Melancholia and Depression in the Regency Era
Updated: May 4, 2022
By Lucy Marin, author of The Recovery of Fitzwilliam Darcy
I want to start this by saying (1) I am not a mental health expert and (2) this is a complex topic, and I can only skim the barest surface of it here.
In The Recovery of Fitzwilliam Darcy, George Darcy, Fitzwilliam’s father, suffers from mental illness. Because I kept the book entirely focused on Fitzwilliam and Elizabeth, we have to rely on what they see in George to give us clues about George’s health. Early on, Fitzwilliam notices signs of anxiety and sadness in his father’s expression. Fitzwilliam responds to George’s ‘moods’ in ways that come out in the story. Different people would react in other ways, and it is possible to view Fitzwilliam’s responses as a sign that he, too, might be prone to anxiety to some degree. Late in the story, Fitzwilliam recognises how much alike in personality they are. I certainly mean for Fitzwilliam to be attuned to George’s feelings, and they become yet another challenge that Fitzwilliam has to address in his new life.
The sadness Fitzwilliam sees in George is a sign of depression. Historically, mood disorders in which despondency was a key characteristic were called melancholia rather than depression. Hippocrates may have been the first person to describe melancholia as a specific disease. The symptoms he ascribed to it include ones we might associate with depression today, such as despondency, lack of appetite, insomnia, and irritability. Hippocrates considered it a physical illness—related to misaligned humours—rather than a mental illness. Panic disorders, associated with overwhelming anxiety and fear, were not recognised until the 1830s. They, too, were attributed to physical rather than psychological illness.
In the first century of the common era, Rufus of Ephesus noted that people with melancholia were gloomy, sad, fearful, and doubting. He also noted that a person’s physical appearance could change when they were suffering from melancholia. These descriptions remained influential for hundreds of years. In The Recovery of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Darcy notices changes in his father, especially when they are in London for the Season. I put little hints such as these in the book to give an indication of George’s mental health.
Moving more towards the time period of George Darcy’s life, the ways in which people with melancholia were perceived and treated altered. A French doctor suggested that melancholia could be a result of a combination of a person’s characteristics and the stresses they experienced. In the case of George Darcy, he faced a number of challenges in his life: losing his father, with whom he was close, at the age of 23; his son’s kidnapping; the death of his wife; and the loss of close connexions. In the aftermath of the kidnapping, George ended his relationship with his wife’s family, which meant severing his friendship with Philip, Fitzwilliam’s uncle.
Debates about the causes of melancholia, divided between biological or psychological causes, continued in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of this had religious or moral overtones, suggesting that mental illness was rooted in a person’s sins. To the extent that George Darcy may have reflected on his mental health, and given that he was a religious man, he might have blamed himself for some of the challenges he faced.
The treatment for melancholia has changed over the years, often following ideas about the causes. For instance, when an imbalance of humors was believed to be the root of melancholia, treatments were aimed at restoring balance such as through the use of purgatives to flush toxins out of the gut or leeches to remove impurities from the blood.
Another common intervention was placing the person in an asylum. No one in George’s family would consider taking the drastic step of having him committed. For many years, he lived alone at Pemberley, and it is unlikely that even Frederick, his closest friend as well as cousin, would have seen or recognised the extent of George’s depression and anxiety. It would have been evident in the immediate aftermath of Fitzwilliam’s kidnapping and Lady Anne’s death, but at such times, it would have been natural.
There were no medications specifically for mental illness, of course, but patients might be treated with laudanum. While I could have had George turn to laudanum or alcohol, I chose not to. In my mind, George was a very strong man. As Frederick tells Fitzwilliam in Chapter 7, “Through it all, he has done his duty, but he has never forgotten.” He is recognising that George continued to show signs of depression and anxiety, even if Frederick doesn’t know the extent of them, but acknowledging that George has coped with them in his own way. George managed to continue on with his life, fulfilling his duties as the master of Pemberley. What did it matter if he avoided London, especially during the Season when it was full of people? He saw his family in the country, no doubt corresponded with friends, and saw some of them when he was in town. He may have lived a largely solitary life, but he carried on and did what he had to do.
It would be easy to think that Fitzwilliam’s return would be the cure George needed. After all, why would he continue to be depressed or anxious now that his long-lost son is with him again? Mental illness does not work this way, of course, and George continues to struggle, as explored through Fitzwilliam in the novel. For example, in Chapter 17, Fitzwilliam reflects that “with each large party, his father aged a year or two.” As the two men come to understand each other better, George’s health improves. I imagine this continues in the years after the story ends, even though George will always have a tendency towards depression and anxiety. However, having Fitzwilliam, Elizabeth, and their children with him at Pemberley, allows him to bury some of the grief of his past and have a happy, satisfying life.
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National Institute of Mental Health. Panic disorder: When fear overwhelms. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/panic-disorder-when-fear-overwhelms/index.shtml#:~:text=Physical%20symptoms%20during%20a%20panic,next%20panic%20attack%20will%20happen
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