It’s Harder to Sympathise with Wicked Little Letters’ True Story

The Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley film leaves out the trickier real-life details. Spoilers.

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley in Wicked Little Letters
Photo: StudioCanal/Film4

Warning: contains spoilers for Wicked Little Letters.

Wicked Little Letters is remarkable for two things: being stuffed with the kind of language to make a sailor blush, and generosity to the real-life figures who inspired its story. If the film had told the complete tale of the poison pen campaign that scandalised 1920s Littlehampton, audiences may not feel as ready to empathise with Edith Swan or Rose Gooding.

As played by Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley – two actors who never stop reminding you that no matter what despicable things their characters say or do, they’re flesh and blood people – Edith and Rose are easy to get behind. By the time Colman’s Edith is in the back of the police wagon taking her to serve a 12-month stretch for writing and sending a series of vulgar letters, the film invites us to judge everybody but her.

Film-Edith is the culprit but also a victim. Her martinet bully of a father (Timothy Spall) stands for the social rules that demand Christian propriety from women at the expense of all else, and that’s what has shaped Edith’s perverse behaviour. The release she finds in writing spiteful letters is presented as a sad consequence of the patriarchy. She’s a clever, frustrated and underestimated woman opening the only valve she sees as available.

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The film, written by Jonny Sweet and directed by Thea Sharrock, is careful to explain Edith without condemning her. Even Buckley’s Rose, the woman falsely accused and imprisoned for Edith’s crime, shares a kind word before Edith is carted off to prison. “I’ll write to you,” promises Edith. “I’ll brace myself,” jokes Rose.

Likewise, neighbour Rose is presented as a spunky modern heroine. She’s boisterous, rude, and determined to live as she pleases and cast off the constraints imposed on her sex. Film-Rose moved to Littlehampton from Ireland with a young daughter and a story about a husband who died in the war. She lives happily out of wedlock with Bill, a Black sailor who clearly isn’t her daughter Nancy’s biological dad.

The film likes and enjoys Rose, and so does Edith, who can’t hide her thrill at Rose’s social transgressions. In one scene, Edith looks on in shocked glee when Rose headbutts a local man who insults her.

Before Edith is carted off to prison, she delivers a thrilling, sweary parting shot to her horrible father. Her rant is the film’s air-punch moment, a cork finally erupting out of a bottle shaken up by decades of repression and bullying control. After a lifetime of ladylike respectability in public and at home, finally Edith gives voice to her ugliest feelings. Hoo-fucking-ray, is the general mood. Tell it like it is, sister.

The Real Edith Swan

The real-life case of “The Littlehampton Libels” makes it tougher to celebrate Edith’s behaviour. The film shows her having started the filthy letters chiefly to gain attention, sympathy and praise for her Christian forbearance. At the start of the picture, she’s sent the letters only to herself and enjoys acting the brave martyr who turns the other cheek. It’s her father Edward, played by Spall, who marches Edith to the police station to make an official complaint despite her reluctance. Film-Edith seems swept up in a situation that got away from her, and at times appears to feel regret about Rose having become her fall guy.

In the real case, Edith targeted Rose much more deliberately. It wasn’t her father who initiated the legal action against Rose, but Edith herself. In July 1920, she consulted a solicitor who launched a private prosecution against Rose. Many of the letters Edith sent weren’t anonymous either, but signed “R”, “R.G” and once, “with Mrs Gooding’s compliments.” The letters were a clear attempt to frame a rival.

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Worse, there also seems to have been an attempt on Edith’s part to frame Rose’s young daughter Dorothy (renamed Nancy in the film and played by Matilda’s Alisha Weir). Two exercise books were planted on a street near to Western Road, where the Swans and Goodings lived, and discovered to contain handwriting and expletives that matched the letters, alongside the repeated name “Dorothy Gooding” and the sentence “Inspector Thomas wants pole-axing for taking my angel mother to prison.”

The bad blood between Edith and Rose, who were previously friendly in both the film and the real case, started after a complaint was made about Rose’s household to child services. The call prompted a house inspection and no wrong-doing was found. In the film, it was Edith’s bigoted father who reported Rose to the NSPCC; in reality, it was Edith herself after she reportedly overheard an argument at Easter 1920 and suspected Rose of mistreating a child.

In the film, Edith is terrified of her father and cowed by his presence. Despite being in her 40s, she’s treated like a servant and a child by him. He rudely scrapes away uneaten food she’s cooked for him and forces her to write out verses from the bible as punishment for speaking up. There’s a sinister edge and an abusive nature to Spall’s character. Edith Swan did share a bedroom with her parents as she does in the film, but in reality, she wasn’t their only child still living at home. Edith’s brothers Stephen and Ernest also lived at 47 Western Road, and Ernest was another recipient of her poison pen letters (she sent accusations of workplace theft to his employer at a seaside hotel).

Spall’s character is also responsible in the film for having sent away Edith’s fiancé Sid on the spurious grounds of him not having been a good Christian. Edith accuses him of having done it to keep her at home, under his control. In real-life, Edith’s fiancé Bert Boxall was the recipient of one of her poison letters. He reportedly broke off the engagement after receiving one of Edith’s scurrilous letters telling him that she was having an affair with a local police officer and carrying his child.

The Real Rose Gooding

The real Rose Gooding was an Englishwoman born in nearby Lewes (where she was listed as living with her parents and infant daughter on the 1911 census) and not an Irish immigrant. In the film, Rose is presented as bravely alone in the world. When she’s arrested and asked for her next of kin, she tells the police that she has nobody. In truth, Rose Gooding lived at 45 Western Road with her husband, her unmarried sister Ruth Russell and five children including Rose’s son William and daughter Dorothy, and Ruth’s children Gertrude, William and Albert.

Rose was reported to have accused her husband Bill of sleeping with her sister Ruth, and of fathering her sister’s youngest child. One eyewitness report surmised that Rose and Bill’s marriage was a violent one, and she was seen with her eye bandaged following a heated argument. The feel-good film, understandably, strips all of that away, loses the sister and the other kids, and paints Rose and Bill’s relationship in a positive and romantic light.

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Why Did She Do It?

The truth all adds up to a much less sympathetic story than the one told in Wicked Little Letters, but also a much less satisfying one. By sanding off the real story’s rough edges, Sharrock and Sweet’s film is able to offer an answer to the question that lingered after Edith’s sentencing: why did she do it? Why sabotage her life so extensively (Edith was a laundress who wrote letters to her clients telling them not to employ her, for instance) and conduct such a spiteful campaign against her neighbour?

The film suggests that Edith’s letter-writing was a mania, and presents it as an addiction of sorts. Her father belittles her, and so she retaliates with a letter as an outlet. It’s an out-of-control habit born out of decades of gender and class-based repression. Rose became Edith’s hapless target because her untrammelled approach to social convention made her everything Edith wasn’t, and couldn’t be. It’s cruel and unfair, but there’s a reasoning to it.

Perhaps that did play its part in the real Edith’s motivation. Contemporary newspapers covering the case certainly suggested that she was psychologically unwell (The News of the World diagnosed “sex mania”) and by the 1939 census, she was living in an institution in nearby Worthing. The real details left out by the film though, change her story from one of repression and rebellion to something knottier, less feel-good, and far less easy to square away.

Wicked Little Letters is out in cinemas now.