‘Despair, rage, cage…’ – An Interview with Anna Vaught, by Thom Cuell

Saving Lucia tells the intertwining stories of two remarkable women, Lucia Joyce and Violet Gibson, contemporaries at St Andrews mental hospital. Lucia, the daughter of James, was a dancer and artist; Violet was the daughter of a Lord, who had attempted to assassinate Mussolini in 1926. Vaught’s novel is both a tender portrayal of these two lives, played out in confinement, and a broader exploration of how women’s voices are silenced, how conceptions of madness are formed and re-formed, and ways in which psychiatry has been used to police otherness.

Anna Vaught is a novelist, poet, essayist, reviewer, editor, copywriter and proofreader. She is also a secondary English teacher, tutor and mentor to young people, mental health campaigner, volunteer and mum to a large brood. Saving Lucia is her third novel, and is is out now from Bluemoose books.

Saving Lucia with Orange text and orange bird

First of all, can you give us a brief introduction to Saving Lucia?

It is 1956. We are in St Andrew’s Hospital for Mental Disorders (as was) in Nottingham. The Honourable Violet Gibson, Irish aristocrat and would-be assassin of Mussolini in Rome 1926, is dying. As part of a plan long rehearsed in her confinement, she is determined to experience  some sense of freedom, to commune, aloud with other women with whom she feels some affinity, and to try and conjure up some freedom for Lucia Joyce, her co-patient. This is the story of what it is or might to be mad, or judged mad, an imagined friendship and an exploration of the lives of four women of extraordinary provenance: Violet and Lucia, but also Blanche Wittmann, Queen of the Hysterics in 19th-century Paris, and Anna O (real name Bertha Pappenheim, though we only knew this twenty years after her death), subject of Breuer and Freud’s Studies On Hysteria. It’s a love story – friendship, but with beauty, art, faith, reading and the imagination – and also partly an alternative history: say Violet had not missed in 1926 and Lucia Joyce were not in hospital until her death… and it’s shot through with literary references and jokes, references to Joyce and Beckett, particularly – but it doesn’t matter if you know neither. It is tricksy and knowing; it is full of literary references and little jokes, but also accessible. I hope!

What drew you to the characters of Violet Gibson and Lucia Joyce?

Ah, well I know a little of what it is to be mad and subject to shifting decisions on the nature of that madness. Also, to be regarded as oddity, weird, a nuisance. I mean by those who should have better looked after me and, through my life, through feeling (because of early trauma) acutely, skin-off sensitive to comments about this. I felt for them with all my crooked heart. I knew about Lucia Joyce partly because of my interest in Joyce, but also because she was silenced in many ways, spoken for, because of the decisions made by the executor of the Joyce estate to destroy records, letters and other material. I worry, of course, about speaking for her here and try to address it in the book. Violet – I chanced upon a photo of an elderly-looking woman feeding the birds. Who was she? It was such a tender scene; they had alighted on her hands and arms. I show you the photograph in another response later.

I found out about her, read Frances Stonor Saunders’s exemplary biography of her, The Woman Who Shot Mussolini and subsequently discovered that she and Lucia were co-patients. I have an interest in the history of psychology and psychiatry and an idea began to coalesce, doing so side by side with thoughts on my own history and how I had managed it for rather a long time.

How free did you feel with the historical details of both main characters? What was your process for creating fiction from real events?

Ah, it is a mix; certainly hard historical research, retrieving where I could and the dates in the book and many historical events are factual, including lots of smaller ones and facts that are fantastical but turn out to be true – such as Violet Gibson having bird seed pouches sewn into her clothes: I found the family that sewed them too and this is why the book is dedicated to the Nursing Sisters from Roscommon. The imaginings of each interior life also draw on what I knew and I added to each one partly by reflecting again on my own history and others’: how do you bear depression, your testimony being doubted, loneliness, abuse, your narrative being stolen and being misprized. These all present radical and ongoing challenges in my life; some of them have come to the fore as Saving Lucia makes its way into the world.

Both Violet and Lucia have had their voices expunged – their letters are burned and documents relating to them are removed from archives. Is giving them a voice here a political act?

Yes. Violet’s letters were not sent (this is referred to in the book) and we know that much material pertaining to Lucia was destroyed. I would argue that gender has been a key part of, or rather conduit to, past psychiatric care – compare incarceration rates in the times when all of these women were living with those of men. So, I thought about giving women a voice, while worrying that I was appropriating a story and, in a sense, helping to expunge them by building an imaginary world around them. I do worry about that!

The book also asks you to reflect on these fascinating individuals, and others, and what construes madness. Look at the brutality and cruelty that is also adumbrated in Saving Lucia – and I mean cruelty other than by the book’s protagonists; could we describe this as sane?

Early in the novel, Violet describes being ‘compelled to burn low’ – do you see a link between the suppression of female voices in this age and the medicalisation of female emotion through psychiatry?

Yes indeed. This notion is addressed through the book; for example, in the exploration of Blanche, Queen of the Hysterics, cared for by Charcot at the Salpêtrière. Of hysteria. I refer to the rather erotic painting of Blanche, so responsive under Charcot’s hypnotism, and displayed for a room full of male professionals (though also non-medical spectators). in the painting by André Brouillet, she is an exhibit paraded and outnumbered. Interesting to read this article:  an exploration of how famous hysterics were complicit, but we have to remember that this, too, was a matter of survival for women, otherwise it was back to a cell, but even so they were still prisoners.

But it’s not black and white in terms of male doctors in the book either because in (the fictional – and male -) Dr Griffith at St Andrew’s, you have someone who is reflective and wonders if there is mystery and ambiguity in the case of Violet that is not grasped. As I say, he is fictional, but Dr Delmas, who ran the sanatorium in France where Lucia was when she heard on the radio that her father had died – it is hard to imagine – now he is not and this is a story I would like to return to.

I have noticed comments about the ‘ageing’ women of the book, but the age range is wide here and I wonder if we would be applying epithets in the same way if they were men. The notion that they must all be cracking on a bit and that is why they are a bit mad or grasp adventure when they can. I have been surprised to see this; likewise, the few links I have seen (mostly on social media) made between me, not a 25-year-old debut author, and a book about women in psychiatric care. That there is a parallel between me – someone you might assume to be overlooked or who should expect to be – and these institutionalised women. I find that shocking! I am as free as a bird compared with Violet, Lucia and Blanche; Anna O is a slightly different case (which is also addressed in the book). So, there is work to do now, as there was then.


Saving Lucia is set at a time when modernist art is sitting alongside earlier conceptions of society, and the mind – was that tension between tradition and modernity something you were drawn to whilst planning the novel?

Not consciously, but now you point it out… there is a tension between expectations of what someone with psychological problems can do and achieve and the notion of an individual being incapable of acting under their own volition. So we may consider that modernist art experiments with or throws aside earlier or given conceptions in a spirit of exploration and daring, and yet where we are in the 1950s we still have a rigidity born of extreme fear and stigma surrounding mental health.

From what I could see, for example (and no spoilers on the book but it is connected with this), the onset of new medication could have meant that Lucia, having a sponsor as she did, might have gone back into the world and had a life there, but she was detained. As I understand it, ‘insanity’ is still thought to be incurable. However, things do begin to change. For example, the first major multidisciplinary psychiatric research conference hosted by the Mental Health Research Federation took place in 1952 and that brought together a range of experts from different fields so that the topic could be approached from various angles.

But you know, even now, we may consider ourselves modern but look at the way that mental health problems are described in the press sometimes or by prominent global individuals. By our friends. Those who have told me they are glad to ‘support people like [me]’ by buying my books. The othering of that is not much beyond the first half of the century, is it? Only the other day someone I thought I knew well told me that no-one in their family had ever had any mental health problems because they were emotionally robust: that brought me up short. It was a stab, that. Those who are up and doing with mental health problems are heroic, in my book.

One of the things I picked up on whilst reading Saving Lucia was the contrast between the cultural acceptance of Joyce’s artistic voice, and the ‘madness’ expressed by his daughter – did you see that treatment of Lucia as being gendered? And is this difference in how we give weight to male and female voices something you still see in culture?

Yes, to the latter: in British society women must fight all the time against discrimination and sometimes that discrimination is insidious and hard to pin down; you realise it after the event. The issue of Violet being unable in any way to advocate for herself is explored in the book. As for Joyce as artist and Lucia as madwoman, again, I have wondered, of course. She was a dancer and artist in her own right; she made beautiful lettrines.

There is a conceit at play in my book which is that the novel is Lucia’s; in fact, it is her Work in Progress, which is what Finnegans Wake was called as Joyce worked on it. She had had a diagnosis of schizophrenia, but others and Joyce himself worried that he had ‘kindled a fire’ in Lucia’s brain, yet definitions of what was wrong with her had been shifting and conflicting. Lucia herself questions this in the book, when she asks what causes despair and a wish to be annihilated. It’s also ‘..rage and cage.’ I did question at one point if we could not refer to her as Joyce’s daughter on the back of the book. She is her own person.

As the narrative progresses, you weave in other characters like Anna O, the famous case study by Breuer and Freud. What can we learn from digging beneath the surfaces of these women’s stories, as presented by their male doctors?

That they were real and extraordinary people. Here is a story. I noticed that several critics and bloggers took the narrative in The Story of Blanche and Marie by Per Olov Enquist to be fact. (I am quick to emphasise that he clearly stated it was a novel and work of fiction.) This is addressed obliquely in Saving Lucia; we know so little about Blanche – sketchy details only – and the author tells you it a novel and a work of fiction, and yet the ‘facts’ of Blanche, in the end a torso on a trolley devastated by pitchblende and her story set down by a novelist, were assumed to be true. I cannot help but flinch at the idea of Blanche being a spectacle and displayed in front of a room full of male doctors in a hospital that at the time contained over 8,000 women. Whether or not we describe her as complicit, she was a survivor.

Anna O. That she was not only a case. That she cannot be only that. That perhaps she was sceptical of her treatment, her ‘talking cure’ – a phrase which we may attribute to Freud, but which came, from what I can find out, from her. We know that she was an extraordinary and brave woman and went out into the world caring for others and looking after those who had no other refuge: she was a prominent Jewish social worker, she was Bertha Pappenheim. When we read Breuer (and Freud – who also went to see Blanche being hypnotised by Charcot) we must look at the studies not as cases but as living, breathing survivors; as women (and men) in extremis.

Through these stories, we get a sense of society as a sort of prison without walls for women of that age; even when not actually locked up, they are still constrained by poverty and social conventions. How much do you see the treatment of Violet and Lucia as emblematic of a wider treatment of women?

Quite possibly. Troublesome women. This is tackled in the book. At the Salpêtrière in Paris where we meet Blanche – herself constrained by poverty and without connection as far as I was able to find out – we know that many, many women were admitted by their husbands, siblings or other male members of their family. This is the late Nineteenth century. Violet herself, though born into money, still appeared to have little say over the course of her life – and I mean before or after the main event that brought her to permanent incarceration; in reading about her, I found her so funny, clever and witty. I hope that comes out in the book. Lucia’s whole story or rather record of her story – and this is often visited territory – was, without doubt, circumscribed by her late nephew, Stephen Joyce, the famously litigious keeper of the Joyce estate. We are spanning a period from the late Nineteenth century to the late 1950s – and onwards (do not want to give that bit away). My heart bleeds for what happened and what still happens.

If you were an Egyptian Pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

A library? Hmmm pen and paper and an everlasting pot of tea and custard slice.

Do you have a favourite joke, proverb or quotation?

Oh, too many. How about what my nan used to say: ‘Where there’s shit there’s gold.’ It’s a way of flipping things. I have been thinking about this a lot lately!

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

Do you know, I cannot answer that because it depends on the day and my mood, but I am going to offer this, because it is the photo which began the book, Here she is: Lady Violet Gibson, would-be assassin of herself and of Mussolini, lunatic and gentle carer for the birds of the air, standing in the rose garden in St Andrew’s Hospital, a place she never left.

Featured image of Violet Gibson’s grave by Ian Macsporran / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)