Tag Archives: psychiatry

What’s Passerines about? Here. “What do you know, who has not been mad?” and “Those who are confined have the best imaginations.”

Don’t nick it. It be @copyright Anna Vaught

Passerines. A synopsis

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, got to taste full liberty, revisit and reshape their pasts, their futures, make us question what we think madness is – and kill Mussolini? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as Violet Gibson, the key protagonist of the book would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

This story is grounded in truth but, as historical fiction, it fills in the many gaps by imagining the interior lives of its four female subjects, and lends it a supernatural air in Violet’s invoking of the birds of the air (and with them, the birds of religious texts and iconography) to help her connect with other three (apparently mad) women, and their tortured lives. In 1926, in Rome, Violet Gibson, an aristocrat, tried to kill Mussolini, having previously failed to kill herself. Violet was not the best shot. Mussolini was struck on the nose and though he bled copiously, he lost only a divot of flesh and was soon off, bandaged, to carry on; plans of Il Duce, Mare Nostrum and the creation, he thought, of his Augustan Empire. Meanwhile, Violet was trampled to the ground, taken to prison, placed in a lunatic asylum and then, by the grace of Mussolini (and with copious thanks from the Foreign office, her father the Fifth Baron Ashbourne, and Winston Churchill) she was deported and placed, for the rest of her life, in St Andrew’s Psychiatric hospital in Northampton. She petitioned for release for the rest of her life, but was always refused; many of her own letters remain, unsent (contravening the 1890 Lunacy Act). She died in 1956, was denied the burial she requested and rests in a shabby corner of a a municipal ground. This much is true.

For the last few years of Violet’s life, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was incarcerated at St Andrew’s. She also died there, in 1982, and is buried steps away from Violet, away from the family grave in Zurich: isolated, arguably in death, as in life, like Violet, her records and letters burned or sealed by decree of the keeper of the Joyce flame. Lunatics both, these women. Of course. That must be true, musn’t it?

Meanwhile, not so long ago, Blanche Wittmann dances and crawls like a dog while under the hypnosis of the great neurologist Dr Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Le tout Paris turns out to see her; she is painted, in a state of hysterical glamour, by the fêted Andre Brouillet and Le Tout Paris turns out to see her. Dr Freud observes and learns and is fascinated, though he comes to a different conclusion; that it is psychiatric, not a disease of the nerves. When Blanche goes back to her room, or rather cell, alongside the other eight thousand mad women at the hospital, the evening continues elsewhere in fine apartments with absinthe and a tinkling piano. Just a little after Blanche, comes Anna O; a woman who retches at water, swerves between languages and tells stories like those of Hans Christian Anderson. She suffers hallucinations of snakes, has paralysis and a persistent choking cough. Anna O becomes a patient of Dr Breuer and, later, a subject in Dr Freud and Dr Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria. Blanche never leaves the Salpetriere, but later works in one of the laboratories while, paces away, Marie Curie experiments with pitchblende. At some point, Blanche disappears from records and we do not know where she is buried; Anna O, meanwhile, remains a mystery until, in 1953, twenty years after her death, she is discovered to be Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish pioneer in women’s rights, sometimes referred to as the first social worker. What she has built is later razed by the Nazis. These women are the four majestic feebles (as Lucia Joyce has it) of the story.

The story imagines what their lives were like as patients and how it might have been were all these women to be free and meet and have an adventure together; from the Ireland of Violet’s youth, to Vienna, Paris – a meeting with James Joyce. It is also an alternative history: had Anna O ever been free, a voyager, a scientist; had Bertha found the love she hoped and her work not destroyed; had Lucia written her novel, been able to carry on dancing, as she had been trained to do by Margaret Morris, William Morris’s grand-daughter, had she been able to have the work she was offered at the Gotham Book Mart in New York or to be a tumbleweed at Shakespeare and Co in Paris: had she got out; had Violet been successful in securing the end of life she wanted, a Catholic burial and to change history: had they all been with her, that day, on Campidoglio, in Rome, 1926, and all held a Lebel revolver – and killed Mussolini.

Why Passerines? Because part of Violet’s therapy in the psychiatric hospital was to go outside to feed the birds, of which we have a deeply moving photograph. She communes with them, and the birds of the air make sure, through a kind of magic, that her letters to Blanche and Anna O arrive, just as they stimulate her to thoughts of freedom, possibility and to whisper to Lucia Joyce through the walls of the asylum. Does any of it really happen? We return to the question posed by all the women: “What do you know, who has not been mad?” – and Lucia Joyce, who never got out, lays a passerine on the grave of her friend.

Passerines: some epigraphs for a new book

I find I vary how I write. With this book – Passerines, a series of interlinked stories about Violet Gibson, Lucia Joyce, Marie (‘Blanche’) Wittmann and Bertha (‘Anna O’) Pappenheim  and of psychiatry – I have tinkered with the beginning because it began life as a short story – and have now lunged into what is sometimes known as the ‘Frankendraft’! So I have 50,000 words to write and I will not read the book back now until it is all done. Then I will attack it with some vehemence.

BUT I have allowed myself two things to help me think. (In addition to the ongoing reading for research).

Although I have a rough plan sketched out, I have decided to write a proper synopsis, even if this is chucked out later – inspiration invariably striking not before but while one is writing. And also, it helps me to look at other books. That is, dipping into things, beyond what I might read for pleasure or research. I read all the time…but it is like magic.

There are lots of books in our house; the house is heaving with them; only yesterday, a cat was almost squished by a tumbling tower of books yet to shelve (or rather as we are waiting for Pete The Shelves to come and shelve for us). But as I was saying, I have been reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. It is magnificent; its beauty makes me cry – and this rarely happens – that I will find a book so affecting. And there it was: the description of boy Eugene, who is Wolfe himself, bounded in by his imagination, knowingly so, and living lonely in its country. And projecting what is required onto the world. I copied it. This is a key theme in Passerines. When you are someone else’s subject or subject to someone else, what might happen to your interior life?

Then…my hand brushed against William Empson’s Collected Poems. I’m sorry if this makes me sound like an utter tosser (‘Ooooh – my hand brushed against a book and it was the very book I needed…’), but this is exactly what happened. I was getting Some Varieties of Pastoral down because I need it for an A Level class on genre. And I suddenly thought of ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’ and its startling pairing of the girl who ‘can’t go on laughing all the time’ with the image of the tortured Christ after this mischievous villanelle. And you see, Passerines has both spirited girls and women and those same people encaged by madness and circumstance – in two cases incarcerated for life and in one almost erased from records  – and a study of both faith and imagination. It begins with Violet Gibson, the Irish aristocrat who shot Mussolini, was almost lynched, then pardoned by Mussolini (who himself drew his life as if it were the Passion of Christ and spoke of the prefuguration of his death) and then sent to St Andrew’s Asylum (as it would have been known) until the end of her life. The one picture we have there of Violet is unbearably touching: in her greatcoat in the grounds, feeding the birds, her stance reminding us of Giotto’s St Francis.

So, I realise this will not make total sense. Bear with me. I am fleshing things out. I know this is a rather a WTF sort of post. (Very literary, along with ‘tosser’: apologies.)

As I write, I’m still doing bits and pieces on mental health connected with my first novel, Killing Hapless Ally, and that has only been out eight months. I have sent my second book, a novella, The Life of Almost, out on subs to a small selection of presses and agents. Has it had rejections? Well, of course. Interest? Oh yeah. So I am a bit tense. And while this is happening, I am writing a third book, a novel, using the ‘Prolifiko’ app and setting my target to 3,000 words a day. I am told this is a lot, but if I don’t make it, the app is at least a prompt and very encouraging: a little cheerleader for me. In other news, I am thinking about applying to pitch at the London Book Fair (dependent on what happens in the next week or so, I think – as deadline’s approaching), I’ve applied for Womentoring  ( a fine free mentoring service, where an established author guides one at an earlier stage) and asked for Antonia Honeywell (am I allowed to say that?) because I feel passionately that I will find nurturing in such a project and she seems utterly delightful, a wonderful writer and frankly, I thought she might ‘get’ me, also managing a large family! Does that sound odd? And up ahead, Essex Book Festival in March to read my work in Refugees and Peacekeepers (a Patrician Press Anthology) and there’s a Birkbeck day I’d like to go to in May…

Back to the epigraphs. Synopsis follows soon: did you know there’s good money in Mills and Boon? More on which another day…I write well on hospitals, sex, Horlicks from the trolley and death. You’d be amazed at the categories extant in M&B!

‘The prison walls of self had closed entirely round him; he was walled completely by the esymplastic power of his imagination – he had learned by now to project mechanically, before the world, an acceptable counterfeit of himself which would protect him from intrusion.’

Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel, 1929, chapter fifteen.

‘Love rules the world but is it rude, or slime?

All nasty things are sure to be disgraced.

A girl can’t go on laughing all the time.

Christ stinks of torture, who was slaked in lime.

No star he aimed at is entirely waste.

No man is sure he does not need to climb.’

From William Empson, ‘Reflections on Anita Loos’, 1937.

‘The bird could also be seen as a symbol of the Resurrection of Christ. A non-Biblical legend popular in the Middle Ages related how the child Jesus, when playing with some clay birds that his friends had given to him, bought them to life. Medieval theologians saw this as an allegory of his own coming back from the dead. In another legend, when Christ was carrying the cross to Calvary a small bird – sometimes a goldfinch, sometimes a robin – flew down and plucked one of the thorns from the crown around his head. Some of Christ’s blood splashed onto the bird as it drew the thorn out, and to this day goldfinches and robins have spots of red on their plumage. Like the cross that Christ wears around his neck, therefore, the goldfinch might be read as a prefiguration of his Passion.’

From ‘The Goldfinch.Signs and Symbols’, notes in web text from the Ftizwilliam Museum, Cambridge.