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Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman in Wicked Little Letters

The true story of the foul-mouthed poison pen letters that inspired Olivia Colman's new film

Historian Emily Cockayne discusses the Littlehampton poison pen letters, the case that provided the historical basis for 'Wicked Little Letters'

Rose Gooding played by Jessie Buckely (left) confronts Edith Swan played by Olivia Colman (right) | Image: Courtesy of Studiocanal UK

Wicked Little Letters, a new film starring Olivia Colman, tells the story of a farcical and sinister scandal in a 1920s English seaside town. When Edith Swann (played by Olivia Colman) and fellow residents begin to receive threatening letters full of unintentionally hilarious profanities, foul-mouthed Irish migrant Rose Gooding (Jessie Buckley), is charged with the crime. The anonymous letters prompt a national uproar, and a trial ensues.

The historical basis of the film was provided by the Littlehampton letters, explored by cultural historian Emily Cockayne in two books, Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours and Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters. The case first appealed to Cockayne because it highlighted the problem of entwined lives that she addressed in her 2012 book on neighbour relations.

But she couldn't let the case go. The relationship between neighbours is based on the ‘recognition of each other's secrets’ explains Cockayne. So, when she came to work on a new project about poison pen letters, she knew she had to include the Littlehampton case. After all, 'shame and secrecy are a big component to poison pen letters'.

‘The letters tap into a general circulation of bad language in these communities’

The Littlehampton letters started in 1919 with the two neighbours, Edith Swann and Rose Gooding, whose close friendship breaks down after Edith reports Rose to the NSPCC. Soon after, Edith and other members of Littlehampton start receiving poison pen letters full of threats and bizarre obscenities. As Cockayne puts it, ‘You can't imagine, genteel society taking too well to this’. Indeed, the letters were not read out in court to spare the jury’s blushes.

Modern audiences might be surprised that people would use such foul language in the 1920s, including the C-Word. ‘The letters tap into a general circulation of bad language in these communities’ explains Cockayne. ‘Swear words were in more common usage than the period let us know.’

While swearing may have been more commonplace than assumed, it was very unusual for a woman to swear in public, let alone write expletive-filled letters. This in part explains why the Littlehampton letters were such a scandal. Emily points out that ‘It would have been very common for men to write letters like these’, but the difference was that men were allowed to get away with this behaviour. In some cases, men would claim they had been ‘mesmerised’, drunk or suffering from the flu. When women start writing the letters ‘the whole law book is thrown at them’ explains Cockayne.

A picture of Emily Cockayne
Emily Cockayne | Image: Photo credit is Maud Webster

Cockayne’s book covers numerous cases of poison pen letters and she see a common thread. ‘It's about women not being able to live lives that were fulfilling. So, either they didn't have the children they wanted, or they didn't have the opportunities to use their brains. So, they got obsessed with little details of neighbouring life. I look at five different cases in the fifth chapter, repenting poison, and they’re similar some of them to the Littlehampton letters.’ The film distils details of the other poison pen cases of the time, some of which were featured in Cockayne’s book. 

'We have no idea what it would be like to be in each other's pockets in these small communities.'

Cockayne, who collaborated with director and writer Jonnny Sweet on the screenplay, admits ‘It was such a moment of learning for a historian about narrative arcs and how you can sort of you can tell a bigger story just very quickly with a little incident happening.’ Some aspects of case had to be condensed to fit the story into a feature film length, however, historical accuracy was still important.

The film shows life in the 1920s in its unglamorous details. This is not Downtown Abbey but a world where neighbours would share baths and toilets, where there was no running water or telephones. Though it is the lack of privacy that audiences may find strangest. Cockayne explains ‘Everybody knew what was going on. We have no idea what it would be like to be in each other's pockets in these small communities. The whole case stems from these “entwined lives” from neighbours overhearing and observing everything and lack of privacy.’

Jessie Buckely as Rose Gooding is surrounded by police officers as she is being arrested
Rose Gooding is played by Jessie Buckely (centre) | Image: Courtesy of Studiocanal UK

While the world of the 1920s may seem alien to many, hate-filled anonymous messages are very much of the zeitgeist on X and other social networks. How much similarity does Cockayne see between poison pen letters and today's social media?: ‘The letters are different because they go into your house, and they're tangible. In that respect, I think they were more threatening. However, online there is the same disinhibition though the audience is so much bigger with a broad audience, so you're publicly shamed. It's similar, but it's slightly different.’

One person not used to being publicly shamed is the universally adored Olivia Colman. 'She can't do anything wrong' says Cockayne who also praises the casting of Jessie Buckley who 'brings the Irishness which is perfect, because a lot of the cases in the book involve Irish women'. Having spent so much time thinking about the case, and now seeing it live on screen, what does Cockayne hope audiences will take from the film? 'Life in the past was both a little similar to how it is now but also incredibly different' stresses Cockayne.

'Bringing this case to audiences hopefully will make people think a few things: One is the limitations that women were suffering in the early part of the 20th century and how that created frustration and how sometimes people would work through those frustrations in quite strange ways. And also, that the legal system did not like the fact that women were exercising any mild freedoms they had in order to write obscene or threatening letters'.

Wicked Little Letters is released in cinemas  on Friday 23 February. Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters and Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours both by Emily Cockayne are published by Oxford University Press.