Onehandled adulterer

Onehandled adulterer

In Brief

Stephen's label for the statue of Horatio Nelson, "the onehandled adulterer," refers to two details of the great British admiral's biography: Nelson lost his right arm in battle, and he conducted a very public affair with a married woman. The second detail contributes to Stephen's curiously sexualized story of two old maids gazing up at the statue, and the first may play a part as well.

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Nelson's aggressive leadership and personal courage caused him several severe injuries, including a fatal one at Trafalgar in 1805. The damage to his arm happened in 1797 at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, an unsuccessful amphibious assault in the Canary Islands. After the landing party's retreat, a surgeon amputated most of the arm. Slote offers an explanation for Stephen's strange word "onehandled": "The statue of Nelson atop the pillar depicted him with his armless right sleeve tucked into the breast of his tunic, thus forming a 'handle'." This seems plausible, though Nelson was of course also onehanded (the statue showed his left hand extended, grasping a sword), so perhaps, given the noun that follows, Joyce meant for the word to additionally suggest the crippled admiral handling things in a sexual sense.

The word "adulterer" refers to a scandal at the turn of the 19th century. In 1793 Nelson met the British ambassador to the King of Naples, William Hamilton, and his new wife Emma, who had previously been the mistress of Hamilton's nephew. In 1798 the admiral and Mrs. Hamilton began a sexual relationship, and by 1800 they were living together openly. Their daughter Horatia was born in 1801. The affair became widely known, and Emma, who was devastated by Nelson's death, was barred from attending his state funeral. England's rulers too were devastated: King George III is reported to have said of Nelson's great victory, "We have lost more than we have gained." The reactions of Irish people were no doubt more mixed, and in 1966 Nelson was finally blown off his pillar by an IRA bomb. Stephen's phrase gives the idol feet of clay in two senses: by calling attention to the missing arm, which Nelson regarded with shame as a symbol of his failure at Tenerife, and by reducing the hero to a philanderer, the Royal Navy's counterpart of Blazes Boylan. 

Stephen implies that, for the two old women of his story, Nelson symbolizes more than just military conquest or imperial domination. Standing behind the pillar's railings, "they pull up their skirts..."––Myles Crawford interjects, "Easy all... No poetic license. We're in the archdiocese here," recalling the current tense relations between the Archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh, and the Freeman's Journal––"And settle down on their striped petticoats, peering up at the statue of the onehandled adulterer." Petticoats have already been charged with sexual interest in the novel: in Telemachus Mulligan sings about Mary Ann "hising up her petticoats" to piss like a man, and in Proteus Stephen imagines the "coy silver fronds" of seaweed as women, "hising up their petticoats" in the sight of "lascivious men." In Aeolus he imagines the women "wiping off with their handkerchiefs the plumjuice that dribbles out of their mouths and spitting the plumstones slowly out between the railings." The image of seeds spewing from the top of a phallic pillar rather vividly suggests what thoughts the spinsters may be thinking about England's hero.

JH 2023
The statue atop Nelson's Pillar, in a photograph of unknown date.
1800 pastel on paper portrait of Lady Emma Hamilton, said to be Nelson's favorite portrait of her. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun's ca. 1790-92 oil portrait of Lady Hamilton as either Ariadne or a bacchante, which Nelson bought and hung over his bed for the rest of his life. Source: Wikimedia Commons.