Brenda Maddox

b. 1932 – d. 2019

Brenda Maddox was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999.


Brenda Maddox remembered – by Stephen Haskell

Biographer of strong women

There have been plenty of books – too many, one might say – about D.H. Lawrence; and R.F. Porter has written a magisterial life of W.B. Yeats. But Brenda Maddox’s speciality was to focus on the wives of these and other important writers, to see them as figures in their own right, and in so doing to throw new light on their husbands’ achievements. It is notable that scarcely anyone had pursued such interests before (though Frieda Lawrence had been much written about); and it is not too much to say that she invented a new kind of literary biography.

Her first venture into this field was Nora (published 1988), about the life-long companion and, from 1931, wife of James Joyce. Previous studies of Nora Barnacle had seen her as a mere appendage in Joyce’s life, though acknowledging her as the prototype of Molly Bloom in Ulysses and of Gretta Conway in the masterly story The Dead. Despite much dissuasion, including from Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s biographer, Maddox persisted, bringing Nora to new life, and in the process unearthing a wealth of dirty correspondence, initiated for the most part by Nora herself, which pandered to Joyce’s anal fantasies (one such letter was recently sold for £240,000). The work became a bestseller, and was even made into a film, but some material was removed at the insistence of Stephen, Joyce’s grandson and controller of his estate.

Later works include The Married Man, A Life of D.H. Lawrence, and George’s Ghosts, depicting Yeats’ obsession with his wife’s gift for automatic writing and the way in which Georgie manipulated this in the interests of their relationship. Though both books pay due attention to their male protagonists, the titles show where Maddox’s true interests lay.

In fact of the dozen or more books she wrote, at least half are concerned with strong women, including, as well as the above, Rosalind Franklin, George Eliot, and Margaret Thatcher (though the last, Maddox was careful to say, was undertaken purely for the money it brought). They were always closely researched, and written in a very accessible style.

Away from her desk, Maddox was a vivacious, amusing and hospitable friend and colleague. Nobody who went to them will ever forget the Christmas parties she threw every year in her Kensington home, and how she sat at the piano playing carols with gusto, encouraging everybody – even those practically stone deaf – to sing along.