Melancholia

“But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud”
–Keats

Every year, around this time, I get the winter blahs. I can’t stand the cold and gray skies, and it’s hard to concentrate on reading/writing/doing chores (not really much different from any other time when it comes to those chores, I guess!). I just like to crawl under the electric blanket and watch movies. Preferably costume epics and adaptations, like the ones Megan wrote about a few days ago. But this general mopiness made me curious about people in the Regency. Did they ever get tired of the gray skies, the drizzle? Ever think the sun will never come out again?

So, I came across a couple of articles online dealing with “melancholy” in the eighteenth century. It seems there were two types of melancholy–“natural” and “unnatural” (no mention of SAD!). “Natural” was considered to be brought on primarily by a black bile that could be dried up over time. This could be the result of certain foods, such as strong wines (and here I thought wine was the remedy!), and were accompanied by lifestyles that could nourish the condition, such as frequent intoxication and over-indulgence. One treatment, which sounds pretty nice and kind of spa-like to me, was a routine to bring balance between sleep, play, exercise, company, sex, and intellectual pursuits, as well as an attendant to keep the patient from being sad. It was then thought that the black bile could then dissipate, and the patient would return to normal.

The “unnatural” kind, though, was tougher. Maybe even the result of corruption from demons and spirits! (Though this is probably earlier than Regency–I read a great deal about it in Samule Johnson’s work). In this case, the sadness could descend toward manic episodes, fits of rage, and “eventual absolute madness.” So–demons, or maybe living somewhere like Alaska.

Johnson defined hypochndria as a condition that produces melancholy, or an intense fear that led to symptoms of melancholy. One case he documented was a women who thought she had a snake living in her intestines. The doctors showed her a snake they claimed came from said intestines, and she was cured. This sounds more like general craziness than melancholy, though!

All this made me try to remember a romance where characters suffered from depression, or melancholy, or any kind of persistent sadness, and I came up mostly blank. Most romance characters are a pretty perky lot, in general. Has anyone here read a book like that? Any thoughts on what such a story could be like?

And now that I’ve brought everyone down, I’ll sign off! I’m sure I have some movies waiting to be viewed….

p.s. Another very interesting book on this subject is Duncan Salkeld’s “Madness and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare”

About Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

Writer (as Amanda McCabe, Laurel McKee, Amanda Carmack), history geek, yoga enthusiast, pet owner!
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9 Responses to Melancholia

  1. I can’t recall a character suffering from melancholy, although some are definitely suffering from grief, but that has a tangible cause.
    It’s funny you mention this, because I just sent some pages out to a friend for feedback, and she points out my heroine is incredibly un-self-confident (hm, wonder where she gets that from?), and how will she rescue herself if she is such a doormat? So I think that is one of the problems with showing saddish people.
    And, hey, that Byron was such a dish.
    thanks for the thought-provoking post, Amanda.

  2. Loretta Chase’s MISS WONDERFUL examines “monomania.” The heroine’s father suffers from it (he develops an obsession with plants and an avoidance of everything else) and so does the hero (who’s obsessed with clothing). I didn’t follow the discussion very closely (well, there was lots of banter and unlacing of corsets to attend to instead), but a few days after finishing it, I came across mention of “monomania” in a non-fiction book called MESMERIZED: POWERS OF MIND IN VICTORIAN BRITAIN. The author, Alison Winter, says that it was only in the 19th century that madness began to be seen as independent of the will and the moral faculties, and that 19th century Britons broadly assigned the word “monomania” to this condition.

    What’s significant seems to be not so much the “mono” part of the term (ie, obsession with one thing), but the notion that madness could be temporary and specific. “Rather than being a condition that set certain individuals permanently apart from the rest of humanity, it was a state of mind in which anyone could find themselves, and from which they could return.” (making it good for romantic plots)

    Pam

  3. Elena Greene says:

    Interesting topic, Amanda!

    I’ve seen melancholia used in stories. In Mary Jo Putney’s RIVER OF FIRE, the heroine’s mother suffered from it, and it was an important element in the story.

    I’ve rarely seen it in a major character, though. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. Some people read romance purely for escape, and would probably find a depressed character, well, depressing.

    OTOH lots of women out there struggle with mild depression. I do myself. I rely heavily on exercise, getting out doors whenever possible, and journaling.

    I did write one heroine that may, in retrospect, have been suffered this sort of mild dysthymia. She rather desperately needed the solace in nature and music. And some readers loved her, others just wanted her to “get over it” (more easily said than done for many of us).

    I think the only reason some readers did “get” her was that she was trying. She was over the top in a lot of her actions, but at least not passive. I also think it’s easier to get away with a moody hero than a heroine.

    Melancholy characters are a risk. But so interesting…

    Elena

  4. I have one ms. with a heroine who is suffering from depression, and everyone who’s read it tells me I have to “do something” about her.

    In “Villette” by C. Bronte the heroine suffers from a bout of depression, which is referred to as “hypochondria.”

    And can anyone tell me more about these spas where regular sex was part of the treatment; are they still in operation, how much do they cost, etc.

    Thanks,
    Janet

  5. Cara King says:

    Amanda,

    It seems to me that, looked at one way, Mark in your novella “Upon a Midnight Clear” (in Signet’s REGENCY CHRISTMAS MAGIC) might be said to suffer from depression. He never socializes, he hides in his little home all the time, he doesn’t think highly of himself, and seems to have done very little for the several years before the story begins…

    What do you think?

    Cara

  6. Very true, Cara! He’s quite traumatized, and really Antoinette isn’t much better, now that I think about it. What a happy couple they’re going to be, I’m sure. 🙂

    I had forgotten about Miss Wonderful, and River of Fire. Both great books, I’m just losing my memory, I think! MI was very interesting in the way it treated “monomania”

  7. Cara King says:

    But actually, Amanda, I think Mark and Antoinette are going to be very happy! She was already doing awfully well considering who and where she was… She will make sure he has more of a social life than he’s had…and together, they’re going to be so cozy! Reading books together, cuddling up by the fire… and maybe she’ll teach him a little magic… 🙂

    Cara

  8. Betty S says:

    Hmm. Interesting post.
    I can’t recall that exactly, although I have read a couple of contemporary and historicals where the hero kept himself closeted away in his mansion for various reasons. (Grief, cussedness, disfigurement, etc.)

    Since in suffer from CRS, I, of course, don’t remember authors or titles. But I do know it was never presented as melancholia or depression.

  9. Todd says:

    I can’t off the top of my head recall a romance that I’ve read where the hero or heroine suffered from what we would now call clinical depression; but if one allows a somewhat broader range of dysfunctions, examples come to mind. In particular, in LIBBY’S LONDON MERCHANT by Carla Kelly, one character is an alcoholic; in LADY ELIZABETH’S COMET a character has an addiction to opium. In the Patrick O’Brien novels (still Regency but not romance), one character battles opium addiction as well.

    I think post-traumatic stress disorder is also not uncommon, particularly among heroes. Can’t think of a Regency example off the top of my head, but one of my favorite literary characters is Lord Peter Wimsey, who suffers from nervous disorders after his experiences in WWI.

    Todd-who-gets-nervous-when-the-book-he-wants-is-not-in-a-stack-next-to-his-chair

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