The Women of Saving Lucia

Notes on the story.

Saving Lucia, my next book, is a work of fiction, but I have drawn on much factual material to imagine it. I have also threaded my personal experience through the book; I say a little about that below.

I cannot guide readers’ responses to the text, nor how the characters and themes are responded to or managed in any media, but I do want to say this. It is important to me that we think carefully about the women in the book. Three were committed for life and one was periodically cared for in a sanatorium and under psychiatric supervision and also an important case study. But they were all from different walks of life and one is on a postage stamp (again, read on). So I thought, to avoid any notion of lumping these four women together, I would give you some biographies below. 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. And it’s playful, too; there are James Joyce and Samuel Beckett threads running through it – and I will be so delighted if readers begin to pick up other things, too; little allusions, jokes, references to paintings, religious texts and poems. Do you know that, when I was at my worst, but also when I was a terrified child lying there in bed – ach, God; I can feel it now – consumed by ruminating thoughts and going on to manage obsessions and compulsions – it was reading and what I created in my imagination that saved me. Alternative realities, imaginary friends, solutions, talismans and mantras. 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.

The other thing I wanted to say is that, if you have been mentally ill, as I have been periodically during my life, you can feel disenfranchised and disempowered. It depends on your carers and the attitudes of those around you, your friends and family, of course, but the feeling of being patient perpetual is wretched. During significant periods of my life I have not been able to do many things I wanted to do; I have missed many opportunities and I have been shamed. I have felt silenced not because I do not speak and was not articulate, but because my testimony was not listened to; my judgement doubted. Or because someone seemed to speak for me. That was particularly awful, but it meant that I decided very early on that I would always speak openly about what has happened with me – major depression, generalised anxiety, OCD, insomnia, auditory hallucinations and flashbacks (because of complex trauma) and dissociative episodes – in order to make it easier for maybe one other person.

Those with mental health disorders may feel vilified by the language of it used by those who should know better – those in position of power or who disseminate information in some way; tabloids – even medical professionals sometimes. But one in four people is affected at any one time by a mental health problem, so there but by the Grace of God…There should be no stigma; no shame. And finally, I am out in the world never quite better. I am not sure I ever will be. But so what? You do not have to be to be loved, productive, working, whatever – out there. I believe that passionately.

I will write more as Saving Lucia is published.

Violet Gibson

Violet Gibson 1876-1956, was the daughter of an Irish aristocrat, Lord Ashbourne. He was a lawyer, MP and Lord Chancellor of Ireland, later created First Baron Ashbourne. In 1926, in Rome, Violet shot and wounded Mussolini—hitting him on the nose so only a divot of flesh was removed. Violet was beaten by the crowd, briefly imprisoned, put on trial, committed to a lunatic asylum in Rome and then deported and sent in 1927 to St Andrew’s Infirmary Northampton (a psychiatric hospital which today is Britain’s largest), where she remained for the rest of her life.  Previously, she travelled widely in Europe, was interested in art, literature, theology and the contemplative life; schooled into Christian Science by her mother (who was devoted to it), but ultimately rejecting it, Violet maintained an interest in Theosophy and was received into the Catholic faith, much to the dismay of her parents.

By some accounts, Violet may have first intended to shoot the pope, but perhaps assessing Mussolini and what she saw him to be, she changed her target. Understanding why she should set out to do what she did is fascinating. Was it a criminal act? Clearly. Was she in leave of her faculties when she shot him—insane—or did she think it was something that had to be done for the good of the world and could be justified before God, with herself as martyr to its cause? She was a deeply spiritual woman of passionate ideas and her notebook (in the possession of the Ashbourne family) does indeed show that she considered the assassination a Godly act and ascribed to herself the role of martyr to that cause; this is referred to in the text. Violet’s story throws up many troubling questions, not the least of which are how we define sanity and what we interpret religious devotion to include. As I ask this, I offer another strand of enquiry in this book: who is making, in these women’s timelines, the decision? Moreover, who is mad here? How could it be that Violet were ever considered more dangerous than Mussolini?

I also wanted to ask, as I wrote, what would have happened had she not missed that day, Rome 1926? What if she had had help and the target was hit? Might we be lauding her? To deconstruct history and provide a full  alternative version of events was beyond the scope of this book, but some offers are made. As they are of what Violet Gibson might have become, possessed of steely determination, wit, cunning, a beautiful imagination and a devout soul, if she had been free; if she had been well? Or rather, imperfect and out? As her case had been discharged, she could have been released from St Andrew’s, but she was not, though she petitioned for her release over many years. Some of the notaries to whom she wrote—including our present queen as a young woman—are mentioned in the book. The Gibson family was well connected and Lord Ashbourne had known King George VI.

Lucia Joyce

Lucia Joyce, 1907-1982, was the daughter of the novelist, James Joyce. She, too, was committed to St Andrew’s (in 1953) and remained there until the end of her life. We have very little information about her time at St Andrew’s as letters, pictures and records held by the estate are withheld or have been destroyed. My heart breaks for her. Diagnosed with schizophrenia in Zurich, and briefly a patient of Jung (with various professionals disputing what was wrong with her, if anything substantial at all), Lucia was committed in France (in a straitjacket and into solitary confinement) and thereafter into care at Ivry, under Dr Delmas, whom she mentioned here. I hope to winkle out that story another day! Lucia underwent blood tests at St Andrew’s and stayed there for a brief while during Joyce’s lifetime, but Joyce resolutely refused to have her ‘incarcerated among the English’. However, Lucia was finally committed at St Andrew’s ten years after their father’s death. It appears that she might have remained indefinitely in France, but friends of the family suggested she be brought to England, after the death of Dr Delmas at Ivry. Her mother, Nora, did not visit her when Lucia was resident at any hospital; we know that her brother Giorgio visited her at St Andrew’s on one occasion.Lucia is alleged to have had an affair with Samuel Beckett who did indeed visit her at St Andrew’s and it is known that his share of the royalties from his contributory essay on Finnegans Wake, Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress went to help pay for Lucia’s confinement at St Andrew’s. 

James Joyce, it seems, did what he could to make sure Lucia was cared for; shortly before his death in 1941, he moved heaven earth to try and get her out out of Occupied France and make sure she was safe; the relationship between them was abiding, they were said to have shared a private language and it is possible, although we do not know to what extent, that Lucia contributed to his work, particularly to Finnegans Wake, and that she was his muse. Joyce’s letters show his anxiety about  his daughter and Joyce, in his letters, said that he wondered whether he had, through transmitting a spark of inspiration to Lucia, kindled ‘a fire in her brain’. Lucia had lived a peripatetic life with her parents and had trained as a dancer. Reading about her is to see a life of humour, adventure and a complex family; a strained and difficult relationship with her mother and sibling. We do not know anything which passed, if it ever did, between Violet and Lucia and their time at St Andrew’s overlapped by only a few years, during some of which Violet was frail and ill. However, it is not entirely unreasonable to think they may have met, so the story imagines, partly, such a time, its themes and title stimulated by a picture (shown at the beginning of the book) of Violet Gibson in St Andrew’s which remains: a delicate and elderly looking lady, in a winter coat, feeding the birds from her hand as she stood in the garden of the hospital. The two women are buried near each other in Kingsthorpe Cemetery, Northampton. 

Blanche Wittmann

Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittmann. 1859 (possibly) -1903 (possibly). I have written Marie as her birth name, but in going over what records there are, there appears to have been some doubt about her name and its spelling. Blanche was, however, the name she held during the famous sessions at the Salpêtrière, Paris. Blanche was known as the ‘Queen of the Hysterics’ and, while being treated at the hospital, Charcot, at the time one of the most famous doctors in the world, a professor of pathology and a neurologist, used her 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. Freud was much influenced by the work of Charcot and observed his work, although he came to different conclusions about the causes of hysteria, attributing them instead to psychiatric causes. It is observed that Blanche never left the Salpêtrière; this much is true, but she went on to work in a radiology laboratory there while, not far away, Marie Curie carried out her pioneering work. During the course of writing this book, I saw that fictional elements invented by Per Olov Enquist in The Story of Blanche and Marie were assumed to be true, by reviewers and in factual pieces upon her. Enquist makes Blanche Charcot’s lover but also turns her into Curie’s assistant and later her confidant when Curie’s husband, Pierre, is killed; he shows Blanche as having lost both legs and an arm during their work on pitchblende, continuing her work, moving about as a torso on a purpose-made trolley and gives us Blanche’s notebooks: yellow, black and red and all three encased in a brown envelope marked ‘Book of Questions’, a fascinating insight into her life and work, with Curie and Charcot. But these are fictional things. Going through records, articles—even a more recent riposte published by a neurologist in ‘The Lancet’—gives us a clearer picture. That a gripping fiction would so readily be assumed as fact is interesting in itself. Some might argue shaming. Was she not already fascinating enough? This much is alluded to in Saving Lucia. But please, although I include much that is real, do not assume my historical fiction all to be true, because that desecrates the memory of a real person: a person I found captivating and sought to know and respect.

At the  Salpêtrière, Charcot had kept a vast number of photographs of patients; he also had a lasting visual record of Blanche, in the painting by André Brouillet of 1887, a group tableau portrait called ‘A Clinical Lesson at the  Salpêtrière’, which is referred to in this book, with Blanche providing an arresting, even glamorous figure, under the mesmerism of Charcot. The painting is reproduced here. She is quite the spectacle, isn’t she?


Bertha Pappenheim (Anna O as a case study)

Bertha Pappenheim—or Anna O, as she was called in Freud and Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria—lived from 1859-1936. For years, her real identity was not known. She was named ‘Fraulein Anna O’ by Breuer, sometimes referred to as ‘the grandfather of psychoanalysis’; an Austrian physician and physiologist who worked with Anna and studied her deterioration, the auditory disturbances, lapses in consciousness and other phenomena from which she suffered. He applied a  number of methods, all of which are outlined in Studies (above) and considered her cured; however, Anna O experienced other periods of ill health during her life and periodically returned to a sanatorium to get better. There are various theories posited about what ailed her—from frontal lobe epilepsy to encephalitis, to, of course, Freud and Breuer’s theories on the nature of hysteria. It is Anna O who, in Freud’s hands (though she was Breuer’s patient), was considered, through the phrase she coined—the talking cure—to have helped Freud develop his theory of psychoanalysis. When Ernest Jones published The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud in 1953, it was revealed that Anna O was Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish feminist, social pioneer and founder of the Jewish Women’s Association. She was also an author of children’s books, prayers and poems. She did not refer publicly to the specific medical treatment she had received, but it appears that she may have been, afterwards, sceptical of it and did not accept such support for the women who were later in her care.

I think Bertha must have been a remarkable and courageous woman; her work had lasting impact; she was, as I said, a pioneer, working with people who were disenfranchised, with young women, pregnant unmarried mothers, caring for them and helping to care for their babies. I won’t tell you the whole story because it’s in the book, but some of her work was razed by the Nazis; she did not live to see that.

Reading, sources and acknowledgements

So just to reiterate, part of the stimulus for writing about mental illness comes from my own jagged experience and from my own shifting notion of what constitutes sanity and who it is defined by. Society? The DSM? Is it culture bound? Sometimes, even an excuse to rid civilisation of its undesirables, whether it be from eugenics, being round the bend, up a curved drive, or having your records burned and your letters unsent so that you can be contained.I have had many different and multiple tags. I know what it is to self harm and what might lead you to try and take your own life; I see what assumptions have been made and are made about mental illness and I also know what it is to be shamed for  problems you did not choose and tried your level best to control. 

Families have a vital role to play here; were you to be categorised, put away or, through disgust or misunderstanding, denied what is your pressing reality, the outcome could be tragic. I feel very sad when I reflect that, across my own two families, more could not be done because open discussion was impossible. I understand why and respect why, but it made difficult things more complex and interred, embedded things that should have been raised, discussed and thus healed, or given the potential to heal. So yes: the last thing in that list happened to me, a pressing reality denied, but 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!) And even now, where this choice and admission to hospital may be (it is not always, of course) voluntary, then as the psychologist Dorothy Rowe puts it in Depression. The Way Out Of Your Prison (Routledge, 2013), the decision to go into hospital is (still) a difficult one because once you start going down this route, it can be hard to get off it. But go elsewhere for my story, or do, please, feel that you can ask me about it @bookwormvaught or at

And if you are managing or really struggling with mental health problems, I send you all my love. x