Weaver, Harriet Shaw (18761961), political activist and journal editor, was born in Frodsham, Cheshire, on 1 September 1876, the sixth of eight children of Frederic Poynton Weaver (d. 1913), a medical doctor, and his wife, Mary Wright (d. 1909). The family was wealthy, her mother having inherited a fortune from her father, made in the cotton industry. She was educated at home, by a governess, first in Cheshire and later in Hampstead, north London. Her parents were strict and pious and though, as an adult, she rejected their evangelical beliefs, she took with her their idealism and austerity. Virginia Woolf described her as modest judicious & decorous (Diary, 13 April 1918); slim, with clear blue eyes, she usually wore her brown hair tied up in a bun. When her parents denied her wish to go to university, she dedicated herself to social work. She attended a course on the economic basis of social relations at the London School of Economics and, increasingly interested in the women's suffrage movement, joined the Women's Social and Political Union.
In 1911 Weaver began subscribing to The Freewoman, a radical periodical, founded and edited by Dora Marsden [see ]. When, in 1912, it was condemned as immoral and lost the support of its proprietors, Weaver stepped in. Over the following years she gave regular donations of money, usually anonymously, and became involved in all the details of its organization and finance, finally taking on the role of editor. Though lacking confidence in her own writing, she contributed a number of reviews (signing herself Josephine Wright) and, as editor, wrote the occasional leader article.
In 1913 The Freewoman was renamed The Egoist at the suggestion of Ezra Pound, who was involved in finding contributors, among them James Joyce. Overwhelmingly convinced of Joyce's genius, Weaver committed herself to supporting him. In 1914 The Egoist began serializing A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and, when Joyce was unable to find anyone willing to publish it in book form, Weaver determinedly converted The Egoist into a press. She not only guaranteed the new Egoist Press against loss, but also covered the production costs of the book, as well as paying Joyce serial rights and royalties, at her own expense and far in excess of what his books had actually earned. Joyce's Ulysses also made its first appearance as a serial in The Egoist before being published by the Egoist Press. It proved even more troublesome than A Portrait: it was rejected by all the printers Weaver approached, and she was advised that prosecution was certain to follow publication. When it was finally printed abroad, Weaver lessened the risk of police seizure by hiding copies of the book in a wardrobe in her flat.
From 1916 Joyce and Weaver corresponded almost daily: she commented on his manuscripts, corrected his proofs, discussed his frustrations and aspirations, and gradually became involved in every aspect of his own and his family's well-being. Though she was aware that he spent money recklessly and sometimes drank to excess, she endeavoured to provide him with an assured family income by transferring him substantial sums of her capital. Joyce greatly valued the sincerity of Weaver's opinions, and became dependent on her sympathy and encouragement. Thus he found it difficult to accept her initial reservations over Work in progress (published as Finnegans Wake), and began to interpret anything she did as a sign of betrayal. The final breach in their relationship followed Weaver's involvement in the care of Joyce's daughter Lucia, who was suffering from a severe mental breakdown. After 1935, Joyce wrote to her only sporadically and without his former frankness, but Weaver never withdrew her support. On his death she paid for his funeral, and also acted as administrator and executor of his personal and literary estates.
In 1931, Weaver joined the Labour Party, convinced that social justice, at home and abroad, could be achieved only through political action. Profoundly affected by reading Marx's Das Kapital, she was increasingly critical of the reformist Labour Party line and, in 1938, she openly declared her allegiance to the Communist Party. Over the following years Weaver (Comrade Josephine) worked on the committee of her local party, sold copies of the Daily Worker, and took part in demonstrations, first in London and later in Oxford. The last decades of Weaver's life were largely dedicated to her role as Joyce's literary executor. She meticulously researched any proposals for translation and publication, responded to enquiries from Joyce scholars from all over the world, and helped to compile The Letters of James Joyce. In 1932, T. S. Eliot dedicated his Selected Essays to her, in recognition of her services to English letters. Weaver died at her home, Castle End, near Saffron Walden, Essex, on 14 October 1961 and was cremated at Oxford. She bequeathed her extensive collection of literary material to the British Library and the National Book League.
Those who knew Weaver were often struck by the contrast between her gentle and modest personality and her avant-garde convictions. At an early age she determined that living on an unearned income amounted to usury; though she lived frugally, she was unstintingly generous and loyal to both family and friends. For many years she supported not only Joyce but also Dora Marsden, and assisted her in her philosophic and scientific research. Until recently, the importance of the publishing and editorial activities of Weaver (and other women of the period) to the modernist enterprise was underestimated. Yet, as Rebecca West wrote, had it not been for Weaver's dedication, it is doubtful whether Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom would have found their way into the world's mind (Sunday Telegraph, 11 Nov 1970).
J. Lidderdale and M. Nicholson, Dear Miss Weaver: Harriet Shaw Weaver, 18761961 (1970) · S. Benstock, Women of the left bank, Paris, 19001940 (1987) · N. R. Fitch, Sylvia Beach and the lost generation (1985) · B. Maddox, Nora: a biography of Nora Joyce (1988) · The diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. A. O. Bell and A. McNeillie, 5 vols. (197784) · R. West, Spinster to the rescue, Sunday Telegraph (11 Nov 1970); repr. in The gender of modernism: a critical anthology, ed. B. K. Scott (1990), 57780 · R. Ellmann, James Joyce (1959) · Letters of James Joyce, ed. S. Gilbert and R. Ellmann, 3 vols. (195766) · B. K. Scott, Joyce and feminism (1984) · The Times (17 Oct 1961) · The Times (19 Oct 1961)
BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 5734557365
UCL, corresp. and papers | Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, letters to James Joyce
Princeton University, New Jersey, letters to Sylvia Beach
TCD, corresp. with Patricia Hutchins relating to James Joyce
W. Lewis, oils, c.1921, State University of New York, Buffalo · M. Ray, photograph, 1924, priv. coll.
Wealth at death
£17,618 19s. 4d.: probate, 27 Nov 1961, CGPLA Eng. & Wales