Horsey women

Horsey women

In Brief

In Lotus Eaters Bloom watches a stylishly dressed woman who is about to mount a jaunting car and thinks of her "caste," which is unmistakably upper-crust. She reminds him of "that haughty creature at the polo match," and in Lestrygonians he returns to thoughts of "those horsey women" of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry who "Swagger around livery stables" and ride to the hounds. They intimidate him, both because of their wealthy disdain for commoners and because of the sexual power implied by bestriding large beasts. In Circe his fantasy of sexually taming such powerful women gives way to masochistic surrender as three rich society ladies accuse him of intolerable improprieties.

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The woman in Lotus Eaters stands waiting "while the man, husband, brother, like her," scours his pockets for a tip for the hotel porter. Bloom notices the "roll collar" of her coat, the "patch pockets," the heavy wool cloth, as well as the haughty look and the "Careless stand of her." Everything shouts money. He aggressively imagines that he could bring this haughty creature down to his level by dominating her sexually: "Women all for caste till you touch the spot. Handsome is and handsome does. Reserved about to yield. The honourable Mrs and Brutus is an honourable man. Possess her once take the starch out of her." There can be little doubt about which "spot" Bloom imagines touching, or of his intent in altering the proverbial expression "Handsome is as handsome does": this woman is handsome and she will do it.

§ The high-society label The Honourable Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So shows up often in Ulysses, most notably in Circe when it is applied to one of Bloom's three outraged female accusers. Here in Lotus Eaters, it prompts him to remember how Marc Antony repeatedly calls Brutus an honourable man in his funeral speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The allusion is entirely consistent with Bloom's fantasy of gaining power through sexual conquest, because Antony too stands on the outside looking in, feeling hostile to Rome's new rulers. He first speaks the words "Brutus is an honourable man" deferentially, from a position of weakness, but the phrase gains murderous power through sardonic repetition, inciting the crowd of plebeians to revenge.

§ The revery in Lestrygonians explores the strength that Bloom sees in ascendancy women. He imagines the kind of sentence he might read in the Irish Field, a newspaper for the country gentry that reported on horse races: "Lady Mountcashel has quite recovered after her confinement and rode out with the Ward Union staghounds at the enlargement yesterday at Rathoath." Clearly the recently pregnant, imaginary Lady Mountcashel is no delicate flower. "Riding astride. Sit her horse like a man. Weightcarrying huntress. No sidesaddle or pillion for her, not for Joe. First to the meet and in at the death. Strong as a brood mare some of those horsey women. Swagger around livery stables. Toss off a glass of brandy neat while you'd say knife. That one at the Grosvenor this morning. Up with her on the car: wishswish. Stonewall or fivebarred gate put her mount to it."

Remembering the woman at the Grosvenor makes him think of another society dame, Mrs. Miriam Dandrade, who with no sign of a blush sold him her old underclothes, in her hotel room, "As if I was her clotheshorse. . . . Want to be a bull for her. Born courtesan. No nursery work for her, thanks." These women are not about meekly submitting to their husbands and contentedly sacrificing their lives to their children. They are about personal power, and Bloom supposes that they must like power in bed too—the power of being serviced by a "bull." But here his fantasy of domination breaks down in "Want," because he is no such master of the copulative art. With Molly, at least, he has not managed even a simulacrum of it for over ten years.

This unspoken confession of incapacity, even impotency, informs the passage in Circe in which Mrs. Yelverton Barry, Mrs. Bellingham, and Mrs. Mervyn Talboys humiliate Bloom in court by testifying to the unwanted attentions he has paid them. The first two appear in exceedingly elegant urban attire, and equestrian echoes sound only faintly in Mrs. Yelverton Barry's diction: "He wrote me an anonymous letter in prentice backhand when my husband was in the North Riding of Tipperary on the Munster circuit, signed James Lovebirch." But when "The Honourable Mrs. Talboys" appears, the horsey woman theme blares forth:

(In amazon costume, hard hat, jackboots cockspurred, vermilion waistcoat, fawn musketeer gauntlets with braided drums, long train held up and hunting crop with which she strikes her welt constantly.) Also me. Because he saw me on the polo ground of the Phoenix park at the match All Ireland versus the Rest of Ireland. . . . He implored me to soil his letter in an unspeakable manner, to chastise him as he richly deserves, to bestride and ride him, to give him a most vicious horsewhipping.
She declares great willingness to horsewhip:
(Stamps her jingling spurs in a sudden paroxysm of fury.) I will, by the God above me. I'll scourge the pigeonlivered cur as long as I can stand over him. I'll flay him alive. . . . Pigdog and always was ever since he was pupped! To dare address me! I'll flog him black and blue in the public streets. I'll dig my spurs in him up to the rowel. He is a wellknown cuckold. (She swishes her huntingcrop savagely in the air.) Take down his trousers without loss of time. Come here, sir! Quick! Ready?

Bloom's response to the woman at the Grosvenor shows that Ulysses remains, in Kevin Birmingham's words, a "dangerous book." The sexual content of his fantasy, powered in this instance by strong currents of class antagonism, can offend today's smug, censorious, and hyper-vigilant guardians of political correctness no less surely than it offended their Edwardian cousins, the policers of obscenity. But Bloom is no rapist, and Circe's transmutation of his fantasy of domination into a fantasy of being dominated indicates a complex psychology that fully respects, and even celebrates, female agency.

In Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, Brenda Madox cites a relevant incident from the life of the newlywed Joyces: "Nora took to sexual intercourse with enthusiasm and imagination. Often she took the lead, as she had in their courtship. . . . Joyce was delighted but slightly overwhelmed. One night, naked, she straddled him like a horse, urging, 'Fuck up, love! fuck up, love!' Her behavior fulfilled all his dreams of domination by a fierce woman, and that Nora could release such fervor only three weeks after initiation left him with a lasting sense of awe at the banked fires of female desire" (57).

JH 2019
Composite of two images from Victorian clothing catalogues, the one on the right from 1861. Source: