Saving Lucia. On women; on men. On both.

I knew, before Saving Lucia came out, that much of the focus would be on what happened to the women of the book at the hands of men, or the way in which female identity was othered or policed by men. It is clearly a theme of the book. But there is more to say on the topic, some of which I have already raised in other articles. I have to be careful in what I say – who was responsible; which women, too – because there are real people in these books, with real relations still living, some of whom have got in touch with me (this has been one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me, by the way). So my point is to look at two things. One, the subtleties of two male characters in the book and the second, the role of the family. As I am pressed for time as I write, I am just going to refer to Violet and Lucia; later I will write a more expansive piece and look at all the women. I am also going to thread through some personal detail.

Dr Griffith, the fictional doctor in charge of St Andrew’s (a real place and still going, if you were unaware of this), is a doubting Thomas. He does his job as best he can, but he is reflective and, increasingly unsure of himself. There is something in Lady Gibson’s devotions, meditations, wit and confidence which unsettle him. He vocalises this in the book. She speaks of memory and art; of imagination and literature and seems to see, in past and future, something which, to him, is at best inchoate. But rather than bluster, he admits doubt. I think doubt is both a function of intellect and compassion. I based Griffith on my own psychiatrist, run off his feet, unsure what to do with me, as I was both simultaneously very ill and functional; as I told him what the inside of my head looked like (a little bit like Saving Lucia, as it happens) and said that I’d managed thus far, that he looked tired, had he eaten lunch and that there were people who needed him more. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. ‘Oh Good Lord. We do not talk about deserving, only about need.’ And we went on to talk about doubt, uncertainty, the things that hadn’t worked and, frankly that no, he hadn’t had lunch. He also asked me my opinion and told me that he was hesitant to do certain things and wanted to reassess others. I loved him. Because he admitted doubt. Griffith, in Saving Lucia, is kind. He is also unsure, now, of his vocation, his daily role and his past; he meditates on his past, stimulated by Violet; he thinks about being Welsh and his passivity in the face of being Anglicised by his father and, also, he thinks with a gentle sorrow about his days of learning scripture and being a church boy because he can see that faith is integral to how Violet sees the world; that the force of her nature and what sustains her seem to be predicated upon it.

As for Lucia, history shows us that no-one was an angel here, but I tried to be careful in the book and look at the role of sibling and mother. It is Violet who brings up the notion of Lucia being ‘rubbed out.’ She says to Lucia, ‘It is not right what they have done. They made you not exist, out there.’ Violet is referring to Lucia’s nephew, the late, controversial and highly litigious keeper of the Joyce estate, who was responsible for the destruction of letters, documents and records pertaining to Lucia. Hence, partly, Violet’s idea of ‘Saving Lucia’. Yes, pointing her towards freedom, but also being recorded as someone remarkable. I believe that she was. Lucia is haughtily disrespectful to her mother, rude about her brother and others and, though we see love when she speaks of a father, it is to the family that we return – that all she wants is for the parents to say, ‘You are my child and I am sorry. I am sorry.’ This was the most difficult part of the book for me to write because it draws on my personal history. It is something I wanted but could never have; I felt I had to endure its hurts again and again in hearing my parents praised as they were, until I let go. I didn’t need to forgive; I just needed to go on. Then, I was lighter. (It took a long time for the NHS to get me to this stage.) And you have to remember that if someone’s parents were not fit for purpose, they may still have deftly and meaningfully touched the lives of others. We are not one thing, as human beings – just as Saving Lucia is not only the story of men shaping the course of women’s lives. And I am shifting any binary structure in the book, anyway: reality and dreams; gender and sexuality; complicity and innocence. Life is so much more nuanced, isn’t it? That’s why Lucia asks you to remember the ‘generous ambiguity’ of what you think you know; of madness, of sanity and of life.

Lucia’s mother did not visit her at St Andrew’s ; before her committal there, Lucia was rather left behind in a French sanatorium and, when James Joyce died, she heard it on the radio, only being brought to England at the behest of a family friend. I spent a long time imagining how that time – cut off from family and listening to the radio to hear of her bereavement so impersonally – might have been and I hope I can say that, while what has happened to me is not a tenth of what she must have endured, I do have the faintest notion of it all. But when she was there, alone, there was a whole family elsewhere – not a repression by one man. I want to set that down. Think, also, of Lucia’s mention of Dr Delmas – a real doctor – in France before and during the war. She wants to know more about him; to find him perhaps and question how he kept people safe. There’s a man as protector, just as there’s a man in charge of St Andrew’s who’s made kinder and more indulgent because he has the capacity to self-reflect and to admit doubt. I am thinking about this now. There is much to say about the patriarchy, then and now, but it has been a woman – with an acquiescent man – who has wrought the most havoc in my life; while it does not colour my view of history beyond my own, it is partly this which prompts me also to lift up examples and make my own book be seen its more subtle depictions of gender and what that might mean – in all its troubling and plural forms.

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