Madness, Mania and Melancholia: the mental health of our ancestors

The fact that I have begun the new year researching madness says it all really. One of my new presentations for 2018 is about the mental ill-health of our ancestors; it will have its first outing next month. By co-incidence I was invited recently to submit an article on the same topic for the journal of The International Society for British Genealogy and Family History. I have really enjoyed researching this important topic, if ‘enjoyed’ is the right word. I did touch on mental illness in my booklet ’Til Death Us Do Part: causes of death 1300-1948 and it also gets a mention in my Pharos online course In Sickness and in Death – researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors but preparing the talk and article has given me the scope to investigate in more detail. As usual, what interests me most is people’s behaviour, both the reactions at the time and how we view our mentally ill ancestors now.

So what else has been happening since the season of goodwill and family gatherings was relegated to the attic for another eleven months? Pretty much it has all been about Daisy and of course mental illness threads its way through the pages of her story too.  This week has seen me focus on endings and beginnings in respect of Barefoot. I have been struggling with the final chapter. Sadly this is not the final chapter in the sense that it will be the last I write but it will be the end of the book, which is probably why I am finding finishing it so difficult. I also sent the prologue out to my lovely writers’ group and a couple of other beta readers. Well there was some good news, overall the reaction was favourable and they felt that they wanted to read more. That’s a relief. The downside is that they all suggested different minor ‘tweaks’. In each case, I can see the points that they are being made but if I take them all on board, it will be unrecognisable as the passage that I originally wrote. I am putting this passage away for a while and will come back to deciding how to deal with it later.

Torquay Town Hall HospitalShortly, I am off for what I am laughingly calling a ‘writer’s retreat’ aka three days in a caravan in the soft south of the county. Part of Daisy’s story takes place in Torquay, which is not a town I know very well, hence the need for a field visit. I spent yesterday researching the back stories of some of the minor characters she encounters during this part of her life and needless to say, found others I would like to include. A newspaper article mentioned that Daisy shared a house with six others whilst in Torquay. The identity of three of these was obvious. I had the task of pinpointing plausible candidates for the other three. I am happy to report that I have positively identified one and have come up with two others who are consistent with the information I have. Google earth suggests that the house they lived in was a three bedroom Victorian terrace and I cannot work out who might realistically have shared a bedroom with whom but perhaps, when I see the property in reality, it may look larger. A servants’ attic would be handy! I’ve also immersed myself in stories of VAD nurses and located routes I need to retrace. Hopefully this visit will enable me to write two middle chapters of the book then I really am on the home straight – yippee!

PS – three book reviews posted so far this year – get reviewing folks – help an author.


Social History Book Advent Calendar Day 16 – History of Medicine

Product DetailsNow for the second offering from Sara Read, this one co-authored by Jennifer Evans. I would like to introduce you to Maladies and Medicine: exploring health and healing 1540-1740. After an introduction that explains the theories underpinning medical practices at the time, the book is arranged on an ailment by ailment basis. The authors look in turn at head complaints, abdominal maladies, whole body ailments and reproductive maladies. Each condition is discussed in terms of ‘causes’, as understood at the time, preventatives and ‘cures’. The authors have used a wide range of contemporary sources, medical treatises, letters, herbals, diaries and case notes, to help the reader understand attitudes to and treatments of, diseases and conditions in the early modern era. The book is enhanced by black and white illustrations and a bibliography of written and online sources.

This is another book that is comprehensible to the interested amateur, whilst being underpinned by serious academic research. The writing style is accessible and amusing at times, although perhaps not for the fainthearted, as historical medical treatments were not pretty. This book had obviously appeal to me in my Mistress Agnes mode and I particularly enjoyed writing the health and medicine chapters in my own Coffers, Clysters, Comfrey and Coifs and Remember Then. The former even has a medical procedure on the cover! When Maladies and Medicine hit the shelves earlier this year, I had no hesitation in adding it to the reading lists for the students on my online In Sickness and in Death – researching the ill-health and death of your ancestors course. It only doesn’t feature in Til Death us do Part: causes of death 1300-1948 (or for ebook fans) because I wrote it before Maladies and Medicine was published.

And in ordinary life, what ever that is, the great cover debate for Barefoot on the Cobbles continues. It now looks very different from yesterday’s version. Amidst addressing Christmas cards and anguishing over cover designs, I have been writing the Barefoot inquest scene and wishing there were forty eight hours in a day.