Brenda Maddox, a biographer whose books included one about James Joyce’s little-studied wife and muse and another about Rosalind Franklin, an overlooked DNA researcher, died June 16 at her home in London. She was 87.
Her daughter, Bronwen Maddox, said the cause was complications of dementia. American-born, Maddox had spent most of her adult life in Britain, maintaining a dual citizenship. Maddox was especially known for “Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom” (1988), about Nora Barnacle, who became James Joyce’s wife and was an inspiration for some of his female characters, including Molly Bloom of “Ulysses.” She had received little attention until Maddox’s biography, which, Caryn James wrote in a review in The New York Times, “redefines the muse as a down-to-earth woman whose devotion was always total and never blind.”
Maddox also brought heightened attention to Franklin, an English scientist whose important contributions to the early study of the structure of DNA had gone largely unacknowledged as James D Watson and Francis HC Crick shared the limelight for their now-familiar double-helix model. (The two men, along with Maurice Wilkins, later received a Nobel Prize.)
Maddox’s biography, “Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA” (2002), “has restored to history the author of some of the most significant research into genetics,” Tara Pepper wrote in a review in Newsweek.
Maddox also wrote biographies of better-known figures, including “DH Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage” (1994); “Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of WB Yeats” (1999); “Maggie” (2002), about Margaret Thatcher, which became the basis of a four-part television series in Britain; and “George Eliot in Love” (2010).
“It’s a cliché, but my mother really was a writing machine,” Bruno Maddox said by email. “Usually the first sound I heard when I woke up, because it had woken me, was her banging away, first on manual Olivettis and Royals — always the portable ones that folded up into a suitcase — then the IBM Selectric, the loudest typewriter ever invented, and finally on a standard Dell.”
Brenda Lee Power Murphy was born February 24, 1932, in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, to Brendan and Edith (Giamperoli) Murphy. Her father was a doctor, and her mother gave square-dancing lessons. After graduating from high school in Bridgewater, she received a scholarship to Radcliffe, graduating in 1955.
Deciding to go into journalism, she was hired by The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1957, “parlaying a single freshman semester of Harvard geology — the introductory course known fondly as ‘Rocks for Jocks’ — into a position as science correspondent,” as her son put it.
In 1958, at a science conference in Geneva, she met John Maddox, the science correspondent for the British newspaper The Manchester Guardian, who would later edit the journal Nature. They married two years later, and Maddox relocated to southwest London and became a freelance correspondent for The Economist. She later became its home affairs editor. Still later she worked for The Sunday Telegraph and The Times of London.
Maddox, who died in 2009, had two children from a previous marriage, and in 1975, Maddox published a book about stepparenting, “The Half-Parent.” She tried her first biography in 1977, a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, but the experience was off-putting.
“I thought Taylor would be pleased to have the attentions of a serious journalist,” Maddox wrote in a 1999 essay in The New York Times. “She was not.” An aide to Taylor raised the possibility of legal headaches, she said, and people connected to the actress uniformly declined to talk. The experience, she wrote, left her “resolving never again to write the biography of a living person.”
Her next biography was “Nora.”
“Nora Barnacle is a reporter’s dream,” Maddox wrote in the book’s introduction, “an unexplored corner of the Joyce story. She has a legion of admirers, people, like me, who always wanted to know more.”
In the 1999 Times essay, she expanded on the project’s origins.
“There were tantalizing glimpses in Richard Ellmann’s great biography of Joyce, but no more,” she wrote. “Ellmann tried to ward me off. She was an uninteresting woman, he said, about whom there was little to say; besides, all her friends were dead, so the chances of getting new information were minimal.
“But as a longtime journalist, I knew that real people leave real traces and that any life is interesting when looked at up close.”
That life, she concluded, was reflected throughout James Joyce’s writings.
“Literary archaeologists will work for generations to tweezer out the hidden references to Nora,” she wrote in the book, adding, “They will never find them all, for only Joyce knew where they were buried.” The book was adapted into a 2000 movie, “Nora,” with Susan Lynch in the title role.
Maddox’s portrait of Franklin was just as detailed and nuanced as “Nora,” avoiding the easy assumptions that had begun to be made about the overlooked scientist.
“Rosalind Franklin has become a feminist icon,” she wrote in the prologue, “the Sylvia Plath of molecular biology, the woman whose gifts were sacrificed to the greater glory of the male. Yet this mythologizing, intended to be reparative, has done her no favors. There was far more to her complex, fruitful, vigorous life.”
In addition to her son and daughter, Maddox is survived by a stepson, Piers Maddox; a stepdaughter, Imma Maddox; and three granddaughters. Maddox liked to say, “I write for money,” her son, who is also a writer, recalled.
“This only came up at book readings, where inevitably some slow-talking oddball in the back row takes five minutes to ask you where you get your ideas,” he said. “She really had no patience for the mystical airs and graces some writers take on when describing their ‘process’ to Terry Gross,” the NPR interviewer.
“She loved the job of writing,” he continued. “The pens, the notebooks, the Post-it notes, the sound of the keys, then drafts and galleys and a big party somewhere, then wake up and start another one.”