Today I’m delighted to be part of the blog tour for The Joyce Girl. I have a brilliant guest post to share, which Annabel Abbs has written for me about mental health issues. It’s such an important and relevant piece so please read and share it.
The Joyce Girl tells the mostly-true story of Lucia Joyce, a talented dancer and the daughter of James Joyce. Set in 1920s Paris, the novel explores Lucia’s affairs with a young Samuel Beckett and a young Alexander Calder, and her subsequent descent into what was then termed ‘madness’.
When I decided to write about Lucia, I knew she ended her days in a mental asylum, friendless and forgotten. But what I didn’t know was how many other women in 1920s Paris had followed suit. As my research deepened, I came across more and more ‘bright young flappers’ who, like Lucia, were certified as insane and put into mental asylums. In The Joyce Girl alone, three of the six female characters (all based on real people) went into asylums – all certified as schizophrenic. These included Lucia’s sister-in-law, and a fellow dancer -Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of the characters who inhabited earlier versions of the novel (the sister of Lucia’s first love interest and the French translator of Joyce’s Dubliners) also went into an asylum. Sadly she was lost from the novel when I cut the cast to a more manageable size.
In those days, any adult male family member could have a female family member certified. And once you were certified you lost all your legal rights. Lucia was subjected to a catalogue of often bizarre and sometimes inhuman treatments. She was regularly straitjacketed and locked up. In an age when there was no specific medication for mental health disorders, and when mental asylums were full of drunks, drug addicts and syphilitics, her experience must have been terrifying. And Lucia loathed being restrained. After being a dancer who expressed herself through her body, being forced into a straitjacket was a particularly cruel and violent act.
This was also an era when ‘madness’ was often viewed as shameful. Although Lucia’s father stood by her to the very end, her mother and brother were only too ready to cast her off, seeing her not only as a taint on the family’s reputation but as a drain on the family finances. In my Historical Note, I quote from a letter in which they are united as saying Lucia should be ‘shut in and left to sink or swim there.’
Fortunately huge progress has been made in the area of mental health. But while I was writing The Joyce Girl, I became increasingly aware of a surge in mental health issues at the schools of my three daughters. This was reflected in newspaper reports and professional surveys showing the surge went far beyond my daughters’ schools. Take these facts, for instance (source: YoungMinds and Beat):
- In the last ten years the number of young people admitted to hospital because of self harm has increased by 68% .
- The number of children and young people who have presented to A&E with a psychiatric condition have more than doubled since 2009.
- Since 2005-06, there has been a 34% increase in hospital admissions due to anorexia (predominantly female).
The more I researched jazz-age Paris, the more I saw parallels between the 1920s and the 2015s, as new generations (particularly, but not exclusively, female) struggled to adapt to new values, to new ways of behaving, to new ways of being viewed by others and by themselves.
The flappers of that era were ‘victims’ of the rapid change sweeping through the developed world. The 1920s were a time of huge change – cars, cameras, cinemas, telephones and radios were becoming ubiquitous and altering the lives of everyone. In Paris, hems were up and stockings were down as young women embraced change and all it promised. Suddenly cameras were everywhere, the paparazzi was born, and glossy magazines began to feature ‘celebrities’, making icons of the new Hollywood stars. In Paris Josephine Baker made naked dancing acceptable – no longer something confined to brothels. But beneath the glamour and glitter lay a dark underbelly, as many of these women succumbed to depression and mental illness. The mostly-male doctors were untrained in mental health. Psychoanalysis (the ‘talking cure’) was in its infancy and there was still a tendency to write off these women as neurotics or hysterics.
Today, technology and social media have revolutionised our world and yet beneath the glossy technicolour of Instagram and Facebook lurks a similarly dark underbelly, with soaring rates of anorexia, bulimia and self-harm among the young, and particularly (but by no means exclusively) young women and girls.
In memory of Lucia, I decided to give my first year profits to a charity called YoungMinds who work with those needing help. We’ve come a long way since the 1920s – but there’s still a long way to go. No one should ever be left to languish in an asylum as Lucia was.
About the Author
Annabel grew up in Bristol, Wales, Herefordshire and East Sussex – the daughter of two writers. She studied English Literature and History at the University of East Anglia and then completed a Masters in Marketing and Statistics at Kingston University. She started her career as a copy writer in an advertising agency then co-founded a marketing agency which she left after fifteen years to spend time with her four young children and to write. She currently blogs at http://www.kaleandcocoa.com and writes short stories and novels.
About the Book
Paris 1928. Lucia, the talented and ambitious daughter of James Joyce, is making a name for herself as a dancer, training with many famous dancers of her day and moving in social circles which throw her into contact with Samuel Beckett. Convinced she has clairvoyant powers, she believes her destiny is to marry Beckett, but the overbearing shadow of her father threatens this vision. Caught between her own ambitions and desires, and her parents’ demands, Lucia faces both emotional and psychological struggles that attract the attention of pioneer psychoanalyst Dr Jung.
You can follow the rest of the blog tour here: