Sickness and Selves: Seventeenth-Century Life-Writing and the Modern Illness Memoir


ralph_josselinThe shelves of bookshops are stacked with the latest misery memoirs: autobiographies in which the writer triumphs over illness or trauma. In the seventeenth century, similarly, people kept diaries that charted suffering, illness, and death with fanatical precision. David Thorley assesses what the two genres have in common, and what the earlier writers can teach us about our twenty-first-century obsession.

In recording and interpreting fortune and misfortune, the seventeenth century’s diarists were nothing if not thorough. Puritans especially were encouraged to assess their standing in God’s sight by scrutinising their day-to-day lives for evidence of divine providence. For that reason, diary-keeping was a popular practice among the Godly, who often adapted techniques from financial accounting to tally up their benefits against their misfortunes, treating life-experiences literally as matters of profit and loss. The accumulation and divestment of wealth, land and livestock were meticulously charted, as were family births and deaths (the lives of infants being a good deal more precarious in the seventeenth century), and, of course, developments in the diarist’s physical health were recorded with fanatical precision. The body’s minute alterations in illness and recovery provided an endless store of providential data to be piled up, sifted through, and analysed.

The body’s minute alterations in illness and recovery provided an endless store of providential data to be piled up, sifted through, and analysed

The lengths to which seventeenth-century Puritans were willing to take the scrutiny of their bodies are exemplified in the diary of the Essex clergyman Ralph Josselin, who believed that “divine providence reaches to the lowest things”. Treating a bee sting to his nose with honey, Josselin prayed, “lett not sin oh Lord that dreadfull sting bee able to poyson mee”. These details piled up over the four decades during which Josselin kept his diary, with the changes in his body continuing to elicit devotional responses. In 1665, he recorded, “god good in outward mercies and yett his hand on us especially my self in a scab, and my spirit much ill, for which I humble myselfe before god and beg his pardon and grace”.

Josselin may seem obsessional in attributing apparently trivial effects to divine causes, but he did not stand alone as a cataloguer of his ailments. Mary Rich, the Countess of Warwick and sister of Robert Boyle, also assembled data on a large scale, recording her symptoms, the disruptions they had caused to her devotional regime, and the measures she took to restore her bodily and religious equilibrium. Even in diaries that were not expressly religious texts, the practice was also applied: Robert Hooke the Oxford microscopist and polymath meticulously noted his symptoms as well as the experimental cures he took to try and ameliorate them, producing a diary that Lottie Mulligan has called “a fully objective ‘history’ with himself as datum”. Between September 1670 and May 1671, the Sussex astrologer, Samuel Jeake, recorded 142 episodes of ague, noting the time and the intensity of each fit, as well as his particular symptoms, any medication he took and the planet which had astrological ascendency at the time.

Diaries were not the only medium through which the seventeenth-century devout were encouraged to record their illnesses and recoveries. Writing after-the-fact memoirs was also a popular pastime, and these texts were produced with a variety of purposes in mind. Some writers, like the Quaker Alice Hayes, bequeathed their life-stories as a legacy to their children, hoping to pass on the lessons they had learned both through righteousness and error. Others, like Anne Halkett and Alice Thornton, produced autobiographical texts in order to set the record straight in the face of public scandal. Some, like Mary Rich and Richard Baxter saw autobiography as the culmination of a process of textual accumulation – a digest of biographical highlights from various textual sources. In these texts, accounts of illness tended to retain their prominence, but the physical details were often condensed, suggesting that they valued disease for its spiritual rather than its medical interest. As Halkett had it, she was “representing my unparalleled misfortunes and the wonderful power and mercy of God in supporting me under them; which being an evidence of the Lord’s compassion may incline others to the greater charity”.misery_memoirs

The tales of illness, deterioration and death with which bestseller lists have recently been swollen are fundamentally different to these early modern texts. Some proclaim a similar public purpose to that hinted at by Halkett in the quotation above, but at the core of the so-called “misery” genre appears to be a Freudian assumption that the author is either coming to terms with or asserting victory over traumatic past events. Towards the end of her account of oesophageal cancer, A Season in Hell, Marilyn French begged the reader’s indulgence for her “long recital of personal ills”, adding that “although I wrote this book in the hope that other might find it useful or interesting, I also needed to write it for personal reasons”. To elucidate those reasons, she quoted the psychiatrist Judith Herman:

unassimilated traumatic experiences are stored in a special kind of “active memory”, which has an ”intrinsic tendency to repeat the representation of contents”. The trauma is resolved only when the survivor develops a new mental ”schema” for understanding what has happened.

Susan Gubar’s Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer similarly proclaimed that “Rubbing a reader’s nose in repugnant bodily disorders strikes me as a revolting and perverse act”. But still she was gripped by, “a compulsion to relate my encounter with disease and its treatments”. Even though Gubar’s central motive was “a fierce belief that something must be done to rectify the miserable inadequacies of current medical responses to ovarian cancer”, writing the memoir seemed to have therapeutic value: “The composition of this narrative kept me sane during a hard time”.

We have a macabre impulse for revelling in the gruesome details of another person’s suffering, but to do that would seem hopelessly sordid were it not for the redemptive thrill that the author’s domination of his or her illness brings

Readers evidently respond to such resilience. These books sell by the million, the more lurid from supermarkets as well as from bookshops, and perhaps it is in part the tentative emergence of the authorial self, ultimately overcoming forces that would suppress and destroy it, that makes them so compelling. Almost certainly, too, we have a macabre impulse for revelling in the gruesome details of another person’s suffering; but to do that, I suspect, would seem hopelessly sordid were it not for the redemptive thrill that the author’s domination of his or her illness brings. Not all of these authors recover, but most claw back ground from their illness by writing. The modern taste appears to be for triumphs of the inner self over the failing body.

The religious lessons written into early modern diaries and memoirs were not taught by invoking the author’s intensely emotional personal experiences, but by restrictive examples mostly prescribed by Biblical types and social convention. In fact, the basic understanding of selfhood in the early modern period seems to have differed radically from today’s. Often subjectivity was viewed with intense suspicion. Alice Hayes was firmest on this point, pronouncing fearsomely, “let nothing be attributed to that Monster Self, which too often appears both in Preachers and Writers, which proves like the Fly in the Ointment of the Apothecary”. And such suspicion was not confined to the radical wings of Christianity: Donne’s ‘Anatomy of the World’ bemoaned the fact that “every man alone thinkes he hath got / To be a Phoenix”. Josselin was determined not to succumb to that temptation (though he often did): at his better moments, he was aware that by nature he was (physically and spiritually) defective, propped up only by the grace of God: “The lord lett me see my selfe a poore empty creature, and that I have no strength to stand unless he helpe. yett the lord mingles his mercy with my infirmities”.

So, are there any similarities between the modern misery memoir and the seventeenth century’s accounts of illness? The modern impulse to turn illness into narrative is well documented among theorists of illness. Anatole Broyard and Arthur Frank – both cancer sufferers – have both argued that illness tends to turn patients into storytellers. “Just as a novelist turns his anxiety into a story in order to be able to control it, so a sick person can make a story, a narrative, out of his illness as a way of trying to detoxify it,” wrote Broyard, adding, “Writing is a counterpoint to my illness. It forces the cancer to go through my character before it can get to me”. Without the self-assertive instincts that modern subjectivity brings, seventeenth-century diarists and memoir writers had no means to deploy similar tactics. While Broyard had recourse to narrative, the writers of these earlier texts turned to aggregation and analysis. Broyard and Frank attempted to make sense of illness by placing themselves as protagonists in the narrative it created; early modern writers did so by using the available data to assert their status as spiritual creditors rather than debtors. The tactics were different and, consequently, so were the texts they produced – but might there be similarities, at a fundamental level, in this instinct to draw illness into the author’s textual control?

David Thorley recently completed his thesis on Writing Illness and Identity in Seventeenth-century BritainHis article “Towards a history of emotion, 1562–1660” published in the journal, The Seventeenth Century, is available now (subscription required).

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