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.

Book Review: Lucia

The AI sheet that accompanied my proof copy of Lucia informed me that

“Lucia is intellectually uncompromising. Lucia is emotionally devastating. Lucia is unlike anything anyone else has ever written.”

I concur. This, his second work of creative fiction based on the life of a real person, establishes Alex Pheby as a literary talent deserving close attention.

The eponymous Lucia was the second child of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle. The bare bones of her story are easily verifiable but little else is known. She was born in Trieste, Italy and lived across Europe, her peripatetic parents moving the family from hotels to shabby apartments depending on their financial status. Lucia was a talented dancer. She was Samuel Beckett’s lover. She spent the last thirty years of her life in an asylum. Following her death her remaining family strove to erase her from the public record. They destroyed her letters, removed references to her from the archives. Even her medical records were taken.

In this novel the author does not attempt to create a detailed biography. Rather he presents Lucia’s story in fragments and told from a variety of points of view. Between each chapter is a motif detailing the discovery of an ancient Egyptian tomb that is developed to serve as explanation.

The story created is shocking and affecting, presented in a manner that makes it all too believable. The voice throughout remains detached, the needs of the narrators evident even when they presume they are acting in Lucia’s best interests. The reader will feel outraged at her treatment.

The tale starts at Lucia’s end, in 1982, when undertakers arrive to collect the body of the deceased. Six years later a student is employed to burn the contents of a chest filled with letters, photographs and other effects. The thoughts of these characters offer a first glimpse of Lucia. Mostly though they focus on their subject as they go about the tasks assigned. Lucia is subsidiary, often something of a nuisance. This sets the tone for how she was treated in life.

Lucia is depicted as an object that others must deal with. If she will not comply she must be tamed. Children are expected to behave, denied agency ‘for their own good’ with resulting complaints dismissed. Troublesome little girls can be threatened to silence them.

Lucia’s relationships with various family members, especially her brother, are vividly dealt with. Whatever other’s behaviour, it is she who will stand accused of spoiling things for everyone if she protests.

As a young woman Lucia was considered beautiful. She clashed with her mother which led to her being incarcerated. The cutting edge treatments for mental illnesses at the time were experimental and horrifying.

Lucia was moved around as a cure for her behaviour was sought. After the war she was transferred to an asylum in Northampton where she spent her remaining decades. She was buried here, away from her family. Even in death they sought to silence her.

The fragmentary style of writing and the distractions of the narrators are effectively harnessed to portray the instability that was a signature in Lucia’s life. The reader is offered glimpses but always at the periphery. There is a sense of detachment, a tacit acceptance that those who will not behave as society requires are a nuisance to be subdued and hidden away.

Yet this is a story that pulses with emotion. Lucia rises inexorably from the page. The author has filled out the gaps in her history with a story that whilst unsettling resonates. That he does so with such flair and aplomb makes this a recommended read.