This is a pretty odd chapter, even by Joyce’s standards. But firstly I can happily confirm that the disgruntled narrator from the last chapter is in fact the hapless Shem’s brother – Shaun The Post. I say confirm; it is hard to ascertain anything for certain here, but I am as confident as I can be. Shem is a writer and they are both the sons of sort-of-main-character Here Comes Everybody and his wife ALP – Anna Livia Plurabelle.
I spent most of this chapter being completely baffled (no change there, then) but towards the end it came together somewhat. Sort of. As far as I can gather, the passage takes the form of two washerwomen on opposite sides of a river, washing clothes (none too happily, I reckon) and gossiping ferociously about HCE and ALP. This feels faintly reminiscent of the tales of The Moose and Gripes from 1.5.
The details of HCE’s extracurricular activities in the park have been published in the local paper and the woman chatter away, suggesting that HCE has had many women throughout his marriage and ALP herself seems keen to run off with either a Lord or a knight, or some chap called Dan. In the much-discussed letter (which was written by Shem on behalf of his mother) ALP apparently discloses that she is a bit fed up with her philandering husband:
‘my life in death companion, my frugal key of our larder, my much-altered camel’s hump, my jointspoiler, my mammon’s honey, my fool to the last December…’
ALP had quite a time of it in her youth – ‘She must have been a gadabout in her day, so she must more than most.’ – and some fairly saucy details are salaciously discussed at length by the women. I would divulge further but my mum reads this and it would take me an age to explain it all to her. She apparently has 111 children, (ALP, not my mum) fathered by an impressive array of gentlemen including a tinker, a soldier, a pieman, a policeman, a ‘bold priest’ and quite possibly the Duke of Wellington (yes, him again!) APL does not remember the names of her children and spanks them with ‘the boxing bishop’s infallible slipper’. She also slept with two Scotsmen when she was just a girl, but it is unclear whether this was both at the same time or individually. Also she might wear a wig. ALP is once again described in terms relating to a river, which seems to be a bit of a theme.
Anyway – ALP borrows a mail sack from her son Shaun The Post and nips off in a rowing boat when HCE’s back is turned (probably whilst he is trying to work out who is, when he is, and what the devil is going on.) She lets down her hair, takes off all her clothes (something of habit, it seems) and goes into the water ‘from crown to sole’. She then greases the groove of her heel with an elaborate concoction described as an ‘antifouling butter-scatch’. She proceeds to cover her whole body, including ‘her little mary‘ – which if you know me very well you will know that I found this highly amusing. ALP makes a garland for her hair with bullrushes and jewellery from pebbles, before embarking on an epic mission to deliver Christmas gifts to all her children – which are now numbered at 1001.
The list of children and their gifts covers two and a half pages, but here are some of the more comprehensible ones:
Chummy the guardsman gets cockaleekie soup.
Isabel, Jezabel & Llewelyn Mmarriage are given a jigsaw puzzle of needles and pins and blankets and shins.
Johnny Walker Beg is gifted a brazen nose and pigiron mittens. Nice!
Pudge Craig gets a puffpuff.
Buck Jones is the proud recipient of a prodigal heart and fatted calves.
Sister Anne Mortimer gets a drowned doll. Not nice!
Steadfast Dick is given a reiz every morning, which sounds quite good.
There are also gifts for Kate Strong (Tip!), Hosty (he of the ballad-performing fame) and Biddy the hen. Her son Shaun gets a sword and some stamps. Nothing for Shem, apparently he died young.
The last bit of the closing chapter of Book 1 is quite confusing. It looks like a storm whips up and the river becomes torrid. One of the washerwomen turns into a tree and encourages the other woman to die, saying that they will meet again and part again. I am sorry to say that I think Biddy drowns. The bats and field mice become so loud that the women can no longer hear each other, and as they bid each other goodnight, they demand to be told the tale of Shem and Shaun. Even though one of them is dead and the other is a tree.
This is the final chapter of Book 1 and I found it pretty tricky, until about three quarters of the way through. I am pleased that there are some reoccurring characters that seem fairly stable – HCE, ALP, Kate Strong and hopefully Shem and Shaun. There are clear themes that are visited over and over again – beginnings and origins, the nature of gossip and rumour and the unending circle of life and death being prominent. In the previous chapter, much was made of Biddy the hen and her goddess-like Earth mother portrayal. If she is the Earth mother, ALP is something of an Earth whore, in the way that the exploits of her youth are unflatteringly discussed by the washerwomen. Sins of the flesh are proving to be another emerging theme. I am fairly sure Freud would have quite a bit to say about this book.
‘And where in thunder did she plunder? Fore the battle or efter the ball? I want to get it frisk from the soorce.’
I think this is espousing the need to ensure good quality gossip.
‘You’d like the coifs and guimpes, snouty, and me to do the greasy job on old Veronic’s wipers.’
This just sounds filthy.
‘…in a period gown of changeable jade that would robe the wood of two cardinals’ chairs and crush poor Cullen and smother Mac-Cabe.’
I think this is about a dress and if so, I want this dress.