The flirtatious letter that Bloom receives in Lotus
Eaters presents many mysteries, not least of them the
identify of the sender, "MARTHA." It will be three more
chapters before a first-time reader of the novel learns how
Bloom has come into contact with this person, and three more
after that before a surname will be attached to the given
name. But these details are only the bare beginning of what
for critics has become a decades-long hunt for a remarkably
elusive quarry. This note will summarize some highlights of
the chase, in roughly chronological order.
In Lestrygonians Bloom remembers an ad he placed in
the Irish Times: "Wanted,
smart lady typist to aid gentleman in literary work." A
horde of women (or, at least, people presenting themselves as
women) wrote to the man behind the ad (who presented himself
as "Henry Flower, Esq."), seeking employment. Bloom has
replied to 44 such inquiries, and there may be more to come:
"There might be other answers lying there. Like to answer them
all....Enough bother wading through fortyfour of them." He has
begun a correspondence with at least one applicant, seemingly
thinking of erotic involvement rather than employment (though,
as Lotus Eaters continues, it becomes clear that he is
not much interested in physical consummation). Apparently to
assuage the guilt he feels over his false pretenses, he has
begun enclosing small financial gifts in his letters—Martha's
letter asks, "Why did you enclose the stamps?," and when he
replies in Sirens he writes, "Accept my little pres."
Bloom addresses the envelope of this letter to
"Miss Martha Clifford / c/o P.O. / Dolphin's barn lane / Dublin." Anyone aware that he has shielded his erotic correspondence behind the pseudonym "Henry Flower" and a P.O. box distant from his home address may reasonably suppose that Martha's information too could be spurious. Bloom himself thinks, in Nausicaa, that the name and address "Might be false" like his own. In Circe a hallucinated Martha encourages this supposition by declaring, "My real name is Peggy Griffin." And in Ithaca, when Bloom adds her letter to others in his desk drawer he thinks of it as "A 4th typewritten letter received by Henry Flower (let H. F. be L. B.) from Martha Clifford (find M. C.)." These details tease readers to "find M. C.," and many solutions to the puzzle have been proposed, making Martha's identity as contested as that of the man in the macintosh. She may be just who she says she is, but Joyce encouraged other readings by weaving an astonishing wealth of ambiguous details into his text.
One of the first critics to propose an alternate identity was
Richard Ellmann, in his biography of Joyce. Ellmann did not
argue that "Martha Clifford" is a pseudonym for some other
person within Joyce's fictional Dublin. He suggested only that
Joyce was transforming another Martha from his own life into a
fictional character. Although his hunt for the real
Martha has turned out to be largely a wild goose chase,
Ellmann did unearth some facts that found their way into the
novel. In December 1918, when Joyce was living with Nora in
Zurich, he was struck by the sight of a young woman in the
bathroom of the adjoining building. A day or two later, he saw
the same woman in the street, walking with a noble bearing and
a slight limp, and felt, Ellmann writes, "that he was seeing
again the girl he had seen in 1898 by the strand, wading in
the Irish Sea with her skirts tucked up. That girl had
constituted for him a vision of secular beauty, a pagan Mary
beckoning him to the life of art which knows no division
between soul and body" (448). Joyce wrote to the woman,
disclosing this vision and begging to meet her.
Her name was Marthe Fleischmann, and "When she realized that
Joyce was in some way distinguished, she wrote to him, and
they began a correspondence that was kept from both Nora's
eyes and Hiltpold's," the latter being a Swiss engineer who
had begun an affair with Marthe after a similar preamble:
anonymous adoration in the streets followed by an exchange of
letters (449). Eventually Marthe agreed to meet Joyce, and on
his birthday, after he staged a ruse fully as elaborate and
sneaky as the ad that has brought Martha to Bloom, the two
seem to have had some kind of sexual encounter. It apparently
did not go as far as intercourse, and after this "they did not
meet again for a long time. They did, however, exchange
Not just the sublimated letter-writing but many other
Bloom/Martha details parallel the Joyce/Marthe affair. Ellmann
comments that Joyce's "mood in the affair—if the word can be
applied to so uncommitted a relationship—was a blend of
nostalgia, self-pity, and naughtiness" (450). Diagnosed with
glaucoma two years earlier, Joyce (age 37 on 2 February 1919)
felt threatened with infirmity and loss of youthful happiness,
just as Bloom (age 38 in 1904) does. Bloom's complaints (in Sirens
he writes a p.s. containing the words "so lonely") prompt
Martha's pity: "Are you not happy in your home you poor little
naughty boy? I do wish I could do something for you." Joyce
sent Marthe copies of Chamber Music and Exiles,
an exchange reminiscent of the ad from a "literary" gentleman.
He signed his letters to Marthe using Greek rather than Roman
e's in his name, just as the cautious Bloom does when
writing Martha in Sirens: "Remember write Greek ees....
In haste. Henry. Greek ee." And he steered
conversations "to the titillating subject of women's drawers,
in all their variety" (450), provoking coy reproval just as
Bloom does by using a "naughty" word in his last letter.
Ellmann concludes that Marthe's "haughty, naughty
beguilements" (452) figured in Joyce's creation not only of
Martha but also of Gerty MacDowell, to whom he gave the limp.
Struck by this connection, some readers, following a track
laid down by Bloom himself in Nausicaa, have inferred
that Gerty is the "real" person behind Martha Clifford: "Then
I will tell you all. Still it was a kind of language between
us. It couldn't be? No, Gerty they called her. Might be
false name however like my name and the address Dolphin's
barn a blind." The first sentence comes from Martha's
letter. So "It couldn't be?" means, Could I actually have just
been gazing at the woman with whom I have been exchanging
letters? "No," Bloom decides, that could not be, because the
woman's friends called her Gerty. But Gerty could have written
under the psedonym Martha, he thinks, which accounts for why,
in Circe, a hallucinated Gerty MacDowell shows up to
accuse Bloom of falsely enticing her, and a "bawd" accuses her
in turn: "Leave the gentleman alone, you cheat. Writing
the gentleman false letters. Streetwalking and
soliciting." Here Bloom is the literary "gentleman" of the
Henry Flower ad, and Gerty is Martha.
Nor can she be explained as a fictionalized version of someone from Joyce's own life, because he published the first six chapters of Ulysses, including the passage with the letter, in The Little Review from May to October 1918, months before he first saw the Austrian woman. There can be little doubt that he consciously echoed his infatuation with Marthe in Sirens and Nausicaa, which were written and published later, but if his correspondence with her resembles Bloom's correspondence with Martha in Lotus Eaters, it must be supposed a case of life imitating art, rather than the reverse. If Joyce saw Marthe as a reincarnation of the (partly? wholly?) fictive girl on the strand in A Portrait of the Artist, he may also have seen her as a perfectly coincidental reappearance of the Martha he had already created in Ulysses, and adjusted his behavior accordingly. Ellman's evidence is not irrelevant to a reading of Ulysses, then, but it offers no simple genetic explanation.
How should a reader understand Martha Clifford, then? One piece of manifestly artistic patterning that seems vital to understanding Joyce's purposes is the persistent triangulation involved. Bloom associates her with Gerty, and he also recurrently links her name with the name Mary. Bloom's wife is named Marion, so the linking of the two names suggests that he is not seeking an adulterous exit from his marriage so much as a recuperative reentry. Martha asks him what perfume his wife uses, a request which could indicate her wish to imitate her rival. It appears that Bloom takes it in this way, because in the paragraph after he reads her request Bloom thinks of "wife Martha's perfume," conflating the two women. In the paragraphs that follow he remembers a song about "Mairy," and, after again recalling the request in the letter ("What perfume does your wife use") he thinks, "Martha, Mary. I saw that picture somewhere..."
Musical associations of Martha and Mary run rampant in Sirens. Bloom listens to Simon's moving performance of Lionel's aria from Flotow's opera Martha that speaks of "How first he saw that form endearing, how sorrow seemed to part, how look, form, word charmed him." He reflects on the coincidence of having intended to write Martha in the Ormond: "Martha it is. Coincidence. Just going to write." But the content of the aria makes him remember the first time he saw Molly: "First night when first I saw her at Mat Dillon's in Terenure. Yellow, black lace she wore." He composes a reply to Martha's letter, being careful to "write Greek ees," and thinks again of the song about Mary from Lotus Eaters: "O, Mairy lost the pin of her." The aria's ecstatic climax—"Co-ome, thou lost one! / Co-ome, thou dear one!...Come!...To me!"—evokes his endangered love for Marion far more than a new love with Martha.
Bloom seems to know that he is seeking a way back to Molly. After reading the letter in Lotus Eaters, which has twice importunately asked, "When will we meet?," he supposes that he and Martha "Could meet one Sunday after the rosary. Thank you: not having any. Usual love scrimmage. Then running round corners. Bad as a row with Molly." Not wanting the lies and headaches of an affair is understandable, but in the history of the human species probably few people who have gone to the trouble of cultivating an adulterous liaison have ever thought that consummating it would be as distasteful as a fight with their spouse. Bloom appears to have both feet firmly anchored in his marriage, thinking only of how physical infidelity would inevitably end. And the affair may in fact have begun in awareness of how dependent he is on his spouse. The address to which he writes in Sirens, "Dolphin's barn lane," recalls the place where Molly first became fascinated with him and where he first kissed her. Of the 44 women who responded to his ad, did Bloom select Martha because she says she lives in this part of town?
The critic John Gordon asks such questions in an article titled "Bloom at Woodstock: (Henry) Flower Power," JJQ 39.4 (2002): 821-28. Tugging on another thread in Joyce's labyrinthine writing, the essay begins by proposing a source for the name "Clifford." It was the surname of the other woman in a famous romantic triangle of the Middle Ages, King Henry II's adulterous affair with Rosamond Clifford. Legend has it that, in order to keep Rosamond hidden from his wife Eleanor, Henry installed her in a maze-like house on the grounds of the royal palace at Woodstock, which "after some was named Labyrinthus, or Dedalus worke" (822). But Eleanor found her way in, confronted Rosamond, and is said to have given her the choice of dying by knife or by poison. In one account, Rosamond's tomb had a poison cup carved into the stone and was hung with rose-covered tapestries. As he stands looking at Martha's letter, Bloom thinks of "roses" three times (and also of the "rosary" and "a poison bouquet to strike him down," though Gordon does not mention these details). Gordon argues that the flower enclosed in Martha's letter—"A yellow flower with flattened petals"—may well be a yellow rose, which can signify infidelity (822). When Martha's name becomes linked to Flotow's opera in Sirens, it becomes linked also with a Thomas Moore song, The Last Rose of Summer, that is used repeatedly in Martha.
Flowers figure prominently in Bloom's story as well. Gordon observes that Henry II's family name, Plantagenet, was "said to have derived from an ancestor's custom 'of wearing a sprig of flowering broom (called Genêt in French) in his cap for a feather'" (821). Bloom, he notes, keeps the name Henry Flower on business cards in his hat. When confronted by the constables in Circe he produces one of these pseudonymous cards, takes Martha's "crumpled yellow flower" out of his pocket, and says, "You know that old joke, rose of Castile. Bloom. The change of name. Virag. (He murmurs privately and confidentially.) We are engaged you see, sergeant. Lady in the case. Love entanglement."
Bloom's entanglement in a maze whose mysterious occupant may be discovered by an angry wife occupies Gordon for the rest of his essay. He observes that Molly has multiple threads to follow into the labyrinth. She knows that she should look through her husband's pockets ("first Ill look at his shirt to see or Ill see if he has that French letter still in his pocketbook I suppose he thinks I dont know deceitful men all their 20 pockets arent enough for their lies"); she has been wondering who gave Boylan the carnation he was sporting when he came to the house; she knows that Bloom is secretly corresponding with some woman; and she has already rifled through the desk drawer where he keeps the three letters from Martha. If she wants to discover the hussy's surname (Bloom has torn up and thrown away the envelopes), she will have to decipher the cryptogram in which he has recorded her address—itself a boustrophedonic maze written in text that loops back on itself.
Gordon notes that if Molly were ever to find and confront Clifford, it would probably result in no more bloodshed than Bloom's Odyssean discovery of the suitors: "she of course would only be too delighted to pretend shes mad in love with him that I wouldnt so much mind Id just go to her and ask her do you love him and look her square in the eyes she couldnt fool me." Bloom, he argues, seems to want Molly to discover the secret. Why else bring home the incriminating flower, put the letters in a drawer where Molly knows he hides things, and preserve a coded transcription of Martha's quite easily memorizable address? "There is a juvenile, secret-handshake-and-code-ring quality about all this, evidently having more to do with the acting-out of some half-realized fantasy than with the management of a serious affair. What more delicious, after all, for a humiliated husband, than such an adultery-detection scenario, in which his wife tracks the inamorata to her lair, looks her square in the eyes, and demands to know, because, in the end and in spite of everything, she does truly love him, whether the other does too?" (824). While Bloom is thus inviting Molly to follow threads leading to a mistress in a place where his romance with Molly began, he is also recapitulating with Martha a wooing strategy he employed at that time (putting dirty words in letters), and Martha is scheming to wear Molly's perfume. No part of this labyrinth leads out of the existing marriage into a new one.
Rosamond Clifford lived in the 12th century, so her identification with Martha can only be called associative or symbolic. But many readers have wanted to explain Martha as a pseudonym, as Bloom does: she is someone else in Joyce's fiction (Gerty MacDowell, Miss Dunne, Nurse Callan, Molly Bloom, even Ignatius Gallaher), or someone that Joyce knew (Marthe Fleischmann, an Italian student, Nora Barnacle), or some other actual person (an actual Irishwoman named Peggy Griffin, or the novelist Marie Corelli and her semi-autobiographical character Mavis Clare). Andrew Christensen surveys this critical history in "Ulysses's Martha Clifford: The Foreigner Hypothesis," JJQ 54.3-4 (2017): 335-52, adding his own theory that "Martha," on the evidence of her letter, is a foreigner with an imperfect command of English.
Christensen's explanation for the grammatical, idiomatic, and/or typographical mistakes in the letter (e.g., "I do not like that other world" and "do not deny my request before my patience are exhausted") is plausible, and it affords an attractive alternative to the usual views that "Martha" is simply unintelligent, or a rotten typist. But none of these efforts to identify Martha's "real name" leads very far into the textures of the novel or implies a global rethinking of its purposes. Gordon's article, which proposes a kind of symbolic analogue for Martha rather than a literal unmasking, makes far more sense of things.
One other study packs the argumentative punch of Gordon's and accounts for a similarly rich web of textual details, but its symbolic analogue is a contemporary Dubliner rather than a medieval Englishwoman. In "Martha Clifford: Unveiled?," a paper read in February 2021 for the James Joyce Centre (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZIr8OuSITzc) and in June 2021 for the International James Joyce Symposium, Senan Molony notes the almost algebraic structure of the sentence in which the phrase "find M. C." occurs: "A 4th typewritten letter received by Henry Flower (let H. F. be L. B.) from Martha Clifford (find M. C.)." In the analogical structure called a proportion, one ratio is said to be equal to another. A:B = C:D, or A:B :: C:D, means that A is to B as C is to D.
L. B. is fictional, but H. F. is not only Bloom's fictive pseudonym. In real life Henry Flower was a constable in the Dublin Metropolitan Police who came under suspicion for the murder of a young servant girl named Bridget Gannon. So "let H. F. be L. B." puts an actual person in relationship to a fictional one. By the logic of the proportion, "Martha Clifford" is a fictional person who stands in the same kind of relationship so some actual M. C. Readers have to hunt in the newspapers of the time to find Bloom's real-life analogue. Shouldn't they have to do the same thing to "find" Martha's?
Molony's candidate is a woman named Margaret Clowry who had a quite definite connection to Henry Flower: she accused him of murdering her friend Bridget. In what became known as the Dodder mystery, Gannon's body was pulled from the River Dodder on the eastern edge of Dublin in the early morning of 23 August 1900. The death was initially ruled a suicide ("found drowned"), but then Clowry told a policeman that she accompanied Gannon to a meeting with Flower on the night she died and left her when he suggested that they would like to be alone.
In the inquest that followed, various pieces of evidence incriminating and exculpating Flower were presented, and certain parts of Clowry's accusatory testimony were refuted by other witnesses. The defendant's barrister, who saw that the case rested almost entirely on her word, noted that "the girl Clowry showed that she was very keen in pressing the case against Constable Flower," and he attacked the holes in her testimony. The grand jury declined to indict Flower, who retired from the force the next day and apparently left Dublin. Many years later, in the 1940s, an old woman named Margaret Clowry lay dying and, on the advice of her confessor, summoned a solicitor to confess that she had quarreled with Bridget, stolen her purse, and pushed her into the river.
Molony cites numerous details in Ulysses that suggest familiarity with this case, remarking that "Martha Clifford in the book is generally overlain with death, crime, and investigation." Of many such details in Lotus Eaters, one of the most evocative is the flattened flower that Bloom finds pinned to Martha's letter. He tears it "gravely" from its pinhold and puts it in a pocket. Several paragraphs later, he shreds the envelope: "he took out the envelope, tore it swiftly in shreds and scattered them towards the road. The shreds fluttered away, sank in the dank air: a white flutter, then all sank"—"under the bridge," Bloom thinks later when he is in the church. These actions evoke what must have happened on the Dodder, between Herbert Bridge and London Bridge. On the night she died, Bridget Gannon wore a flower pinned to her dress. It was found in shreds on the riverbank the next day, and was taken to be a possible indication that she had been violently assaulted before she sank into the water. Margaret Clowry said that it was "flittered in pieces." She took it home with her and produced it as evidence in court.
A contemporary newspaper drawing of Clowry shows her wearing a veil. When Bloom, in Lotus Eaters, imagines meeting Martha Clifford he thinks she might "Turn up with a veil." One sentence later he thinks, "She might be here with a ribbon round her neck and do the other thing all the same on the sly. Their character." One's natural inclination is to assume that "the other thing" is sex, but the paragraph does not show Bloom thinking along these lines. He proceeds instead to recall the Fenian leader James Carey and the murders committed by the Invincibles in Phoenix Park in 1882. Carey had a family and took communion every morning, and yet he was "plotting that murder all the time."
When Martha Clifford appears in Circe, it is as "a veiled figure." She speaks, "(Thickveiled, a crimson halter round her neck, a copy of the Irish Times in her hand, in tone of reproach, pointing.) Henry! Leopold! Lionel, thou lost one! Clear my name." Again one's first reaction is to think that she wants her name cleared of the charge of adultery, but again the text suggests something else because the constable says sternly, "Come to the station." Is he speaking to Bloom (as Bloom, and the reader, assume), or to Martha? Molony notes that "Margaret Clowry did go to the police station—to accuse Henry Flower." Martha, "sobbing behind her veil," accuses Bloom of "Breach of promise. My real name is Peggy Griffin. He wrote to me that he was miserable. I'll tell my brother, the Bective rugger fullback, on you, heartless flirt." Obviously this accusation speaks to the erotic correspondence, but "Peggy" is a diminutive of Margaret, "griffin" is slang for a sports bet or hint, and Gannon died just across the river from the Lansdowne Road rugby stadium. The love "scrimmage" that Bloom has thought he wants no part of, in Lotus Eaters, here becomes overlain with a violent scrum next to a rugby pitch.
There is more to Molony's case, but these salient details may suffice to indicate how frequently the letter from Martha becomes associated with "the body in the water," a phrase used near the beginning of Lotus Eaters when Bloom is thinking about the Dead Sea. (Molony does not mention another, more overt evocation of the murder in Circe. When Henry Flower appears as a troubadour, plucking a lute and singing "Thine heart, mine love," he is "Caressing on his breast a severed female head.") Such details would have resonated for Dubliners who recalled the sensational developments in 1900. As Molony notes, Joyce attended Dublin inquests and trials, and the daily papers featured copious coverage of the Dodder mystery. In a moment of typically sly Joycean ambiguity in Lotus Eaters, Bloom takes Martha's letter out of the paper in which he has been concealing it: "Having read it all, he took it from the newspaper."
If one accepts Molony's findings, the challenge is how to interpret them. Is Martha Clifford actually Margaret Clowry, charging her Henry Flower with murder? Clearly not: Margaret is to Martha as Henry is to Leopold, a suggestive analogue rather than a coded equivalence. But even if the identification is merely symbolic, why would Joyce have made such a strange connection between adulterous flirtation and murder?
Molony does not take up this question, but there is plenty of material to work with. Of the mortally grave charges to which Joyce regularly subjects Bloom in Circe, many involve erotic wrongdoing. Martha, Gerty, the maid Mary Driscoll, the Nymph above the bed, and three high-society ladies all accuse him of sexual misconduct. Joyce was still beating that drum in Finnegans Wake with rumors of what HCE did in the Phoenix Park. This fictive preoccupation—the dangers of sexual adventure—must have been rooted to some extent in personal experience. Joyce's meeting with Alfred Hunter was occasioned by an erotic overture in a park that ended with him being savagely beaten by the young woman's boyfriend. The affair with Marthe Fleischmann ended with a threatening letter from her protector Herr Hiltpold, who informed him that Marthe had been treated at a sanitarium and was blaming Joyce for her fragile mental state.
Probably the most striking feature of Martha's letter is its sharp note of accusation ("I am awfully angry with you"), its talk of punishment ("I do wish I could punish you for that"), its archly threatening tone ("So now you know what I will do to you, you naughty boy"). These aggressive notes, which sit oddly but not implausibly with Martha's plaintive self-effacement, are usually read as flirtatious ploys: she has sensed Bloom's masochistic weakness toward women and has decided to play the role of disappointed, reproving, but nurturing mother. And that is probably just how they should be read on the literal level. But the echoes of the Margaret Clowry affair impose a layer of symbolic suggestion on top of this realistic correspendence, just as the echoes of Rosamond Clifford do. Both stories link erotic adventure with murder. Adultery can be a deadly serious business.