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James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

James Joyce’s ‘Dirty Letters’ to Nora Barnacle


A stroll through some of the erotic, poetic and loving letters Joyce wrote for his wife Nora from Dublin to Trieste.

The famous letters that James Joyce wrote to Nora Barnacle are at times pornographic; but they are also romantic, poetic, fetishist and funny even. They were written exclusively for Nora in November of 1909, while Joyce was in Dublin and she was in Trieste supporting their two children through hard times. Joyce wanted his letters to reflect the first impression he ever had of Nora, that memorable 16th of June in 1904 (the day Ulysses takes place) and which he revisited incessantly. He also wanted to seduce her back (she had threatened to leave him). In turn, Nora wanted to keep Joyce away from prostitutes by feeding his fantasies through her writing. The letters Nora wrote, however, seem to have disappeared. ­­––We only have Joyce’s accounts, but through these everything is sufficiently clear.

Nora, my faithful darling, my sweet-eyed blackguard schoolgirl, be my whore, my mistress, as much as you like (my little frigging mistress! My little [expletive] whore!) You are always my beautiful wild flower of the hedges, my dark-blue rain-drenched flower.

If Ulysses’ censurers had also read these letters they would have been unable to believe their eyes. While this post quotes some extracts, perhaps the most modest ones, you can read the entire correspondence here. The entire text is undoubtedly a poetic and entertaining read.

James Joyce and Nora Barnacle

One must have in mind, of course, that letters are the coded genre par excellence, which remit to oaths that only the participants can fully understand. As readers we are spying, a century later, the correspondence between two people that were only those people in their letters. Joyce as a writer, as a person, is someone else; Nora (the “dark-blue rain-drenched flower”) also is another. Nevertheless, since this correspondence became literature the instant it was so published, it allows us to read and appreciate them as such.

My sweet naughty little [expletive],

[…] My love for you allows me to pray to the spirit of eternal beauty and tenderness mirrored in your eyes or to fling you down…

[…] When men tell in my presence here filthy or lecherous stories I hardly smile. Yet you seem to turn me into a beast. It was you yourself, you naughty shameless girl who first led the way.

[…] I know I am risking a good deal in writing this way, but if she loves me really she will feel that I am mad with lust and that I must be told all.

The correspondence ceased in in 1920. Ulysses was published the following year, which is a type of explosion of the letters, written by the alchemist of common language that Joyce was.


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