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Mind over matter: a little light reading for a mentally healthy summer

My ideal list of summer reading would have to include Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the perfect antidote to the current obsession with endlessly emoting, allegedly to promote one’s own ‘mental health’ but at the expense of everyone else’s. While Marianne emotes, regardless of other people’s feelings, Elinor, secretly in love with Edward Ferrars, suppresses her feelings to spare the feelings of others. So does Colonel Brandon, but he ends up winning Marianne’s heart – she having trampled on his – when she recovers from an illness brought on by her wilfulness in catching cold while mourning the loss of the worthless Willoughby. Contrary to fashionable Freudian fads, Elinor’s ‘suppressed’ feelings do not cause her to become ill, because her disappointment is diverted into caring for her sick sister. Rather it is Marianne whose emoting causes her to become ill. Recommended reading for cod psychologists and for those who like to see virtue rewarded and lovers united, if only in the realm of fiction.

There are yet more suppressed feelings in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley – but also Original sin – the sin of pride. Caroline Helstone lives with her stern, unemotional clergyman uncle, unaware that the governess/companion of the newly-arrived Shirley, a local heiress, is her long-lost mother. Caroline loves her cousin Robert Moore, a struggling mill owner, but he feels forced by his dire economic situation to propose to Shirley, who in fact loves his brother Louis, a humble tutor. The domestic drama plays out against the privations of the Napoleonic Wars, and the Luddite violence against mill owners who, like Robert, install labour-saving machinery, thus throwing mill hands out of work. Pride pervades the story – Uncle Matthewston Helstone’s rejection of Caroline’s mother; Robert Moore’s refusal to consider the feelings of his workforce; Louis’s pride at the thought of marrying a rich woman; the pride of employers, and the pride of workless workers forced to accept help. The pride of curates is fair game for humour, but the Christian faith is what sustains the characters through all their trials; as indeed it was for the author, who suffered the loss of her brother Branwell and sisters Emily and Anne while writing Shirley; in Chapter XXIV, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, the void is palpable and yet there is a happy ending for Caroline and Robert, Shirley and Louis, brought together by an authoress who could not arrange her own happy ending.

For anyone rendered anxious by the increasing tendency to conflate ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’, the eccentric characters peopling Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby should help the reader to define true madness – although it is good to be aware that then, as now, an eccentric is merely a mad person with money. Mrs Nickleby, Nicholas’s mother, is merely silly, being quite affronted when it is hinted that their elderly next-door neighbour, who lavishes extravagant praise upon her, happens to be out of his mind; the old gentleman has a resident ‘keeper’, therefore is wealthy enough to qualify as an eccentric who just happens to lob vegetables over the garden wall as tokens of his admiration and affection. The orphaned and penniless Smike, in contrast, is termed simple; left at Dotheboys Hall, the horrible boarding school for the inconvenient offspring of rich men, Smike can dimly remember life before falling into the tender care of headmaster Mr Squeers and his equally loving and lovely family, but it turns out that the simple-minded youth still wearing the ragged clothes in which he was sent to school years earlier, is the son of Nicholas’s Uncle Ralph. And here Dickens defies the modern tendency to explain away wicked acts like terrorism and other outrages as the product of mental illness; quite simply, Ralph Nickleby is evil, and when threatened with exposure for his crimes, commits that sin against the Holy Spirit for which there is no forgiveness – despair. Unable to manipulate people and events any longer, Ralph goes and hangs himself. But one thing is sure – five minutes of Dickens is sure to restore the reader’s sanity, and they will be bound to enjoy the brutal bully Mr Squeers getting his comeuppance with his own cane.

Never has society been more in need of Dickens than today, for today’s news is that every school is to have a ‘mental health’ first aider, tasked with detecting signs of anxiety and depression in children. Teachers might be thought to be better placed to spot any such changes in their pupils, but the move comes on the coat-tails of a ‘mental health’ campaign, supported by Princes William and Henry, and the Duchess of Cambridge, which has highlighted the plight of ex-service personnel with mental health problems. This much-needed campaign is praiseworthy, because mental health provision in this country is deplorable. ‘Care in the community’ has been a disaster; while the budget for mental illness has been drastically reduced by emptying the long-stay mental hospitals, the criminal justice bill has soared as many end up in prison for lack of care and supervision, while others languish in the non-existent community, exploited and preyed upon by the unscrupulous. Will this new initiative address the real problem, or will the focus shift from treating schizophrenia and other psychoses to ‘prevention’ – homing in on the more fashionable neuroses, anxiety and depression, purportedly to prevent them from ‘turning into’ mental illness? The campaign to encourage individuals with such neuroses to ‘be open’ about their problems has echoes of the mental hygiene campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, when eugenicists tried to ‘raise consciousness’ about mental unfitness and the huge burden it placed on the public purse. Their answer was sterilisation, but nowadays, rather than swooping on the mentally unfit to hospitalise them, people are encouraged to declare themselves mentally unfit, and practise ‘mindfulness’, or avail themselves of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, or similar conveyor-belt, one-size-fits-all group therapies. More sinisterly, in the name of autonomy and self-determination, psychiatric patients in Belgium are now allowed to ‘choose’ suicide. Here, we are told that ‘most people will suffer from mental illness at some time in their lives’, which is enough to depress most people, and give the impression that this is actually a campaign to increase mental illness rather than diminish it.

Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton’s The Ball and the Cross (1910) in which a Catholic and an atheist attempt to fight a duel over the latter’s blasphemy against Our Lady; they never get to fight the duel, for they are incarcerated in a lunatic asylum – because they believe that there are still some things worth fighting over – even the outdated concept of religion – they are deemed mad. While Lucifer hovers above in his flying machine, every witness to their attempts at duelling is incarcerated with them, but the number of ‘in patients’ increases so rapidly that a new law is passed – from now on, instead of the authorities proving an individual’s insanity, each person will be required to prove his or her sanity, and those who pass the test will be given a small emblem to wear on the lapel. As usual, Chesterton is spot on, a hundred years ahead of his time. In the madness of a society that refuses to recognise evil and labels it as the product of mental illness, while consigning mental patients to the devil, and driving everyone else mad by spreading the fear of mental illness, the ‘apostle of common sense’ helps to restore our sanity.

And in an age obsessed with ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories and apocalyptic fears, what better antidote than Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday? Written 110 years ago, the story progressively peels back several layers of paranoia; the forces of law and order are suspected of evil intent, while the evil intent of anarchists who openly boast of their intended murderous exploits are ignored, but behind the mask of evil lies goodness. Without giving away the twists and turns of the plot, through a series of crazy adventures, the world is found to be sane after all, and as for the mysterious ‘Sunday’ – well, all is well after all. Sometimes, the only thing that can restore our sanity is a brief tour through midsummer madness.

Copyright © 2017 Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer studied for a master’s degree at the Centre for Jewish Christian Relations in Cambridge, England. Her numerous publications include By Their Fruits, a ground-breaking study on the eugenics roots of the abortion campaign. She is married with three children and four grandchildren. Ann is the author of Chesterton and the Jews.