How Kay Boyle Became the Key to James Joyce’s Daughter and a First Novel

I first came across Kay Boyle when I was researching my first novel, The Joyce Girl. I knew very little about Boyle, but she turned out to be a vital source, one of the most trustworthy voices I encountered on my long journey to uncover the hidden story of James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia.

Boyle’s account of 1920s Paris, co-written with Robert McAlmon, is one my favourite memoirs of that period. During my four years of research I read many, many memoirs and accounts of living in Paris during this thrilling and tumultuous decade.  I returned to Boyle’s Being Geniuses Together, over and over.

This was partly because of the many areas of overlap: both Boyle and Lucia Joyce were involved in Raymond Duncan’s Paris colony.  Boyle wrote about her time there in her 1934 book, My Next Bride. Raymond, the brother of Isadora and Elisabeth Duncan, was one of Lucia Joyce’s earliest and most important dance teachers.  But Lucia also learned dance from his sister, Elisabeth who ran a dancing school in Germany.

Meanwhile, Boyle’s co-author, Robert McAlmon, once proposed to Lucia (or at least he suggested marriage, although perhaps in jest) and was an important patron of James Joyce when Joyce first arrived, penniless, in Paris with his wife, Nora, son, Giorgio and Lucia. McAlmon became very close to the Joyce family, and Being Geniuses Together recounts several suppers at the Joyce family home which ring with authenticity and vital period detail (for an author like me!).

Boyle also became involved with Laurence Vail who had previously been involved with Peggy Guggenheim … who later became involved with Samuel Beckett, who is a major character in my novel because he allegedly had an affair with Lucia Joyce.  I know… what a long-winded sentence! But 1920s Paris was a little like that: everyone knew everyone and lives overlapped in messy and mesmerising ways.

Lucia Joyce’s story is a sad one. Despite being surrounded by illustrious men who went on to become iconic figures like Hemingway, famous artists like Alexander Calder, pioneering psychoanalysts like Carl Jung and Nobel prize-winning writers like Samuel Beckett, she spent her last fifty years incarcerated in a series of asylums. Her final thirty years were spent confined in an English mental hospital where she had no friends or family, and was largely forgotten.  It was this juxtaposition that first grabbed me.  How had a talented dancer befriended so many extraordinary men and yet ended her life forgotten in a mental asylum? Why did no one know about her?  I was deeply moved and profoundly shocked by her plight, the more so when I discovered that all her letters, diaries, a draft novel she’d written as well as all her medical notes had been destroyed, along with numerous letters about her. It was as if she had been erased from history.  Which, of course, was the intention.

Although I hadn’t intended to write a book (and I wasn’t a writer at the time), I began investigating her life and story.  I visited the 120 homes she had inhabited with her family – from Trieste in Italy, through to Zurich and London and, of course, Paris.  I read everything I could find and I learned to dance in the freeform manner she had danced. I re-read all of Joyce’s works (which I’d studied at University where I’d known nothing of his daughter), familiarised myself with the sculptures of Alexander Calder, watched every Beckett play and read hundreds of biographies of all the people she had mixed with in Paris. I pored over the only remaining document in her own hand – a short autobiography she wrote (from the mental asylum) for Joyce’s first biographer, Richard Ellman, which was stored in the British archives in London.

Slowly, I started to build a picture of her: a talented and brave dancer who had toured Italy and Belgium with her dance troupe and who had danced on several Paris stages. A young woman who had fallen in love with Samuel Beckett while he worked for James Joyce.  A bold dancer who had then fallen for her drawing teacher, Alexander Calder. Neither Calder nor Beckett would ever speak of her. And yet Lucia maintained that both had been her lovers.  She spoke of them until she died, always repeating their names to her nurses and carers. I believed her. But in those days understanding of mental health was limited. Lucia was considered mad, insane. No one wanted to be associated with her.

How do you re-create a voice when that voice has been beaten into silence? How do you establish the truth of someone when no one will speak of them? When a voice has been silenced? When those around are ashamed and frightened of being associated with that person?

Kay Boyle helped me find answers.  Although 1920s Paris was radical and forward-thinking for its time, it was still riven with misogyny and prejudice. Many of those writing about their experiences at this time were men (like Hemingway whose account, A Moveable Feast, is well-known), but Boyle offered a different point of view, one rich with insight into what it was like to be female at this extraordinary time of change and artistic upheaval.  She also helped me understand Lucia’s state of mind.  In Being Geniuses Together she shares a memory of being at a party with Samuel Beckett where they spent a long time discussing Lucia. This was a crucial piece of evidence for me. Part of my urge to write about Lucia was a desire to understand what had happened to her. I wanted to know why she had been locked up for fifty years.  I wanted to understand why she had stopped dancing.  Boyle’s account suggested to me that Lucia was frail and confused, that she needed help rather than restraining and confining.

In Being Geniuses Together, Boyle recalled a time when Lucia had visited her at Raymond Duncan’s shop where Boyle was working on the Rue du Faubourg St. Honore. It was a striking paragraph, suggestive of Boyle’s empathy and compassion. It also helped me enormously because no one else had written about Lucia like this. It did not suggest someone who was insane, but rather someone who was troubled and needed guidance. It suggested someone exactly as I had been at the same age (22), a little confused, unsure how to escape the shadows of one’s better-known parents, unsure who and how to become. Boyle understood this. No one else had. I’ll quote… As she (Lucia) sat in the sunlight that came hot through the plate glass window, I felt her tragically reaching, seeking for what could probably never be found, and for a fearful moment I believed I was looking at my own reflection in a glass. She was like the high, perishable, wishful tendril of a vine moving blindly up a wall, and the vine from which she sought escape was rooted in a territory that had for her no recognizable name… She was (as perhaps I too was then, and as perhaps all daughter are until they cease being merely daughters) precariously only half a person, and the other half she sought for in panic first in one direction and then in another, not knowing in whose mind or flesh or in what alien country it might lie.

What a perceptive paragraph this was! For me, the writings of Kay Boyle illuminated Lucia Joyce as no one else had done. Suddenly, Lucia sprang to life in my imagination. I was able to find a voice that might just be authentic, that might contain the emotional truth I was searching for. I started to understand what might have happened to Lucia.

Boyle’s account also included numerous anecdotes that helped me bring the Joyce family to fictional life. Her eye for detail was superb. She reminisces about a lunch with James and Nora Joyce in Zurich in 1938 (Lucia was already locked up at this stage), where they ate at a health food restaurant (who knew such things existed in 1938?) … a depressing place: cold oatmeal was molded into the shape of pork chops, and then sprinkled with breadcrumbs and fried; and beef-steaks were fashioned out of some other substance, and tinted red. Cranberry juice was served in wineglasses, but no alcohol could be purchased.

Eventually my novel was finished. I had beginner’s luck – it won various awards and has now been translated into ten languages and published in 15 countries. Last week it was published in the USA. Next year it will be translated into French. I owe some of that success to Kay Boyle.

Contributor’s Note:

Annabel Abbs has a degree in English literature and is a writer based in London. Her first novel, The Joyce Girl (Harper Collins, 2016), has been translated into ten languages, won the Impress Prize for New Writers and was published by Harper Collins in the UNited States in June 2020. Her second novel, Frieda: The Original Lady Chatterley (Two Books, 2018) was a Times Book of the Year, and has been translated into five languages, most recently French (Frieda, Editions Hervé Chopin, 2020).

Cite this blog post
annabbs (2020, June 10). How Kay Boyle Became the Key to James Joyce’s Daughter and a First Novel. The Kay Boyle Society. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from

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