Oct 16, 2023

In Conversation With: Mary Morrissy

"What do we know of Nora Barnacle except what we know through James Joyce?"

Sarah BrowneLiterature Editor

In real life, Nora Barnacle waited for James Joyce on the day he seemingly abandoned her in Trieste, but what if she hadn’t? In her fourth and latest novel, Mary Morrissy masterfully imagines an alternative life for Nora. With affecting skill, she takes us on an odyssey through her speculative world, one in which ‘Ulysses has not been written’. Penelope Unbound unhooks various voices from Joyce creating, what is, a true masterwork.

How did you start writing?

“I started writing by accident really when I was about seventeen. I had left school and I wanted to get into journalism so I did a correspondence course. Every week I would type out an assignment and I would send it off to this rather anonymous tutor who I’m presuming was a man, I don’t actually know, who signed his name with his initials. Then a big brown envelope would come back and he’d have commented on some things but he never raved about anything. The last assignment was to write a short story – what that had to do with freelance journalism I really don’t know. So you know, I was at that age when if someone would say do it, I’d do it – I was very biddable. So I wrote a story and I got this extraordinary response back from what I thought was this very buttoned-up man asking was this the first time I’d written? and had I ever considered a career as a writer? and of course, the answer was no I hadn’t, it hadn’t entered my head. So it triggered that ambition I suppose or I suddenly saw that that was a possibility. We’re talking about the early 70s so there weren’t many female writer role models around so you didn’t have the idea, even the idea, that this was something you could be. That’s really how it started.”


I read that the idea for this story came to you back in 2015 while you were at the James Joyce Summer School in Trieste. You mentioned that you had been struck by the story of Nora on the day Joyce seemingly abandoned her. What about that moment struck you to the point that you wanted to write a novel about it?

“Well, I mean it’s very hard to know why some stories resonate with you. It was something about the trajectory of her life. I suddenly thought this is my story and, you know, the hairs go up on the back of your neck and you think oh! It’s possession. Once I heard that story of her, of Nora Barnacle sitting outside the station, on her own, penniless, no language – her boyfriend, someone whom she’d only known a couple of months gone and she’d taken this big risk to leave with him. There was just something about that image of that young woman stranded, abandoned perhaps. At first, I thought I would write a short story, then I realised there was much more in it and I thought oh, wouldn’t it be interesting if she didn’t wait, wouldn’t that be much more interesting? I was also aware of the weight of Joyce – the influence of Joyce. I mean it’s impossible to get away from him as an Irish writer. You’ll always be asked about Joyce and there he hovers over everything. I felt the same way about Nora. It’s impossible to free her up from him unless you actually split them up and one of the things I was exploring, or maybe fighting against, was that notion of ‘what do we know of Nora Barnacle except what we know through James Joyce?’ But, you know, I’m doing the same thing. I’m saying here’s my version of Nora. I felt it was important to view her on her own – to say here’s perhaps what she might have been like if she hadn’t stayed with him.”

Was it hard to free Nora from the grip of such a presence? 

“I suppose I didn’t actually completely successfully do that because he does appear at the end. Although, it’s left open as to what happens as a result of that but actually once I started writing her on her own, I forgot about him. [Laughs] I mean of course in Nora’s mind she’s thinking what happened, where did he go? Did he intend to do this all along? She has to review the whole relationship. Did all of it mean nothing because he’s done this? I did vaguely consider whether I would turn her into a writer and then I thought no. Nora had no value for Joyce’s work: she didn’t read it, she wasn’t interested. The idea that she would have ambitions to be a writer would be too much of an imposition of our twenty-first-century notions of women’s agency. I thought, here she is in a city she doesn’t know, she has no money, she probably has no identifying papers and there’s a limit to the scope of what she can do to save herself. There’s no going back, she can’t do that, she has to go forward.”

From a stylistic perspective, after reading so much about Joyce, was it hard trying not to fall into the crevices of imitation?

“Well, what I did for Nora’s voice was I went through the Molly Bloom soliloquy and I looked at words – I picked out a whole load of different words and I thought, you know, this is some kind of version of Nora, even though I resist the notion that it is her but it is a version of her. I also used language that my mother used. My mother was from Kerry and she had an interesting turn of phrase, very colourful phrases, and so it was a very nice thing to almost enshrine her language into Nora’s vocabulary. So the voice was a mixture of those two vocabularies and I suppose where Joyce comes in is really the technique, the stream of consciousness. It’s a third-person focalised narrative so it’s very close but I wanted it to be third so that I could have the other voices in it as well. In the speculative universe, if you change one person’s life, all the other people’s lives change too. I suppose that’s where Joyce is in it and the fact is that it is in almost everything that’s been written in the last hundred years. So, you know, there is no escaping him.”

We’ve come to know Nora Barnacle without the ‘h’ at the end of her name. You’ve spoken about the fact that women for centuries have given up their surnames upon marriage but that being asked to alter ‘your first name is something different because it is so tied up with your singular identity’. Why was it important for you to dignify Nora’s name with the ‘h’ once again?

“It was one of those fortuitous things in Brenda Maddox’s biography of Nora – which is the only place I’ve come across it. Maddox produces the birth cert and she’s Norah. I think Nora might have had an aunt who was Hanorah. Sometime during Nora and Joyce’s correspondence of early 1904, and they corresponded daily, at some stage she drops the ‘h’. I have always wondered if it had something to do with Ibsen, you know, Nora and ‘A Doll’s House’, which is interesting in itself if that’s the character he’s thinking of. That’s me speculating but clearly, she dropped the ‘h’ and it’s something to do with him. It seems such a small thing but it is very significant, it’s that idea of him already fictionalising her, turning her into a creation, his creation.”

Penelope Unbound was published by Banshee (€15) on October 5th, 2023. It will be launched on October 17th at Hodges Figgis.

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