Love’s Bitter Mystery: the Year that Made James Joyce

Tobias Miller as the young James Joyce. Photo by Jack Dixon-Gunn.

by playwright, Steve Carey

Bloomsday in Melbourne celebrates Bloomsday 2021 with a new play based on a crucial period of the young James Joyce’s life. Playwright Steve Carey takes us to the biographical facts and speculation behind the scenes.

Because of Melbourne’s latest lockdown and the loss of critical rehearsal time, Bloomsday is regrettably postponed until 15-25 September 2021.

In September 1904, James Joyce has the second of three short stories, Eveline, published in The Irish Homestead – ‘the organ of Irish Agricultural and Industrial Development,’ as it proudly billed itself, or the ‘pigs’ paper’ as Stephen Dedalus thinks of it in Ulysses. (Founded in 1895 by Horace Plunkett as the publication of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, its mission was improvements in farming efficiency, leavened with the occasional comfortable short fiction.) The story ends:

She stood among the swaying crowd in the station at the North Wall. He held her hand and she knew that he was speaking to her, saying something about the passage over and over again. The station was full of soldiers with brown baggages. Through the wide doors of the sheds she caught a glimpse of the black mass of the boat, lying in beside the quay wall, with illumined portholes. She answered nothing. She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist. If she went, tomorrow she would be on the sea with Frank, steaming towards Buenos Ayres. Their passage had been booked. Could she still draw back after all he had done for her? Her distress awoke a nausea in her body and she kept moving her lips in silent fervent prayer.

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:


All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.


No! No! It was impossible. Her hands clutched the iron in frenzy. Amid the seas she sent a cry of anguish!

‘Eveline! Evvy!’

‘Eveline’, Dubliners

Four weeks after this story appears, Joyce and Nora Barnacle leave Ireland, never returning except for short visits. Joyce’s exile is part of his myth, the Irish author who invented himself as a European and reinvented the novel. But what of Nora? As Joyce’s story shows, he understood the implications for a young Irish girl to go abroad, unmarried, with a male companion. So too did she, and yet, unlike Eveline, she took the plunge. They stayed together, the occasional furious stand-off notwithstanding, until Joyce’s death in 1941.

Nora Barnacle was James Joyce’s ‘portable Ireland.’ Joyce demanded disciples, but made an exception in her case, even if he was offended when he presented her with the first copy of Ulysses and she offhandedly offered it to a friend. When Brenda Maddox planned to write Nora’s biography, which appeared in 1988, Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann told her that he did not believe in writing biographies of people ‘clearly not of great importance themselves,’ though later he was encouraging (Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, 2nd ed. 1982, p.631). It is true that we would probably never have heard of her were it not for her role in Joyce’s life. It is also true that her role in his life was critical, and that without her there would probably be no Molly Bloom: her name, after all, is Marion, an anagram of I’m Nora.

Joyce may refer in Finnegans Wake to ‘biografiends,’ guilty of what George ‘A.E.’ Russell in Ulysses dismisses as ‘this prying into the family life of a great man.’ (It was Russell who had commissioned Joyce to write stories for the Irish Homestead, and Russell who very soon had to tell him to stop, because readers were complaining.) But Joyce himself sought out a biographer, Herbert Gorman, and, as Ellmann puts it, ‘made clear that he [Joyce] was to be treated as a saint with an unusually protracted martyrdom.’ He understood, as do we, that you miss a great deal if you read his books without knowing his life – and that of Nora. 

Women were important to Joyce – Ulysses could never have appeared without his publisher Sylvia Beach and his benefactress Harriet Shaw Weaver – and his relationship with his mother was crucial. As Joyce, ‘easily freudened,’ might acknowledge, a Freudian slip is saying one thing and meaning your mother. His summons back to Ireland in 1903 to spend time with her as she lay dying of cancer is often treated by the biographers as a hiatus before exile, but given that he lost a mother and found a lifelong companion, both of whose shadows loom large in his fiction, it can hardly be that.

In Ulysses Stephen is racked with grief over his mother’s death, and compounded by guilt at his treatment of her. At the end of the book he walks into the darkness, with no clear future. Joyce himself, of course, set Ulysses on Thursday 16 June 1904, marking the date on which he had his first date with Nora. 

As the author of Bloomsday in Melbourne’s latest production, Love’s Bitter Mystery: The Year that Made James Joyce, I have taken the biographical facts and the fiction and played with the blurred lines between, as Joyce seems to invite us to. In doing so, we find a multiplication of identities. There is James Joyce, the lionised author; there is young Jim Joyce, full of confidence and with nothing to justify it and no good reason to believe he ever will; and there is Stephen Dedalus, the fictional altar of his ego. His mother embodies those parochial nets – familial, religious, political – that he is desperate to fly by, and it’s this clash between his filial duty and his inability or unwillingness to accept her conditions that is represented by Stephen’s refusal to kneel at his mother’s deathbed. I speculate that it is her very death that frees Joyce, for now he can love unconditionally, and enables him to love when he meets Nora.

For Bloomsday, this has an additional benefit, in giving us two strong female leads in a Joycean world that is all too often a male one.

The raw material is not plentiful, but it is rich with promise. There is, for example, a touching series of letters between Joyce and his mother on his first failed exile in Paris, a mad scheme to train as a medical student in 1902. She writes (I’ve conflated a couple of letters):

My dearest Jim, I enclose money order for nine shillings. I am sorry to hear your funds are so low. I do not like to hear you are not robust, you must be run down a good deal. If you buy a little spirit stove such as I use, you could boil water for different purposes, also a lamp to read by, if lit early would take the chill off the atmosphere of the room. I only wish I was near you to look after and comfort you.

If you are disappointed in my letter, and if as usual I fail to understand what you would wish to explain, believe me it is not from any want of a longing desire to do so and speak the words you want, but as you so often said I am stupid and cannot grasp the great thoughts which are yours much as I desire to do so. Do not wear your soul out with tears but be as usually brave and look hopefully to the future. Let me have a letter by return and for God’s sake take care of your health and if you get the little stove be very careful with it. Your Pappie and I are both upset about you so do not neglect writing and believe me your every loving mother.

Richard Ellmann (ed.), Letters of James Joyce, vol. II (1966), p.36

Isn’t that just like a mother, to suggest a spirit lamp, and then in the next breath to be consumed with worry, probably justified, that he could burn the place down with it? And the pathos in that ‘as you so often said I am stupid…’ (It was of the other parent, but in similar vein, that Mark Twain is crediting with saying: ‘When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.’)

Bloomsday in Melbourne’s production for 2021 is Love’s Bitter Mystery: The Year that Made James Joyce, a biographical piece about this period, the transition from mother to Nora. Joyce is summoned home from starving in a Paris garret by news of his mother’s sickness, and he is there to watch her slowly die of cancer.

Famously, as we learn in Ulysses, the summons home comes in the form of a telegram: ‘Mother dying come home father.’ Except that’s not what it said. What Joyce actually wrote was ‘Nother dying come home father’ – which makes sense of the preceding phrase: ‘Curiosity to show.’ The French typesetter ‘corrected’ the typo, and it was only in 1982 that Hans Walter Gabler’s edition of Ulysses restored it.

Manuscript of Ulysses: ‘Curiosity to show: – Nother dying come home father.’

Except… except there’s no evidence at all that there really was any telegram at all. We infer its existence from its presence in Ulysses, all too easily mistaking Stephen Dedalus for James Joyce. And it’s in this gap, this blurring, that Love’s Bitter Mystery plays. For instance, we know that Joyce’s depiction of a lone son refusing to kneel at his mother’s dying request is fiction, or at least fictional elaboration, not biographical fact. How do we know? And how do you dramatize an author drafting and redrafting a scene? The play’s solution is admittedly not entirely original, owing a good deal to Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, Bloomsday’s stage production in 2019. This and a number of other scenes are also indebted to screenwriter William Goldman’s talent for presenting scenes that turn out not to be what we assume – one way of ensuring that the Joyceans are both flattered and kept off balance!

Bloomsday in Melbourne has discovered over nearly three decades just how well Joyce’s words come to life on a stage, and how much a talented director, cast and crew can bring. As a first-time playwright I was entirely unprepared for the alchemy that happens when words are brought to life in action and movement, particularly so when those words and that action are enhanced with a show now overflowing with music, just as Joyce’s fiction and his own life were. We may need an advisory sticker: ‘Warning: This Show Causes Earworms’!

Just as Shakespeare ‘drew Shylock out of his own long pocket. The son of a maltjobber and moneylender he was himself a cornjobber and moneylender…’ so Joyce draws ‘Eveline’ from the choice Nora must make and his own conflict. He draws Eveline’s paralysis from his own conflict, between the duty that requires him to stay and the knowledge that if he misses the boat he’ll drown; and Nora’s, between the loss of her reputation and the knowledge that if she misses the boat she’ll lose him.

Bloomsday in Melbourne’s Love’s Bitter Mystery: The Year that Made James Joyce is directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean and runs at Villa Alba, Kew, from 16 -26 September 2021.

More information about the play:


Steve is the author of Bloomsday’s original play for 2021, Love’s Bitter Mystery: The Year that Made James Joyce. He completed a D.Phil. at Oxford under Richard Ellmann. He is the Treasurer of Bloomsday in Melbourne, and Producer of the play.

Details of Production:

Bloomsday in Melbourne 2021, POSTPONED until 15-25 September 2021

COVID Update: This production has been postponed. Those with tickets will be contacted about new dates and all bookings will be honoured and refunds available if needed.

Nature of the Event: Bloomsday in Melbourne returns to live theatre with a new immersive play, Love’s Bitter Mystery: The Year that Made James Joyce written by Joyce buff Steve CareySet in the atmospheric post-gold-boom mansion and gardens at Villa Alba in Kew, the production focuses on a critical year in the young author’s life and how he used episodes in his own life in his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Bloomsday has once again secured Jennifer Sarah Dean of the Melbourne Shakespeare Company as Director. ‘I’m so excited by the setting,’ says Dean. ‘You really feel you’re right there in the room with the young Joyce and his fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as he experiences some of the most dramatic, formative, moving and intimate events of his young life. We can’t wait to bring it to you!’

The play centres on a crucial period in the young author’s life, 1902-1904, during which Joyce exiles himself from Ireland, travels to Paris, but is called home to spend time with his sick mother, and eventually, on the streets of Dublin and against the odds, meets Nora, the love of his life.

When: 15-25 September, at various times. Audience sizes are small (18) for Covid safety, so please book early to secure your place. The Seminar (on Joyce and the Women) and Annual Dinner will be held on 11 September.

More Information and Booking Details :