Storms, Science and Satan

Fears and Phobias in the Victorian Age

Sally Shuttleworth, Tuesday 2 Feb 2016.

Having just staggered into the office after braving the wind, rain and general tempestuous conditions of storm Imogen, I am reminded of Prof. Sally Shuttleworth’s paper ‘Fear and Phobias in the Victorian Age’, co-organized earlier this month by CEIR and Cardiff University’s Collaborative Interdisciplinary Study of Science, Medicine and the Imagination research group.

After a brief introduction by Prof. Martin Willis, Shuttleworth introduced us to the American psychologist G. Stanley Hall and his survey of children’s fears from 1897, where thunder and lightening came out conclusively on top. As I struggle to regain composure after my brush with today’s storm, I sympathise with the Victorian schoolchildren of Hall’s study. Shuttleworth’s fascinating paper continued to explore the intersection of cultural, literary and medical discourses of fear in the nineteenth century, focusing particularly on George Borrow’s semi-autobiographical novel Lavengro (1851).

As well as thunder and lightning, other fears to feature highly in Stanley Hall’s A Study of Fears (1897) were ‘reptiles’, ‘darkness’ and ‘death’, phobias not uncommon in our own time. Yet, as Shuttleworth contends, the very term ‘phobia’ did not come into use until the 1880s or ’90s, when diagnoses of phobias or excessive fears began to replace the language of ‘monomania’. Hall’s study, published in an American journal of psychology, was written in an age increasingly convinced that the social upheaval of the industrial era had given rise to a growing number of psychological disorders and fear. Following his study of schoolchildren, Hall registered 138 different forms of pathological fear, ranging from a fear of responsibility to a fear of feathers. Shuttleworth explains that Hall’s interpretative framework is firmly evolutionary: the idea of a psyche that is integrated into the evolutionary development of the self is contrary to other late nineteenth century scientific accounts of a ‘divided self’, where the primal nature could surprise and betray the social being, an idea infused, as Shuttleworth indicates, ‘with the spirit of Jekyll and Hyde’. Indeed, Shuttleworth describes the nineteenth century as a culture preoccupied with identifying the origins of fear, whether it be evolutionary scientists such as Darwin claiming all fear can be explained by evolution, or increasingly sophisticated attempts to investigate fear in laboratories, examining its influence on the nervous system. In popular culture there was a similar fascination with fear: in 1896 The Cosmopolitan: A Monthly Magazine gave celebrities of the time detailed questionnaires about their fears, publishing the results.

One idea to come from Hall’s study was the belief that the doctrine of immortality inspired religious terror in children, with Isaac Watts’s divine songs coming under particular criticism. This is hardly surprising; the hymns contain references to burning lakes of fire and brimstone, and eagles pecking out the eyes of sinners. Yet, whilst a fear of Satan would seem entirely rational for this age, scientists at the time also began to be interested in the cause of irrational phobias. One of the first explorations of unexplainable fear comes from Dr W. Julius Mickle, who identified three symptoms of phobia and obsession: ‘besetting Doubts, Dread, & the besetting impulse to Deeds’. Shuttleworth explains how, when giving a paper to the medical community, Mickle quoted various episodes from George Borrow’s Lavengro, which offers an account of the irrational fears or compulsions of its protagonists. Arguing that Borrow’s works offered one of the best description of phobias of its time, Mickle read up to twenty pages to the audience, alongside his references to his own medical observations. So accurate were Borrow’s descriptions of the psychological conditions, that Mickle believed he must have been describing his own case. Indeed, the author himself has claimed that his is the first medical account of ‘obsessive touching’ or compulsions, of inexplicable fear that is disproportionate to any apparent cause. According to Shuttleworth, the significance of Borrow’s work lies in its date, published in the 1851, thirty years before the emergence of discourses on phobias. Indeed, Shuttleworth argues, it is the energies and haunting power of Borrow’s literary text that appear to frame Mickle’s medical definitions of phobia and obsession, leading her to question how much Mickle’s earlier reading of Lavengro influenced the theories he put forward in later life.

Much like a BBC wildlife documentary, where the content of the programme is followed by a ‘making of’ segment, after the main paper we were treated to a Q&A session, led by Prof. Keir Waddington, about Shuttleworth’s Diseases of Modern Life project into which this work feeds, including how she managed to secure the European Research Council grant that funds it. Interestingly, although her work looks at the issues of pressure and overwork in education, Shuttleworth claims one of the main challenges with a project that involves various academics is delegation, as, used to doing her own primary research, she has found she would quite like to ‘do it all’. Considering the ever-pertinent topic of interdisciplinarity and ‘impact’ in the humanities, Shuttleworth asserts her belief that it is still possible for scientific researchers to be influenced by literary readings, in the manner of Mickle and Borrow. She argues that the humanities can still offer ways of thinking around psychological states that could alter a medical perception, although, of course, this is always going to be difficult to prove.

—Harriet Gordon