Brenda Maddox, biographer of Nora Barnacle and others in literature, dies at 87
Brenda Maddox may have been best known for her biography of Nora Barnacle, who inspired some of Irish literature’s most memorable characters, but she crafted what may have been her most resonant line while writing about a DNA researcher history nearly forgot.
“Rosalind Franklin has become a feminist icon, the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male,” Ms. Maddox wrote in “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA,” her 2002 book about the British scientist whose key early research was mostly overlooked amid the accolades heaped on James D. Watson and Francis H.C. Crick.
Bringing her background as a reporter to the longer form of biographies, Ms. Maddox illuminated the lives of literary greats such as George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and W.B. Yeats. And with 1988’s “Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom,” she brought full recognition to Barnacle, who would marry James Joyce and inspire some of his fictional characters, including Gretta in “The Dead” and Molly Bloom in “Ulysses.”
Ms. Maddox, who spent her childhood and youth in Bridgewater and Brockton, and who began her writing career in Greater Boston, was 87 when she died June 16 in her London home. Her family told news organizations the cause was complications of dementia.
“I honestly consider myself a journalist,” she told the Globe in 1988 during interviews for the publication of “Nora.’’ “I am not a feminist crusader. This book brings out the qualities of a woman who has been hidden.”
Reviewing “Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom” that year, Globe critic Robert Taylor wrote that Ms. Maddox’s “illuminating book scotches, once and for all, the notion of Nora Barnacle as a primitive lass from the west of Ireland whom the author of ‘Ulysses’ and ‘Finnegans Wake’ married because she let him get on with his writing.”
In the Globe interview, Ms. Maddox recalled that she had begun the biography a few years earlier “liking Nora. I finished in awe of her.” Nora, she added, lived through tumultuous decades whose events included “the emancipation of women” and two world wars.
“With her strength, wit and calm, she survived them all, just as she survived 37 years with James Joyce and taught him what life was all about,” Ms. Maddox said.
Meanwhile, Ms. Maddox’s book about Rosalind Franklin taught scholars, scientists, and science fans alike about someone who had made essential contributions to science.
A year ago, New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer cited “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” as the book he wished more people would read.
“The story of the discovery of the structure of DNA has been told over and over again from James Watson’s perspective,” Zimmer said in an interview with the Globe. “Rosalind Franklin’s story is also important, and Maddox tells it wonderfully well.”
Born in 1932, Brenda Murphy was the only child of Dr. Brendan Murphy and Edith Giamperoli. A few weeks after Brenda turned 3, her physician father died. She was raised by her mother, who gave square-dancing lessons, even though she used a wheelchair due to complications from polio.
After graduating from Radcliffe College, Ms. Maddox began her writing career as a reporter for The Patriot Ledger in Quincy. Moving to England, she attended the London School of Economics. “I hated it,” she later told the Globe. “I didn’t last the year.”
Instead, Ms. Maddox recalled, she wrote briefly for the Reuters news service.
While covering a UN conference in Geneva, she met John Maddox, a science writer and editor for the Guardian newspaper and later the editor of Nature magazine. They married in 1960.
Early in their marriage, she wrote for the Economist magazine, where she subsequently was an editor, and occasionally wrote for the Globe about a variety of subjects, including traveling with children. Perhaps inspired by her own experiences, she praised the un-France-like informality at mealtime for tourists in Brittany, where the Bretons allowed children to “wander in and out between courses and wear their pajamas to supper.”
She would later write that as a journalist for the Economist, she watched “with fascination the long-running Irish debate on contraception, abortion, divorce, and illegitimacy. Whatever problems women have, Irish women have them worse. I began to see Nora Barnacle as typical of a certain kind of Irish girl — desperate to escape from her circumstances, unequipped with anything but strength of character and charm.”
Along with the Nora Barnacle biography, Ms. Maddox wrote books about literary figures that included “D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage” (1994), “George’s Ghosts: A New Life of W.B. Yeats” (1999); and “George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife” (2009).
In her book “The Half Parent: Living with Other People’s Children” (1975), she drew from her experience as a stepmother to John Maddox’s children and spoke of their good fortune in marrying.
“My husband and I could not have been better suited, although we had grown up thousands of miles apart,” she wrote about Maddox, who died in 2009. “We were good at school, loners, readers, escapers from poor, ambitious families and from claustrophobic small towns that had given us an incurable preference for city life. After time spent in academia, his much longer than mine, we had discovered the guilty delights of journalism. We might have been matched by computer.”
According to The Washington Post, Ms. Maddox’s survivors include a daughter, Bronwen of London; a son, Bruno of Beacon, N.Y.; two stepchildren, Imma and Piers, both of England; and three granddaughters.
When Ms. Maddox was a college student, a seminar at Harvard University in Anglo-Irish literature, led by the scholar and professor John V. Kelleher, had sparked her interest in Nora Barnacle. Kelleher noted that the Joyces had spoken Italian at home.
“My own grandparents were immigrants to America from Ireland and Italy, and I had heard Italian spoken in my home,” Ms. Maddox would later tell the Globe. “I was intrigued by this Irish family who had gone east, not west.”
Years later, her interest was rekindled when, as a present, her husband gave her Richard Ellmann’s acclaimed biography of James Joyce.
“In reading the biography,” she recalled, “I wondered: What about Nora? Joyce was a genius. How did Nora take herself from being a chambermaid in Dublin to becoming a hostess in Paris?”
Ms. Maddox added that several years after James Joyce died, Nora was bringing a journalist to visit his grave and commented during a cab ride: “I often think he must like the cemetery he is in. It is near the zoo and you can hear the lions roar.”
That anecdote would prompt Ms. Maddox to write about how essential an inspiration Nora must have provided for her husband, including for a memorable passage in his story “The Dead”:
“The woman whose memory of a dead lover in a lonely graveyard led to one of the most beautiful passages in English literature casually conjured up for a total stranger a vision of her husband lying in his grave, enjoying the sound of lions, perhaps chuckling to himself. It suggests that Nora herself may have evoked for Joyce the final scene in ‘The Dead,’ the snow falling on the grave of Michael Furey.”