Olivia Colman in 'Wicked Little Letters'

The True Story Behind ‘Wicked Little Letters’ — Sussex Got Saucy

The gloriously foul-mouthed Red Band Trailer for Wicked Little Letters features a British band of characters reading letters — sent from an anonymous source — including almost every swear word in the book. A not-so-polite term for a trollop. A tried-and-true yet not-so-savory term for one who engages in sexual activity. That ole goodie for a female dog. The kitten variety jargon for female genitalia. The slang, singular syllabic for ejaculatory fluid…you get the idea. (Yet somehow, with that British accent, even the most low-brow of words in the dictionary retain a certain refined flair.)

The letters send a small British seaside town into disarray, especially considering the polite society ways inherent to the 1920s time period it takes place in. How dare you utter such truck driver words while I sip my tea in the study! This is England after all. Not America! 

Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley lead the cast as Edith Swan and Rose Gooding, respectively. The former accuses the latter of penning the letters, as she is known to eschew societal standards she deems dated or pointless, yet Gooding proclaims her innocence. As the police investigate, secrets surface. Who is the true wicked wordsmith? What’s even better? This ridiculous tale is based on a true story. So, let’s dive into the historical details.

Possible spoiler warning for ‘Wicked Little Letters’ (if the upcoming film adheres to history) 

This story begins in Littlehampton — in the Arun District of West Sussex, England, during the early 20th century. When women begin receiving foul-mouthed letters, the quaint little neighborhood destabilizes. 

Tensions run high as fingers begin to point every which way. One of the women to receive a foul-mouthed letter is Edith Swan, who almost immediately accuses her neighbor Rose Gooding, whom she did not get along with. It’s clear that Edith had an ulterior motive in making this accusation, but the townsfolk quickly came to her side. 

With all suspicions pointing towards Rose, who was also of a lower class than Edith, Rose lost her freedom and custody of her daughter, according to SussexLive. Talk about class inequality. Though most were quick to throw Edith to the wolves, Inspector George Nicholls smelled something fishy. George, with the help of another woman, solved the mystery and liberated the innocent Rose. 

Turns out Edith was writing the letters all along. A little bit of handwriting analysis helped place Rose in the hot seat. And, when the detective sent policewoman Gladys Moss to watch Edith, she caught the guilty accuser red-handed, dropping one of her potty-mouthed correspondences on a doorstep. 

It was months before Edith faced the consequences of her actions; her high-class standing allowed her to dodge punishment. (Some things never change). It has since been reported that Edith went to such ridiculous-yet-creative lengths to frame Rose following a few petty squabbles and class differences. 

The film, though slated as a black comedy meets mystery, is bound to be a thought-provoking and relevant window into class differences and conflicts, and the privileges and freedoms that class and money permit. Some people are above the law…

Anjana Vasan, Timothy Spall, Hugh Skinner, Jason Watkins, Eileen Atkins, Gemma Jones, Lolly Adefope, and Joanna Scanlan round out the primary ensemble. The film is written by Johnny Sweet (Johnny English Strikes Again, Chickens, Comedy Showcase, Together) and directed by Thea Sharrock (Me Before You, The Hollow Crown, The Only and Only Ivan). Wicked Little Letters is scheduled for a February 24, 2024 theatrical premiere. 

About the author

Josh Lezmi

Josh is an entertainment writer and editor at Thought Catalog.