Unveiling the Dark Lady of Trieste by Adam Douglas

Adam Douglas

Unveiling the Dark Lady of Trieste


Three presentation copies given by James Joyce surfaced last year. They were copies of his first three books, each inscribed to the same woman, though at different times. I snapped up two of them, while the third went to auction, where it sold well below the price that the vendor had hoped to achieve. Of the three, my favourite is a copy of Dubliners inscribed, ‘To Beatrice Randegger James Joyce Trieste 19 June 1914’.

‘Presentation copy’ is the term rare-book sellers use for a volume inscribed by the author and given away out of his or her own personal stock. I’m sometimes surprised literary critics don’t keep closer tabs on them, as they can yield
biographical gold.

How much information can we glean from a presentation copy? It can’t tell us what the weather was like in Trieste on the Friday when Joyce inscribed the book, though it was unlikely to have been as sweltering as in the summer of 1905, when he was reduced to draping handkerchiefs around his neck to save his collar from the sweat trickling down as he wrote. But perhaps, having spent so long there, Joyce had acclimatised to the conditions in Trieste by the summer of 1914.

The inscription does tell us something about the speed of the European post. In a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes described 1914 as a year when an inhabitant of London, sipping his morning tea in bed, could order by telephone the ‘various products of the whole earth’ and reasonably expect their swift delivery on his doorstep. Dubliners was published by Grant Richards in London on 15 June. This copy suggests that an inhabitant of Trieste, mopping his perspiring neck, could have his book published in London on Monday and reasonably expect the first batch of copies on his doorstep by Friday.

Other copies inscribed by Joyce that long-awaited day went to Roberto Prezioso, the Triestine journalist who had paid excessive attention to Joyce’s muse and later wife Nora, and to Moses Dlugacz, Joyce’s student and an ardent Zionist, who would get a name-check in Ulysses. His chain-smoking friend Ettore Schmitz, aka Italo Svevo, wrote a thank-you letter for his copy the following week, so he was likely to have been another of the early recipients.

It is possible to overlook the significance of Joyce’s sojourn in Trieste and just how much writing he got done there. Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Exiles – a spectacular haul by any standards – were written there. As for Ulysses, for all its storied publication in Paris and its tricolour sign off, ‘Trieste– Zurich–Paris’, the great bulk of that novel too was written in the polyglot Adriatic entrepôt.

Another work that Joyce composed in Trieste was an enigmatic piece found among his papers and published after his death titled Giacomo Joyce. This episodic prose poem describes an unrequited infatuation with one of the many female students Joyce taught there. Joyce joked that his writings would keep the professors busy for centuries, but Richard Ellmann apparently made brisk work of the puzzle of the student’s identity. In his 1959 biography of Joyce, he identified the object of Giacomo’s desire as Amalia Popper. He also dated the work’s composition to July or August 1914, one or two months after the publication of Dubliners.

Amalia’s husband, who married her in 1914, indignantly denied Ellmann’s claim. The identification of the poem’s subject with Amalia has long been doubted by anyone who has given it serious thought. Joyceans have suggested other candidates or that the woman was a composite. The presentation copy of Dubliners leads us to a new conclusion.

My description of it in the Peter Harrington catalogue caught the eye of the Joyce scholar Erik Holmes Schneider. He sent me a video of a lecture he had given at the International James Joyce Symposium in Trieste in June 2021. There, he identified the mystery lady of Giacomo Joyce as the recipient of our presentation copy of Dubliners. The lady in question was Bice (pronounced ‘Beachy’) Ricchetti, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish Triestine merchant. Using family photographs, Schneider startlingly matched the physical characteristics of Bice and both her parents to Giacomo’s descriptions of them, situated them within the physical environment of both city and text, and, crucially, presented documentary proof of Bice’s appendicectomy, the dangerous medical procedure described in Giacomo Joyce, which was carried out on 28 December 1912. Bice is the only candidate among Joyce’s Triestine students for whom evidence of such an operation exists. Joyce gave his lectures on Hamlet, also mentioned in Giacomo Joyce, between 11 November 1912 and 10 February 1913, which places the poem’s composition after both the operation and the lectures.

Although ‘Bice’ is a diminutive of Beatrice, it was actually Ricchetti’s given name, used in all her official documents. Yet in the three presentation copies Joyce offered Ricchetti (the first being the volume of Chamber Music he gave her on 25 October 1911, her twenty-fourth birthday), he calls her Beatrice, the name used in Giacomo Joyce, evoking Dante’s muse and conceivably Shelley’s Beatrice Cenci.

Joyce used the name Beatrice for one of the four principal characters in his Ibsen-esque drama Exiles. The other three were based on Joyce himself (Richard), Nora and Roberto Prezioso. Joyce began notes for the play in November 1913 and finished it in the autumn of 1914. The fictional Beatrice, a teacher who gives piano lessons to Richard’s son, shares many features with Bice, including age, general appearance (‘a slender dark young woman’) and weak eyesight. She is also of a different religion to the other, Catholic characters, being a ‘black Protestant’. On 19 February 1914, Bice married Henry Victor Randegger and afterwards adopted both her husband’s surname and Protestant religion. In the play, Beatrice mentions a life-threatening illness that changed her outlook on life. Richard, meanwhile, often calls her ‘Beatty’ – which, we remember, sounds like ‘Bice’. Those of us familiar with his presentation copies remember too that Joyce rarely inscribed a book without some ulterior motive.

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