Life Stories: the Coroner's Report on the Death of Mary Joyce

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Houghton-Walker, S 

No one familiar with Clare’s work and biography can be unaware that Mary Joyce plays a key role in his life. Both in his autobiographical writing and in his poetry, her image weaves in and out with the rest of his thought. Biographers have been drawn to the idea of a thwarted love whose particular circumstances fit so perfectly alongside the discourse of class which has informed much critical work on Clare: as Frederick Martin’s excitable Life of John Clare has it, ‘the father of Mary Joyce… sternly forbid her to see “the beggar-boy” again. His heart of well-to-do farmer revolted at the bare idea of his offspring talking with the son of one who was not even a farm-labourer, but had to be maintained as a pauper by the parish.’ This admittedly fanciful description is appealingly in line with a narrative which encompasses multiple frustrations (of poetic and lifestyle ambitions; of a lack of power to halt the changes which distressed him; of the daily weariness associated with the inability to shake off the illnesses which dogged him), many of which resulted from Clare’s socio-economic circumstances. But Clare’s wider writings suggest that he had an acquaintance with a range of women throughout his life (both really, and, probably, imaginatively): we certainly shouldn’t understand every reference to a ‘Mary’ as a direct reference to Mary Joyce. Despite his own narrative’s seduction by the possibilities of the Mary Joyce story, and his frequent identification of Mary Joyce behind Clare’s mentions of Marys, even Jonathan Bate acknowledges that ‘We certainly cannot take it for granted that all Clare’s poetic Marys are Mary Joyce’, and suggests that by the 1830s ‘Mary’ had ‘become a fiction, a symbol of the condition of lost love rather than a real person remembered from his youth.’ And yet, all this being admitted, there is no reason to doubt Mary Joyce’s importance to Clare or her impact on his life and his literary works, from his early memories of love to his later, deluded certainty that he was a bigamist, and that Mary was his first wife.

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John Clare Society Journal
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