“I was so ill, and so low…” Women, Mental Health and Strategies of Care in England, 1750-1850

Visiting Early Career Research Fellow, Anna Jamieson, explores the mental health of women in 18th- and 19th-century England by examining the Rylands' Mary Hamilton papers.

Anna Jamieson

Anna Jamieson was a Visiting Early Career Research Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute in 2021 and is now a Lecturer in the History of Art department at Birkbeck, University of London.

Undertaken in the spring of 2021, my Early Career Visiting Research Fellowship at the John Rylands Research Institute was originally conceived fairly broadly. I had finished my PhD in Birkbeck’s History of Art Department at the end of 2020, a project that explored the cultural treatment of ‘madwomen’ in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. My thesis interrogated various stereotypes surrounding female insanity that solidified across visual and material culture during these years and questioned how these impacted the lives of women incarcerated in asylums and private madhouses.

Building on this research, my project at the Rylands aimed to consider the different ways that elite women understood, managed and maintained their mental health. Titled ‘“A Touch of the Blue Devils”: Women, Mental Health and Self-Care in England, 1750-1850’, I planned to mine several epistolary collections, organising the project through four key themes: contagion, protection, agency and self-care.

My main port of call for the project was the Mary Hamilton Papers – a wonderfully sprawling collection (with almost 2,500 letters and 16 diaries) that is a complete goldmine for anyone interested in eighteenth-century emotions, bodies and health. The collection centres around Mary Hamilton (1756-1816), a courtier and diarist who moved across aristocratic, fashionable and literary circles.

Discussion of health was, sometimes to my surprise, at the forefront of many of the letters written by women. ‘Nervous complaints’ and ‘low spirits’; concerns over the health of friends and relatives; women’s experiences of confinement when pregnant; fears and relief over miscarriage; periods of depression after the birth of a child: all were frequently discussed, and I quickly realised that those four aforementioned categories I’d imagined might provide an organising framework for the letters were in fact completely intertwined. As I got to know these women better, it struck me how each woman relied on a set of strategies that can be viewed as modes of self-care: coping mechanisms linked to prevention, agency and contagion which repeatedly helped assuage low spirits or nervous agitations, or idiosyncratic rituals that might have been viewed as protecting a person from getting ‘low’ in the first place.

For Jane Hamilton Holman (c.1767-1810), it was the soothing balm of friendship that proved most reassuring when she was struggling with her mental health. Jane explicitly states that ‘Nothing can agree with me better than drinking the waters and bathing’ (HAM 1/4/3/10), but her letters reveal how much she relied upon friends, and regular correspondence from them. Sometimes part and parcel of her busy life, Jane’s depressed periods were typically linked to traumatic events. In January 1807, she thanked Mary Hamilton for her ‘affectionate reply to my sad communication’, going on to explain how her ‘complaint […] is extreme depression and weakness brought on by agitation of mind. The storm broke out, as you may remember, immediately after I had a miscarriage, which is in itself, a great stress upon the constitution and nerves’. She later goes onto describe how she finds the ‘kindness of real friends’ a great consolation, beseeching Mary Hamilton to get in touch with her as soon as she can (HAM 1/4/3/19).

The year before, Jane had apologised to Mary for her latest ‘Dark Scrawl’, following the news that one of her closest friends, Miss Mann, was getting married (HAM 1/4/3/17). When her mother died in January 1807, she writes ‘[if] it not for the soothings of friendship, I think after all I had already suffered, it would have extinguished me a short time after I wrote to you last. I was so ill, and so low… that Mrs Mann, who is settled in an excellent home here, insisted on my taking up my abode in it, at least till I got better, that I might have her nursing and be within immediate reach of assistance should I want it’ [HAM 1/4/3/18]. Jane’s letters show her reliance on her friendships, the reassurance and joy each gave her, and how the women around her rallied and nursed her back to health when she was unwell.

[HAM 1/4/3/18]

Not everyone found socialising therapeutic, however. Louise Murray, Lady Stormont (1758-1843), a regular correspondent of Mary Hamilton who also suffered from weak or agitated nerves, wrote that her ‘violent nervous headaches’ kept her ‘out of hot rooms’ within fashionable society. Instead, her early letters to Mary describe her time at Walmer Castle, near Deal. In June 1786, she writes, ‘I hope to be better for sea air’ (HAM 1/18/143); two months later, however, she reports: ‘I am certainly much stronger than when I first came here, but am not yet in a comfortable way, a little time I hope will set me up again… we went to Eastwick about a fortnight ago and spent near a week there but I was not well enough to enjoy myself, and was confined to the house for a week after I came home’ (August 6 1786, Ham 1/18/144). Perhaps Louisa had been following the popular advice that sea air was good for the spirits, but rather than find the coast soothing, there was one particular spot that she found intensely comforting: Little Grove, a house and estate in the then leafy East Barnet, where she spent various happy stints from 1786.

One long passage proves particularly rich in revealing the effects that Little Grove has on Louisa’s mental wellbeing:

I should regret going from here at all, I am so comfortable and find so much occupation and amusement out of doors I really am hardly ever in the house. I lead a very idle life but I reserve reading [and] drawing for rainy weather. I have a very pretty drawing room and boudoir besides independent of my real dressing room and here I have all my things about me…

At this moment we are making hay which adds much to the scene, just by the house is I think the prettiest Green House I ever saw the plants are taken out and then we have breakfast and drink tea constantly… I have a poultry yard just by it where I make frequent visits, my Dairy is of the other side of the House, I think the neatest I ever saw and there you may be sure I also make frequent visits. We are so quiet here that as I do not go backwards and forwards to London, I can hardly persuade myself I am within reach of it. I am so much better than when I came here and am able to take a great deal of exercise without being so fatigue

(HAM 1/18/156)
(HAM 1/18/156)

Building up a strong sensory landscape of quiet days, the smell of hay, reading during rainy weather and the sounds of hens and cows, Louisa’s passage calls to mind a bucolic pastoral scene. The things she surrounds herself with, as well as her physical environment, also give her joy; something we feel in her precise descriptions of her boudoir, living rooms and the outdoor areas she occupies. After a short break at Walmer Castle, she is happily back at Little Grove by October 1787, writing ‘I am much pleased with this place as there is a good deal of grass land about it. I enjoy all the pleasures of that sort of farm, it gives me constant satisfaction particularly out of doors, which does one great good. I am much better than I was. I am persuaded as long as I am here I shall be well…’ (HAM 1/19/159). A letter to Mary written from London on 7 February 1788 sees Louisa admit that she is unwell again (HAM 1/18/161): it isn’t until back at Little Grove a few months later that she writes ‘I have only been settled here three days and already find my spirits and health mended, I think better than I was last summer’ (HAM 1/18/173).

The West Prospect of New-Place in East Barnet in the County of Hertford. A view of the new house built in 1719 that John Cotton named New Place.

This is by no means an exhaustive inventory of the strategies that women in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries used to take care of themselves; beyond friendship and space, spending time with one’s children, reading and writing, socialising in large groups and giftgiving all emerge from the Mary Hamilton Collection as activities or rituals that aided a woman’s wellbeing. Across these particular examples, we see women find their relationships with people, spaces and things therapeutic – something that many of us will feel with a renewed sense of appreciation in the context of the pandemic. Drawing parallels between historic lives and our ongoing experiences of Covid-19 is something I’ve explored in my podcast, Coping in Confinement in 2021. This fellowship has enabled further research on the ways that women coped beyond spaces of incarceration or physical confinement, thinking more conceptually about space, objects, experience and identity. What lifts from the archive is a multidimensional picture of the fears and anxieties linked to women’s bodies and minds during the latter years of the eighteenth century, and I look forward to continuing this research and sharing its findings at conferences in the future.

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