Dealing with Otherworldly People – Mental Illness in the Regency

Vanessa here,

As you all know, I love Regency Romance, everything from the comedy of manners, spies, war torn lovers, and my beloved favorite, marriages of convenience. A few times I’ve read a few where the character was described as otherworldly. This is Regency speak for nutters, missing a few marbles, etc.

Now all of us have accquaintances who fly off the handle, or we swear they missed their medicine. Or maybe you have people in your life who are too random or flighty for your tastes and perhaps their own good. (You know who you are, and I’m praying for you.)

I am not talking about those bless-your-heart souls. I am talking about the one’s who struggle with depression, the ones who have difficulty remembering to smile, who battle with suffocating thoughts in their head, and even the one’s trying hard to discern between reality and fiction.

Multicultural Historical Regency Romance
Amora Norton

My heroine in Unveiling Love, Amora Norton, suffers from depression. She has survived a harrowing ordeal but has kept the trauma and nightmares bottled-up inside. Yet, those memories can’t be contained. They burst free and shatter everything– her marriage and her will to live.

Depression is real. It is real now and in the time of Jane Austen.

For my sun-loving brethren, can you image living in the year of 1816, the year of no summer. Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia erupted producing volcanic clouds that literally changed the weather patterns over most of Europe. England had cold weather for the entire year.  Yes, an entire year…

People rioted from food shortages that year. Can you imagine being cold, hungry, and in the dark?

flavored spa candle on a wooden background
                  We need light in the dark.

But what did Regency folks think about mental illness? Maybe it’s a very British concept, but family member’s seemed to manage it as a part of their responsibilities.

Jane Austen shows us a look at mental instability with Emma (1815). Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse is in mental decline. He has moments of paranoia, in which Emma’s patience helps to re-establish his footing. Here are Emma’s thoughts on her father:

Emma could not but sigh over it, and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying, nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness, and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent all the rest of her life at Hartfield. Emma smiled and chatted as cheerfully as she could, to keep him from such thoughts.

Here are Mr. Woodhouse’s own words:

“I believe it is very true, my dear, indeed,” said Mr. Woodhouse, with a sigh. “I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome.”

Because of her father, Emma believes that she cannot marry. She is very young and now that the other caregiver, Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston, has gone, Emma takes on the whole responsibility of caring for her father. This underlying thread in Emma points to a few things:

  1. Regency families were aware of the affects of depression.
  2. Families and friends took responsibilities to support those with mental illness.

Notice Emma’s thoughts aren’t to send him away, but to make him comfortable and secure. They aren’t even to medicate him, which at that time would have been an opiate, very addictive stuff.

The next part of my series will discuss how the Regency dealt with severe mental illness, where life and limb are at risk, but for now I leave with you these thoughts:

  1. Depression is real and can be debilitating.
  2. Though suicide rates are higher in spring and early summer, cold winter temperatures, less sunlight, and blizzards impact many with increasing rates of depression.
  3. Many suffer in silence. A pray and smile can go a long way.
  4. Act with love, seeking your friend’s comfort. Save the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps talk for a sunny day.
  5. Check on those struggling and urge them to seek help.