…little runs suddenly broken, little timid cries: it is crying for its mamma, the portly hen.
In a scene that may be real or imagined, an agitated Amalia dressed in a robe but in Joyce’s presence seeks her mother’s protection. It amused Joyce to encounter a mother and daughter with a warm and close relationship. May Joyce seems to have been a good and interested mother but overwhelmed by her brood and may have had few tender moments like the bonding of picking head lice from her charges.
The tone was different in the Joyces’ parade of apartments in Trieste and elsewhere. Mother-daughter relations strained the Barnacle-Joyce household from the moment the girls left the maternity hospital together. When infant Lucia came home, Joyce was in bed with rheumatic fever (I find the Spanish Flu’s scarlatina in so much I read these lockdown-days). Giorgio was a scooting three-year-old, and finances and household chaos beat Nora down. Enter Lucia, a difficult infant.
Brenda Maddox tells us that Nora seemed to favor Georgio. In different apartments at the tender ages of twelve and fifteen, Lucia was forced to share bedrooms with her parents while Georgio was allowed his privacy. It may be no coincidence that in Ulysses, Molly thinks to give Milly’s bed to Stephen (Eggers, “Darling Milly Bloom”). Nora was careful about her daughter’s hygiene and grooming, but as the child’s mental health issues betrayed her disturbance, and Lucia ignored these matters. This neglect may have been due to her obsession with dance, or it may have been a way of defying her mother.
Annabel Abbs, the author of The Joyce Girl, took Nora to task for her treatment of Lucia. For twelve years at the end of Nora’s life, she did not visit her institutionalized daughter. The Abbs assessment may be an overly harsh judgment against the mother. Children suffering from mental disorders may experience a symptom referred to as tactile defensiveness. Human contact is unpleasant, perhaps even painful to the child. If touched, the child recoils. The problem impedes, even prevents, mother-child bonding. As recently as the 1990s blame for autism landed on “refrigerator mothers” judged to be unresponsive to their children. However, there was no maternal option but to distance from a child who would wail at a mother’s touch.
A mother’s bond may be an immense comfort to a daughter. That mother would defend her against a predatory teacher. Amalia the chick peeps “Parlero colla mamma (I will speak to my mother)…. Come! chook, chook! come! The black(robed) pullet is frightened.” We expect “mother hen” to be fierce in her defense. This is the scenario introduced in the canto.
You may recall that Joyce adapted the French folktale “The Cat and the Devil” for Grandson Stephen. You probably will recognize the cat in the Bloom household as a knowing but mostly silent observer to the drama. Joyce, who hid the scar of a dog bite on his chin with facial hair, related to the feline. Signora Popper here plays the mother hen, Joyce, the cat. Again what originates in Giacomo Joyce finds a path to 7 Eccles Street where Leopold Bloom gently scolds:
—Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.
don ward September 24, 2020