Mental health lessons from the 1890’s

 

“Health is the primary duty of life”, according to Algy’s domineering aunt in The Importance of Being Earnest; and such is the unhealthy effect of the aunt and other relatives on his mood, that in order to see them no more than once a week, Algy invents a friend who is in such poor health himself that he requires frequent visits.

Earnest was written and first performed in 1894-5. So, appropriate to the last decade of the nineteenth century, during which logical paradoxes were explored by scholars in mathematics and psychology, Algy’s approach to life is both serious (good mental health is necessary) and non-serious (he rather enjoys the deceptions involved) at the same time.

The play involves the eating of cucumber sandwiches, bread and butter, and muffins. Algy eats so much, in fact, that one wonders how well his ‘imaginary invalid’ strategy really works. Were it not for the romantic ending where he gets engaged to be married and then presumably is happy thereafter, concern about Algy becoming obese due to what we might now call ‘comfort eating’ would be justified.

His friend Jack doesn’t overindulge, perhaps because he’s too busy with his own deception of being the carefree Ernest at weekends, while working hard and being a serious magistrate in the week. Unlike Algy, Jack is lucky enough not to have any domineering relatives to hinder his own dutiful pursuit of health. And he’s happy in the end, as well.

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About Dr Neil MacFarlane MRCPsych

Independent Psychiatrist providing culturally informed mental health opinion, advice, and a few new facts. Based near London, UK. Main qualifications: BA MBBS MA MRCPsych.

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