Americans and others/The Nervous Strain


The Nervous Strain


"Which fiddle-strings is weakness to expredge my nerves this night."—Mrs. Gamp.


ANNA ROBESON BURR, in her scholarly analysis of the world's great autobiographies, has found occasion to compare the sufferings of the American woman under the average conditions of life with the endurance of the woman who, three hundred years ago, confronted dire vicissitudes with something closely akin to insensibility. "Today," says Mrs. Burr, "a child's illness, an over-gay season, the loss of an investment, a family jar,—these are accepted as sufficient cause for over-strained nerves and temporary retirement to a sanitarium. Then, war, rapine, fire, sword, prolonged and mortal peril, were considered as furnishing no excuse to men or women for altering the habits, or slackening the energies, of their daily existence."

As a matter of fact, Isabella d' Este witnessed the sacking of Rome without so much as thinking of nervous prostration. This was nearly four hundred years ago, but it is the high-water mark of feminine fortitude. To live through such days and nights of horror, and emerge therefrom with unimpaired vitality, and unquenched love for a beautiful and dangerous world, is to rob the words "shock" and "strain" of all dignity and meaning. To resume at once the interrupted duties and pleasures of life was, for the Marchioness of Mantua, obligatory; but none the less we marvel that she could play her rôle so well.

A hundred and thirty years later, Sir Ralph Verney, an exiled royalist, sent his young wife back to England to petition Parliament for the restoration of his sequestrated estates. Lady Verney's path was beset by difficulties and dangers. She had few friends and many enemies, little money and cruel cares. She was, it is needless to state, pregnant when she left France, and paused in her work long enough to bear her husband "a lusty boy"; after which Sir Ralph writes that he fears she is neglecting her guitar, and urges her to practise some new music before she returns to the Continent.

Such pages of history make tonic reading for comfortable ladies who, in their comfortable homes, are bidden by their comfortable doctors to avoid the strain of anything and everything which makes the game of life worth living. It is our wont to think of our great-great-great-grandmothers as spending their days in undisturbed tranquillity. We take imaginary naps in their quiet rooms, envying the serenity of an existence unvexed by telegrams, telephones, clubs, lectures, committee-meetings, suffrage demonstrations, and societies for harrying our neighbours. How sweet and still those spacious rooms must have been! What was the remote tinkling of a harp, compared to pianolas, and phonographs, and all the infernal contrivances of science for producing and perpetuating noise? What was a fear of ghosts compared to a knowledge of germs? What was repeated child-bearing, or occasional smallpox, compared to the "over-pressure" upon "delicate organisms," which is making the fortunes of doctors to-day?

So we argue. Yet in good truth our ancestors had their share of pressure, and more than their share of ill-health. The stomach was the same ungrateful and rebellious organ then that it is now. Nature was the same strict accountant then that she is now, and balanced her debit and credit columns with the same relentless accuracy. The "liver" of the last century has become, we are told, the "nerves" of to-day; which transmigration should be a bond of sympathy between the new woman and that unchangeable article, man. We have warmer spirits and a higher vitality than our home-keeping great-grandmothers ever had. We are seldom hysterical, and we never faint. If we are gay, our gayeties involve less exposure and fatigue. If we are serious-minded, our attitude towards our own errors is one of unaffected leniency. That active, lively, all-embracing assurance of eternal damnation, which was part of John Wesley's vigorous creed, might have broken down the nervous system of a mollusk. The modern nurse, jealously guarding her patient from all but the neutralities of life, may be pleased to know that when Wesley made his memorable voyage to Savannah, a young woman on board the ship gave birth to her first child; and Wesley's journal is full of deep concern, because the other women about her failed to improve the occasion by exhorting the poor tormented creature "to fear Him who is able to inflict sharper pains than these."

As for the industrious idleness which is held to blame for the wrecking of our nervous systems, it was not unknown to an earlier generation. Madame Le Brun assures us that, in her youth, pleasure-loving people would leave Brussels early in the morning, travel all day to Paris, to hear the opera, and travel all night home. "That," she observes,—as well she may,—"was considered being fond of the opera." A paragraph in one of Horace Walpole's letters gives us the record of a day and a night in the life of an English lady,—sixteen hours of "strain" which would put New York to the blush. "I heard the Duchess of Gordon's journal of last Monday," he writes to Miss Berry in the spring of 1791. "She first went to hear Handel's music in the Abbey; she then clambered over the benches, and went to Hastings's trial in the Hall; after dinner, to the play; then to Lady Lucan's assembly; after that to Ranelagh, and returned to Mrs. Hobart's faro-table; gave a ball herself in the evening of that morning, into which she must have got a good way; and set out for Scotland the next day. Hercules could not have accomplished a quarter of her labours in the same space of time."

Human happiness was not to this gay Gordon a "painless languor"; and if she failed to have nervous prostration—under another name—she was cheated of her dues. Wear-and-tear plus luxury is said to break down the human system more rapidly than wear-and-tear plus want; but perhaps wear-and-tear plus pensive self-consideration is the most destructive agent of all. "Après tout, c'est un monde passable"; and the Duchess of Gordon was too busy acquainting herself with this fact to count the costs, or even pay the penalty.

One thing is sure,—we cannot live in the world without vexation and out fatigue. We are bidden to avoid both, just as we are bidden to avoid an injudicious meal, a restless night, a close and crowded room, an uncomfortable sensation of any kind,—as if these things were not the small coin of existence. An American doctor who was delicately swathing his nervous patient in cotton wool, explained that, as part of the process, she must be secluded from everything unpleasant. No disturbing news must be told her. No needless contradiction must be offered her. No disagreeable word must be spoken to her. "But doctor," said the lady, who had long before retired with her nerves from all lively contact with realities, "who is there that would dream of saying anything disagreeable to me?" "Madam," retorted the physician, irritated for once into unprofessional candour, "have you then no family?"

There is a bracing quality about family criticism, if we are strong enough to bear its veracities. What makes it so useful is that it recognizes existing conditions. All the well-meant wisdom of the "Don't Worry" books is based upon immunity from common sensations and from everyday experience. We must—unless we are insensate—take our share of worry along with our share of mishaps. All the kindly counsellors who, in scientific journals, entreat us to keep on tap "a vivid hope, a cheerful resolve, an absorbing interest," by way of nerve-tonic, forget that these remedies do not grow under glass. They are hardy plants, springing naturally in eager and animated natures. Artificial remedies might be efficacious in an artificial world. In a real world, the best we can do is to meet the plagues of life as Dick Turpin met the hangman's noose, "with manly resignation, though with considerable disgust." Moreover, disagreeable things are often very stimulating. A visit to some beautiful little rural almshouses in England convinced me that what kept the old inmates alert and in love with life was, not the charm of their bright-coloured gardens, nor the comfort of their cottage hearths, but the vital jealousies and animosities which pricked their sluggish blood to tingling.

There are prophets who predict the downfall of the human race through undue mental development, who foresee us (flatteringly, I must say) winding up the world's history in a kind of intellectual apotheosis. They write distressing pages about the strain of study in schools, the strain of examinations, the strain of competition, the strain of night-work, when children ought to be in bed, the strain of day-work, when they ought to be at play. An article on "Nerves and Over-Pressure" in the "Dublin Review" conveys the impression that little boys and girls are dangerously absorbed in their lessons, and draws a fearful picture of these poor innocents literally "grinding from babyhood." It is over-study (an evil from which our remote ancestors were wholly and happily exempt) which lays, so we are told, the foundation of all our nervous disorders. It is this wasting ambition which exhausts the spring of childhood and the vitality of youth.

There must be some foundation for fears so often expressed; though when we look at the blooming boys and girls of our acquaintance, with their placid ignorance and their love of fun, their glory in athletics and their transparent contempt for learning, it is hard to believe that they are breaking down their constitutions by study. Nor is it possible to acquire even the most modest substitute for education without some effort. The carefully fostered theory that school-work can be made easy and enjoyable breaks down as soon as anything, however trivial, has to be learned.

Life is a real thing in the school-room and in the nursery; and children—left to their own devices—accept it with wonderful courage and sagacity. If we allow to their souls some noble and free expansion, they may be trusted to divert themselves from that fretful self-consciousness which the nurse calls naughtiness, and the doctor, nerves. A little wholesome neglect, a little discipline, plenty of play, and a fair chance to be glad and sorry as the hours swing by,—these things are not too much to grant to childhood. That careful coddling which deprives a child of all delicate and strong emotions lest it be saddened, or excited, or alarmed, leaves it dangerously soft of fibre. Coleridge, an unhappy little lad at school, was lifted out of his own troubles by an acquaintance with the heroic sorrows of the world. There is no page of history, however dark, there is no beautiful old tale, however tragic, which does not impart some strength and some distinction to the awakening mind. It is possible to overrate the superlative merits of insipidity as a mental and moral force in the development of youth.

There are people who surrender themselves without reserve to needless activities, who have a real affection for telephones, and district messengers, and the importunities of their daily mail. If they are women, they put special delivery stamps on letters which would lose nothing by a month's delay. If they are men, they exult in the thought that they can be reached by wireless telegraphy on mid-ocean. We are apt to think of these men and women as painful products of our own time and of our own land; but they have probably existed since the building of the Tower of Babel,—a nerve-racking piece of work which gave peculiar scope to strenuous and impotent energies.

A woman whose every action is hurried, whose every hour is open to disturbance, whose every breath is drawn with superfluous emphasis, will talk about the nervous strain under which she is living, as though dining out and paying the cook's wages were the things which are breaking her down. The remedy proposed for such "strain" is withdrawal from the healthy buffetings of life,—not for three days, as Burke withdrew in order that he might read "Evelina," and be rested and refreshed thereby; but long enough to permit of the notion that immunity from buffetings is a possible condition of existence,—of all errors, the most irretrievable.

It has been many centuries since Marcus Aurelius observed the fretful disquiet of Rome, which must have been strikingly like our fretful disquiet to-day, and proffered counsel, unheeded then as now: "Take pleasure in one thing and rest in it, passing from one social act to another, thinking of God."