Sadness on the Big Screen: London SadFest March 3-5

This is a guest post by Dr Åsa Jansson, an associate member of the Centre for the History of the Emotions. Her research explores the history of “disordered” or “pathological” emotions since the 1800s, and the different ways in which modern medicine has tried to label and categorise our emotions as normal or deviant in different contexts. For more details about Åsa’s research, including publications, please see her Academia page.

We seem to be scared of sadness as a society, we’re always running away from it. I think we need to stop running and instead face up to and even embrace sadness. It’s a big part of being human and I think it’s at the heart of compassion.” Steve Todd, organiser of London SadFest

Why do we love sad films? What is it about sitting in a dark cinema (or in front of the TV at home) crying your eyes out that’s so appealing? Isn’t sadness supposed to be a negative emotion, especially in contemporary society? In many ways, contemporary cultural messages seem to tell us to avoid sadness at all costs, that happiness is both the ultimate life goal and an individual choice.[i] Happiness has even become a political objective: in 2011 the government rolled out the Happiness Survey (formally entitled ‘personal well-being in the UK’) in an attempt to measure how happy the British public are.

However, as Rhodri Hayward noted when the first results of the survey were published in 2013, the government’s focus on ‘individual’ happiness at a time of growing inequality and job insecurity highlights a fundamental division in contemporary British politics between a rights-based approach to well-being and one that focuses on internal emotional states.

Another problem with the twenty-first century preoccupation with the pursuit of happiness is that  sadness is, of course, unavoidable. There are times when we will feel sad, despite our best efforts to be happy. However, the way in which we’re drawn to artistic representations of sadness suggests that this emotion is not only unavoidable, but at times desirable. So, can sadness be a positive emotion? Can it be enjoyable? Useful?

These are some of the questions that inspired London SadFest, a film festival that explores and celebrates sadness on the big screen. The festival runs over three days, March 3-5, at the Genesis Cinema in Mile End, and brings together scholars, poets, artists, and, of course, sad films.

Each film screening is followed by a short talk and discussion around some of the themes invoked by the film. The festival kicks off on the Friday evening with a viewing of David Lynch’s classic film The Elephant Man, which is based on the true story of Victorian ‘freak’ Joseph Merrick (called John in the film). Merrick’s story deals with themes that resonate with most of us: loneliness, compassion, fear, and the desire to belong.

Joseph Merrick, also known as ‘the Elephant Man’ in 1898. British Medical Journal. Credit Wellcome Library, London

After the film I will briefly speak to the audience about sadness in relation to one of the film’s central themes, compassion. The Elephant Man asks us to feel empathy toward the film’s protagonist – to feel with him, not just for him. We are invited to recognise our own humanity in this visually monstrous figure, to see him not just as our equal but as our potential self. The idea of compassionate sadness suggests that sadness has important uses as a basis for social relations. I will explore the question of useful sadness within the context of the history of sadness and melancholy in modern Britain, inviting the audience to consider whether the twenty-first century pursuit of happiness and our growing aversion to sadness prevent us also from feeling compassionate sadness, the kind of sadness that inspires us see past that which divides us and reach out to our fellow human beings.

After the talk, the audience can proceed to drown their sorrows at the bar, which will also host a number of live performances on the sadness theme.

The theme of the second day is ‘love, friendship and vulnerability’, with screenings of Ken Loach’s Kes (1969) and Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), as well as more performances. Kes is followed by a talk by Sarbijt Samra, who will be speaking to the audience about some of the issues highlighted by the film. Sarbijt’s talk will suggest that the authenticity of Kes comes from the fact that the film doesn’t compromise. Rather, it faces head on difficult questions about social class that are at least as relevant today as when the film was first released – if not more so.


The final day of London SadFest continues to explore sadness, through ‘tragic decisions and historical forces’. The first screening is of Pakula’s 1983 film Sophie’s Choice, after which literature and drama scholar Jennifer Wallace will invite the audience to think about what constitutes a ‘tragic film’. Traditionally, since the ancient Greeks, tragedy has been thought to be the province of the theatre. But can we speak about a tragic film? And how would we define it? Jennifer Wallace offers a whistle-stop tour through some essentials of tragedy – choice, recognition, pity and fear, fate, catharsis – guide our assessment of ‘sad’ films.

The festival closes with Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009), which will be introduced by Marcia Harris. Marcia will discuss some of the issues that made the film controversial when it was released, and which divided critical opinion. Marcia has a background in child psychology and community work and holds a core belief that agency and power, especially a child’s, grows strongest when nurtured from within, rather than bestowed upon us by acts of benevolence.

London SadFest will be a weekend full of emotion, but it also promises to be a thought-provoking event. The tensions, or contradictions, in how sadness is perceived and experienced are not specific to our time period. For instance, Erin Sullivan has highlighted the complex place of sadness in Shakespeare’s England, suggesting that:

“No passion was believed to harm the body more than sadness – according to contemporary mortality records it was responsible for more deaths than all the other passions combined – and yet none was linked so consistently with spiritual repentance and conversion”.[ii]

A woman’s face expressing sadness. Engraving by M. Engelbrecht (?), 1732, after C. Le Brun. 1732. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This contrast between sadness as harmful and sadness as useful might resonate with current ideas about sadness as pathology versus sadness as cathartic (e.g. watching a sad film and “having a good cry”), but Sullivan’s remark also speaks to view of the emotions that holds these to be historical events. Emotions take different forms and have different cultural significance in different time periods, and some emotions disappear entirely, while new ones emerge. The sadness of Early Modern England is not the sadness of twenty-first century society – for instance, sadness is not considered a common or barely even possible cause of death today. To the question of whether sadness is useful or harmful, then, we must also add the question of whether it’s a universal emotion.


If you’re curious about the place of sadness in contemporary (and historical) society, or if you simply enjoy sad films, come along to London SadFest. Just don’t forget to bring tissues!

Tickets for London SadFest are on sale now. You can read more about the festival and book your tickets here on their website.

[i] E.g.;

[ii] Erin Sullivan, Beyond Melancholy: Sadness and Selfhood in Renaissance England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2016, p. 14.


Medical humanities in India: a field ripe for development

I’m travelling through India for three months. While out here, I’m doing some work exploring emotional health in India, and some of the fascinating intersections that take place between the UK and India in health – from western tourists travelling here for cheap operations or ‘yoga holidays’, to Indian doctors travelling to the UK to work (25,000 Indian doctors practice in the UK, helping to make India the largest exporter of doctors in the world).

I’m five weeks into my trip, and finding it exhilarating.  I particularly like the relaxed spiritual pluralism here. In the UK, secular materialism is very much the dominant metaphysics, and if you start talking about ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ or even ‘God’ you immediately feel you’re on the lunatic fringe of things. I have a book coming out in May on ecstatic experiences, and I’m somewhat dreading the publicity tour, because such matters feel so off-the-beaten-track in British culture.

By contrast, in India, spirituality is more mainstream. That’s not to say India is one big ashram – it’s also an incredibly materialist, scientific, status-obsessed place. But the spiritual coexists with the material here on more equal terms. For example, I attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, India’s equivalent of Hay, where there were the usual novelists, historians and pundits, but also gurus like Sadhguru, a motorbike-driving yogi, who talked about his own ecstatic experiences like it was the most normal thing in the world. Someone like him wouldn’t get on the programme at Hay, or onto Radio 4. He wouldn’t be considered sufficiently intellectual.

Ram, a spiritually-pluralistic rickshaw driver

We’re suspicious of the spiritual and religious in the UK because we don’t want anyone forcing their beliefs onto us. And we like clarity in our beliefs – either you’re an evangelical, or you’re a skeptical materialist. In Indian culture, it appears to be less either / or, and more both / and. Take Ram, a rickshaw driver who ferried me around Jaipur. Ram worships Ganesh on Tuesdays, Hanuman on Wednesdays, and goes to Catholic church once a month. He’s also head of the communist rickshaw union. ‘God is one, but takes many forms’, he told me.

One finds a similar sort of relaxed pluralism in Indian health. At the Jaipur Festival, I met Aarathi Prasad, a scientist at UCL and the author of In The Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine. She spoke of India’s unique health system, in which there are seven officially-recognized types of healthcare – western, Ayurvedic, Yoga, Siddha, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, and Unani (the last originated in ancient Greece).

In her travels, Prasad saw modern, educated Indians happily mixing their health approaches – they might go to a biomedical doctor, and / or to a Sufi shrine, and / or a Christian exorcist, and / or a Ayurvedic healer. Whatever works.

I’ve seen a similar pluralism from Western tourists coming to India for ‘spiritual tourism’. In Goa, I stayed at a yoga retreat where young Western women trained in yoga and Ayurvedic medicine, solemnly learning the Sanskrit terms for various asanas, and practicing arcane purging techniques like pouring salt-water up their nose.

There are all kinds of weird contradictions or absurdities in this, as was pointed out by a group of educated young Indians sitting in a nearby beach-bar sipping Pina Coladas at 11am. ‘Why come all the way to India to learn yoga from a Westerner?’ asked one. They were also bemused by Western spiritual tourism to India, and the naïve exoticist projections we bring. They, by contrast, admire the secular urban sexually-liberated culture of London (two of them are about to move there). One of them pointed at a sign outside the yoga centre, which said ‘cleanse your soul here’. ‘I like my soul dirty’, she said, sipping her cocktail.

Another of the paradoxes of western spiritual tourism to India is that we often come with a solemn sense of the ancient spiritual practices we are learning, when in fact a lot of it is a recent invention. At Jaipur Festival, I met James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, two academics based in London who recently published The Roots of Yoga, one of the first serious studies of the history of yoga. They’ve found that most of the modern postures we know – the sun salute, the downward dog, the warrior and so on – evolved around a century ago, partly in response to foreign practices like Swedish gymnastics. Ancient Indian yoga was much more focused on breath-training,  mind-training, and the channeling of semen.

But so what? Just because modern yoga is not two millennia-old, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. ‘I still do the sun salute every morning, even though I know it’s a recent invention’, Mallinson told me. ‘It still feels good.’ He’s also relaxed about the multiple goals people bring to modern yoga, from spiritual liberation to stress relief to a sexy bum. ‘There’s an ancient text which says it doesn’t matter if you’re a Brahman or Buddhist or Jain or even atheist, if you practice yoga assiduously it will bring success. Of course, what ‘success’ means is another question.’

Yet one of the risks of Western spiritual tourism to India is that, in our enthusiasm, we throw out any critical skepticism and embrace all kinds of nonsense, some of which may be harmful. At my yoga holiday, we were all encouraged to do shoulder stands, even though this posture can often lead to serious injuries and shouldn’t be practiced without supervision.

We can also ignore the misogyny and class hierarchy of some Indian religion. I went to a Tantric course, which was mainly filled with Chinese housewives joyfully journeying to India for a sexual holiday (the neo-Tantra of Osho is apparently catching on among affluent Chinese). The Westerners there swallowed the New Age Tantra completely – one of them even had the seven chakras tattoed on his back. ‘Men are rational and discriminative, women are irrational and passionate’, we were taught by the course leader, a Russian. When I suggested this was misogynist nonsense invented by male priests, he replied ‘No! This is ancient wisdom!’

We can end up credulous spiritual consumers. I found myself visiting a psychic guru in Jaipur, who also runs a jewel shop. ‘You are 38’, he told me confidently. I’m 39. ‘You have three siblings.’ I have one brother. ‘You work as an independent creative…you’re a coach, you write beautiful philosophy.’ Hey, one out of three ain’t bad! He advised me that my heart chakra was blocked because I worry too much about rejection, and suggested I purchase an emerald pendant to unblock it. I’m wearing it now, fairly confident it’s glass.

I wonder what Indian health can learn from the UK, and vice versa. From the UK, Indian health could learn to be more evidence-based. Yoga and meditation emerged from India, yet almost all the recent evidence-based trials of it have taken place in the West, mainly in the US. There is room for a richer dialogue between spiritual practices and evidence-based trials. Indeed, I visited a GP in Chennai who runs a company called Mediyoga. He sent me round the corner for an MRI (private medicine is remarkably quick and cheap in India) and then diagnosed me as suffering from chronic degeneration of a back disc. He prescribed a few basic yoga postures to help me. I welcome this sort of combination of the biomedical and the ‘alternative’.

India could also learn from Western public health, particularly mental health services. The reason alternative health is so huge in India is there is very little state-funded health – India only spends around 1% of its GDP on health. For a country obsessed with well-being, there is a remarkable lack of psychiatrists and therapists. Mental illness is still a taboo. I am sure the Indian government could benefit from links to the NHS’ Improving Access for Psychological Therapies programme, particularly with advice on therapy and counseling apps, which would be the easiest way to roll out mental health services in India. My next stop is a conference on Indian public health in Goa, organized by UCL.

From the other side, the UK could learn a lot from India about how to integrate mental health and physical health. Biomedicine has often left out the mind (never mind the soul), and we’re only just learning how connected mental and physical health are. Mental treatments like meditation and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy are beginning to be used in the NHS not just for emotional disorders but also for physical complaints, to help with the mental side of recovery.  We could also learn from India the power of cultural contexts for health – the power of ritual, of music, of festivals, of prayer, of pilgrimages. We could learn the healing power of non-rational states of consciousness, like trance, absorption and ecstasy (even as I write this, I feel how far away this is from British public health!)

Medical humanities, finally, is still very much a nascent field in India, although a journal dedicated to it launched three years ago. I would suggest the field has a lot of potential, as a meeting place where we can engage in dialogue about the pluralism of Indian health – the history, the culture, the arts, the spirituality, and the encounters with foreign consumers and foreign markets in the globalization of health and well-being. There’s a lot to be explored.


James Mallinson, the sadhu-academic

Dr James Mallinson is unique among British academics. Not only is he a widely-respected Sansrkit scholar at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, he’s also the only Westerner ever to become a mahant – a senior sadhu [ascetic holy man] in a sect of yogis, which he has spent time with since he was 18. He’s recently co-authored (with Mark Singleton) a book called The Roots of Yoga, which is the first academic book to investigate the historical roots of yoga.I met him at the Jaipur Literature Festival and asked him about his journey.

I watched the BBC documentary West Meets East, in which you and your friend the actor Dominic West went to the Kumbh Mela, the enormous gathering of sadhus that happens every three years. It was a fascinating insider look at that world – how 120 million people gather in one place and organize themselves, how the different sadhus distribute money to each other, and also the rivalry between different sects, which sometimes descends into fist-fights. Did that gang-war aspect of this huge spiritual gathering disillusion you?
I still find it hard to understand, but the sadhus don’t see it as a big deal. There’s a clear split between the yogis and the fighters. There was one incident, about 20 years ago, when my guru and another sadhu ended up fighting over me. I was lying back, having been drinking bhang [marijuana] all day, and it suddenly kicked off. It didn’t last very long, some other yogis jumped on the other guy, but some people asked me ‘why didn’t you jump in too?’ And my guru said, ‘he’s a scholar, he doesn’t fight’. I was quite relieved by that.
What have you got from your yoga practice over all these years?
A lot of it is just being part of this tradition, hanging out with the sadhus. As for the physical practices, I’ve only started practicing them more assiduously 10 years ago when I was working more as an academic and I started to get a stiff back. Since then I’ve become more religious, as it were, about doing it every day. I still sit down and meditate occasionally. It makes me feel good, happy, balanced. In this day and age, just sitting quietly and not reaching for your smartphone every minute is a good thing.
What do you like about the sadhu community in which you’ve spent so much time?
My guru never ceases to amaze me with his energy, his ability to be on it, despite hardly ever eating or sleeping, he’s always happy, never perturbed. As for the wider community, although they’re joyful and happy, deep down they see the material world as pointless. They don’t want to be a part of the world outside their religious round, their whole lives are predicated on being dissociated from it.
Do you find that detachment refreshing?
Yes. It’s got to be good for one’s mental level of happiness to completely experience a totally different way of life. You can go back to your life [working as an academic and living with his wife and two children in the UK]and realize some of the things you get wrapped up in aren’t that important.
Do you think your attraction to that world was partly a rejection of your background, growing up in England and going to a stuffy boarding-school?
It might have helped – I found myself once again in an all-male community governed by arcane rules.
Do you feel there is a lack of spiritual options in the West today, like the option to be a complete renunciate and for that to be an accepted social choice?
Yes I do. Just the other day I was speaking to a rather annoying young sadhu who was desperate for me to take him back to the UK so he could get followers. My guru has no interest in that, because he knows people just wouldn’t understand the life of renunciation. I suppose one option is to go and live in a monastery, but that’s not the same enjoyable, colourful life as at the Kumbh Mela.
But of course a lot of Indian gurus have gone to the West and become rock-star gurus. What do you think of them?
It doesn’t really rock my boat. The sadhus in the tradition I belong to explicitly shun that behavior. Some do public teachings, but I was told that if they’d done that 30 or 40 years ago they’d have been beaten up. Because it’s meant to be complete renunciation. The irony is, the more you renunciate, the more people give you material possessions. But the sadhus never build up a big storehouse of wealth, they tend to give it away. So those rock-star gurus like Osho, who accrued 95 Rolls Royces, that’s a different world.
But sadly those gurus who want to become rock-stars tend to be the most visible and famous. I suppose they’re not part of a tradition – they’re freelance gurus, with no one to answer to.
Those big-shots think they should get a big tent at the Kumbh Mela. But they can’t get a good spot, they have to camp out right at the outskirts, unless they pay a lot of money. They’re not respected by sadhus. Quite the opposite. My own guru couldn’t care less about publicity. I showed him the BBC documentary we made about my initiation at the Kumbh Mela, and after two minutes he stopped watching. He wasn’t interested at all, which is the perfect response.
What does a day at the Kumbh Mela look like in your community of sadhus?
You get up in the morning, do your ablutions, bathe – there’s a lot of bathing – then sit down and maybe start smoking, drinking chai. The ultimate behavior for a sadhu is to sit around and chat for hours and hours. Talking, chatting, gossiping, telling stories. There’s not much philosophical discussion.
Tell me about the new book, The Roots of Yoga.
It’s a relief it’s over. It was five years hard work, involving the translation of over 100 texts, in 12 different languages. It’s the book I wish existed when I started exploring yoga. Nothing like it previously existed. A few books would have translations of a handful of texts but they wouldn’t be dated correctly and there was no understanding of how texts related to each other.
How does it change our understanding of the historical roots of yoga?
The conventional history is that yoga begins with Patanjali in the fourth century CE. That’s what most practitioners of modern yoga learn. My co-author Mark Singleton has written about how 95% of modern yoga is not from that. Much of it is more recent – many popular modern postures, like the sun salute, are only around 100 years old, and grew out of a number of influences, including Swedish gymnastics. In Patanjali, there’s almost nothing on physical postures, and it’s mainly 12 sitting postures to prepare you for meditation and breathing exercises. And there’s stuff on yoga earlier than that – Buddhist texts, Jain texts, some writing in the Mahabharata which has been almost entirely ignored, and some writing in the Upanishads. Yoga was practiced in a wide range of traditions with many different viewpoints. They all agree that ‘yoga works’.
But what does that mean, ‘work’? That it makes you healthy, or brings longevity, or grants enlightenment, or magical powers?
There are different interpretations, including of the word yoga or yuj itself. It can mean to concentrate or to unite. There’s a passage I often quote from one ancient text, which says, ‘whether you are a brahman, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, or even an atheist, if you practice yoga assiduously, it will work, you will attain siddhi’ – that can be translated as success or magical powers.
What do you think of the huge popularity of yoga in the West, and increasingly in India?
From a mercenary level it’s good for me. It means it’s easier for me to get funding. It’s nice to have a wider audience for your work. Is it a good thing in general? I think it probably is. One valid criticism is that it’s quite selfish. People do it for personal reasons. But even there, it’s beginning to mature. In the US, there are people trying to bring more social awareness back into yoga. People are also becoming more critically aware, they won’t accept from their guru that the asanas they practice are 5000 years old.
But that critical awareness hasn’t undermined your enthusiasm for the practice itself?
No – I’ve come across practices from the past that I try out. And I still begin with the sun salutation, even though I know it’s a modern innovation. It still feels good.
Finally, yoga is obviously being promoted by the Indian government, which has some ties to Hindu nationalism. Has it been at all controversial for you to decide that the earliest written texts on yoga are actually Buddhist?
No one’s noticed. We were nervous. But I don’t think they’re that interested in our scholarship.

This has been reposted from Jules Evans’ website Philosophy For Life

‘Doleful Groans & Sad Lookes’: Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England

Hannah Newton is a historian of early modern medicine,Photograph of Hannah Newton - head and shoulders shot emotion, and childhood. Her first book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England (2012), won the EAHMH 2015 Book Prize. In 2011-2014, Hannah undertook a Wellcome Fellowship at Cambridge, and researched her next monograph, Misery to Mirth: Recovery from Illness in Early Modern England (forthcoming). She is now a Wellcome University Lecturer at Reading.

Why is the sound of sniffing so irritating? As I write this, my attention is drawn to the unremitting snorts and splutters of a fellow passenger on the train. It seems that I’m not alone: in one recent survey, sniffing was ranked one the top 20 most annoying noises by Britons.[1] But perhaps we’re overreacting. After all, sickness can give rise to far worse sounds, as I’ve begun to realise since embarking on a new Wellcome Trust project, ‘Sensing Sickness in Early Modern England’. Taking the dual perspectives of patients and their loved ones, the project investigates how the five senses were affected by serious physical illness and medical treatment, and uncovers the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the seventeenth-century sickroom. My ultimate goal is to reach a closer understanding of it was like to be ill, or to witness the illness of others, in the past. I also seek to unravel the relationship between the senses and the emotions in early modern culture. While historians have undertaken valuable work on how the senses were involved in theories of disease causation, diagnosis, and treatment, the sensory experience of illness itself has been largely overlooked.[2]

Sepia print showing 5 figures: a seated man vomiting and 4 others behind him holding their noses.

Figure 1: ‘The Sense of Smell’, 1651; by P. Boone; Wellcome Library, London. A man vomits, while those around him hold their noses. It is noteworthy that the only female in the image – possibly a nurse – is not holding her nose. Could this be because the artist assumed that women’s work desensitised them to bad smells? This image could equally have been used to illustrate the sense of hearing or vision.

I became interested in this subject whilst researching for a previous book, The Sick Child in Early Modern England. I noticed that for parents, the greatest source of grief was not so much the death of a child, but was rather hearing and seeing their offspring in pain. During the sickness of his baby daughter Mary in 1669, the Suffolk clergyman Isaac Archer (1641-1700) lamented, ‘Oh what griefe was it to mee to heare it groane, to see it’s sprightly eyes turne to mee for helpe in vaine!’[3] In fact, so acute was the distress occasioned by these sensory stimuli, parents frequently claimed to feel something alike to the emotional and physical suffering of their sick children. This phenomenon was known as ‘fellow-feeling’ in the early modern period, a concept which meant ‘to partake in another person’s occasions, either of joy or sorrow’. Explanations for fellow-feeling centred on the emotion of love. The French philosopher and theologian Nicholas Coeffeteau (1574-1623) averred that a ‘signe of true Love…[is that] friends rejoice & grieve for the same things’.[4]

What were the sounds of the sickroom? The diary of the newly married gentlewoman, Mary Penington (c.1623-1682), provides poignant insights. She recorded that the groans of her sick husband ‘were dreadful. I may call them roarings’. Forty years later, she still remembered his groans, and added another auditory memory: the sound of his convulsing limbs as they slammed against the bed in his fits:

[H]e snapped his legs and arms with such force, that the veins seemed to sound like the snapping of cat-gut strings, tightened upon an instrument of music. Oh! this was a dreadful…sound to me; my very heartstrings seemed ready to break, and let my heart fall from its wonted place.[5]

By applying the metaphor of breaking strings to both her own emotions and her husband’s fits, Mary conveyed the depth of her fellow-feeling – her heart was mimicking his experience. To explain the emotional impact of sound, contemporaries referred to the link between the ear and the heart. The priest Thomas Wright (d. 1624), explained that the ‘shaking, crispling or tickling of the air’ – what we would call sound waves – ‘paseth thorow’ the body ‘unto the heart, and there beateth and tickleth it in such a sort, as it is moved with semblable passions’.[6] Personified as a sensitive creature, the heart generated passions that resembled the movement of the vibrations it perceived, which in Mary’s case was violent grief. It seems fitting that the words ‘hear’ and ‘ear’ are contained within ‘heart’.

Colour painting of a man grimacing, holding a bottle of medicine

Figure 2: ‘The Bitter Potion’, 1640; by Adriaen Brouwer; Städel Museum, Germany. The man’s face is contorted in an expression of deep revulsion after tasting the bitter medicine. In this period, bitterness was a sign of the drug’s potency.

Sights as well as sounds contributed to the agony of witnessing a loved one’s illness. One of the most heartrending sights was the facial expression of the sick person, typically grimaced in pain, or contorted through crying.[7] Timothy Bright (1551?-1615), a physician from Sheffield, provides a vivid picture of the ‘deformitie of the face in weeping’ in his treatise on melancholy. He wrote, ‘The lip trembleth’, the ‘countenance is cast downe’, and ‘all the parts [are so] filled with…moisture…that not finding sufficient way [out] at the eyes, it passeth through the nose’.[8] Relatives commented particularly on the look in the patient’s eyes, a tendency which reflects the entrenched belief that the eyes were the windows of the soul.[9] A poem composed by the Devonshire gentlewoman Mary Chudleigh (c.1656-1710), concerning her gravely ill daughter, Eliza Maria, encapsulates this experience:

Rack’d by Convulsive Pains she meekly lies,
And gazes on me with imploring Eyes,
With Eyes which beg Relief, but all in vain,
I see, but cannot, cannot ease her Pain.[10]

This mother’s inability to relieve her child’s sufferings accentuated her distress. Sight functioned in this context in a cyclical manner: the agony conveyed in the patient’s eyes pained the observer, and the observer’s pained expression added further grief to the patient. Relatives also mourned the loss of their loved one’s natural beauty and colour. Addressing the friends and relations of the sick, the London clergyman Timothy Rogers, asked ‘Where is his former Comeliness and Beauty…his lovely Features? You can…have no mind to look upon that very person that…a while ago, was the Delight of your Heart’.[11]

To conclude, witnessing the illness of a loved one was a deeply sensory experience in the early modern period. For those involved in the care of a sick or elderly relative, it may still be today. This blog has focused on just a few of the most frequently mentioned sights and sounds; my wider project also examines the smells, tastes, and tactile sensations that accompanied disease and treatment.

[1] (accessed 10/01/17)

[2] For example, William Bynum and R. Porter (eds), Medicine and the Five Senses (Cambridge, 1993), explore the role of the physicians’ senses in diagnosis. On the contested role of touch in diagnosis, see Olivia Weisser, ‘Boils, Pushes and Wheals: Reading Bumps on the Body in Early Modern England’, SHM, 22 (2009), 321-39; Patrick Singy, ‘Medicine and the Senses: The Perception of Essences’, in Anne Vila (ed.), A Cultural History of the Senses in the Age of Enlightenment (2014), 133-53. On the role of bad smells in causing disease, see Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Illinois, 2014), ch. 6; Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England (Baltimore, 2011), 97-125. On the role of scents in healing, see Jennifer Evans, ‘Female Barrenness, Bodily Access and Aromatic Treatments in Seventeenth-Century England’, Historical Research, 86 (2014), 423-43. On the benefits of pleasant smells and sights, see Carole Rawcliffe, ‘“Delectable Sightes and Fragrant Smelles”: Gardens and Health in Late Medieval and Early Modern England’, Garden History, 36 (2008), 3-21. On the role of sound (music) as therapy, see Peregrine Horden (ed.), Music as Medicine: The History of Music Therapy Since Antiquity (Aldershot, 2000).

[3] Isaac Archer, ‘The Diary of Isaac Archer 1641-1700’, in Matthew J. Storey (ed.), Two East Anglian Diaries 1641-1729, Suffolk Record Society, vol. 36 (Woodbridge, 1994), 41-200, at 120.

[4] Nicolas Coeffeteau, A table of humane passions. With their causes and effects (1621), 111-12, 117-19.

[5] Mary Penington, Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington Written by Herself, ed. Norman Penney (London, 1992, first publ. 1911), 70-71, 93.

[6] Thomas Wright, The passions of the minde (1630; first published 1601), 169-70.

[7] On facial grimaces, but for a later period, see Joanna Bourke, The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford, 2014), ch.6.

[8] Timothy Bright, treatise of melancholie (1586), 153-54.

[9] Stuart Clark, Vanities of the Eye: Vision in Early Modern European Culture (Oxford, 2007), 11.

[10] Mary Chudleigh, On the death of my dear daughter Eliza Maria Chudleigh, in her Poems on several occasions (1713), 95.

[11] Timothy Rogers, Practical discourses on sickness & recovery (1691), 228-29.

“Stop Thinking about Death… and Stop Shouting at People”: Psychic Driving at the Museum of the Normal

David Saunders started his PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions in October 2016. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



On 24 November 2016, seventy-three individuals entered a small room on the third floor of St Bartholomew’s Hospital and disclosed their hopes, fears, and anxieties to a tape machine. Attending the Museum of the Normal, an event organised by Queen Mary’s Centre for the History of the Emotions, these “subjects” had been taken away from the bright lights and greenish specimens of Bart’s Pathology Museum and led into a darkened clinical room, where a silent, mechanical therapist was waiting to hear their confessions. Taking a seat under harsh lamplight, these individuals had volunteered to take part in a “revolutionary” therapeutic exercise called Psychic Driving.

man in a lab coat sitting at a desk with a tape recorder in a dimly lit room

The “Psychic Driving” apparatus. (Cred: Stewart Caine)

“Psychic Driving,” as explored previously on this blog, was a radical therapy developed in the early 1950s by Dr Donald Ewen Cameron, a psychiatrist at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal. For Cameron, talking therapies had failed to stem the tide of psychiatric illnesses; instead psychiatrists needed to embrace new technologies to mechanise the process of psychological healing. Cameron’s imagination had been captured by one piece of technology in particular: the tape machine. By taping positive messages and replaying these to his patients on a never-ending loop, Cameron believed he could destroy their pathological memories, beliefs, and behaviours, and reprogram them into productive, well-adjusted members of society. The power to wipe clean and rewrite the memories and personalities of citizens was a powerful fantasy in the Cold War environment, and soon Cameron’s research drew the attention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who began to covertly fund his work. Ultimately, psychic driving was a complete failure as both a therapeutic tool and a weapon of mind control. Patients forced to listen to Cameron’s looping messages for weeks and even months on end experienced disorientation, hallucinations, and severe memory loss.

It would perhaps be all too easy to cast off psychic driving as yet another “stranger than fiction” tale from the Cold War, another example of military and scientific excesses fed by paranoia, suspicion, and nightmares of nuclear destruction. Yet many of the motivations sustaining Cameron’s research remain entrenched in contemporary therapeutic culture: the endless search for “normality” and “equilibrium”, the modernist faith that technology can provide the solution to daily woes, the continuing obsession with “quick-fix” solutions. How, then, might the history of psychic driving point to the unexpected and troubling ramifications of our search for easy answers? Given the opportunity, what attributes and behaviours might we wish to “program” into ourselves?

These very questions were explored by visitors to the Museum of the Normal. Left alone with the tape machine, all participants were asked to respond to the same question: if they could change one thing about their lives overnight, what would it be? Their responses – disarmingly honest and frequently surprising – have been drawn together into a single “self-help” tape, accompanied by an ambient soundscape inspired by recordings used for guided meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. The tape thus stands as a collaborative exploration into our assumptions, desires, and fears about what it means to be “normal”.

This track contains some strong language.

Responses to the psychic driving installation varied immensely, often with no clear patterns or trends. However, a number of tentative observations can be made:

  • The majority of responses (58%) focused on a desired change of attitude towards life and its challenges. These frequently involved wanting to worry less, appreciate positive things more, and seize opportunities.
  • 31% of responses involved anxieties about time in some form. Most of these referred to fears surrounding procrastination, or a desire to use time more efficiently.
  • Only 7% of responses referred to relationships with others. Overwhelmingly, responses focused on the individual, often in isolation.
  • The vast majority of responses (76%) concerned abstract aspirations, such as working harder, enjoying life more, or becoming more motivated. A much smaller number of responses put forward specific goals (24%), which ranged from learning languages to quitting smoking.
  • In general terms, 60% of responses were framed in a positive manner – broadly defined as a desire to improve or augment certain attributes or characteristics. Meanwhile, 40% were framed in a negative manner – as corrections to perceived flaws or prohibitions of perceived bad habits.

The psychic driving apparatus has returned to its laboratory in Peckham for recalibration. A second test is currently under consideration.

The Team would like to thank all those who took part in the Psychic Driving installation at the Museum of the Normal.

New Publications, October – December 2016

A round-up of publications on the history of emotions from October to December 2016.

If you would like your publication to be featured in the next quarterly round-up, please send the details (including a link to more information or the full article) to before 2 April 2017.

An additional list of publications is also published monthly on H-emotions:






New podcast: the politics of well-being, with Richard Layard and William Davies

Here’s the second episode of our podcast, with Jules Evans interviewing Richard Layard,  former government ‘happiness tsar’ and the creator of the NHS talking therapies service; and Wiliam Davies, author of The Happiness Industry.

You can listen to the previous episode, an interview with author Geoff Dyer about peak experiences, here. And you can now subscribe to our podcast on iTunes here.

Farts and Friars, Rebellion and Wrath: A Response to Thomas Dixon

Paul Megna is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. He is currently developing a project on emotion and ethics in medieval and medievalist drama. He was awarded a PhD in English by the University of California, Santa Barbara, for his dissertation titled ‘Emotional Ethics in Middle English Literature’.

This is the latest in a series of posts about anger, and a second response to Thomas Dixon’s post ‘Angers past or anger’s past?’ The first response was by Kirk Essary. All three posts have also appeared on the ARC Histories of Emotion Blog.

In his recent post, Thomas Dixon argues that historians of emotion should avoid too readily conflating our contemporary understanding of anger with those espoused by the denizens of the past societies that we study. This is, of course, a crucial point and to argue against it would not only pay short shrift to the very real linguistic, phenomenological and ethical distinctions between our anger (or, since there are important differences between the ways that contemporary English-speakers conceive of anger, our angers) and angers past, but would also downplay the important cultural work of studying the history of anger in the first place. Nevertheless, I worry that too much focus on the divergence between our post-Darwin, post-Ekman understanding of anger and that of, say, Geoffrey Chaucer runs the risk of ignoring the equally important ways that angers past remain recognisable to us today.

Take, for example, a hilarious (at least in my humble opinion) moment in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale.[1] A greedy, sanctimonious friar is visiting his long-time patron Thomas, who lies on his deathbed. Thomas is angry with the friar since he has given ‘many a pound’ (III.1950–51) to friars, but never seems to fare better for his donations. After the Friar delivers a long, condemnatory sermon on the evils of wrath, Thomas becomes still angrier, but conceals his indignation and offers to give the friar yet another gift, as long as he agrees to split it amongst all of his brothers. Thomas instructs the friar to reach beneath his buttocks and, when the latter obeys, Thomas farts more loudly than any horse ever did, leaving the friar insane with anger, cursing Thomas through clenched teeth. My point is simple: modern readers both understand the friar’s anger and ‘get’ the Summoner’s joke. Even if we are totally unaware that friars were often lampooned in Chaucer’s time for spreading rage by usurping the sacramental business of local parsons, we grasp why the friar is angry because we would also probably be angry if we, upon being offered a gift, received instead a handful of farts. I daresay Thomas’s trick might enrage even the stoic Inuit Kigeak, Jean L. Brigg’s adopted father, discussed in another recent post by Thomas Dixon. Taken out of context, Thomas’s trick is not necessarily funny (it would not be funny if it happened to Kigeak), but I am able to laugh at the Summoner’s friar’s angry reaction to the trick because it proves him a hypocrite for preaching against the evils of anger. Despite arising from a radically different cultural milieu than my own, Chaucer’s depictions of anger and solicitations of laughter translate well, to borrow a phrase from Maxine Hong Kingston.[2] If they did not, I might have chosen a very different career path.


Figure 1: The Summoner in the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As Dixon points out, medieval Europeans strongly associated anger with the mortal sin of wrath. Medieval discourses on wrath, however, rarely conflate anger and sin entirely and often explicitly demarcate sinful anger from righteous anger. Elsewhere in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in The Parson’s Tale,[3] we get a thoroughgoing definition of sinful wrath, as well as its remedial virtues. Although the Parson does not prescribe righteous anger as the remedy for sinful anger, he does introduce his discussion of sinful wrath by positing that not all anger is sinful: ‘Ire is in two maneres; that oon of hem is good, and that oother is wikked’ (X.537). Good ire, for the Parson, is ‘withouten bitternesse’ and directed at ‘wikkednesse’, rather than the purveyor thereof (X.538–40). Supporting his discussion of righteous anger, the Parson cites Psalms 4.4 (the translation history of which Kirk Essary discusses in his recent post): ‘Irascimini et nolite peccare’ (‘Be angry and don’t sin’). In discussing sinful anger, the Parson introduces another split, this time between sudden or hasty ire, which occurs ‘withouten [. . .] consentynge of resoun’ and is therefore a venial sin, and ‘wikked’ anger, to which reason consents, making it a mortal sin (X.540–42). Once again, the finer points of Chaucerian anger are caught up in a sacramental theology that is quite foreign to some, though certainly not all, modern readers. As Thomas Dixon puts it, ‘[t]here is a substantive difference – phenomenologically and emotionally, morally and metaphysically – between committing the deadly sin ira and expressing the modern emotion of “anger” as conceived by a psychologist like Paul Ekman’.

On the other hand, the Parson’s discourse on anger is not so different, I think, than that expressed in Martha Nussbaum’s new book,[4] which Dixon aptly summarises in yet another previous post. Nussbaum is characteristically not content with being merely descriptive (as is Ekman’s psychology of anger), but is also prescriptive insofar as she hopes to provide us a blueprint for building a better society by instituting a healthier, neo-Stoic emotional regime. Her project, therefore, is not so unlike that of Chaucer’s Parson. Although I would certainly stop short of conflating the two prescriptive philosophies of anger entirely, I do want to point out that Nussbaum, like the Parson, disapproves of almost all anger, especially insofar as it entails a desire for revenge, but she does leave room for a healthy, acceptable ‘transition anger’, as long as it fuels efforts for preventative reform. Nussbaum’s ‘transition anger’ strikes me as existing somewhere between the Parson’s righteous anger and his venial, hasty anger. Despite their very real differences, the discourses on anger offered by Nussbaum and the Parson contain an uncannily similar ascetic program for producing a better world by emoting well. Both are forgiving of impulsive anger and critical of seething anger that broods on vengeance.

I certainly do not mean to suggest that it is easy to reconcile medieval and modern discourses on anger. Dixon alludes to the work of linguists like Anna Wierzbicka who analyse the various semantic valences of Old and Middle English anger-words, none of which coincide entirely with that of the Modern English ‘anger’. Inherited from Old Norse, the Middle English anger, for example, can signify something roughly akin to our anger, but, like the Old Norse angr, might also mean a much more general sense of sorrow or displeasure.[5] Making matters worse, in a time before authoritative dictionaries, words were used differently by different folks (as they continue to be today, despite a plethora of dictionaries!) Chaucer, for example, uses ‘ire’, ‘anger’, and ‘wrath’ more or less interchangeably, relying heavily on adjectives to signify the moral status of the anger in question. While some taxonomically minded Middle English authors, like Reginald Pecock,[6] explicitly distinguish between ‘anger’ and ‘wrath’, making the former a passion over which one has no control and the latter a wilful, and therefore potentially sinful, deed, such careful semantic distinctions between anger-words are the exception, rather than the rule, in Middle English anger writing.

Royal 18 E I f.165v

Figure 2: ‘The Death of Wat Tyler’, in Jean Froissart, Chroniques, late fifteenth century. British Library, Royal MS 18 E I, f.175.

Making matters still more difficult for those of us interested in reconstructing medieval notions of anger is the fact that all we have to understand them is surviving texts, works of art and archaeological remains. As many historians have noted, this yields an uneven record, skewed towards those possessing the privilege to produce: churchmen, aristocrats and poetic social climbers like Chaucer and John Gower. This poses a distinct problem for those interested in peasant anger: we have a glut of sources depicting peasant anger as bestial and socially disruptive – like Book I of Gower’s Vox Clamantis – and a dearth of sources indicating how peasants conceptualised anger differently than their oppressors. [7] Despite this difficulty, historians and literary critics like Paul Freedman and Steven Justice have done a great deal to study medieval peasant anger, sometimes by reading aristocratic chronicles against the grain and sometimes by focusing on small scraps of peasant discourse preserved in hostile sources.[8] I’m thinking, of course, of Justice’s fantastic work on the Rebel Letters: Middle English lyrics which served as peasant communiqués contained in otherwise Latin chronicle accounts of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.[9] In an article published a few years ago,[10] I argued that one of these short lyrics tells us a great deal about peasant anger without using a single anger-word. The lyric in question is called ‘The Letter of John Ball’ and is attributed to the radical priest of that name who rallied the Rebels at Blackheath with a rousing, proto-Marxist sermon. It derives from a common complaint lyric that bewails a world in which the Seven Deadly Sins run rampant:

Now raigneth pride in price,

Covetise is holden wise,

Leacherie without shame,

Gluttonye without blame:

Envie raigneth with treason,

And slouth is taken in greate season;

God doe bote, for now is time.

Unlike its sources and analogues, the ‘Letter of John Ball’ does not complain that the world is replete with wrath. In leaving anger conspicuously absent, Ball’s complaint implies that wrath is not a cause of the social inequality against which Ball preached, but a solution to it. The implicit endorsement of righteous anger contained in the ‘Letter of John Ball’ suggests that not all medieval laypeople adhered to the narrow understanding of righteous anger espoused by their confessors and that some recognised discourses on the deadly sin wrath as mechanisms designed to dissuade dissent. Sadly, the paroxysm of anger expressed in the 1381 Rising led to a draconian crackdown on peasant rights spearheaded by a young and preternaturally angry King Richard II. Nevertheless, John Ball and his compatriots Wat Tyler and Jack Straw continue to reside in the English proletariat imaginary as powerful symbols of righteous anger and dissent.


Figure 3: Frontispiece and first page of an early edition of William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott P, 1892). Artwork by E. Burne-Jones, April 1888. Newcastle University Library, Special Collections, RB 821.86 MOR.

In 1888, 507 years after John Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered for rousing rebel anger, the socialist reformer William Morris published a short serialised novel entitled A Dream of John Ball, which details a dream vision in which the protagonist, a nineteenth-century socialist lecturer, finds himself in fourteenth-century England. Morris’s dreamer meets a peasant rebel and recites snippets of a Rebel Letter to showcase his socialist sympathies. He then hears Ball give a radical sermon and witnesses a minor skirmish early in the Revolt. In the story’s concluding chapters, he conducts a long, private conversation with Ball in which he details the sad results of the Revolt, the end of feudalism, the industrial revolution and the rise of a capitalist mode of production that leaves the working class infinitely more disenfranchised than medieval peasants. Needless to say, Ball is not thrilled by what he hears. At one point, he even furrows his brow in anger. Although Morris’s nostalgic novel provides a markedly pessimistic counterpoint to the neo-medieval utopia imagined in News from Nowhere, A Dream of John Ball hints at a dream of a utopian future shared by Ball, Morris’s protagonist and modern readers of historical records of class struggle such as myself. Morris places John Ball’s peasant anger in dialogue with that experienced by the proletariat under industrial capitalism. In so doing, he allegorises the way that historical inquiry fosters connections between past and present political emotions. Just as Morris resuscitates Ball’s anger, so do the historians of emotion who study peasant anger to build an archive of class struggle.

Do I mean the exact same thing when I say ‘wrath’ as did John Ball when he said it, or strategically opted to not say it, more than 700 years ago? Of course not. I can neither fully grasp peasant anger, nor Morris’s socialist discontent, nor the anger felt by African Americans, many of whom feel persecuted and endangered by the justice system that is ostensibly supposed to protect and serve them. But the unknowability of other people’s anger, historical or contemporary, does not absolve me of responsibility to empathise with it and even partake in it, to the extent that I can or choose to. As historians of emotion, we need to both respect and transverse historical difference. We need to study the roots and analogues, not only of anger that we deem righteous, but also that which we deem toxic (or Trump-esque), in order to help others and ourselves manage and understand contemporary anger. Our task, therefore, is not so different than that undertaken by either Nussbaum or Chaucer’s Parson. Somewhere between descriptive and prescriptive lies the vital work of the historian of anger.

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Summoner’s Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 129–36.

[2] Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

[3] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), pp. 287–327.

[4] Martha Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] I am grateful to Carolyne Larrington for helping me to trace anger’s transition from Old Norse to English.

[6] Reginald Pecock, The Folewer to the Donet, ed. by E. V. Hitchcock (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 110.

[7] John Gower, Vox Clamantis, in The Complete Works of John Gower: Latin Works (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902), pp. 3–313.

[8] See, for example, Paul Freedman, ‘Peasant Anger in the Late Middle Ages’, in Anger’s Past: The Social Uses of an Emotion in the Late Middle Ages, ed. by Barbara H. Rosenwein (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), pp. 171–88.

[9] Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1994).

[10] Paul Megna, ‘Langland’s Wrath: Righteous Anger Management in The Vision of Piers Plowman’, Exemplaria 25.2 (2013): 130–51.

Dumb Witnessing: Good Old Boys and Canine Grief

bold-2Margery Masterson is a Research Associate at the University of Bristol. She works on Victorian masculinity and the twin themes of militarization and memorialisation. She is currently working on the Victorian volunteers craze of the 1860s.

I often pass an old man with his dog on my usual evening walk. There’s a grey tinge to the dog’s tufted black fur, but his short-legged gait is still brisk, punctuated by frequent stops to allow his owner to catch up. With the shortening days, the dog wears a collar of flashing red lights to protect him from cyclists, making him look rather like a homemade Christmas ornament.

We exchange pleasantries and then I return to my audiobook. The shape of the man and the dog soon fades back into the gloom and all I can see are the blinking red lights. Now moving, now patiently pausing. I am currently immersed in The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921). After concluding a whirlwind plot of adulterous affairs and ruinous lawsuits in the first volume, John Galsworthy slows the pace almost to a standstill for the ‘Indian Summer’ of Old Jolyon.


John Galsworthy ©Getty Images;

At eighty five, Old Jolyon’s left alone at home while his family’s on holiday. Almost alone. Balthasar, a would-be Pomeranian, watches as Old Jolyon seeks out the company of the beautiful Irene. In his sudden, deep need for Irene’s company, Old Jolyon comes to resemble his animal (‘his eyes grew sad as an old dog’s’) and it is his dog who notices Old Jolyon’s rapid deterioration: ‘Only the dog Balthasar saw his lonely recovery from that weakness; anxiously watched his master go to the sideboard and drink some brandy, instead of giving him a biscuit .’ (Indian Summer of a Forsyte Chapter IV)


I was retracing my steps homeward when Old Jolyon shuffled outside with Balthasar to wait under a tree for Irene one last time. The impending ending flashed across my mind. ‘The dog placed his chin over the sunlit foot. It did not stir … suddenly he uttered a long, long howl.’ I echoed this howl with a sudden, unstoppable sob. My own reactive grief seemed wildly out of proportion to the peaceful death of a fictitious octogenarian. What was so sad about this scene?


Irene (Gina McKee) and Old Jolyon (Colin Redgrave), The Forstye Saga, ITV (2002)








The only time I can remember feeling such simple devastation was watching children’s films featuring old dogs. Memorable among these canines is the old bloodhound in Lady and the Tramp (1955) who, recovering his sense of smell, tracks the villain’s carriage only to be run over. Even more heartrending is the old golden retriever in Homeward Bound (1993) who, having crossed the entire United States to be reunited with his boy owner, is injured falling into a pit and cannot climb out. The old dog as an old man reaches its apogee in Disney entertainments. Old dogs literally speak in the voices of old man and display, especially in the animated forms, human movements and expressions.

Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness (1937) Christie dedicated the book to her own wire terrier Peter.

Agatha Christie, Dumb Witness (1937) Christie dedicated the book to her own wire terrier Peter.

The pedigree of this synthesis of human and non-human forms is far older than Disney. Novelists in particular have long been drawn to the idea that dogs are unique witnesses to human suffering and death. Modern detective stories have always been interested in dogs as witnesses to human death – and intrigued by the problem of a witness that cannot speak. From Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes short story Silver Blaze (1892) and the dog that famously ‘did nothing, Watson’ to Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (1937) where Hercule Poirot deducts who the real killer is by observing the dog Bob.

Real-life celebrity dogs of the period performed hyper-masculine action ‘heroics’, like those of the sled-dog Balto, but they also excelled, as Liz Gray has discussed in this blog, in the more passive rites of mourning like Greyfriars Bobby. Dogs often mitigate the loneliness and isolation of illness, but they also bear witness to it in ways that are not always easy for historians to access. Victorian novelists were fascinated by the ways in which dogs externalized the unspoken or un-witnessed suffering of humans.

Sol Eytinge, ‘Dora and Miss Mills’. Wood engraving from Dickens's David Copperfield in the Ticknor and Fields (Boston), 1867, Diamond Edition [Victorian Web].

Sol Eytinge, ‘Dora and Miss Mills’. Wood engraving from Dickens’s David Copperfield in the Ticknor and Fields (Boston), 1867,

Charles Dickens is a past master of this theme. Jip is more than the mirror of his silly and perpetually juvenile mistress, Dora, in David Copperfield (1849-50): his aging body gives expression to her own unspoken deterioration. Bill Sykes’s dog, Bulls-Eye, shares the same fate in Oliver Twist (1837-9), and Dickens gives Hugh, from Barnaby Rudge (1841), a mongrel cur that Hugh calls for as he is about to be hanged.

But this projection is a two-way process. The suffering humans also take on doglike qualities. Magwich in Great Expectations (1860-1), already ‘very like the dog’ in his rough mannerisms, becomes doglike in his lonely and futile longing for Pip’s regard and affection. In The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1), Little Nell’s ‘panting dog’ of a grandfather visits her grave everyday for three months and then dies himself with doglike loyalty.

Collar of Keeper from Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Collar of Keeper from Deborah Lutz, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Indeed, ‘doglike’ characters seem particularly easy to twist from menacing men into pitiable specimens. Heathcliff, likened to a ravening wolf early on in Wuthering Heights (1847), takes on the more pathetic traits of a domestic dog in his mourning of Cathy. Emily Bronte’s own chief mourner was her dog, a large male mastiff called Keeper. The mastiff was an integral part of Bronte’s funeral procession and became a ‘living monument’ to her afterwards.

Book cover of Where’s Master by Caesar the King’s Dog

Where’s Master by Caesar the King’s Dog (1910). For more on this story see Cambridge’s Tower Project blog.

Bereaved canines act less as gate keepers and more as gateways into private human grief. This was especially true of King Edward VII’s wire fox terrier Caesar. After he prominently walked in the King’s 1910 funeral cortege, a first-person account of Caesar’s intimate view of royal bereavement was anonymously published. Where’s Master? admitted commoners into the King’s bedchamber at the moment of his death, increasing the pathos of his passing but, perhaps, lessening the awe of the occasion.

So what is it about dogs and grief that humans find both so heartbreaking and so familiar? Marjorie Garber writes in Dog Love (1996) about this quandary over pet bereavement: ‘This, I think, is part of the poignancy of the relation between human being and dog: we sense in dogs so much in the way of sympathy for our moods, grief’s, losses – and that we are so powerless to explain loss, death, and sadness to them. (Garber, p.252)

funeral cortege of King Edward VII. 

funeral cortege of King Edward VII.

If this is true – and I think that it is – then so is the reverse. If humans pity dogs’ uncomprehending and inarticulate response to human death, we also find it particularly sad when humans are rendered similarly dumb – whether by their intrinsic personality or social conditioning. It is conspicuous that, at least in nineteenth and early twentieth century literature, female characters never suffer from ‘doglike’ grief whereas upper-middle class British men at the turn of the twentieth century, John Galsworthy’s speciality, typify an inarticulate, ‘canine’ response to bereavement.

If, as Charles Fraser has argued in this blog, ‘connection entails reciprocity’, then we must look for a genuine exchange between human and non-human animals rather than ventriloquism. I suspect there is a possibility for a human and a dog to share one another’s grief – the old man and the old dog shuffling around the house in silent communion – but I am suspicious of attempts to give a human voice to non-human animal emotions. I doubt that the ‘speaking’ sentimental canines of fiction and of history are anything more than a reflection of human emotion.

Yet, as Galsworthy shows, humans’ ventriloquism of dogs reflects real emotions. He extends the dog Balthasar’s life for a ludicrously long time so that the dog’s death can presage another family bereavement in the second volume of The Forsyte Saga. ‘What is it, my poor old man?’ says Young Jolyon to the dying dog. Later, turning to his son as they finish digging Balthasar’s grave, ‘old man, I think it’s big enough.’ (In Chancery, Part II, Ch. X) Hearing this, you simultaneously realize two things: first that the son will die, and second that his father will never be able to fully understand or express his sadness at this bereavement.

Young Jolyon will become, like his father, a sad old dog.

Want to read more posts about animals and emotion?

Try Thomas Dixon’s ‘Emotional Animals No. 1’ or Liz Gray’s ‘Loyalty and a Dog Called Bobby’ or check out our ‘Emotional Animals’ category.

Translating ‘Anger’ in the Sixteenth Century: A Response to Thomas Dixon (Kind Of)