The motif of the Bird flies all the way through Anna Vaught’s novel, Saving Lucia. It encapsulates in its image a plethora of contradictory notions: freedom and constraint, strength and vulnerability, companionship and loneliness, elation and desolation. The birds that flit in and out of this novel offer both solace and sorrow to the characters that reach for them, but also for the reader who witnesses their persistent fluttering in and out of the text. Birds have always symbolised the transcendent with their casually magical ability to twist and turn high above us on the ground. Their song and motions have inspired writers for centuries, from Chaucer to Ted Hughes, but the image of the caged bird, the clipped wing, the grounded and the solitary song bird have particular resonances within women’s writing. Mary Wollstonecraft compared the condition of women as that of the caged bird; Mr. Rochester describes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre in a similar vein; and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, famously takes the motif on from the very title onwards. The recurrence of such imagery reflects not an aesthetic pre-disposition for birds, but a mirroring of circumstance through women’s subjugation which inspires a shared exploration of the idea of freedom. The desire for freedom, freedom of voice, of motive, of passion and of course, bodily freedom, falls so heavily on women’s writing that the epitome of the freedom, uninhibited bird, serves as a natural metaphor for this desire.
When we meet Violet Gibson she is feeding the birds. She returns to them again and again to find solace in the freedom afforded to them and not to her. She is one of four women in this story that have been caged within an asylum. Violet is at the end of her life and she befriends the curious Lucia who agrees to write down Violets memoirs. The other two women are Bertha Pappenheim and Blanche Wittmann. They are not present in the same asylum, but brought back to life through stories. The women traverse different spaces and times to be together in this story, where their separate stories twist and intertwine through the free-flowing words that are relayed between Lucia and Violet.
Each woman has found themselves constrained for flouting various codes of behaviour, most dramatically Violet, who is incarcerated for attempting to assassinate Benito Mussolini in 1926. Lucia is Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, who has been institutionalized as a schizophrenic. A professional dancer, Lucia is haunted by memories of her father and of her former lover, Samuel Beckett. Blanche was a patient in the Parisian Salpêtrière Hospital where Dr. Charcot made her famous through his research on her ‘hysteria’. Bertha, also known as her patient pseudonym Anna O, was also treated for hysteria, but by Josef Breuer and is immortalised as one of the case studies he published with Sigmund Freud.
These are all real women that Vaught has carefully researched and brought to life with care and consideration. The book provides a fascinating reflection on the lives of these women who are so often footnotes to the men that treated them. In Saving Lucia, their stories are reclaimed and their fates retold through Lucia’s wandering voice. They wander through the asylum together, recounting their backgrounds, early lives and their respective reasons for becoming patients in institutions. The realities of their imprisonment is dwelt, the therapy, the treatments and the ways that even from within the walls of their asylum their behaviour is criticised and mediated, much as it was mediated by the constraints of their gender outside of the facility.
This examination of these real women is illuminated by Vaught’s use of language. The language employed acts like the free-association method that Bertha utilised herself when talking to Breuer, thoughts and imagery take off and wonder through time frames and characters. At times it is hard to keep up with as it snakes around, but it cleverly articulates the thoughts of someone whose mind is deemed atypical. The text is not bound by the constraints of chronology or a prominent plot, rather it flows with Lucia as she learns more of Violet, Blanche and Bertha. It is full of all sorts of literary and cultural references, of Joycean tricks and Beckettian allusions. Imagery and cultural references recur again and again, looping the narration, giving the impression of a mind jumping back and forth.
The thread that keeps this all together lies with the figure of Violet Gibson. It is her history and her fate that the reader is keen to uncover. The motives and the manifestation of her assassination attempt keep the text moving onwards. Gibson reflects on her being deemed a mad woman when she professes that she was only trying to end the madness inspired by a mad man. She lays all sorts of questions at our feet: what if she hadn’t missed? What if Mussolini had deceased in 1926? Would the war have happened? Would the holocaust have happened? What makes a person mad in the eyes of other? They are tantalising questions, but questions that ultimately stay locked up with Violet in St Andrews as she lives out her final days where she sits day after day feeding the birds. Violet provides us with an impossible puzzle that we want to solve and her bold, impulsive act echoes all the way through the book.
Saving Lucia, is an enlightening and complex book. Vaught has excelled at bringing lives lost in the archives to life. It is not an easy to take on the task of reanimating real people, much care has to be taken when dealing with the lives of others and reimagining their intentions. Vaught has managed to create for us an insight into lives that remain untold after they are taken away to the sanatorium, to sensitively reimagine the words they might have said to one another if given the chance, that otherwise might have been lost to the wind or whispered to the birds.
Saving Lucia is published by Bluemoose Books and is available here.
Anna Vaught is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mother of three sons. She runs the Fabian Bursary, offering one to one teaching for disadvantaged you …
Reviewed by Jessica Gregory
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