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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.