- Nostalgia in Transition, 1780-1917
In the last decade, literary critics have energetically explored the topic of nostalgia, a word that originally denoted a potentially fatal eighteenth-century pathology akin to severe homesickness. Sometime during the nineteenth century, the term migrated semantically to designate a sentimental longing for home, or an aesthetic category frequently associated with this sort of desire. Most recently, Ann C. Colley's Nostalgia and Recollection in Victorian Culture (1998) and Nicholas Dames's Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870 (2001) have traced nostalgia's inroads into some of the most beloved novels and poems of the Victorian era, and explained how nostalgic remembering shapes our understanding of Victorian fiction more generally. Even in such distinguished company, Linda Austin's Nostalgia in Transition, 1780-1917 stands out as an extraordinarily well-researched contribution to the field. Austin draws upon her extensive understanding of nineteenth-century physiological psychology to describe how a physical understanding of nostalgia helps us comprehend the depathologization of the term and its subsequent incorporation into our aesthetic vocabulary.
As Austin explains in her introduction, Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term "nostalgia" in his 1688 Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia. Hofer used the term to describe the extreme homesickness afflicting soldiers who removed from rural areas to far-flung locales. Eighteenth-century German physicians explained nostalgia according to the circulatory theories of Scottish physician William Cullen, arguing that the condition resulted from "a blockage of vital fluids in the mind's channels" (9). The most popular treatment for the disorder, recommended by physician and poet Friedrich Schiller, among others, involved physical activity to improve circulation of nerve fluids. This physical exercise ideally took place in a rural environment that simulated the nostalgic patient's homeland. Pastoral poetry frequently figured into such cures, as the patient learned to replace particularly affecting memories of home with more general ideas about the beauties of rural nature.
Austin's first chapter turns to one such nostalgic, Emily Brontë, whose intense bouts of homesickness made it difficult for her to travel extensively or engage in prolonged employment away from home. While teaching at Roe Head and Law Hill schools in the 1830s, Brontë suffered symptoms akin to Hofer or Schiller's nostalgic soldiers. Remarkably, she treated her disorder along the lines recommended by these German physicians, though it seems unlikely that she knew of their work. Brontë mediated her longing for home by taking outdoor walks and composing pastoral poetry. In poems like "A Little While" or "The blue bell," both published posthumously in 1850, Brontë mourned specific features of her native Yorkshire landscape, but ultimately resolved to enjoy the natural beauties of her present environment. Thus Brontë's poems chart "the pathogenesis of [nostalgia] from one of obsessive and frenetic personal associations to standard and stabilizing images of the pastoral" (36). This chapter, originally published in Victorian Studies, is exceptionally well researched, though one might wish that Austin had reprinted some of Brontë's poems in full, since they are not widely read today.
In chapter two, Austin argues that elegies by Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Thomas Hardy demonstrate the evolution of nostalgia from a traumatic mental disorder afflicting the individual into a collective, non-traumatic phenomenon of sensory recall based in habit. Drawing on Victorian physiological psychology, Austin shows how Thomas Laycock, George Henry Lewes, and Alexander Bain viewed memory as a motor-sensory mechanism based in the spinal cord. She also [End Page 122] demonstrates how poems like Tennyson's "Frater Ave Atque Vale" (1883) and Hardy's "Under the Waterfall" (1914) deploy the sense of touch as a mnemonic stimulus. Around mid-century, Laycock and other experts agreed that "[t]ouch is the fundamental sense, and all the organs of the senses are but very delicate instruments of touch" (77). Austin's close readings of Victorian elegies adeptly show how these compositions evoke the sense of touch to alleviate the pain of nostalgia and mourning.
While chapter two lays the theoretical groundwork for nostalgia's transition from diagnostic category to...