Biographer who wrote about Margaret Thatcher and James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle

Born: February 24, 1932;

Died: June 16, 2019

BRENDA Maddox, who has died aged 87, was a globally-respected author, literary critic and broadcaster best known for her deeply-researched and best-selling biographies. In her books, she chronicled the lives not only of famous figures such as Margaret Thatcher, the novelist DH Lawrence and the poet WB Yeats but also lesser-known personalities including James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle, the inspiration for Molly Bloom in his novel Ulysses.

Born in the United States, Maddox became something of an anglophile, although that may not be the best word since she married Welshman John Maddox, who was later knighted, giving her the title Lady Maddox in 1995 when she was 63. She was also fond of a glass or two of Famous Grouse before bedtime. Friends, colleagues and interviewees recall her mostly from her eyes – warm, questioning, innocent but piercing. As to many of us Brits, the American accent was disarming and the English arts broadcaster Melvyn Bragg used that and her charm to good effect as an interviewer on his radio and TV broadcasts.

One of Maddox’s most controversial biographies was Maggie: The Personal Story of a Public Life (2003). Most reviewers thought it was fascinating in that it emphasised the quiet and loving influence of Thatcher’s husband Denis on her career. But many also said it was too soon for an assessment of Thatcher, whose legacy among Britons was still waxing and waning, as perhaps it always will.

In an interview with The Herald at the time, Maddox said: “He (Denis Thatcher) was looking for a wife and she was looking for a husband, but they were absolutely delighted with each other. They gave each other a different view of the world, which the best marriages always do … he did bring fun into her life. He took her to dances, he took her abroad. She looks in the photos like a very happy, awakened young woman.”

In the interview, Maddox continued: "Work came first. In that sense, she wasn't marrying a playboy. He (Denis) liked his Jaguar and his golf - he knew how to relax, which she didn't - but as far as I know they never reproached each other for working late. He was just a jollier version of her father."

Whatever the case, the biography revealed that Denis Thatcher had been quietly pivotal in his wife’s career rather than the image as a “househusband” often portrayed in the media. Perhaps most significantly and with premonition given our current times, Maddox wrote: “She (Thatcher) saved the country and ruined her party.”

Maddox’s greatest reviews came after her award-winning 1988 book Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom. It was adapted into the movie Nora starring the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor as James Joyce and the Northern Irish actress Susan Lynch as the chambermaid Nora Barnacle, Joyce’s wife.

When Maddox approached Joycean experts about writing about Nora, they more than put her off, fearing she might harm the reputation of the great writer. “Nothing to say about Nora. Best move on,” was the response she got. But Maddox persevered. Beavering away in libraries from Dublin to Trieste in Italy, she uncovered what became known as “the dirty letters” between Joyce and Nora. Maddox then wrote a story about the woman very much behind the man. Nora, Maddox wrote, was by all accounts a very sexual lady.

Brenda Power Murphy was born in Bridegewater, Massachusetts, to a Roman Catholic household of part Irish, part Italian extraction. Her father Brendan, a doctor from an Irish immigrant family, died when she was three and she was raised by her mother Edith, her Italian grocer grandfather and their extended Italian family.

After graduating from high school, young Brenda studied English literature at what was then Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the famous women’s college which is now a division of Harvard University. It was there that she was introduced to Joyce’s first novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

On graduation, she looked for a job in journalism. She thought she could walk into the Washington Post but that was one of the most coveted jobs in the business and they turned her down. Another US newspaper, the Wall Street Journal told her, in her words, “we don’t hire women.” So she found herself writing weepy rhymes for a kitschy greetings card company in Boston. “It was pretty far from Yeats and Wordsworth and I didn't stick it out for long," she said. Eventually, she got a job with the (then London-based) news agency Reuters, where many of the world’s finest journalists began their careers.

In 1958, while on a holiday in Europe, she conned her way into the 1958 United Nations Conference on Atoms for Peace at the old League of Nations building in Geneva. To most of the world at the time, the conference meant little or nothing but it helped beget the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

The Geneva conference also changed her personal life. It was there she met Swansea-born journalist John Maddox, science correspondent for what was then the Manchester Guardian, a year later to become The Guardian. He was a divorcé looking after his ex-wife’s two young children. When he told his mother in Swansea he had fallen in love with Brenda, his mother replied: “Oh God, not a Yank!” But his family came to adore her. The couple were married in 1960 and settled in Roehampton, close to Richmond Park in south-west London. They went on to have two children of their own.

Having written a first book, Beyond Babel (1972), Maddox used her personal family experiences to publish, in 1975, The Half-Parent, about the challenges of being a stepmother. She later got a writing-from-home job with The Economist.

Lady Brenda Maddox’s husband Sir John died in 2009. Perhaps fittingly, she died on June 16, known to Joyce fans worldwide as Bloomsday, the day during which Ulysses took place. She is survived by their son Bruno and daughter Bronwen, her stepchildren Piers and Joanna, and three grandchildren.