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My 2012 conference presentations on Benjamin Franklin and ‘Poor Richard’ in Dickens’ fiction

What does this have to do with a psychiatry blog? Look at just about any character in Dickens (especially from the middle and later period) and there are likely to be hints of psychological problems, at least. In these presentations I will be looking at how different aspects of Franklin’s life and works are alluded to in several of Dickens’ works from Martin Chuzzlewit to Little Dorrit.

12th April 2012, Oxford, British Society for Literature and Science annual conference, ‘Benjamin Franklin’s phrenological presence in Bleak House and Little Dorrit’

6th-8th July 2012, Portsmouth, The Other Dickens Conference. ‘Little Dorrit, letters from America, and biographical tracklaying’

10th to 12th July 2012, Edinburgh, Carlyle Conference. ‘Benjamin Franklin as a Carlylean ‘Demigod’: an under-recognised influence on Charles Dickens’s fiction?’

10-12 September 2012, Queen Mary, London, Emotions, Health & Wellbeing Conference. ‘Phrenology, mesmerism and the reptilian personality in Little Dorrit’

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.

The Charles Dickens Bicentenary

 

Born 200 years ago today, in Portsmouth, what difference did Dickens make, in the nearly-180 years since he started writing fiction and journalism?

Scrooge, Oliver Twist and Fagin are so familiar to us, that it’s perhaps easier to imagine some other writer(s) coming along and filling Dickens’s place on the broad-brush social reform issues, if he had been prematurely taken away by cholera or some other early nineteenth century affliction.

But there are so many other eccentric, strange, mentally unwell and physically disabled characters, who were also very well-known to millions of Dickens’s readers, perhaps even more so after his death, and well into the twentieth century. No other writer of fiction came close to creating awareness of these kinds of human diversity.

Just one example: probably the most severely, clinically, depressed character in Dickens is Bleak House’s Mr Jellyby. He sits with his head “against the wall” and almost never speaks. He’s a failure, and becomes bankrupt.

Illness and death occurs in most Victorian novels, and it is tempting to draw conclusions about the conscious and unconscious motives of the author from who suffers what. I’m uneasy about Dickens’s portrayal of the alcoholic Sydney Carton’s suicidal behaviour in A Tale of Two Cities (1). Dickens himself, in A Christmas Carol, draws attention to the fact that the crippled Tiny Tim “did NOT die”.

And the overwhelming majority of his eccentric and unwell characters do live on, sometimes bizarrely, but never in my view wholly implausibly. Mr Jellyby finds a friend, who talks about himself all the time. Most people would find this friend unbearable, but for some reason Mr Jellyby doesn’t: he listens, and he cheers up. Probably not a complete recovery, but enough to enjoy life again.

 

(1) https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/a-far-far-better-ending-for-a-tale-of-two-cities/

 

A far far better ending for “A Tale of Two Cities”?

 

I am obsessed by the novels of Charles Dickens, although this is a mild-to-moderate rather than a severe obsession, because I have not read any of them more than two or three times. Nor have I properly read more than a small fraction of the dozens of biographies and book-length critical studies published since Dickens’ death in 1870.

The recent riots in London, after the riots in Paris of a few years ago, got me thinking about Dickens’ descriptions of mob violence and mob rule in A Tale of Two Cities. The capture and execution of French aristocrats by the revolutionary Government provides an opportunity for the alcoholic and morally ambiguous lawyer, Sydney Carton, to do something unselfish for once.

I usually disagree with the view that Dickens is an overly sentimental writer of fiction, in the sense of false or distorted emotions being used for propaganda (for example, to promote a non-progressive view of the role of women). But this charge may be correct when it comes to Carton’s fate in the novel: in helping an aristocrat (who he happens to physically resemble) to escape, he deliberately gets himself imprisoned.

On his way to the guillotine, he speaks one of Dickens’ best-known lines: “It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”.

But is it? Carton’s supposedly noble action can be seen as promoting the idea that alcoholics are inferior beings who cannot change their personalities or behaviour, and do the rest of us a favour when they choose to die. Such was the hybrid of mistaken science and morality which developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and went even further in twentieth-century Nazi Germany.

The novel could easily have been written differently, with Carton revealing his true non-aristocratic status, backed up with a hidden physical attribute or some other identifier. Dickens had been the leading English novelist for decades, and had the skill to produce any number of original, plausible and memorable plot-lines based on Carton’s keeping, or at least trying to keep, his head.

 

This post was drafted by 2nd September, and published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 6th October

 

The Real Scrooge

 

Why is Scrooge “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”: does he have a developmental disorder such as autism?

At the end of A Christmas Carol, “some people laughed to see the alteration in him”. Presumably, such a dramatic change was seen as unlikely. But does that mean we should be so sceptical as to conclude his “self-contained” nature is biologically-based, and therefore unable to be altered?

When he revisits his early adulthood, with the first ghost, he sees himself as having been not at all solitary then: the younger Scrooge happily helps to get ready for Fezziwig’s party, and joins in the dancing, eating and drinking, along with everyone else (1).

It is only a few years later that Scrooge begins to be dominated by his “master-passion” for money. At the same time, he loses interest in ordinary human relationships, although he is arguably right about the hypocritical and (un-) “even-handed dealing of the world”.

So he is not autistic, at least in the sense which would fully explain “old Scrooge”, in terms of a continuous, life-long, pattern of thoughts and behaviour.

Of course, he is only a fictional character; and some might find the description, of his early adulthood, to be as implausible as his later transformation.

At the end, he is still Bob Cratchit’s boss, and although he promises that he will “endeavour to assist your struggling family”, we have to trust Dickens that Scrooge followed up the impulsive gift of a “Turkey…as big as a…boy”, by really being “better than his word”.

 

 

(1) I refer to Dickens’ original 1843 book. All quotations can be found in the text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/46. Film and television adaptations have often subtly altered the story.

(2) On Christmas Day, Dr Who: A Christmas Carol was broadcast by the BBC. Loosely based on Dickens’ classic, the Scrooge-like central character needs the intervention of the time-travelling Doctor, altering his young adult past to include non-solitary experiences and memories. The dramatic force of the Dr Who story perhaps depends on the fact that film, television and stage adaptations have tended to omit the original content pointed out in my piece. Note added 27th December.

Published at www.DrNM.org.uk on 24th December 2010; transferred to DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 7th October 2011

The Call of the Bottle

 

Books “should, like alcohol, dissolve barriers”, according to the literary academic and journalist John Sutherland, who explored the early history of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in a short programme last week on Radio 4 (1).

But for some people (including Professor Sutherland himself, sober only through two decades of attendance at AA meetings) alcohol has the opposite effect: “drinking recreated the conditions of childhood. Solitude; myself alone” (2).

Of these two apparently contradictory explanations for excessive drinking (alcohol dissolves interpersonal barriers; alcohol creates an interpersonal barrier), the first has been widely held for decades. “Social anxiety” was seen as a cause of alcoholism (3), and a problem in itself, well before pharmaceutical companies supposedly invented it in the 1990’s (4).

Anyone with the slightest interest in English Literature is likely to have read at least one of Sutherland’s reviews, books, or introductions to classics by authors such as Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope. They are invariably well-organised and structured, with a light touch but not at all “dumbed-down”, so achieving their aim of engaging academics and the general reader.

Alcoholics Anonymous has the reputation of having a rather black-and-white view of addiction. This is probably helpful, even necessary, for many people with severe problems, especially those in the early stages of “recovery”.

But this academic abstainer is not afraid to explore complexity or uncertainty. For example, in his Introduction to Jack London’s ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’, he suggests that the “chronic boozer” London later brought his own alcohol intake under control “easily enough”, and then continued to drink in part “socially”, but also because of the creative possibilities gained from alcohol withdrawal (not intoxication) (5).

Therefore, for anyone looking to remove or reduce moderate or mild addictions, a period of solitude spent reading Sutherland’s extensive works is highly recommended, and is unlikely in my view to have any harmful effects.

 
(1) Available on the BBC’s iPlayer only until 14th November: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00vr78f/The_AA_Bible/

(2) Both quotations are from Professor Sutherland’s British Council Biography: http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth519D1A75056591DEA5JxLj47A89F

(3) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4394734

(4) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)60470-5/fulltext

(5) The whole Introduction can be read with Amazon’s “Look Inside” facility. The book’s full title is John Barleycorn: ‘Alcoholic Memoirs’.

This post was published at www.DrNM.org.uk on 12th November 2010, and transferred to DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 7th October 2011

Vincent Van Gogh: did he have ADD / ADHD?

 

In a letter, written in English and currently on display in London, Van Gogh describes procrastination and hyperfocusing:

“My dear Russell…for ever so long I have been wanting to write to you – but then the work has so taken me up. We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields…when I sit down to write I am so abstracted by recollections of what I have seen that I leave the letter. For instance at the present occasion I was writing to you and going to say something about Arles as it is…instead of continuing the letter I began to draw on the very paper the head of a…little girl I saw this afternoon whilst I was painting a view of the river with a greenish yellow sky.”

There is also a suggestion of the regret and self-blame which many adults with ADD / ADHD experience:

“I enclose the slip of scribbling, that you may judge of my abstractions and forgive my not writing before as such.”

Van Gogh calls his subjective inability to control and focus attention his “abstractions”, and he refers to this again towards the end of the letter:

“I must hurry off this letter for I feel some more abstractions coming on and if I did not quickly fill up my paper I would again set to drawing and you would not have your letter.”

Biographies of Van Gogh do not provide much detail of his earliest childhood years, but in his late teens and twenties he certainly showed a restlessness and impulsivity in work and relationships which would be compatible with ADD / ADHD. A more difficult question is whether treatment, in perhaps enabling him to combine his artistic talents with just a little commercial success in his lifetime, would have dulled his creativity. I don’t think so, because that is not what ADD / ADHD treatment appears to do, when used properly.


 

This letter to John Peter Russell, written in April 1888, was on display at the Royal Academy in London when this piece was written. The exhibition was called The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.

The letter can be viewed online at Amsterdam‘s Van Gogh Museum site: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let598/letter.html 

This post was published at www.DrNM.org.uk on 5th February 2010, and transferred to DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 7th October 2011

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