnacle first met in 1904, but the couple did not marry until they were living in London almost three decades later.

No 28B Campden Grove, near Holland Park, was the home of James Joyce in 1931, and while living in this Kensington flat he married Nora Barnacle, and worked on his manuscript for Finnegans Wake.

Joyce was working on his first draft of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in 1904 when he met Nora Barnacle (1884-1951) from Galway. They eloped and spent much of their lives in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

Many writers, including WB Yeats, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, moved to London to pursue their literary careers. Joyce first visited London in 1900, where he met TP O’Connor (1848-1929), a journalist, Irish Parliamentary Party MP, and later Father of the House in the House of Commons. Joyce hoped O’Connor could help him find employment on Fleet Street.

During later visits to London in 1902 and 1903, WB Yeats introduced Joyce to a number of literary editors and writers.

Although Joyce eloped with Nora Barnacle to Europe in 1904, London was still vital in his career plans. While he was in Trieste, he was constantly approaching London publishers and writers in order to have his work published in London.

Most of Joyce’s work was published in London, including first collection of poetry, Chamber Music (1907), Dubliners (1914), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914), and his play Exiles (1918).

Most orders for A Portrait during the period 1918-1920 came from London, with Hatchards of Piccadilly, London’s oldest bookshop, placing most of those orders, including an order for A Portrait for HMS Monarch. Copies of A Portrait were also ordered by highly successful commercial ventures: the book club run by The Times and Mudie’s circulating library, a private book lending scheme.

However, English printers and publishers were afraid of prosecution for typesetting a book considered by some to be obscene, and Ulysses was first published in Paris in 1922. Yet Ulysses (1922) became one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the 20th century, bringing Joyce both acclaim and infamy: it was banned in the US until 1934 and in Britain until 1936.

His work continued to feature in many edited collections, anthologies, and magazines published in London. Joyce was constantly moving between hotels and flats across Europe throughout his life. His decision to buy a flat in London with a long-term lease in May 1931 shows a shift in his life: he wanted to abandon Paris, where he was living, to pursue publishing success in London.

Joyce lived at the flat at 28B Campden Grove, Kensington from early May until early September 1931. Those five months in London were remarkably settled by Joyce’s own standards, and he intended to make London his permanent home.

He relaunched his career in London, thanks to the support of TS Eliot, who was a director at Faber and Faber. During that time he was occupied with Finnegans Wake (1939), and Nora Barnacle and James Joyce were married at a Kensington registry office on 4 July 1931.

When Joyce was in London, he often enjoyed evenings with Irish people there, including the musician Herbert Hughes, the writers Robert and Sylvia Lynd, and the Irish Free State High Commissioner or ambassador John Dulanty. The restaurants they dined at included the Monico by Piccadilly Circus, a favourite haunt of London’s Fin de siècle writers and Kettner’s in Soho, frequented by Oscar Wilde.

When Joyce was not in the city, he would write to friends about aspects of the city that he missed, from the pantomime theatre at Drury Lane to luxury menswear shops. Bond Street and Savile Row, famous for their men’s tailoring shops, are mentioned in Finnegans Wake, which also includes extensive references to London’s restaurants, shops, streets, squares, parks, the tube, and major tourist attractions, including the British Museum, which Joyce visited in 1927.

Joyce’s experience of London is imaginatively recorded in Finnegans Wake in distinctive wordplay and sentence structures. Barker’s department store, down the road from Joyce’s flat, is also referred to in Finnegans Wake, along with Harrod’s, Schoolbred’s and Whiteley’s: ‘if he outharrods against barkers, to the schoolbred he acts whitely.’

The phrase ‘his sole admirers … with Annie Oakley deadliness’ (p 52 line 01) alludes not only to the location of the editorial offices of the Egoist at Oakley House, but also to the editors’ admiration for Joyce’s work and the deadlines they used to set him.

TS Eliot also worked at the Egoist magazine, which serialised Joyce’s A Portrait and Ulysses, while the Egoist Press published and promoted Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations and Joyce’s A Portrait.

However, Joyce was constantly hounded by the press, and his view of London soured. He started to refer to Campden Grove as ‘Campden Grave’, to be inhabited by mummies. The flat was let, and Joyce never again set foot in England.

Yet, in Finnegans Wake Joyce pays tribute to the city that helped him launch his career and which he so often returned to, both physically and imaginatively. TS Eliot oversaw the arrangements for the contract for Finnegans Wake (1939), and the publication and dissemination of pamphlets and books, as well as a gramophone disc with Joyce reading of the final pages of Anna Livia Plurabelle.

Faber also used a crossword puzzle in The Times to promote Joyce’s work. This attention helped end the ban on Ulysses and its legal publication by John Lane in London in 1936.

Contrary to popular belief, James Joyce's Ulysses was technically never banned in Ireland, but this was because for many years it was never imported and offered for sale, for fear of such a ban and the costs that would ensue.

An English Heritage blue plaque was placed on the wall of 28B Campden Grove in 1994 to commemorate Joyce’s short time there in 1931. It reads: ‘James Joyce 1882-1941 Author lived here in 1931.’

A plaque at the Bailey remembers the first Bloomsday celebrations in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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