Mad Women as Muse

As I’ve been reading about Finnegans Wake, I’ve come across a topic that I’ve never heard of before, one that has been closely guarded by the estate of James Joyce. It’s not unknown that Joyce had daughter, Lucia, who suffered from mental illness. But a book that came out a few years back (resulting in the Joyce estate suing the author) suggests that Finnegans Wake was inspired by a secret language that Joyce shared with Lucia.

Lucia Joyce, who spent 30 years locked away in a mental hospital while her father completed Finnegans Wake, was apparently the light of her father’s life, and a huge inspiration to him. He called her “wonder wild,” and, according to her, she never spent time with her father without him taking notes on her language and behavior.

This got me thinking about women deemed “crazy,” and how they have acted as muses to famous writers. Because of the way society has treated women and the mentally ill, many of these women were locked up (like Lucia) or died tragically. But the works they inspired remain as testaments to their beauty and spirit.

Here’s a short list of them:



Many people see Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife, the love of his life, and the recipient of many dirty letters, as the main inspiration in his novels Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. But biographer Carol Shloss claims that Joyce’s masterwork is inspired largely by Lucia’s nascent dance career that ended with her descent into mental illness. She claims that the final, famous words ”My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. To remind me of. Lff! So soft this morning, ours. Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair!” Allegedly, part of the reason that Lucia was locked away was that the people in Joyce’s life feared that she was disrupting the work of a genius, and that he would never finish Finnegans Wake because of her. But, for Joyce’s part, he loved and believed in his daughter’s genius, not madness, until his dying day.



Though works of Zelda Fitzgerald have emerged in the time since her death, her talent was overshadowed by her husband’s in her lifetime. But F. Scott Fitzgerald considered himself a wasted talent, and blamed that partly on his wife’s mental illness (called schizophrenia at the time). Tender is the Night, his fourth and final book, follows a couple’s struggled with a wife’s mental illness, which ruins her husband. 



This entry is almost a footnote, since Plath’s own inspired work The Bell Jar stands as the best testament to her mental illness. But it shouldn’t go without saying that the husband she left behind, Ted Hughes, wrote many poems about her life and death, some of which were only unearthed a few years ago. One of these, “Last Letter” begins with the haunting line “What happened that night, your final night?/ Double, treble exposure over everything.”

That’s just a short list, and certainly not a complete one. There are so many more women considered “mad” who either wrote or inspired great works. You have to wonder what would have happened to these inspiring, inspired women if they were alive today, and if they would have suffered the same sad fates. Would they have been just relegated to the role of muse, or created (like Plath did) their own beauty from their madness?

A critic once famously noted that Lucia’s talent might make James Joyce known as her father, rather than her as his daughter. The lack of historical understanding of mental illness, and perhaps her role as a woman made it so that this never happened. Even Sylvia Plath, who lived later and was certainly a force, in the end became outlived by her famous husband–a tragic story often used to caution creative women rather than the poet laureate Hughes became.

These women were victims to mental illness, yes, but were they also, in a way, victims of the people who immortalized them? Did the act of being inspired by these women help relegate them to hospital and suicide rather than lead role in their own lives?


About thebaffledkingcomposing

Pamela DiFrancesco is a writer with a community college degree in journalism, a fancy art school degree in fiction and a penchant for community organizing. A native of Pennsylvania coal country, Pamela lives in Astoria, Queens, writes, and does whatever else it takes to pay the bills. In the past, Pamela has worked for newspapers and taught children journalism in an after-school program. Pamela's fiction can be found on the web at Cezanne's Carrot and Monkeybicycle, in print in The Carolina Quarterly (who nominated "The Chuck Berry Tape Massacre" for the Best American Mystery Writing anthology) and forthcoming in The New Ohio Review. When not writing, Pamela practices acts of love and kindness in hopes of a radically different world, and is preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse through acts of badassery.
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