The influence of Gabrielle D’Annunzio and Eleonara Duse on James Joyce and his creation of Molly Bloom

Eleonara and Gabrielle
James Joyce began to study the Italian language when he was 12 years old in 1894 at Belvedere College in Dublin. In providing a threshold to the world of Dante, Bruno, Vico and within his own time frame Gabrielle D'Annunzio (1863-1938) it opened up a world beyond the moral strait jacket of Catholic Ireland.

D'Annunzio embodied in his poetic writing a very liberated, extreme and passionate life, a man with insatiable appetites and a poetic truth that subverted concepts of morality. Decadence was a movement that accessed a heightened state of being by engaging with the beauty and pleasure of life. This Nietzchien shift was embraced by Gabrielle D’Annunzio who wrote “I am beyond right and left, as I am beyond good and evil”.

All this held a great fascination for James Joyce who immersed himself in the writing of D’Annunzio while studying Italian at University College Dublin under the Jesuit Italian lecturer Fr Charles Ghezzi.

Henry James, George Moore, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway were also admirers of D'Annunzio’s writing.

Joyce found in D’Annunzio a writer who sanitized nothing: in his novel The Triumph of Death, he paints an accurate and uncensored portrait of his father’s bodily functions.

“Flesh, flesh, this brutish thing, full of veins, tendons, ligaments, glands, bones, full of instincts and needs; flesh, sweating and stinking; flesh becoming deformed, sick, covered in sores, callouses, wrinkles, pimples, warts, hairs. This brute thing, flesh thrived in him with a sort of impudence, producing in his delicate neighbor at table an impression almost of revulsion … I, I am the son of this man!”

In 1886-87, D’Annuncio had an affair with a woman separated from her husband, Barbara Elvira Leoni, an affair that, lasted six years (1886-1892).

In Rome they saw each other virtually daily and during the next few years he wrote her more than one thousand letters in which he strived to capture the erotic intensity of the relationship.

“You came into my blood as a sweet and frightening destiny. A caress from you is not worth anything; a kiss from you not worth anything. Every day I am more and more convinced of this. Adored one. Adored one, very much adored and desired…” In another letter, he fuses romance and sensuality and wrote “that bloody (menstrual) handkerchief wrapped in newspaper pages… a very intimate thing… I cannot describe to you the strange life elixir that comes out of these dead objects…”

Joyce measured this unfiltered absorption of all that is human against the restrictions of morality at the core of Catholic teaching and he wrote in a letter to Lady Gregory ‘There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being.’

The most significant relationship for D’Annuncio was with Eleanora Duse. Born into a theatrical family in 1868 she played Juliette in Verona at 14 and became a great actress. Duse read D’Annunzio’s novel L’Innocente and worked to convince him to write a play for her. After reading his next novel, Il Trionfo della Morte, Eleonora realized that to engage with his brilliance required a total suspension of any kind of judgement. She wrote “I would prefer to die in a corner rather than love a soul such as his. I detest D’Annunzio, but adore him.”

She began a ten year relationship with D’Annunzio in 1894 and commissioned him to write plays for her which along with Ibsen’s dramas she performed all over the world.

She scored some of her greatest successes with Ibsen, in ''A Doll's House,'' ''Hedda Gabler,'' ''Ghosts'' and ''Lady from the Sea’ and her immersion in Ibsen provided another profound link for Joyce.

Joyce’s copy of D’Annunzio’s La Gioconda is dated May 1900, around the time that he went to London and saw Eleanora Duse performing in La Gioconda. Afterwards Joyce wrote a poem of adulation and kept her photo on his desk.

It would be four years later before Joyce would find his own ‘Nora’ and in an extraordinary fusion begin to create in literature the irrepressible and totally liberated Molly Bloom. In later life Joyce would tell Herbert Gorman of a dream he had in which he saw Molly Bloom wearing an opera cloak, her hair slightly grey and looking like la Duse.*

When not touring, Eleanora Duse lived in a modest villa, La Porziuncola, Via della Capponcina 75, in Settignano, in the hills above Florence. D’Annunzio rented the beautifull villa La Capponcina, living there with his 38 borzoi dogs, 10 horses, 15 servants, and 200 doves.

The intensity of her relationship with D’Annunzio is reflected in the fact that during one three-month period when they were apart she sent him 162 telegrams and dozens of letters.

In a moment of self-analysis Duse wrote, ''I use everything that I pick up in my memory and everything that vibrates in my soul.'' And about her characters: ''I don't care if they've lied, betrayed, sinned or if they were born perverse -- provided I feel that they have wept . . . because feminine compassion is greater, more concrete, sweeter and more complete than the grief that men are used to allowing us.''

D’Annuncio immersed and absorbed every dimension of his intimate and erotic relationship with Eleanora Duse. In “ Il Fuoco” published in 1900 D’Annunzio with his literary eloquence evoked Venice in detail and made its light and water the setting for a passionate engagement between a man and a woman.

“They rested on a low wall, overlooking the water. the lagoon was so calm and still in the solstice that the shape of clouds and shores reflected in it seemed to take on an ideal quality, as though imitated by art.”

James Joyce would bring his own city Dublin to life in “Ulysses” and described D’Annuncio as "the only European writer after Flaubert to carry the novel into new territory”

In 1900 D’Annunzio in his novel Il Fuoco based the relationship on his life with Eleanora Duse. He exposed all of their intimate life together but the sense of a larger artistic purpose guided Eleanora’s response: “My pain, whatever it is, does not count when we are talking about another masterpiece of Italian literature. Further, I am forty-one years old …and I love (him).”

Joyce considered D’Annunzio’s novel Il Fuoco (1900) to be the greatest achievement in novel-writing to date and regarded the three greatest writers of the 19th century to be Tolstoy, Kipling, and D’Annunzio.

Eleanora Duse was the first woman and first Italian to be on the cover of Time Magazine in 1923. She enjoyed the respect and admiration of many including Charlie Chaplin, who described her as “the finest thing I have ever seen on stage”. Anton Chekhov noted “I’ve never seen anything like it. Looking at Duse, I realized why Russian theatre was such a bore.”

Two streets in Florence that intersect celebrate this vital relationship. Viale Eleonora Duse, crosses Viale Gabriele D’Annunzio near the foot of the Settignano hill.

Joyce did not follow D’Annuncio into the political world even though this also held an integrity in spite of the absolute and extreme nature of events. D’Annunzio was a supporter of Mussolini and warned Mussolini against an alliance with Hitler In 1934 he wrote in pencil on the inside cover of his copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy: “The converted Jew Adolph Hitler with the ignoble face darkened by indelible splashes of the paint or glue that he held in his brush… which has became the scepter of a ferocious clown…”

Eleanora Duse described her engagement with nature "If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the .simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive..." and Joyce gives Molly these wonderful words it “would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is”

Eleanora Duse died in Pittsburgh in 1924 and her body lay in state in New York for 4 days. D’Annunzio telegraphed Benito Mussolini, the prime minister, urging that the remains of the “most Italian of hearts” be brought back to Italy by the government. Now that she was gone he was devastated and full of remorse reflected deeply on their relationship: “The one whom I did not deserve has died.” D’Annunzio kept a veil over the face of a Duse bust sculpted when they lived together and claimed that he could communicate with her spirit while biting into a pomegranate standing in front of a statue of the Buddha.

Joyce subsumed much of D’Annunzio’ intense, sensual and poetic relationship with women and was inspired by Eleanora Duse but ultimately he forged his own journey to an absolute level that opened new frontiers in how the human condition “lives” in literature.

Clara Mason June 2014
Venice and Bologna

*Letter to Augusta Gregory (22 November 1902), from James Joyce by Richard Ellmann (1959) [Oxford University Press, 1983 edition, ISBN 0-195-03381-7] (p. 107)

About Clara Mason