Managing the Pain of Separation, Depression and Anxiety through Reading in the Late Eighteenth Century

Girls reading a love-letter.

In May this year Polly Bull, a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, gave a fascinating lunchtime seminar about her research at the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions. We invited her to write a post for our blog summarising some of her research on the history of reading as an emotional self-help strategy, and she kindly accepted. Polly writes:

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the practice of reading could be a method for managing difficult emotions. One example of this self-mastery was the simultaneous reading by lovers or friends who were physically separated by distance as a means to remain connected. Anne Lister (1791-1840), land-owner, traveller, and diarist, had a long-term love affair with Marianna Lawton, who was married to Charles Lawton, causing much life-long heartfelt distress for Lister. The distance between the two women because of the marriage meant that maintaining the relationship was difficult. One strategy they developed for managing the pain of separation was to read the same thing at the same time each day. In 1821, Lister wrote in her diary:

‘Settled that M–& I are, every morning at 10 ¾ , to read a chapter in the new testament & asked her to begin next Monday. She first proposed at Newcastle our reading something, the same thing & at the same hour every day–& we have agreed on the new testament and the hour named.’

Religious reading was helpful for managing low spirits. Anna Larpent (1758-1832), wife to the Examiner of Plays and diarist, read assiduously from all genres throughout her life, recording her thoughts and comments in her diary, while reflecting on her spirituality. Textual consumption of God’s word was a crucial aspect of daily devotion, particularly first thing in the morning and in the evening before bed. This reading often served to manage Larpent’s distress in times of low-spiritedness. She wrote in 1792:

‘..I then red [sic] to myself—the 12 first Chapters of St. John, with attention with an humble confidence in the revelations of God by his son J. Ch. My mind was sooth. I felt the truth & comfort of the Word of God.’

Her personal religious practices were necessary for Larpent’s mental well-being. She relied upon her faith and her devotional print consumption to soothe her mind. She wrote in 1795:

‘…worked the rest of the morning in an inconceivable state of depression. Inconceivable to all but myself—but really such horror of mind as I at times suffer from, would sink me into despair were it not for the support of Religion & trust in the Almighty.’

While Larpent spoke of depression as low spirits rather than a clinical state as it might be understood today, it is no doubt that she was extremely despondent at these times, describing her mood as a ‘horror of mind’. She feared that she would ‘sink…into despair’. Knowing this of herself, she turned to her religion, especially her solitary, devotional reading at morning and night, for ‘support’.

Besides the reading of the bible and religious texts, Larpent used novels and history books as means to calm her thoughts during anxious times. For example, early in 1790 when her youngest son George became ill, Larpent wrote of her severe anxiety and how she was able to read a novel to calm her worries when the worst danger was passed. It firstly distracted her and then amused her. She also wrote of reading the Female Quixote years later when her son’s wife was ill, as well as studying a history book.

‘My mind disturbed & anxious concerning Charlotte’s state. I felt the necessity of mental exertion. I began the 9th Ch. Of Mitford’s history of Greece Alexander’s reign…’

Read 45 & part of 46. chap. of Mitford’s Greece. Also looked over the Female Quixote merely to divert my mind from numbness of Charlotte, but it was too absurd.

Larpent said her mind was ‘disturbed & anxious’, requiring ‘mental exertion’. She also spoke of the need to ‘divert’ her mind. In both cases she described her upset mental state and how it could be calmed through the process of reading secular work, both fiction and non-fiction.

The above instances have shown that reading was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a method for easing the pain of physical separation between lovers, providing spiritual comfort for ‘horrors of mind’, as well as ‘mental exertion’ and diversion during times of anxiety. Difficult emotions were thus managed through the practice of print consumption.

Polly Bull