Book Review: Saving Lucia

“Don’t let me be remembered only as a madwoman, as a case.”

Saving Lucia, by Anna Vaught, is a fictionalised retelling of the lives of four women who, in their lifetimes, were regarded as mentally impaired. They were incarcerated and given treatments thought fitting at the time, often by renowned pioneers whose names readers may recognise. In looking at the women’s lives and the people they met and mixed with, the question is posited: how are they deemed mad and others sane?

The Lucia of the title is the daughter of James Joyce, the Irish writer best known for his wordy and challenging novels. Born in 1907, she was diagnosed as schizophrenic in the mid-1930s and institutionalized at the Burghölzli psychiatric clinic in Zurich. In 1951, she was transferred to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1982.

“St Andrew’s is quite a select place if you have the money, because you get a well-appointed room of your own to be mad in.”

During Lucia’s first few years at St Andrew’s – according to this tale – she befriends another inmate, the Honourable Violet Gibson. In 1926, Violet shot Mussolini as he walked amongst a crowd in Rome. She wishes her story to be told and asks Lucia to be her scribe. As they share their stories, those of two other women also rise.

Marie ‘Blanche’ Wittman was a prominent patient of esteemed neurologist, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot. He would exhibit her in his clinical lessons at La Salpêtrière in Paris. Under hypnosis, this beautiful woman would be presented as a model example of hysteria. One such lesson was captured in a painting by André Brouillet. Charcot was a showman, Blanche his commodity. Under the guise of teaching he offered her up for men to ogle – a curiosity without agency.

“Neurology: such detail – and he swam in its glory and down its pathways; he thought hysteria had a logic of the body.
Hmmm.
I don’t recall that he studied it in men”

The fourth woman in this imagined friendship group (who lived in different times and places) is Anna O. She was a patient of Josef Breuer who published her case study in his book Studies on Hysteria, written in collaboration with Sigmund Freud. Her treatment is regarded as marking the beginning of psychoanalysis. Her real name was Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian Jew and the founder of the League of Jewish Women.

What these four women have in common, as well as their purported mental conditions, is the power others had over them and how this was was misused.

“women of her time could find no outlet in ‘a cold and oppressive conventional atmosphere’ to satisfy their passion and intellect. They were not supposed to have ‘any occupation of sufficient importance not to be interrupted'”

The book’s brilliantly written opening chapter pulls the reader in. From there the narrator’s voice is established – a somewhat frantic and illusory remembrance of various events from each of the character’s histories. Gradually the reasons for their incarcerations are revealed along with the direction their lives subsequently took. In giving them a voice, the author also asks what they would have done instead if given the choice.

Lucia Joyce’s letters, papers and medical records were destroyed at the behest of her surviving family – an attempt to expunge her existence. Violet Gibson was moved to a shared ward when her family wished to save themselves money towards the end of her life. Marie Wittman was taken on by Marie Curie as an assistant to work in the Paris laboratory where, in 1898, radium was discovered – she suffered debilitating health issues as a result of this work. Bertha Pappenheim recovered over time and led a productive life – the West German government issued a postage stamp in honour of her contributions to the field of social work.

These stories of vital, intelligent women whose lasting history is remembered largely through what they were to famous men make for fascinating reading. Mental health is still widely regarded as an embarrassing condition best kept hidden away – the author has given voice to those who, for fear of consequences, were forced to submit silently and kept in captivity. Readers are reminded that captivity does not always require rooms and keys.

There is much to consider in this poignant and impressive story. Although certain threads are not always the easiest to follow due to the fragmented structure, it is worth pursuing for all that comes together at the end. This leaves a powerful and lasting impression as well as a new lens to look through at some of the supposed titans of science. A layered, affecting and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bluemoose Books.

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4 comments on “Book Review: Saving Lucia

  1. I’m very keen to read this – her story is so sad.

  2. MarinaSofia says:

    Very interested in this book!

  3. This sounds fascinating. (And like one for *next* year’s Wellcome Book Prize longlist — here’s hoping!) I know you’ve also read Lucia by Alex Pheby. How would you say this novel compares? And then I also have another novel about Lucia Joyce on my TBR list, The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs. It would seem sensible to cut down from three to just one…

    • Jackie Law says:

      Lucia by Alex Pheby is very different because it tells her story evasively (although powerfully – she was not allowed a voice in her lifetime or after). This focuses on four women to demonstrate that women were routinely silenced, including using incarceration. It is a layered and fragmented tale but the structure and language prove affecting and effective. Who is mad and who sane in a society that demands compliance to rules that cause untold harm to so many?

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