Mrs Fleming

Mrs Fleming

In Brief

The Blooms' household servant, "Mrs Fleming," is what used to be called a charwoman or scrubwoman: someone who came into a house once a week to clean up and perform odd chores, as opposed to a "maid" who lived in the house and worked throughout the week. Joyce may have based his character on either of two actual people. Evidence of a real-life model for the "Jack Fleming" mentioned in Lotus Eaters is even more uncertain. He could possibly be a relation of the charwoman, perhaps an estranged husband. Or he could be unrelated: Joyce's father once worked with a man of that name.

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In Hades Bloom thinks of Molly, "Twenty past eleven. Up. Mrs Fleming is in to clean." Mrs. Fleming does not live in the house, then, and in Penelope Molly complains about not having enough help with the household chores: "its his fault of course having the two of us slaving here instead of getting in a woman long ago am I ever going to have a proper servant again." The "two of us" might refer to herself and Mrs. Fleming, or possibly to herself and Milly, but in either case it is clear that Molly does not have a full-time maid and would like one.

Mrs Fleming is also something less than a "proper servant" in the sense that both Blooms are dissatisfied with her work. Molly goes on to complain about her messy, inefficient, careless labor: "that old Mrs Fleming you have to be walking round after her putting the things into her hands sneezing and farting into the pots well of course shes old she cant help it a good job I found that rotten old smelly dishcloth that got lost behind the dresser I knew there was something and opened the area window to let out the smell." In Hades Bloom feels the leather of his shoes pressing against his feet: "I wish Mrs Fleming had darned these socks better."

Richard Ellmann writes that "the Joyce family in Dublin employed for a time a charwoman, Mrs. Fleming" (373). This fact would seem to account for the character's genesis, but Vivien Igoe argues that Joyce took the name from a Mary Fleming who was living with her sister Cicely at 7 Eccles Street with their cousin John Francis Byrne ("Cranly") when Joyce came to stay with him. The two women were dressmakers, not servants, but in Igoe's opinion Joyce disliked Mary so strongly that he demoted her to a house cleaner in revenge. According to Byrne's autobiography Silent Years, a friend of the two women came to visit and became involved in animated conversation with Mary, and Mary's thoughtless self-involved chatter offended the writer. (Igoe writes that the sisters lived with Byrne from 1910 to 1912, which cannot be correct. Joyce visited Byrne on Eccles Street in 1909, and Igoe gives Mary's birth and death dates as 1856-1909. Both problems would be resolved by adopting Ellmann's dates for Byrne's residence in the house, 1908 to 1910.)

Another Fleming is mentioned at the end of Lotus Eaters. As Bloom ponders the power of gambling he recalls "Jack Fleming embezzling to gamble then smuggled off to America. Keeps a hotel now. They never come back." This story does not come up again in the novel and no scholar has yet tied it to reports of an actual Dubliner, but there are at least two possible explanations. Igoe observes that "In 1883 the collector-general of rates appointed Jack J. Fleming to assist John Stanislaus Joyce with collecting the rate in the Rural Districts." Tax collecting would offer a ripe opportunity for embezzling funds, and one can imagine John Joyce telling his son about it years later. Danis Rose, however, offers a much more fictionally interesting speculation on his blogspot Ulysses page-by-page: Jack Fleming may be the "missing husband" of Mrs. Fleming. The parallel with the estranged husband of Mrs. Riordan—absconding to the Americas with other people's money—is highly suggestive. 

JH 2022
Esther Bubley's 1943 photograph of a charwoman sweeping the floor of a bus in the Greyhound garage in Pittsburgh, held in the Library of Congress, Washington. Source: Wikimedia Commons.