One way and another it’s taking longer than expected to complete the Spring Spotlight guest season but as you’re about to see, it’s worth the wait. My contribution is going to be no-frills as I spent all of last week in bed with suspected Covid-19 and am under orders to ‘take it very easy’. (Despite feeling a lot better, I’m like a rag doll and therefore incapable of disobeying.)
I’m delighted to welcome Anna Vaught to the Sofa to discuss her novel Saving Lucia from independent publisher Bluemoose Books – the paperback is available directly from their website. Anna’s chosen to write about where it all began – you’ll find my short review at the end.
My new book, Saving Lucia, started with a chance sighting of the photograph below. Who was this? Elderly and frail-looking (I sensed); facing away from the camera; arms in a beautiful pose – and look how she is covered with birds! She was The Honourable Violet Albina Gibson, an Irish aristocrat, in the grounds of the psychiatric hospital where she was a lifetime patient. In 1926 Violet went to Rome and shot Mussolini. Incarcerated then deported, she was certified a lunatic in Harley Street and sent to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton where she remained for the rest of her life. I discovered Frances Stonor Saunders’s brilliant account of her – The Woman who Shot Mussolini (Faber & Faber, 2010). Ideas, some drawn from my own life, began to coalesce and slowly a book began to take shape.
Along the way I realised that Lucia Joyce, daughter of the novelist James Joyce (whose writing, particularly Finnegans Wake, along with Samuel Beckett’s work, is threaded through the book) was a co-patient of Violet Gibson. Lucia was someone whose well-explored – and circumscribed – life and truths I longed to ponder. Then, I chose Blanche Queen of the Hysterics at the Salpêtrière in Paris because I felt she was commodified in art, her suffering eroticised in a painting. I noticed that fiction about her was accepted as truth and that made me question what was at play here: dictating the testament of a presumed madwoman, obfuscation because of gender or both? Anna O was slightly different – for a start she was not a lifetime patient. I knew her as a subject for Breuer and Freud in Studies on Hysteria and was fascinated by her case and her testimony. What I did not know was that she was in fact Bertha Pappenheim, an important and influential Jewish social worker – a fact revealed in 1953, about twenty years after her death. I felt drawn to her and the fact that she was sometimes so unwell and yet was radically helpful and courageous. This is a theme in the book too – that you do not need to be wholly well to go out into the world and do extraordinary things.
Saving Lucia is a novel about freedom and adventure; about what it is to determine your own narrative and about how one might liberate the stories of others and, also preserve them. I am not saying the stories are as they would wish, because that would be appropriation; I am asking the reader only to imagine possibility with me. The book is about sanity, about madness and our shifting definitions of what this means. The story is centred on the role of our imagination and its ability to sustain and transform a world, in the books we read which have sprung like fresh miracles from others’ imaginations, but also in that landscape inside our heads. The stories we tell ourselves and our reveries and daydreams, plus the detailed imaginative freewheeling that may occur when circumstances press in on us and circumscribe our physical and psychological freedom.
Here we come to my own life, because the latter is something I learned in very early childhood and have written about elsewhere: because I did not feel safe in the world I inhabited, I invented a lot of imaginary friends with whom I would have dialogue. This was not madness, but survival and company and the impact of early and sustained traumatic experience had catastrophic effects on my sense of identity, coping skills, resilience, responses to stress and on my mental health broadly. I feel like I would not have survived these things without all the worlds inside my head. Stories, reams of poetry, psychological landscapes to populate. Moreover, I was aware of how my story had felt silenced; when I had tried to explain the origins of what happened, I was told, ‘If that had happened, I would have known’.
So, you see, Saving Lucia sprang from a chance sighting of a photo and that sighting was kept company by my own experience. It is literary fiction but there is a hard and hopeful message: mental illness is not a failure. In my mind, its management and survival make you a hero. I want to say that to anyone reading this who is struggling. I want to say that you will, in your own way, have deployed extraordinary resources to cope with this load and that you are in my heart – with all the women of Saving Lucia, of course in ‘…this strange story of women who lived and laughed and loved and left.’
Huge thanks to Anna for this wonderful and generous piece, which has acquired an extraordinary new layer of meaning since she wrote it at the beginning of March.
This novel is a successful attempt to say something important in an unusual way – poignant, enraging and amusing is a rare blend of qualities! I loved the vibrant characters and the hurtling pace and feel of the narrative. The strength of the voice struck me before I realised there were to be several, leading to frequent confusion between them (possibly exacerbated by reading it digitally). Whilst this would be a problem in a more conventional work, here it was completely in keeping, a means of immersing the reader in the characters’ worldview where the lines between reality and some better place are blurred to great effect. Many of us are currently reading in an altered state of mind and I may have had to qualify my recommendation if this novel focused too heavily on claustrophobia or incarceration; as it is, there is something joyously unfettered about the power of these women’s imagination to transcend physical confines, and that makes this a strangely timely release.
You may also be interested in Catherine Simpson’s guest post on Writing about Mental Health
Next week the series comes to a close with a visit from Stephanie Scott, author of What’s left of me is yours, on female revenge.