U 12.1226-8: - Twenty to one, says Lenehan. Such is life in an outhouse. Throwaway, says he. Takes the biscuit, and talking about bunions. Frailty, thy name is Sceptre. [...]
Lenehan’s jokey style abounds in wordplay and comic allusion. One expression that has passed the annotators undetected is "talking about bunions". This apparently nonsensical and Lenehanesque expression dates back to the theatre of the 1860s, and is another link between Joyce and Lord Dundreary (of the celebrated "dundrearies" or long side whiskers: U 14.889) and the punning burlesque-writer Henry James Byron (see Shine on, Harvest Moon).
[Right: Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary (Wikimedia Commons)]
Sothern’s success with the character was repeated in Britain and Ireland, and also in New Zealand – but not in France. The eccentric English gentleman puzzled the Parisians. Such was the success of the character elsewhere that Sothern wrote or co-wrote or cajoled others to write sequels which were essentially vehicles for his Dundreary character.
Sothern was regularly in Dublin. The Freeman’s Journal of 15 October 1864 advertises his engagement at the Theatre Royal:
The significance of this lies in the new one-act sequel Lord Dundreary Married and Settled performed on 19 October 1864.1 This had been written by Sothern, with help from the established playwright Henry Byron. Its comedy centred around Dundreary’s marriage and subsequent difficulties with his new wife’s friends and her mother. When Sothern took the play to New York in 1873 the Herald of 4 April, p. 6, reported:
Sothern appeared regularly in the play in Dublin. The Freeman’s records him there in October 1868, and in 1874 it relates how Michael and John Gunn, kings of Dublin theatre management
Sothern was back at the Gaiety in Dublin (managed by Michael Gunn) ten years later in 1884, with Our American Cousin, Sam Dundreary’s Brother, and the "screaming farce" Dundreary Married and Settled, just a couple of column inches above a report of the Misses Flynn’s annual concert at the Antient Concert Rooms, at which Bartle McCarthy and “Mr. J S Joyce” (Joyce’s father) were performing.3
Lord Dundreary’s catchphrases were well-known in Britain, Ireland, and America. The Decatur (Illinois) Daily Republican (1881) 17 June 1 had listed, amongst its "Authentic Sayings of Great Men":
Daily Astorian (Astoria, Oregon)
(1883) 5 May records a development of the expression:
and over the next few years the Daily Astorian seemed to take quite a shine to the expression. See, for example:
As late as 1915 Sothern’s son, interviewed
when reprising the role himself, spoke of his father’s jokes – and of how they
were not new even in the 1860s:
The expression is an amusing device for introducing a new topic which is apparently (and typically whimsically) linked to the previous one. In extended use it moves from meaning "while we are on the subject of …" to "apropos of nothing…"), in line with Dundreary’s distracted and "innocent" style. Dundreary links bunions and his mother-in-law; Lenehan follows bunions with an oblique reference to women in general and to the ill-fated five-year-old mare Sceptre in particular (“Frailty, thy name is woman! – A little month, or ere those shoes were old […]).
So Lenehan’s "talking about bunions" can be traced back to the Dublin and New York stage. It turns out to be another of the evocative expressions that Joyce put into the mouth of Lenehan from the world of comic theatrical entertainment.
1 A published version of the short
sequel has not yet been located in the standard bibliographical sources.
Joyce's Allusions >