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Editor's Comment

The essays collected in this volume emerged from a three-year research project entitled "Before Depression: the English Malady, 1660-1800" conducted by an academic team drawn from the UK universities of Northumbria and Sunderland, funded by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. The project sought to ask the question: what was depression before "depression"? Or, expressed in a less gnomic way, what was depression like before the condition existed as a standardized medical concept with a recognizable cluster of symptoms? The essays presented here, and also those published in the previous issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination (Vol. 44.1, Spring 2011), are all based on public lectures delivered between 2007 and 2009 as part of the remit of the wider project.

The previous issue was largely devoted to consideration of individual artists or writers whose experience of depression manifested itself in their works, whereas the current issue concerns melancholy and madness as much broader diagnostic phenomena, involving the suffering of a multitude of individuals. The issue is united by three main intersecting preoccupations. Several essays explore women's experience of melancholy, trying to ascertain the extent to which women were considered, for biological or lifestyle reasons, to have been particularly susceptible to the condition. Moreover, even were they, perhaps, no more vulnerable to it than men, there remains the separate question of whether their depression might be expected to manifest itself in a different way, through being rooted in the specific physiology of the female body. It is certainly the case that women's melancholy is much more widely theorized in earlier periods in relation to their sexuality and reproductive function than that of men, the seat of whose melancholy is more often seen as the mind or even the stomach. Three essays take up this general conundrum of what precisely depression was a condition of: that is, whether of the body, either conceived in biological or humoral terms, or of the mind or spirit. The latter potentiality inevitably raises the issue of religious melancholy, which had a powerful explanatory force during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It felt natural to both sufferers and ministers alike to interpret episodes of depression or mania in spiritual terms, though this was not inevitably a case of [End Page v] the spiritual supplanting the physical as the locus of therapy, for it was also understood that spiritual trauma could manifest itself in a range of symptoms, of which some would be grounded in the body. The very phenomenon of religious melancholy as a diagnostic category, it might be added, led to considerable unease, both among ministers and physicians, about the detrimental impact of certain kinds of faith, especially dissenting faith, on mental well-being. For those involved in treating severely depressed patients within institutions, for example, a practical dilemma existed about the level of access to religious worship that should be granted to patients, and whether opportunities to worship might reinforce or conflict with other forms of therapy being provided. Finally, a third group of essays here considers the link between melancholy and suicide. Deaths through suicide in eighteenth-century England, many of which would now be routinely attributed to depression, are as a rule reported unsympathetically, with the act of suicide being seen as symptomatic of individual fecklessness and a general social weakness. As viewed from foreign shores, suicide was regarded as something of an English malaise, and as the natural corollary of a national inclination towards melancholy, brought on by the dreary English climate, the stodgy protein-based national diet, the Englishman's obsessive fervor for the principle of "liberty," or other such culturally-specific reasons. These wide-ranging essays, each bringing a particular area of scholarly expertise into convergence with the theme of the volume, make in total a major contribution to our understanding of early modern and Enlightenment depression.

The opening essay, Katharine Hodgkin's, draws upon surviving accounts of the mental turmoil of two seventeenth-century women, Dionys Fitzherbert and Joan Drake, as a way of reconsidering the different frameworks within which women's melancholy was understood during the period. Fitzherbert's crisis was especially traumatic, taking the form...