Tuesday, 24 September 2013

James Joyce in Bognor Regis

Finnegans Wake ends with the postscript 'Paris 1922-39'. It would be more accurate, but less romantic, if it said 'Bognor Regis-Paris'. Joyce wrote some of the first sketches for the book in Bognor Regis, where he was on holiday, from July to August 1923. 

The Joyces stayed in the Alexandra Guest House on Clarence Road, which I photographed in 2002. Three cheers for Arun District Council for putting up the plaque!

On 5 July, Joyce wrote a letter from Alexandra House to his patroness, Harriet Shaw Weaver:

'Anyhow, here I am and I like it very much and that is all for the present. The weather is very fine and the country here restful. I shall remain in this place (though it is rather queer the way they serve the meals for when you once let the fork out of your hand you have to wrestle with the girl for your plate and they put out all the electric lights at 11 in the bedrooms)...' Letters Vol I p.203

Richard Ellmann's biography has some lovely details of the Joyces' stay in Bognor, where they were joined by Nora's youngest sister, Kathleen, who'd never left Galway before. When Kathleen bought some shoes, which split the next day, Nora took them back saying, 'My husband is a writer and if you don't change them I'll have it published in the paper.' Ellmann writes that this was 'the only recorded occasion on which Nora spoke of her husband's occupation with any approval.' Joyce also embarrassed Nora by buying a pair of white trousers which proved to be transparent.

Ellmann claims that Joyce was inspired by the squawking of seagulls on Bognor beach to write his famous seagull song, which gave us the word 'quark': 'Three quarks for Muster Mark!'  (According to the James Joyce Archive volume of early drafts, Joyce had already written this, in April). 

Joyce wrote two other sketches in Bognor, St Kevin and St Patrick and the Druid. Like the other early sketches, these are comical treatment of Irish legends. St Patrick represented a new departure, for it was mostly written in pidgin English. Did Joyce find a pidgin dictionary in his Bognor guesthouse?

The holiday also gave Joyce the name of his book's central figure, Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Peter Timmerman (writing in A Wake Newslitter June 1979) tracked this down to the 1923 Bognor Guidebook's description of neighbouring Sidlesham Church: 'An examination of the surrounding tombstones should not be omitted if any interest is felt in deciphering curious names, striking examples being Earwicker, Glue, Gravy, Boniface, Anker, and Northeast.'
The Alexandra is now a private home

Joyce uses these names on page 30 of the Wake, where he looks into the origins of HCE's unusual surname:

'Now...concerning the genesis of Harold or Humphrey Chimpden’s occupational agnomen ... and discarding once for all those theories from older sources which would link him back with such pivotal ancestors as the Glues, the Gravys, the Northeasts, the Ankers and the Earwickers of Sidlesham...'

I visited Sidlesham in 2014, and photographed the Earwicker graves.



  1. I was amazed to see the Earwicker gravestone. A brilliant piece of work all round. Many congratulations.