Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes
Created by: Mary Talbot, Bryan Talbot
Published by: Dark Horse
ISBN: 1595828508 (Amazon)
Cultural evolution is always a tricky endeavor, inevitably littering the social landscape with a detritus made of the the scattered limbs of rituals, mores, and institutions that couldn’t get out of the way quickly enough. Both vanguard and old guard are sacrificed in the collision of ideals. And sometimes the casualties aren’t just metaphor and social construct. Sometimes there are literal casualties—human ones.
Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes relates the struggles of two such human sacrifices in the battle of ideological paradigm shift. Both Lucia (James Joyce’s only daughter) and Mary Talbot (this book’s scribe) were real combatants in a war they may not have even been quite aware they were embroiled in. Certainly, they recognized the fact of the skirmishes that framed their lives’ choices and developments, but could they have known from the inside just how monumental the transformation being wrought upon the kingdom of Western Civilization was? (It’s possible, of course, but the young are rarely the most aware of the larger struggles that govern the architecture of their lives.)
Ideas are important and have value because people believe in them.11Terry Gilliam played this to interesting effect in his Baron Munchausen. Gilliam focuses his narrative lens on the birth of the age of reason and represents his ideological combatants as individuals with fantastic powers. Throughout the adventure, Gilliam treats us to the blending of the literal and the ideological such that the conflict between the two is made more tangible. Really, I’m not sure that Baron Munchausen has much to do with Dotter, but I think we shouldn’t probably miss any opportunity to remind ourselves of Gilliam’s genius. Plus, isn’t this kind of what footnotes are for? And not just in the sense of casual assent. Not like how I believe that Antarctica exists but can’t be bothered to shape my life around the fact. Discovering Antarctica isn’t actually there or is there but underwater or is a flying continent—or probably really anything I could discover about Antarctica won’t do much to ruffle the feathers of my life. If someone brings it up in conversation, the entire summation of my response would accurately be distilled to: Huh. Interesting. If, however, you and forty otherwise intelligent people tried to seriously convince me and society that having kids was actually evil, my reaction would almost certainly be more visceral (depending on how real I believed the threat to my way of life to be). At the least, there might be defensiveness and some frustration. As the threat escalates, tolerances strain and violence or unhappy legislation (for one or both sides) may erupt.
In her biographical and autobiographical work, Mary Talbot (aided visually by husband and illustrator Bryan Talbot) confronts the struggle of society to lurch into the era of modernity and beyond. It’s unclear whose story Talbot is more interested in (or if she even has a preference), but she introduces an inclusio whereby she in the current day finds an old ID card belonging to her now-deceased father. Inside the framing device Talbot pursues two narratives: one concerning her own formative years at the hand of her father James Atherton, a well-regarded Joycean scholar, and the other charting the development of James Joyce’s own daughter Lucia and the relationship he had with her. Neither relationship is a thing of joy and beauty, but one suspects that if both girls were born to the same fathers a century later, the absence of certain social constriction might have allowed for happy endings all the way around.
As delineated by Talbot, both Mary’s and Lucia’s lives are welled up under the pervasive irony of being the children of bastions of modernism who cannot see clear to apply modernist principles to their own patriarchal relationships. Dotter lays special emphasis on the rallying cry of the paradigm movement: “How modern!” Everyone around both Mary and Lucia are caught up in the transformation of culture—of the evolution of the stilted, errant, grossly conservative pre-modern society into the glorious fortress of progressive social democracy found in the modern utopia. It’s a period of hope and change. And each of these two fathers are in some sense heralds or ambassadors or representatives of this new civilization.
The irony of course is that in the cold darkness of their hearts’ hearts, they are still staunch defenders of the Old Ways—hopeless, helpless relics who will unconsciously stop at nothing to crush the Spirit of the Age in its most immediately tangible bastion. They will carelessly destroy their children (or perhaps die trying), unaware that in so doing they make mockery of those values they pretend to hold dearest to their hearts. Mary’s father Atherton will do so by his direct actions built of disdain and outright dismissiveness of his daughter. Joyce, on the other hand, will combat his own values through a negligence in policing he and his wife’s failure to recognize Lucia as something more than their provincial understanding of the female being will allow.
Compared to Atherton, Joyce appears a doting father—one who truly loves and admires his daughter but simply doesn’t have the grounding by which to combat either his wife’s vindictiveness or to understand the place of the female in modern applications. Perhaps he was more a doer than a thinker. Atherton, however, cannot claim such excuses (as if excuses ever really exonerate one human from destroying another)—he is a scholar, a thinker, and devoted to considering the ramifications of Joyce’s body of work. Surely some mote of the new paradigm, some willingness to apprehend the world through inventive, fresh structures ought to have asserted itself through his studies. Still, as poor, blind humans, our penchant for adhering to comfortability and ritual and the tried-if-not-true will ever hold power over our sense of reason—so while tragic and ironic, neither Joyce’s nor Atherton’s failures are particularly surprising.
“Sad life. Sad life,” to quote a certain wise but immolated horse.22See the first chapter of Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers.
As a work, Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes is an enjoyable, thoughtful read. (Or at least as enjoyable as a non-fictional pair of tragedies can be.) Mary Talbot’s script was at all times interesting for me—even if I didn’t necessarily understand the purpose of combining her own story with Lucia’s. Though I described Dotter as an exploration of the irony of a particular conflict between ideology and praxis, that’s a layer of interpretation that I read onto the story because I felt the need to draw out an overriding theme from the work. While the irony is there pretty unquestionably, it’s unclear whether this is Talbot’s primary aim with the narrative. When I first finished reading, I was frustrated with not being able to discern why Talbot may have tied her story to Lucia’s beyond the simplistic connection constructed by Atherton being a primary scholar of Joyce’s oeuvre. My wife felt a similar dissonance and we tried to suss out Talbot’s point unsuccessfully. Perhaps it’s there and obvious. Perhaps we were unqualified to discover it or perhaps our concentration was too divided by the conflict of late-night readings versus days filled with the stress of juggling earning an income against good, loving child-rearing. Perhaps we were just dense (momentarily or permanently). Or perhaps Talbot didn’t quite succeed in tying together the threads of her purpose.
Regardless, the book is good and worth a reader’s time. Both Mary and Lucia lived in horrifying and exciting times. I can’t imagine the struggle of mind and heart. From my position of genetic and historical privilege, I can’t imagine being a thinking person burdened under such constraints. I’m grateful then to the Talbots for bringing this segment of the historical record to light and life, no matter how nauseating.
For his part, Bryan Talbot is in stellar form. My only other intersection with his work is his celebrated Tale of One Bad Rat. In the two decades since then, he’s clearly honed his artistic sensibilities and as crisp as his vision was then, it’s become something truly beautiful and evocative here.
Talbot uses usually monochromatic palettes of washes to indicate narrative threads and imply mood and warmth and love and panic and everything else. I never felt any question as to what a scene was meant to display. I’d love to see more of Talbot’s work, especially if along these lines.
Two Other Notes
1) It only just occurs to me that Talbot introduces her story with the faerytale-esque:
Once upon a time
And long ago
A King and Queen
Had a daughter
Her name was
Or Lucy Maria
I suppose then it’s possible that Mary Talbot’s name is Lucy Maria (named for Lucia) but she that goes by Mary, giving a touch more connection between the two women and better justifying the dual-nature of the book?
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