Quaker librarian

Quaker librarian

In Brief

Thomas W. Lyster, "the quaker librarian," was an actual Dubliner who served as director of the National Library from 1895 to 1920. At the time represented in the novel he was 49 years old. In 1883 Lyster published a scholarly translation of Heinrich Düntzer’s Life of Goethe—hence the reference that Joyce's character makes to Wilhelm Meister and the truth of "Goethe's judgments" at the beginning of Scylla and Charybdis. His highminded spiritualism flags him as an argumentative antagonist for Stephen, though he never opposes the young man's assertions.

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Gifford notes that "the oddity of his religious faith made him the object of suspicion and considerable mockery." Joyce's narrative seems to participate to some extent in this mocking curiosity: it refers to Lyster as "the quaker librarian" fully a dozen times (compared to only two instances in which an attendant addresses him as "Mr Lyster"), and twice as "Quakerlyster" (in Scylla when Shakespearean character tags are printed above speaking parts, and again in Circe). Stephen focuses on his piety—"The quaker's pate godlily with a priesteen in booktalk"—and wonders about his spiritual motivations: "Alarmed face asks me. Why did he come? Courtesy or an inward light?"

In addition to the librarian's exotic faith, the episode irreverently calls attention several times to his "pate," which is strikingly "bald," and to his large ears. But it also shows the man's "friendly and earnest" nature. Lyster is unfailingly wellmeaning and helpful, repeatedly jumping up from the discussion to help the library's patrons (including Bloom) and never descending into the nastiness toward Stephen that Eglinton and Mulligan display. The narrative in Scylla sometimes associates the countenance and the kindness, as when it calls Lyster "bald, eared and assiduous" or says that "The benign forehead of the quaker librarian enkindled rosily with hope."

In the first chapter of his memoir As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, Oliver Gogarty has some fun with the librarian's shiny dome, but describes Lyster as "a lovable man" possessed of some whimsical wit. Over the course of six or seven pages Gogarty recalls the librarian talking about his daily duties. Lyster speaks of the "direction" that students require, lest they become ensnared by dangerous authors like Nietzsche. He prescribes a Kipling poem for an engineering student looking for a mathematics text, Browning for bank clerks, Paracelsus for medical students. He helps a Catholic priest in "his struggles with the Fiend, his wrestlings with visions of lingerie, or rather with the thoughts which a lady's underclothing gave rise to." He invokes Greek terms to combat Christian heresies. His concern is to take readers into "the higher realms and romantic fields," putting them in touch with "the Universe," the "starry bourne." Of whom does he remind Gogarty? "I have it! Plato, of course."

Gogarty's portrait makes Lyster seem less passive and retiring than Joyce's does. But from both texts one receives the same impression of highminded spirituality. Avatar of Plato or not, the librarian certainly keeps company with the Platonists against whom Stephen sharpens his Aristotelian dagger definitions.

John Hunt 2016
Thomas W. Lyster at his desk in the director's office of the National Library, in 1897. Source: www.nli.ie.
Pencil drawing of T. W. Lyster by John B. Yeats, held in the National Library of Ireland. Source: digital.nli.ie.