EIGHTEEN MONTHS LOST.
1855—56. Æt. 35—36.
Tréport had proved so beneficial during my month’s stay the year before, that I decided to revisit it after my break-down. My friend Lott, who was invalided by a lame knee, agreed to follow me; and he arrived at the end of August, after I had been at Tréport about ten days.
Sometimes basking on the shingle, sometimes collecting specimens for two aquaria which we established—now taking rides and now spending an hour at the Salon near the sea, or at he shooting-gallery, we remained at Tréport till Sept. 18, with varying results in respect of health, and then returned by way of Calais and Dover. Next day we parted at Folkestone, where I remained a week.
Huxley, then recently married, was spending his honeymoon at Tenby; and I wrote to him making inquiries about the place. The result was that at the end of the week I journeyed thither. Letters show that I had hoped to benefit by going out dredging, and also by the pleasures of companionship. But I was disappointed. My state was such that I had to shun society: being unable to bear more than a few minutes’ conversation. I describe myself as “leading a very quiet life, looking at neither books nor newspapers”; and I enlivened my solitude by exploring St. Catherine’s Rock and its caves for creatures to fill my aquarium. and by watching their habits.
Reading the correspondence of these and subsequent months has somewhat changed my conception of myself. Having all through life had an even flow of spirits, unvaried by either elation or depression, I have usually supposed that I tended towards neither sanguine nor despondent views. But my statements and anticipations at this time make me think that I must be constitutionally sanguine. On the average, letters give the impression that satisfactory progress is being made, and that recovery may be looked for in a short time—an impression not at all congruous with my recollections. Here is a paragraph from a letter of 10 October, which I quote partly in illustration of this trait and partly because of the fact it contains.
“The average of my nights is better, though they vary a good deal. Last night was my best for a long while, in consequence apparently, of my having adopted a new and more efficient mode of keeping up the cerebral circulation through the night. I wet the head with salt and water; put over it a flannel night cap; and over that a waterproof cap which prevents evaporation. The effect is that of a poultice. Last night I did not lose more than two hours between 10 and 7. I awoke in the middle of the night, and by repeating the wetting went to sleep again in about an hour. If this plan continues to answer I shall do very well; for sleep is all that is wanted.”
But it did not continue to answer, and yet there is no mention of its failure. It may be that I was anxious to put the best face on matters when writing home. That the desire to relieve the fears entertained about me, was a part cause of these unduly favourable reports, I am the more led to suspect on finding no reference to the serious exacerbation of my disorder produced, when at Tréport, by reading a little too much while under the influence of quinine, joined with that of other tonic treatment, and producing a state of hot head which lasted for several days. This imprudence it was, I believe, which made permanent a morbid condition that might otherwise have been but temporary.
At the beginning of November I returned to Derby, much worse than I was when I left it early in August.
Not many years previously had settled at Nottingham, Dr. W. H. Ransom—a physician who presently became the leader of his profession in that place. My father suggested that I should consult him, and we went over together. Dr. Ransom was a specially fit adviser; for he had himself been a nervous sufferer. Attainment of the highest honours at his examination had been followed by a collapse from which it took a long time to recover.
He entered very fully into my case, telling me for my guidance various results of his own experience. I remember the shock given me by the statement that two years had elapsed before he was able to resume work: the implication being that the like might be the case with me. Ah! if I had known what the future was to bring forth, how I should have rejoiced over the prospect of a termination to my disorder—even though delayed for that interval.
Of his various suggestions I need here name only that which determined my movements for some time after. He said I ought to lead a rural life: taking up my abode in a farm-house, where, among other things, I could have the use of a horse. On naming Devonshire as a region towards which I had leanings (letters show that I had thought of crossing over from Tenby) he demurred somewhat on the ground of climate; but as he did not insist much on this objection I decided to go there.
A brief interval elapsed before an advertisement in the Devonshire papers had any result; and then the result was only a single reply. This promised fairly well, and I therefore journeyed to the south-west early in December.
The place at which I settled myself for a time, was Well House, Ideford, near Chudleigh. Besides myself there were, as inmates, an ensign from India on furlough, and his brother. Joined to the family, which included a governess, these made a sufficiently lively circle. A letter home, dated December 11, says—
“I have been riding yesterday and to day, and have enjoyed it much. The scenery all round is very beautiful—more so even than I had expected. So far the climate is anything but relaxing: it has been a sharp frost ever since I have been here. Last year there was a month’s skating on the water in Ugbrook Park, close by here—one of the most picturesque parks I have seen.”
And then comes a sentence illustrative of my sanguineness:—“At the present rate I shall soon be quite right; for I feel quite well, and sleep pretty nearly as well as I ordinarily do.”
Daily rides along the Devonshire lanes, now to Bishopsteignton, Teignmouth, or Dawlish, and now on the top of Haldon, passed the time pleasantly; and indoors, occasional hours were passed with the microscope, in the use of which I was trying an experiment. Thinking that in many cases greater power of penetration is the need, rather than more exact definition of such part of an object as lies in focal plane, it occurred to me that instead of the object glass having a wide aperture, the aperture should be the smallest which would admit a sufficiency of light. I therefore had made for me a movable cap to the object glass, having in its centre an opening about the size of a pin-hole; and, for illumination, I used direct sunlight passed through oiled tissue paper, to destroy the parallelism of the rays. The experiment was not without success; but I was, I believe, deterred from prosecuting it by finding that the rays diffracted by the edges of the hole interfered too much.
Let me name here an instructive fact which I observed during my stay. On Christmas Eve I thought I would amuse my host’s little daughter by showing her how a holly-berry with a pin thrust through it, will dance about in a vertical jet of air, in the same way that a ball does when placed in a jet of water. The farmer, a man of substance but of very little culture, was looking on; and I expected that he would show astonishment and curiosity on seeing for the first time so anomalous a behaviour. To my surprise he did neither; but displayed absolute indifference. Many years afterwards I was reminded of this experience by the accounts given of the comparative indifference which low savages display, when shown looking-glasses, watches, or other remarkable products of civilized life. Surprise and curiosity are not traits of the utterly ignorant, as they are commonly supposed to be, but of the partially cultured; and non-recognition of this truth vitiates the speculations of mythologists. They tacitly assume that the primitive man wonders at those great natural changes in the Heavens and on the Earth which he daily witnesses, and tries to account for them. But it is quite otherwise. He does not concern himself about them any further than as they affect satisfaction of his material deeds. If a member of the Max Müller school would cross-examine a few rustics concerning the Moon’s phases, he would see how baseless is his supposition respecting the mental states of the early races whose ideas he so definitely describes. No villager marvels at the monthly changes of the Moon; nor does he ever think of asking from an educated person how they are caused. Nay, if an explanation is volunteered he shows no interest. All through life he looks at these perpetual transformations with entire indifference: unless, indeed, in so far as he fancies they affect the weather.
Before the end of the first week in January I had become impatient with my slow progress at Ideford and decided to try Marychurch near Torquay. After two days there I concluded that, except in frosty weather, the climate of Devonshire was too relaxing; and thereupon decided to go home and find some place in the North.
A change of decision which took place while on my way, is indicated in the following letter; which I give in full because all parts of it are relevant to one or other point of interest.
Lanes Farm, Brimsfield Nr. Painswick.
22 Jany. ’56.
“My dear Potter
Your letter reached me in Devonshire—the last region to which I had wandered in search of health—just as I was leaving in consequence of finding the climate too mild. On my journey towards home it occurred to me to try the Cotswold Hills, which seemed likely enough to furnish a keen bracing air; and I have for the last ten days been seeking an abode.
I postponed replying to your letter until I had settled myself; and now that I have done so, I find the place and climate so unsuitable that I am thinking of going on Friday.
I should very much like to accept your kind invitation before going back to Derby; but I am almost afraid to do so. I am obliged to shun intellectual society: being unable to bear the excitement of it without injury. It seems beforehand very easy to avoid argument or disquisition; but in practice I find it next to impossible when the temptation arises. It will, I think, be most prudent to relinquish the various gratifications which your invitation holds out, until I can partake of them with less risk.
I am perfectly willing to try your remedy for rationalism. Indeed, marriage has been prescribed as a means of setting my brain right in quite another sense: the companionship of a wife being considered the best distraction—in the French not in the English meaning of the word. But the advice is difficult to follow. I labour under the double difficulty that my choice is very limited and that I am not easy to please. Moral and intellectual beauties do not by themselves suffice to attract me; and owing to the stupidity of our educational system it is rare to find them united to a good physique. Moreover there is the pecuniary difficulty. Literature, and especially philosophical literature, pays badly. If I married I should soon have to kill myself to get a living. So, all things considered, the chances are that I shall continue a melancholy Cœlebs to the end of my days.
Putting two and two together, I have my suspicions respecting the authorship of Laura Gay. But I will say nothing until I have internal evidence. My address has been too uncertain to admit of the copy which has been sent to me at Derby being forwarded. With kindest regards to Mrs. Potter and yourself,
very sincerely yours
In response to a letter from Mrs. Potter, received a few days later, re-inforcing the advice given in the letter replied to as above, I wrote—
“Thank you very heartily for your expression of sympathy and interest in my welfare. It is long since I have received a letter that has given me so much pleasure. Friendly words are so generally forms rather than realities, that when they bear the stamp of genuineness they produce an unusual effect.
You are doubtless perfectly right in attributing my present state to an exclusively intellectual life; and in prescribing exercise of the affections as the best remedy. No one is more thoroughly convinced than I am that bachelorhood is an unnatural and very injurious state. Ever since I was a boy (when I was unfortunate in having no brothers or sisters) I have been longing to have my affections called out. I have been in the habit of considering myself but half alive; and have often said that I hoped to begin to live some day. But my wandering, unsettled life, my unattractive manners towards those in whom I feel no interest, my habit of arguing and of offending opponents by a disrespectful style of treating them, have been so many difficulties in my way.”
The unsuitableness of the Brimsfield climate I had prematurely inferred from the fact that the high land of the Cotswolds was frequently wrapt in low-lying clouds at a time when the Severn valley was clear; and I supposed that this kind of dampness was enervating. But it proved not to have the same effect as the warm dampness of Devonshire. My eventual return home about the second week in February, was chiefly due to the departure of another invalid who had been staying at Lanes Farm. This left me companionless: a state of things I always found injurious. Less than three weeks at Derby sufficed. The impatience which I suppose was one result of my disorder sent me back to Brimsfield; and I find a letter dated 1 March, the day after my arrival there, in which occurs the paragraph—“I have just had my first bout of hard work and my first doze. I feel well and strong and tolerably stupid.”
Now exploring the neighbouring country and visiting on one occasion the remains of a Roman villa, now sauntering along the hedge-sides with gun in hand, now splitting up tree-stumps (which occupation, as having some little interest, proved the best exercise I tried) and now riding quietly along the lanes, I passed another three weeks at Brimsfield. Neither there nor in Devonshire did riding seem to be of much service; and I suppose for the reason that I never rode hard enough. I habitually brought back my horse without a hair turned. Having always myself had an intolerance of strenuous effort, and especially effort under coercion, my sympathy is aroused by any creature making strenuous effort under coercion; and the result has ever been a dislike to seeing either a man or an animal over-pressed, and still more to over-pressing one myself. It is curious how special the sympathies are. Mine are by no means as active in most directions as they are in this.
Reports written home from Brimsfield are as usual favourable, and on the whole it seems with reason; for I describe myself as having read “more than a third of the last volume” of a novel “in one day without any injury.” Of course I did this third by instalments; but it was a feat for me in those days. Insomnia persisted; and I frequently adopted heroic measures. In the middle of the night I got up and took a shower bath: the reaction serving to induce sleep. The most effectual method I discovered (not then, however, but afterwards) was a kind of mild hydropathic pack.
One morning there arrived at the door a groom on horseback. He came from Standish, which was less than ten miles off, bearing a letter again asking me to visit my friends there. Though doubting my ability to bear the social excitement that would be entailed, I assented, and bid good-bye to Brimsfield on the 22nd of March.
On the evening of my arrival at Standish, Mrs. Potter made an announcement which would have tried the nerves of many people in full health. She quietly told me that she was about to put me into a haunted room—a room in which one of her brothers had seen a ghost, and from which he had hurriedly departed next morning, almost without stopping to say good-bye, and had never been induced to sleep in the house since. I suppose she desired to put my disbelief to the test; but it was rather a sharp test for one labouring under a nervous disorder, whose nights were always broken by long waking intervals. Moreover, the failure to withstand such a test would have proved but little; for absolute as is the disbelief, early associations may so perturb the imagination as to throw judgment off its balance. Just as the eating of a dish of frogs or snails is to the ordinary Englishman rendered impossible by consciousness of its nature, though he may admit that his prejudice is absurd; so, in spite of himself, one who with entire confidence rejects the belief in ghosts may, in places where they are supposed to appear, be unable to expel the dread that was instilled by nursemaids and strengthened by stories of the supernatural afterwards read. However, in my case, early associations failed to have any such influence. I slept in the room for three weeks and saw nothing: sometimes occupying my waking intervals in speculating about the possible origin of the illusion.
Here, as at Brimsfield, I followed the policy of occupying myself in ways which, while involving exercise, absorbed the attention. I am reminded of some of these ways by passages in a letter to my mother written on March 29.
“My father’s letter found me busy making a swing for the children. It has given them great delight. I am busy establishing a vivarium for them. . . . These various occupations, and the society, cause me quite to forget myself, which is a great point. . . .
Probably I shall go up to London in a week or ten days hence. Dr. Ransom is right. Moderate excitement is beneficial; and I doubt not the London amusements will do me good.”
A letter home dated 9 April, explaining my continued presence at Standish as due to the kind pressure of my friends, names the 12th as my last day there.
A sojourn in London followed. To maintain the continuity of the narrative I give a few extracts from letters written while there. One of April 13 says—
‘I had a good deal of excitement yesterday, having seen and talked with Chapman, Huxley, Mrs. Huxley, Pigott, Lewes, and having in the evening attended one of Hullah’s orchestral concerts, where I remained 2½ hours. I got from 5 to 6 hours’ sleep after it; which, considering it was my first day in London, was quite as much as I expected. . . .
As soon as I have done this I am going off to Mortlake (on the Thames) to spend the day with Pigott, who has got rooms in one of the lodges of Richmond Park, one side of which touches Mortlake. Pigott tells me to regard his quarters as my country house, where there is a bed always at my service. On Tuesday I go down to spend the day with Lewes at Richmond. On the whole I think I shall spend my time pleasantly and beneficially.”
Under date 21 April, I wrote to my uncle William—
“Cannot you give yourself a holiday and come up to town while I am here. I am playing the lounger—going sight-seeing and amusing myself as best I may. Your company would be an acquisition; and as I have nothing else to do, I could put myself at your disposal in the way of seeing all that is to be seen. . . .
I have improved considerably during the week that I have been here. There is plenty to occupy the attention, and plenty of stimulus to walking—both of them important points.
By the way it occurs to me that there are shortly to be rejoicings for the peace—a review, a grand display of fireworks, &c.—and you might time your visit so as to come in for them.”
To my father on 28th April, I said—
“I am very unlucky at present in respect to society. Almost all the families at which I visit are from one cause or other invisible. The Coopers have taken lodgings at Wimbledon for three months. The Octavius Smiths are gone to live at Brighton. Mrs. Swanwick is dead, and her daughters do not receive at present. Chapman has ceased to give any parties. . . .
There are but 200 copies of the Psychology sold, but the sale is going on pretty steadily.”
As I had printed 750, and as the chief sales of a book usually take place soon after its publication, this sale of only 200 copies during the first nine months, implied that a heavy loss was coming upon me. It showed, too, how pecuniarily wise had been the publishers who declined to undertake the risk, or any considerable part of it. A letter home dated 2 May contains the paragraph:—
“I have just accepted an invitation to join a yachting excursion of 10 days to Jersey, Guernsey, and Cherbourg. Pigott’s brother is the owner of the yacht, and Pigott and some others are going with him. It will be just the thing for me. We start this day fortnight.”
On May 17, I wrote:—
“I am going down to Brighton for a few days. Our yachting excursion is postponed for a fortnight; the vessel not being ready. I want to try the effect of sea-bathing.”
The next letter to my father, dated 30 May, contains a paragraph which, on looking through my letters, I reread with special interest; since it refers to what proved to be the initiation of a long series of pleasures.
“We leave for Southampton at 10 to-morrow, and our yacht starts the same evening. We are to be away ten days. On my return I shall stay only a few days in London; after which I am to go and see the Brays at Coventry, and thence I propose to come to Derby for a week.
Mr. Octavius Smith, whose name you may have heard me mention, and who has a house on the west coast of Scotland, where he is going with his family in about a month, has kindly invited me to join them there. This will suit me admirably, and I have of course accepted it with gladness. . . .
I was with the family last night seeing the fireworks. We had to go into the Green Park on foot, and in the crush I was robbed of my watch and Mr. Smith of his. The fireworks were very splendid.”
During my many years of London life this was the only loss by theft which I ever suffered; and I should not have suffered this had I been led to expect that we might go into a crowd.
The suspicion, indicated at the beginning of this chapter, that my letters home habitually gave too favourable an account of my health, is confirmed by finding in the series of them just quoted from, no mention of the serious relapse I experienced while in London. Mr. Fraser, now Professor Fraser, of Edinburgh, was a candidate for the chair then vacated by the death of Sir W. Hamilton, and wrote to me for a testimonial. I had read nothing of his, and was unfitted to express any opinion; but I did not like to give this as a reason for declining. I thought I might be able to read as much as was requisite, and I did so; but the result was a break-down, and an undoing of what good had been done during some previous months. I have often described myself as having an unusual ability to say “No;” but on now having recalled to me the events of past years, I find that lack of the nerve required to say “No” has been a cause of numerous disasters.
Our yachting excursion was made in fulfilment of the arrangement indicated above, and my next letter home is dated Marshall’s Royal Yacht Hotel, Guernsey, 5 June. It says—
“We arrived safely at Guernsey on Tuesday evening, after being becalmed in the Channel for a day and a half. I slept badly on board but had had two good nights here [at the hotel]. I think I am benefiting, but I should benefit more if . . . The first day the breakfast did not take place till after 2 o’clock. I, however, had managed to get something at 10½.
We dine to-day with Victor Hugo, to whom Pigott brought letters of introduction [from Louis Blanc]; and to-morrow we leave for Jersey, where we shall stay a day before going on to Cherbourg.”
There was nothing particularly impressive in Victor Hugo’s appearance or manner. My inability to follow French conversation with any facility, prevented me from appreciating what he said during dinner, or what he said afterwards, when we were occupied in playing some kind of game in his garden. Two things only I remember. He coupled the names of Bacon and Comte; and when he came down to see the yacht, the cabin, quite ordinarily fitted up, drew from him the words—rêve d’un poète: a phrase characteristic of his style. Madame Hugo was a much more striking person; answering completely to one’s idea of an old Roman dame. The two sons, also, were fine young fellows. The elder, whose name I did not hear, favoured the mother; while the younger, François Victor, was more of his father’s type. He was then busy with his translation of Shakespeare.
The rest of our cruise, carried out according to programme, brought no events of interest. It was prosperous: gentle breezes and sunny seas attending us throughout. The result was that we reached Portsmouth at the appointed time, and I was back in London on the 11th.
On the 16th I went home for a week; and then, leaving Derby for Coventry, spent a few days with the Brays at Rosehill. These visits were made on my way north. The friends with whom I was to spend part of the autumn in Argyllshire had not yet left town; but as I had seen enough of town, I decided to go to Scotland in advance, and there spend the time in rambling about and fishing until I received an intimation that they were expecting me.
I believe I had intended to go direct to Oban; but a fellow-traveller on the Glasgow and South Western line, seeing my fishing gear, and inquiring my intentions, recommended to me as a fishing place, Loch Doon, the head water of the River Doon, famed in song. Forthwith acting on his advice, I left the railway at New Cumnock, and made my way across country to Dalmellington. From there, in pursuance of information, I made my way to a farm-house on the shores of the Loch, where I obtained accommodation. The house was called Beoch; and thence I wrote home on the 10th July in the usual sanguine strain.
“I have been here now nearly a week, and find this life suits me very well; better indeed than any I have yet tried. I am sleeping now fully seven hours every night, besides a short nap in the day; and the sleep is better than it was. So you see I am on the way for getting right. I walk from ten to twelve miles a day—some of it very rough walking and equal to more in distance—and I find now that the more I walk the better I sleep. The fishing, too, suits me well, and passes the time pleasantly.
I am in a farm-house among mountains and moors with scarcely a tree or anything else upon them. I should think it dreary enough if I had to stay here long. At the end of the week I leave for Oban.”
My constitutional tendency to call in question current opinions, was manifested when fishing, as on other occasions. While in Wales the year before, occupied in writing on Psychology and occasionally casting a fly over stream or llyn, it occurred to me that considering how low is the nervous organization of fishes, it is unlikely that they should be able to discriminate so nicely as the current ideas respecting artificial flies imply—unlikely, too, that they should have such erratic fancies as to be taken by combinations of differently coloured feathers, like no living creature ever seen. I acted upon my scepticism, and ignored the local traditions. Hearing me vent my heresies, the farmer, tenant of Beoch, challenged me to a competition. It was scarcely a fair one; for my flies, made by myself without practice, were of course ill-made, and the bungling make of them introduced an irrelevant factor into the competition. Notwithstanding this, however, fishing from the same boat we came back ties; showing that the local flies had no advantage. I may add here that in subsequent years I systematically tested this current belief in local flies; and on various lochs and four different rivers found it baseless. This experience furnished me with a good illustration of the uncritical habits of thought characteristic not of the common people only but of those who have received University educations. For in every case I have found highly cultivated men—professors and others such—accepting without hesitation the dogmas of keepers and gillies concerning the flies of the river. Always their assigned reason is that these dogmas express the results of experience. But inquiry would show that those who utter them have never established them by comparisons of numerical results. They simply repeat, and act upon, what they have been told by their predecessors; never dreaming of methodically testing their predecessor’s statements by trying whether, all other things being equal, other colours and mixtures of colours would not answer as well. The delusion results from pursuing what, in inductive logic, is called the method of agreement, and not checking its results by the method of difference.
Another incident which occurred during my stay at Beoch, was impressed on my memory by certain implications to which it awakened my attention. While out fishing one breezy morning, I got my line into a tangle, which I could not unravel; and at length, losing all patience, I vented an oath. The man in the boat with me, who, as I afterwards learned, was precentor at some neighbouring village kirk or chapel, reproved me: perhaps thinking himself called upon to do so by his semi-ecclesiastical function. I suppose it was the oddity of this incident which drew my attention to the fact that, being then thirty-six years of age, I had never before been betrayed into intemperate speech of such kind: thus making me more fully aware than before of the irritability produced by my nervous disorder.
And here let me pause to make some general remarks suggested by this incident—remarks intended to convey a warning to those who are in the habit of greatly taxing their brains. That I may the better do this, let me ignore for a moment the order of events.
I will begin by extracts from letters; the first of which, written to a friend thirty years later, during the worst phase of my nervous disorder, refers to the frequent relapses which I was undergoing.
“I want a keeper, to be always taking care that I do not overstep the limits on one side or the other; for a consequence of my present condition is that I lack judgment and presence of mind, and commit some imprudence or other before I am aware of it.”
The second extract is from the reply made by my friend, himself suffering under a long-established nervous disorder, who had recently passed through a severe crisis.
“Your note contains sentences of intense interest to me; for the lack of judgment and of presence of mind which you there glance at, was one of the features of my malady, when at its worst, causing me to commit imprudence, as you say before I was aware of doing so.”
These two testimonies, so curiously coincident, illustrate the truth that under a lowered condition of the nervous system, failure is first manifest in the highest intellectual co-ordinations and in the highest emotional co-ordinations. Speaking generally, each step in mental evolution results in a faculty by which the simpler pre-existing faculties have their respective actions so combined that each aids in regulating or controlling the others, and the actions of all are harmonized. Each higher judgment differs from lower judgments in that it takes account of more numerous factors, or more correctly estimates their degrees of relative importance; and is thus a more complex mental act. And similarly, among the higher feelings, all relatively complex, the highest are those which stand related to lower ones as moderators: their moderating function being effected by combining within themselves representations of these lower feelings, no one of which is allowed to occupy more than its due share of consciousness, and therefore is not allowed unduly to sway the conduct. Manifestly, by their very natures as thus understood, these highest intellectual and emotional powers, by which well-balanced judgments are reached and well-balanced feelings maintained, require more than all others, a full flow of nervous energy—a flow sufficient to simultaneously supply all the numerous structures called into action. Consequently, they, before all others, fail when the tide of nervous energy ebbs. Defect of co-ordination is shown intellectually in erroneous judgments concerning matters where sundry circumstances have to be taken into account, and emotionally in the ill-controlled feelings which lead to impulsive expressions and deeds. The primitive and deeply-rooted self-regarding faculties, which tend ever to initiate antagonisms, are scarcely weakened during states of prostration; while the other-regarding faculties, relatively modern and superficial, and soon paralyzed by innutrition, fail to check them. And then beyond the direct evils which the nervous subject brings on himself by such failures, there are the indirect evils that result from misinterpretation of his character. The irritabilities and perversities of those who are visibly ill, are duly allowed for: they are understood as temporary consequences of the temporary state. But those who, not being visibly deranged in health, suffer from these chronic nervous disorders, have no allowances made for them. I am the more impressed by this fact on remembering the case of my father, and the constructions which I myself put upon his ideas and actions. His not infrequent aberrations of judgment, and his often-displayed peculiarities of temper, I regarded as traits of his original nature. But of late years it has become manifest to me that they were the results of that debility of brain which he brought on himself during my childhood, and that I never knew his true character.
The last fortnight of July was spent at Oban; and, waiting as I was for promised pleasures, the time passed heavily. There were explorings of Dunolly and Dunstaffnage castles; a walk to Taynuilt, and a return next day. There was a little trout fishing in a loch among the hills a few miles off; and there was a little sea fishing in Loch Linnhe, outside the island of Kerrera. But I was glad when, at the close of the month, the looked-for letter arrived, and I departed for Achranich.
Anyone leaving Oban by steamer for the West, enters, after crossing Loch Linnhe, the Sound of Mull, flanked on the left by the Mull mountains and on the right by the precipitous shores of the mainland. These last are the Ardtornish cliffs. Over them in rainy weather fall several small streams, in such wise that, during violent south-westerly gales, they are blown back and dispersed in great clouds of spray: producing, at a distance, the impression that fires at the edge of the cliff are sending forth volumes of smoke.
Some two miles or more down the Sound, on the right hand, juts out a promontory which bears on its brow the ruins of Ardtornish Castle, the scene of the Lord of the Isles; in which poem, however, this castle is greatly idealized, for it could never have been of considerable size. A mile further along the same shore is the narrow opening of a small sea loch: on one side of it a ferry-house, and on the other a village bearing the same name as the loch—Loch Aline. Visible only for a minute as the steamer passes its mouth, Loch Aline is seen to have on its two sides cliffs clothed with trees up to their summits. Closing the loch, about two and a half miles from its mouth, rise partially wooded hills, and beyond these, mountains. In 1856 no sign of human habitation was visible on its shores. At the far end where, in later years, might be discerned a building peeping through the trees, there then existed only the foundations of one. The house which gave the name to the place, concealed in the mouth of a valley at the head of the loch, was a farm-house which Mr. Octavius Smith had enlarged; and which, with new offices intended to be permanent, gave accommodation to the family and guests while the new house was being built.
Here I joined a domestic circle already increased by two lady-friends—a circle which was rendered none the less charming by the comparative unconventionality resulting from temporary arrangements. Already in a preceding chapter I have briefly characterized my host, and will here add only that to his larger kindnesses were often added smaller ones; as, for instance, when from the dog-kennel a hundred yards from the house there came one night the baying of pointers and setters, which he knew would keep me awake, he got up and went out to try and silence them. Of my hostess, however, I have as yet said nothing; and she must not be passed over. I should think that in her early days she answered in large measure to one of Shakspeare’s portraits—“pretty and witty, wild and yet, too, gentle”: wildness being the only trait of which there was no trace. In the days of which I speak, griefs from domestic afflictions—losses and illnesses of children—had left obscuring marks; but there survived the never-failing amiability, and her sympathies with those around frequently made her contribute a little humour to conversation. The only fault I can recall was that of undue self-sacrifice—a fault on which I sometimes commented; for my compliments, rarely uttered in any form, were apt to take the form of criticisms. When I add that the sons and daughters furnished no evidence against the general principle of heredity, I have described a group in which life could not but pass delightfully. A letter written home on the 16th August says—
“I am enjoying myself much here—so much so that I think scarcely at all about myself or my ailments. The days slip by very quickly—so much so that there generally seems no time for anything. Fishing, and rambling, and boating, and bathing, form the staple occupations; varied, occasionally, with making artificial flies and mending fishing rods. My friends are delightful people—extremely kind and considerate, cultivated and amusing. The first few days of my stay were rather too exciting, but I soon became accustomed to it, and now do not feel it at all. My sleep is much as it was; but though it is still broken I am decidedly progressing in ability to read, and talk, and write, without ill effects. I do not remember to have had any sensations in the head for a week or more.”
During my stay there were picnics on the Table of Lorne (a flat-topped mountain visible from Oban) and at the Ullin waterfalls; ascents of Ben Yahten and Shean, whence there are fine views of Rum and Skye; drives to the village, to Ardtornish, to Glen Dhu, &c.; a boating excursion round to Loch Linnhe, with a picnic on its rocky wood-clothed shore; a sketching trip to Killoonden Castle; and many days on the banks of the river Aline, or Aline water, and on Loch Arienas, during which I justified my heresy by catching great numbers of sea trout. In these ways six weeks rapidly went by. A letter to my father dated 9 September contains the paragraphs:—
“My kind friends here have induced me to stay longer than I thought of doing when I last wrote to you: they ask me to stay as long as is agreeable to myself.”
Intimating that I should probably not remain more than another week, the letter continues:—
“It will now be too late to go to Tréport, as the season there closes at the end of the month, and practically ends before that time. I am therefore thinking of going to Brighton instead. Brighton suited me very well during the week I spent there in the spring; and I think that its bracing air, after this mild and rather enervating air, will be very beneficial.
I am increasing in power of reading, but I still do not sleep well; though, I think, better on the average than heretofore. I am getting very stupid, which I suppose I must take as a good sign.”
Every one now and then has presentiments. They sometimes force themselves on one in spite of one’s consciousness of their absurdity. I have had many; but never yet found one verified. A day or two before leaving Achranich the daughter of the house, an accomplished musician, had been singing a song of Tennyson’s, then recently set to music, “The Brook,” of which the burden is—
- “No more by thee my steps shall be,
- For ever and for ever.”
While pacing along the banks of the Aline, somewhat saddened by the prospect of farewell to pleasant scenes, I applied these lines to myself: believing I should not see the place again. Never was presentiment more conspicuously falsified. My visits there during many subsequent years, numbered more than twelve if less than twenty; and varying in duration as they did from a month to six weeks and even two months, they would, if added together, make between one and two years—a portion of my life which I would gladly live over again just as it was.
My departure from Achranich was followed by another interval of restless wandering. The next letter home was dated Edinburgh, 15 September, and intimated that I was about to take Derby on my way to Brighton. Subsequent dates imply that I spent a fortnight at home; for the next letter is dated Brighton, 7 October. This letter says—
“Brighton is not suiting me so well as I thought. It is becoming mild and damp and injures my sleeping. Mrs. Potter says that though it is bracing in the spring it is relaxing in the autumn. [This depends on the position—I have never found the East Cliff relaxing.] I have therefore resolved to change, and think of going to Paris.”
In pursuance of this intention I left in a few days, and took London on my way. Two incidents resulting from this detour claim mention. One is that during the few days it occupied I went down to spend an afternoon and evening with the Leweses at Park Shot, Richmond; and when, during the evening, I was once more suggesting to Miss Evans that she should write fiction, was told by her that she had commenced, and had then in hand “The Sad Story of the Rev. Amos Barton”: this confession being made under promise on my part of absolute secrecy. The other is that while in London I called on Chapman, and that he, learning where I was about to go, gave me a commission to execute. He explained that when he published Miss Martineau’s abridged translation of the Philosophie Positive, it was agreed that a certain share of the profits, if any accrued, should be paid over to Comte. Two years had now elapsed, and the sales had been sufficient to make this agreement operative: something was due to him. The sum was under twenty pounds I think; and this I willingly undertook to pay over to the philosopher—willingly, of course, for the introduction was a good one, and naturally I was curious to see him.
In my first letter home from Paris, written to my mother on October 20, and giving the address 17 Rue de la Croix, Passy, there is a not very flattering description of him. Certainly his appearance was not in the least impressive, either in figure or face. One could say of his face only that, unattractive though it was, it was strongly marked; and in this way distinguished from the multitudes of meaningless faces one daily sees. Of our conversation I remember only that, hearing of my nervous disorder, he advised me to marry; saying that the sympathetic companionship of a wife would have a curative influence. This, by the way, was a point of agreement between him and one who differed from him in most things—Professor Huxley; who in after years suggested that I should try what he facetiously termed gynœopathy: admitting, however, that the remedy had the serious inconvenience that it could not be left off if it proved unsuitable.
As before, the glitter of Paris soon palled upon me; and, as before, I soon felt the depressing effect of remoteness from friends, made greater by the restless state of mind due, I suppose, to my nervous disorder. These causes soon raised my discontent to moving point. Hence the following passages in a letter to my father.
“Perhaps you will think me whimsical, but I am already getting tired of Paris and am thinking of returning. I find perpetual sight-seeing very fatiguing; and further, I am in great want of society. All the people I know are occupied during the day; and I have seen little or nothing of anyone beyond making calls. The result is that I have difficulty in passing the time.
A chief reason, however, for my resolution to return is that I have got an idea of a smoke-consuming fire-place which I am anxious to put to the test.”
In pursuance of the intention named, I left Paris about a week later, and after staying a week in London returned home. There I shortly found that, under conditions something like those intended, smoke would not behave as I expected it to do: it “ended in smoke” instead of carbonic acid. The remainder of November and nearly the whole of December were passed at Derby.
I suppose this interval at Derby was partly occupied in pondering the question—What must be done? Nearly a year and a half had now passed since I did any work, and I was still far from recovery. Though, as the above given series of extracts from letters show, I was continually expecting to be very soon well, I was continually disappointed. The progress is from time to time reported, but there is evidently not an adequate reporting of the regress. And here let me briefly describe my condition at that time and afterwards.
Appearances gave the impression that I was in fair health. Appetite and digestion were both good; and my bodily strength, seemingly not less than it had been, as tested by walking, was equal to that of most men who lead town lives. This continued to be my state for many years.
Both then and afterwards, my sleeping remained quite abnormal. A night of sound sleep was, and has ever continued to be, unknown to me: my best nights being such as would commonly be called bad ones. Save when leading a rural life with nothing but out-door sports to occupy attention, I probably averaged between four and five hours of unconsciousness. But it was never continuous. The four or five hours were made up of bits; and if one of the bits was two hours long, it was something unusual. Ordinarily my night had from a dozen to a score wakings. Moreover at that time and for five and twenty years after, the sensation of drowsiness was never experienced. I went to sleep unawares; and when I awoke was instantly broad awake.
Along with the state of brain thus implied, there went that inability to work without presently bringing on abnormal sensations, with which my disorder set in. Neither then, nor at any subsequent time, was there either disinclination or incapacity for thinking or writing. It was simply that continuous application produced this feeling in the head which gave warning that something was going wrong. During these eighteen months above described, this symptom soon came on; and though in after years I could, when at my best, do three hours’ work without mischief, I never got beyond this. A disastrous relapse soon followed if I tried to do more.
At that time and always afterwards, reading had the same effect as working; no matter what the nature of the reading. During periods of relapse a column of a newspaper would suffice to put my head wrong; and when at my best I could not, after my morning’s work, read even a novel for long without suffering. When I treated myself to one, which happened perhaps once in a year or two, I had to get through it by a dozen instalments. Ordinarily my habit was that of taking up a book or periodical for half or three-quarters of an hour in the afternoon. Reading in the evening for that length of that time destroyed part of the rest I ordinarily got. The implied cutting off from nearly all literature save that which I could utilize, and from a large part of this, was one of the heaviest of my deprivations.
As indicated in sundry of the above extracts, social excitement habitually proved injurious. Though, afterwards, I was able to bear a moderate amount of it without mischief, yet much animated talk, especially if it verged into discussion, brought on me the penalty of an unusually bad night. Going to a theatre, though sometimes not detrimental, and occasionally even beneficial, frequently did me harm. Music was perhaps the only thing which I could enjoy in full measure with impunity. But one could not always be going to concerts; and good domestic music was rarely to be had. Of course these various incapacities made it difficult to spend leisure time with any satisfaction. Much of it had to be passed in a state of mere passivity; and the having to live through many vacant hours was injurious in various ways.
But to return from this partially digressive description to the immediate question which pressed upon me—What must be done. Longer entire idleness did not promise much benefit. Moreover, two years and a half had elapsed since my pen had brought me any money. Clearly it was needful to try and do something; and with this conviction I left for London the day after Christmas Day.