‘Those who are confined have the very best imaginations’
– Saving Lucia
[ About the Book ]
How would it be if four silenced women went on a tremendous adventure, reshaping their pasts and futures as they went?
What if one of those people were a fascinating, forgotten aristocratic assassin and another a fellow patient of St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital, Lucia, daughter of James Joyce; another the first psychoanalysis patient, known to history simply as ‘Anna O,’ and finally Blanche Wittmann, ‘Queen of the Hysterics’ in nineteenth century Paris?
That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it?
How would it all be possible?
Because, as the assassin Lady Violet Gibson would tell you,
‘Those who are confined have the very best imaginations’.
[ My Review ]
Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught was published with Bluemoose Books April 2020 and is a novel inspired by some of the most interesting women in the history of psychiatry. ‘Their identities have been denuded, shaped by the rhetoric’s of men, quick to deem these women ‘lunatics’, giving voice to individuals whose screams and whispers can no longer be heard.’
Having read and thoroughly enjoyed The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs and The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, I was very excited when Saving Lucia arrived in my door. Saving Lucia is a very personal book to Anna Vaught. Openly honest about her own personal battles with mental health, Anna Vaught questions her own situation- “Had I been born earlier, I might well have been somewhere different and never got out. (Actually, I might, as is raised in the book, have been admitted purely because I was difficult or in the way!)” Thankfully, we have come a long way on this journey in supporting people with mental health issues but it is still very much a challenge.
Saving Lucia brings together four renowned psychiatric patients, all female, all with their own very personal demons to battle in life. St Andrew’s psychiatric hospital in Northampton is the setting where Lucia Joyce has been a patient since 1953. Lady Violet Gibson, the daughter of an Irish aristocrat, is also at St Andrews at the same time, albeit having already spent many years there before Lucia’s incarceration. Violet Gibson is known for her attempted assassination of Mussolini in Rome in 1926. Following her arrest in Italy, she eventually was sent to St. Andrew’s where she saw out her days. Her grave is to be found at Kingsthorpe Cemetery, where Anna Vaught visited over the course of her research for this book. Lucia Joyce is also buried there.
Anna Vaught decided to create a fictional, imagined account of a friendship between Violet and Lucia, giving them a, never before heard, voice. Both were abandoned by their families and Anna Vaught wanted to give them an alternative story, one where both women developed a strong relationship and where Violet Gibson decided to aid Lucia for a life beyond the walls of St Andrew’s.
“The book is, of course, not only about psychiatry, psychology and mental illness; it is about friendship, history, the possibility of a different history, families, happiness and the potency of the imagination.”
– Anna Vaught
Through pure imagination Lucia and Violet are joined for a time in the story by two more historic figures, Blanche Wittman and ‘Anna O’. In the late 1800s Blanche Wittman was an in-house patient of the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris under the care of Charcot. It was here that he established what was to be recognised as the greatest neurological clinic of its time in Europe. Blanche Wittman was given the title of the Queen of the Hysterics and Charcot demonstrated much of his work with Blanche as ‘one of his ‘hysterics’ to demonstrate the effects of hypnosis. He would also apply magnets to her body and ovarian compression, both of which he believed would work on hysteria, which he believed to be a disease of the nerves.’
(For more see https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-women-of-saving-lucia/)
Anna O was the pseudonym given to a patient of Josef Breuer, a close associate of Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis was being explored at the time and it was Anna O who supposedly coined the term, ‘the talking cure’ based on the methods used to help her cope with her sometimes erratic mental state.
Using these four women, Anna Vaught creates an incredible and quite fascinating look at how little power they had over their own lives once they became part of the system. Mixing factual details with imagined scenarios, Anna Vaught takes her readers on a fantastical journey, giving these women opinions, voices and putting some shape to their personalities.
Written in a very unique style, Saving Lucia is a challenging read but yet, once started, it is very strangely hypnotising and compelling. Were these women victims of injustice? Were they all misused, emotionally abused, for the purposes of men? Were they ever allowed an opinion in their treatment or did they lose all personal control once they were handed over? In the book Lucia Joyce refers to this tale as ‘a strange story of women who lived and laughed and loved and left’ and it is more strange than unusual, possibly the strangest book I have read in recent times. Saving Lucia is a book that will send any reader down a rabbit-hole of research. These women deserve our attention and Anna Vaught, with pure imagination, brings them alive for a moment as they form an unlikely bond and each gets to tell their story.
Saving Lucia is a complex tale, one with many layers and a great depth. The style does take getting used to, as the writing can seem very erratic, but it makes sense as it is a conversation between four women who have known great mental struggles and pain. The underlying question being asked throughout is were these women, and many more like them, mad or just silenced in a society that did not know how to deal with them?
“The walls of the imagination are flexible. Violet knows what your imagination can do; the other women have grasped it because they had to, for survival, for their creative strains to be intact when they were presumed hysterics, thought insane.. Imagination is vast and protean. If you know nothing else from these pages, know that” – Lucia Joyce, Saving Lucia
Saving Lucia is a very affecting tale, one that lingers in the mind long after the final page is turned. The idea of trapped birds in cages is very evident throughout, which will become clear to the reader as the pages turn, for many reasons. A sadness permeates this book, an innocence stolen and left to fade away. These women made many men famous, men who have gone down in history as the forefathers of modern day psychiatrics but we should never be allowed to forget Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Blanche Wittman and Anna O (later revealed as Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish feminist, social pioneer and founder of the Jewish Women’s Association) I will leave you with the words of Anna Vaught, author of a truly extraordinary novel.
‘I have repeatedly rebuilt my mind with books and the ideas therein. THAT is why reading, thinking and imagining are key themes in Saving Lucia: the potency of the imagination. That’s it.‘
[ Bio ]
Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer, editor, copywriter and proofreader. She is also a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health campaigner, volunteer and mum to a large brood.
Anna’s third novel Saving Lucia, is about Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics under Charcot at the Salpetriere and Anna O, patient of Breuer and subject of Freud and Breuer’s Studies on Hysteria and was published by Bluemoose in April 2020.
Twitter ~ @BookwormVaught
Website ~ https://annavaughtwrites.com/