Listed feet

Listed feet

In Brief

When Stephen enters Bloom's house, he follows "the man's back and listed feet and lighted candle" down the hallway and a short flight of stairs into the kitchen. The description of Bloom's feet seems strange (is he leaning to one side?) only because it employs a common 19th century usage that has since become obsolete: "list slippers" were soled with fabric, making them more comfortable than outdoor footwear and also much quieter. Joyce puts them into his narrative to indicate Bloom's solicitous care toward his possibly sleeping wife.

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In a personal communication, Vincent Van Wyk notes that he sought an obscure meaning of this word and found it on World Wide Words (www.worldwidewords.org), a blog which Michael Quinion compiled from 1996 until 2017. In response to a reader's question about the meaning of "list slippers" in Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (1908), Quinion reports that one meaning of "list" documented in the OED is a border or boundary. Medieval jousting tournaments were held in the "lists," a space defined by wooden walls separating the warriors from the spectators. ("On pain of death," says the marshal in Shakespeare's Richard II, "no person be so bold / Or daring-hardy as to touch the lists.") Pieces of fabric were similarly bordered by "lists," hems of selvage that prevented them from unraveling. At some point in history, these securely woven edging materials were adapted to serve as the soles of slippers.

Quinion observes that gunners on Royal Navy ships, as described in C. S. Forester's Lieutenant Hornblower, wore list slippers when handling gunpowder to lessen the risk of sparks. But The Old Wives' Tale calls attention to a different virtue: "Sophia wore list slippers in the morning. It was a habit which she had formed in the Rue Lord Byron—by accident rather than with an intention to utilize list slippers for the effective supervision of servants." The implication is that these cloth-soled slippers were very quiet. Quinion quotes from an 1878 parenting manual which prescribes that in sick rooms nurses should wear "list slippers—soles and all being made of list," and he observes that in Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost (1887) the poor ghost "gave up all hope of ever frightening this rude American family, and contented himself, as a rule, with creeping about the passages in list slippers." In addition to the works that Quinion cites, at least one other 19th century fiction emphasizes the quietness of these slippers: in Jane Eyre (1847) Grace Poole emerges from the door leading to the mysterious upper story and the protagonist sees her "glide along the gallery, her quiet tread muffled in a list slipper."

The stealthy, soothing quietness of list slippers has clear relevance to the passage in Ithaca. Several sentences earlier Stephen has watched Bloom, through the kitchen window, "removing in turn each of his two boots." This day-ending ritual no doubt affords the paterfamilias great relief after tramping the streets of Dublin in leather shoes for 17 hours, but it soon becomes clear that he changes footwear the moment he gets inside his house so as not to awaken Molly. Honoring some kind of unnarrated guidance from his host, Stephen takes pains to make no noise on his way from the front steps to the kitchen: "entering softly, he helped to close and chain the door and followed softly along the hallway the man's back and listed feet and lighted candle past a lighted crevice of doorway on the left and carefully down a turning staircase of more than five steps into the kitchen of Bloom's house."

JH 2020
John Leech's 1843 illustration of A Christmas Carol showing Ebeneezer Scrooge in nightshirt, nightcap, and (list?) slippers. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Advertisement for Alfred Dolge's "noiseless" felt slippers in the 15 November 1888 Youths Companion. Source: www.thisvictorianlife.com.