Victorian Mental Illness

This is a really sad, touching item from Kilvert’s Diary, about a parishioner who suffered from what seems to have been a bad bout of depression. Lunatic Asylums were infamous in Georgian times as places where the mentally ill were mistreated and often provided entertainment for visitors, but they were mostly for people unable to work, so were really in a bad way, often violent to themselves or to others so the main treatment was to restrain them. But this shows Kilvert’s empathy for a man who both suffered and explained his pain eloquently.

John Couzens… [described] how the Devil had tempted him to destroy himself. It came on first quite suddenly in Parson’s Ground by the side of the old lane while he was cutting some flower sticks with a bill hook. He threw himself down on the ground in his misery, got away from his bill hook and at last dozed off. His sleep and appetite went from him, and he had no heart nor comfort in his work. He dared not be alone nor within reach of a knife for fear he should cut his throat. He often brought Alice his wife down to be with him while he was at his work and could only rest quiet at night as long as he had his arm round her, for he feared the devil would come and carry him away. He was utterly miserable and one day he went down on his hands and knees behind the great Portugal laurel bush on the lawn by the copper beach … and cried and prayed terribly and as if his heart would break. The trouble and temptation lasted some months. He did not know what made it come on suddenly then, for he was in good health and spirits. He believed God sent it. For he began to feel how wicked he had been, cursing and swearing and drinking as a young man. The Devil tempted him to destroy himself because he was so wicked. Once when he went up into the loft to throw down some straw he was tempted to make an end of himself by throwing himself down.

“Master told me not to do anything that he didn’t tell me, and not to do anything to myself, but what good were it to tell me that? Mr Headle came here one day and he said to me “Shake it off, john, Shake it off”, but what good were that? That were easier said than done… Gradually the trouble and temptation passed away. ‘I’m another man now’ he said, ‘I’ve been a different man ever since. But’, he said earnestly, striking his hand upon his shears, ‘I wouldn’t have any poor creature go through what I went through then, and I wouldn’t go through a week of it again for all Squire Ashe’s fortune.”

Oh, how little we know of the agonise that are being endured within a few yards of us.

Perhaps the most important thing to take from this account is that the man’s illness passed. Some people describe such bouts as being caught in a storm. They need to hold on, to hunker down till it passes.

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