Monday, 4 November 2013

An English Murder in Finnegans Wake

Frederick Bywaters (left) with the Thompsons
Here's an extraordinary photograph of a love triangle, taken in July 1921. It shows Edith Thompson sitting between her lover, Frederick Bywaters, and her husband Percy. They seem unaware of the camera. Yet it looks as posed as a painting by Jack Vettriano.

On 3 October 1922, the Thompsons were returning to their Ilford home after a night at London's Criterion theatre, when Bywaters leaped out of the bushes and fatally stabbed Percy. Edith called for help, and identified the attacker.

Bywaters freely admitted his guilt. He told the police, 'The reason I fought with Thompson was because he never acted like a man to his wife. He always seemed several degrees lower than a snake.'  

Edith, who had assumed her role was that of a witness, soon found herself accused alongside her lover. The police found more than sixty love letters she had sent him, in which she fantasised about Percy's death, and talked about giving him ground-up light bulbs to drink. When the couple were tried together, public sympathy was on the side of Bywaters, who was seen as having been manipulated by an older femme fatale.

They were found guilty, and hanged at exactly the same time, on 9 January 1923, in Holloway and Pentonville prisons. Edith fainted, and had to be held upright on the gallows by four warders. Her hangman, John Ellis, was so traumatised by the execution that he later killed himself. Bywaters' last words on the scaffold were, 'They are hanging an innocent woman'. 

James Joyce was fascinated by the case, and discussed it with his young Irish friend, Arthur Power:

'–If all this had happened in France they would not have been executed, and I think that
English justice was at fault in trying them side by side....I think it was gruesome and inhuman for the judge to try them the way he did....There was no real evidence against her,  in spite of all her letters saying she had given her husband this, and there was not a trace of any poison, glass etc., found in his body, and it took Bywaters' six-shilling knife to finish him off. Also at the trial she swore she had given her husband nothing, and it was all fantasy...for her mind was evidently full of the stuff she had been reading, while she wrote those letters to make her seem romantic in his eyes because in turn he used to taunt her with descriptions of his life while on his voyages.  
   As a picture I can see it all clearly, Ilford – the dark streets with dim lights showing behind the yellow window-blinds, and from a distance a soft wind coming up with a raw smell of fish and chips on it, the Thompsons walking arm in arm under the trees when this young man suddenly dashes out and stabs him, her crying and wailing, and her search, or pretended search, for help. I can smell the English effluvia here – and it reminds me...yes...of the Strand, say, on a Saturday night, the huddles of people in the passage outside the pubs; the sudden fights; the traffic-weary streets; the arc-lights shining down on the muddy tramped pavements. I remember how I disliked it all and I decided that I could never have become part of English life...'
                                                Arthur Power, Conversations with James Joyce, 1974 

Joyce uses the case repeatedly in Finnegans Wake. So Bywaters's description of Percy as 'several degrees lower than a snake' can be found on page 36: 'a creature in youman form who was quite beneath parr and several degrees lower than yore triplehydrad snake.'

One of his sources was an article in The Daily Sketch of the 14 December 1922. The newspaper, which had organised a petition for the reprieve of Bywaters, asked members of the public for their opinion about his guilt. Joyce used this as the basis for his 'Plebiscite' section (pages 58 on), where members of the public give their verdict on the guilt of HCE.

Here's a quote from the newspaper, followed by Joyce's comic and surreal transformation of it in the Wake: 

'Three soldiers were walking together in Fleet-street; one gave an opinion in which all concurred. It was the woman who was to blame. Bywaters played a bad part in the crime, but he was coerced. He proved himself a man afterwards.' Daily Sketch
'Tap and pat and tapatagain, (fire firstshot, Missiers the Refusel-eers! Peingpeong! For saxonlootie!) three tommix, soldiers free, cockaleak and cappapee, of the Coldstream. Guards were walking, in (pardonnez-leur, je vous en prie, eh?) Montgomery Street. One voiced an opinion in which on either wide (pardonnez!), nodding, all the Finner Camps concurred (je vous en prie, eh?). It was the first woman, they said, souped him, that fatal wellesday, Lili Coninghams, by suggesting him they go in a field.'  Finnegans Wake 58.23

In the first draft, Joyce's text was much closer to the source: 'Three soldiers of the Coldstream Guards were walking in Montgomery Street. One gave an opinion in which all concurred. It was the woman they said. He proved himself a man afterwards.' A First Draft Version of Finnegans Wake
Here's the Daily Sketch again:

'A dustman named Churches, in the employ of the City Corporation, said:— "We have been discussing the case at our wharf, and most of the fellows will sign the petition; in fact, I believe we shall all sign it. Bywaters is only a young fellow, and ought to be let off the death sentence. The woman dominated him and led him astray.'  Daily Sketch

In the Wake, this became:

'A dustman nocknamed Sevenchurches in the employ of Messrs Achburn, Soulpetre and Ashreborn, prairmakers, Glintalook, was asked by the sisterhood the vexed question during his midday collation of leaver and buckrom alternatively with stenk and kitteney phie in a hash-housh and, thankeaven, responsed impulsively: We have just been propogandering his nullity suit and what they took out of his ear among my own crush. All our fellows at O’Dea’s sages with Aratar Calaman he is a cemented brick, buck it all!' Finnegans Wake 59.16

Joyce also got hold of the book of the Trial, where he found transcripts of Edith's letters, where she often addresses Bywaters as 'darlint':

'I am going with you wherever it is if its to sea I am coming too and if it is to nowhere I'm also coming darlint.’  

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce used this in a description of the heroine, Issy, stuck with Chuff (Shaun) while pining for Glugg (Shem):

'If he's at anywhere she's therfor to join him. If it's to nowhere she's going to too.'  226.08

A few lines later, we have the chilling phrase, 'Glugg's got to swing' (226.20).

I found all this by doing a search on 'Bywaters' in Raphael Slepon's wonderful Finnegans Wake Extensible Elucidation Treasury website, which lists almost fifty uses of the case. Googling, I learned that it was Vincent Deane who originally tracked these down, in an article 'Bywaters and the Original Crime', which is partly available in google books.

Deane was able to identify Joyce's sources thanks to his working notebooks, now in the University of Buffalo. These Buffalo notebooks are full of lists of foreign words, overheard conversations, and phrases lifted from hundreds of books and newspapers, which Joyce used as the basic building blocks of his book. As he told George Antheil, 'I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors and paste man.' (Letters I, 297). 

The names Bywaters and Thompson never appear in Finnegans Wake. Without Joyce's notebooks and Vincent Deane's detective work it's unlikely that anyone would have spotted the book's references to the famous murder case.  

So what was Joyce up to in writing a book in this extraordinary way? I think that J.S.Atherton provides the answer in The Books at the Wake:

'Joyce believed that his words were 'Words of silent power' (345.19)....The book was indeed his life and he believed that he was entrapping some part of the essence of life within its pages....Joyce was not in his own opinion simply writing a book, he was also performing a work of magic.'

In Joyce's mind, phrases taken from other sources carried over the power of those sources, which then charged Finnegans Wake with significance. Joyce told a party of friends, 'Really it is not I who am writing this crazy book. It is you, and you, and you, and that man over there, and that girl at the next table.'  

...and Edith Thompson and Frederick Bywaters.



  1. Excellent post.

    The Bywaters-Thompson story definitely seems to resonate well with the dynamics of, as you pointed out, the Shem/Shaun/Issy triangle, but I also think of the theme in FW of the sons (after they unite in as Tristan or Tree-Stone) knocking off the older father to possess the young woman.

  2. see also