Who Were the Women Behind James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’?

As the novel turns 100, two exhibitions tell the stories of the women who made it possible

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company
James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company circa 1926 Courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York

When James Joyce was working on Ulysses, now regarded as one of the greatest novels ever published, he did not fit the starving artist stereotype. Instead, he lived an irresponsibly extravagant life in Paris: When he wasn’t writing, he was usually drunk. He spent most of the money he earned. He asked for criticism but punished his friends when they doled it out.

When his benefactor, Harriet Shaw Weaver, discovered the state of his affairs, she tried to dissuade him from his drinking, as Anthony Jordan detailed for the Irish Times in 2019. In response, Joyce wrote, “My head is full of pebbles and rubbish … I want to finish the book and try to settle my entangled material affairs. After that I want a good long rest in which to forget Ulysses completely.”

Despite Joyce’s doubts, Weaver stayed by his side, guiding him toward fame. And although we remember Joyce’s name today, the women who helped publish Ulysses, like Weaver, are relegated to the background.

Ulysses Book Cover
Ulysses book cover, featuring the colors of the Greek flag Photo by Janny Chiu

Now, to mark 100 years since the novel’s publication, several exhibitions are spotlighting some of the women who were key to its success: “One Hundred Years of James Joyce’s Ulysses” at the Morgan Library & Museum examines these women amid a broad overview of the novel’s publication journey, while “Women and the Making of Joyce’s Ulysses” at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center offers an in-depth look at the women who worked—and occasionally quarreled—with Joyce.

Joyce’s work may never have reached publication without the women helping out along the way: Sylvia Beach, who first brought him into the public eye through her Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company; the lovers Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, whose serialization of Ulysses in the United States was the basis for a high-profile obscenity trial; and Weaver, who became Joyce’s literary executor after his death.

Weaver met Joyce when serializing his first work, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in her magazine The Egoist, according to the Irish Times. As they grew closer, she decided to anonymously gift him £5,000 to allow him to focus on his art, and she even shifted the focus of the magazine so she could primarily concentrate on Portrait.

Slowly, their business relationship morphed into friendship, and Weaver began gifting Joyce larger and larger sums of money. Overall, he received about $1.7 million in today’s terms, Clare Hutton, the curator of the Harry Ransom Center exhibition, writes for Fine Books & Collections. Weaver was responsible for distributing the first editions of Joyce’s work; after his death in 1941, she was tasked with choosing which libraries would receive that honor. His widow, Nora, also ended up relying on Weaver’s fundraising to maintain a regular income, wrote the Irish Times.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Anderson and Heap were charged with obscenity for attempting to publish “Nausicaa”—Chapter 13 of Ulysses—in their literary journal the Little Review. When Anderson read Chapter 3 of Ulysses, she said, “This is the most beautiful thing we’ll ever have to publish. Let us print it if it’s the last effort of our lives!”

But their lawyer, John Quinn, thought the case was lost before it began. He was also blatantly homophobic, writes Ransom Center magazine. The two editors were fined $50 each and threatened with imprisonment if they published Ulysses again.

Last Page of Ulysses
Manuscript of the last page of Ulysses Courtesy of the Poetry Collection of the University Libraries, University at Buffalo, the State University of New York © The Estate of James Joyce

Beach asked Joyce if she could take on the challenge of printing Ulysses, promising “66 percent of the net profits on the first edition.” By creating “private editions” of the book to solicit subscriptions, she was able to sidestep the legal restrictions in the U.S. and England, according to the Morgan Library. Still, Joyce wanted to publish by his 40th birthday, and Beach struggled to keep up with his constant corrections and additions on each proof.

In her memoir, Beach recalled the momentous day: “Here at last was Ulysses ... Here were the seven hundred and thirty-two pages ‘complete as written,’ and an average of one to half a dozen typographical errors per page.”

For all of these women, their association with Joyce came with obstacles. Anderson, after the court verdict, wrote that she “had a nervous breakdown that lasted several months,” per Ransom Center magazine. Beach and Joyce frequently sparred over royalties, copyrights and even the book’s cover. (Joyce had a superstition that Greece brought him good luck and insisted that the book be bound with the colors of the Greek flag.) 

Whether Joyce was appreciative of these women’s sacrifices is unclear. But without them, he may never have published the final lines of his novel, which can be read as an affirmation of love in the face of crisis: “Yes I said yes I will Yes.”

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