Madness, Melancholia and Death in Eighteenth-century England

Prof. University of Nothumbria at Newcastle (United Kingdom)

«It is November when the English begin to hang themselves» was a commonly held belief among continentals during the eighteenth century, and one given credence by several English writers, including George Cheyne, who blamed the English climate and English luxury for the national prevalence of melancholia and suicide. Cheyne also castigated the balief, inherited from Aristotle, that melancholy was a conduction associated whis genius, or whis a special and superior sensitivity. While there is no evidence that deprossed English man and women killed themselves any more frequently than melancholiacs of other nationalities, there is nevertheless a strong connection between melancholia and death within the depressive temperament.

Death was always a potent presence in the asylum, as in the observations made on patients» delusions by John Haslam, apothecary to Bethlem Hospital at the end of century. A female patient, for example, belived that a dead lover appeared regularly in her cell in a state of putrefaction, leaving behind a stench that served as a constant reminder of the presence of death in life.

Less dramatically, and more typically, the depressive James Boswell felt that he could see so much into the vanity of all things human that the inertness of death was almost prerable to a meaningless existence. The melancholy imagination was a medium that cast over all of life the tones of death, so much so that

the state of behind of the melancholiac was itself a pattern of death-in-life, and one shared by countless sufferers during this period. Similarly, sane observers tended to regard the insane generally as departed from the realm of the living. Edward Young, for example, wrote to several friends of his concern for a young woman, Miss Grace Cole, deranged through grief, and suggested that she should be thought of «as a Living Monument of ye realy Deceased» .

The state of behind « in between» was crucial to the sensibilities of eighteenth-century melancholiacs, neither properly alive nor wholly dead, feeling the attraction of oblivion at the same time as fearing death and the unknown. This balance frequently generated the images in which the experience of melancholy was expressed, images of fragility, or of barries, or of departure, all of which figured, for example, in the dreams of William Cowper, as well as in patients» symptoms as repoted in medical case histories.

To present death-in-life, however, and to have one's existence in terms of images of «in between» also gave the melancholiac a special significance in the perceived relation between mankind and the herafter. Melancholy individuals were able to see themselves as standing between humanity and impending disaster, or as suffering on behalf of their fellows, or as holding the key to a universal fate. So, one sufferer believed that he could not pass water for fear of drowning the whole world, and James Tilly Matthews, in Bethlem Hospital, felt that only he could read the doomsday book held by the stone figure who stood on the roof of Bloomsbury church. In these circumstances, it was the duty of the melancholiac to resist the temptations of self-destruction and to carry on living for the benefit of normal, if interior, members of humankind.

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