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  • Melancholy Amusements:Women, Gardens, and the Depression of Spirits
  • Stephen Bending (bio)

when every animal is cheerfully running its little circle, shall that called rational, to whom only it is given to look back to remote ages, and forward to future existence, who has the resources of recollection and expectation, be discontented and ill-humoured? how many powers must we neglect! how many mercies must we forget, before we fall into melancholy! hence, loathed melancholy! I will have none of it.

—Elizabeth Montagu to Gilbert West, Sandleford, 26 June 1755 (Letters 3: 295)

I am ashamed to say, that without any illness, my spirits and strength are so subdued, that I enjoy nothing, tho' I am sensible of the numberless blessings that surround me, I think it almost impious, to say that I am not amusable. I am in most respects well, and cannot account for my depression.

—Elizabeth [Charlton] Montagu to Matthew Montagu, Sandleford, 19 Oct. 1790

Written half a century apart, my two opening quotations could hardly seem more different. From as early as the 1740s, the Bluestocking Elizabeth Montagu wrote letters to her friends about the pleasures of a country life; through to the 1790s, she continued to write such letters even as her niece, Elizabeth Charlton Montagu, was expressing a sense of unaccountable depression. Despite such obvious differences, however, the two women's letters share characteristic maneuvers as they confront the problem of depression, and it is the characteristic nature of these maneuvers that is a central concern of this essay. It is not simply that the two women wrote from the same location—the elder Montagu's country estate at Sandleford in Berkshire—nor that the letters were written by aunt and niece. Rather, each writer has a clear awareness of alternative states of mind and of the cultural expectations placed upon them as women when writing from a garden. Certainly the elder Montagu claims to reject melancholy, but that rejection inevitably conjures up the presence, or fear, of low spirits which she associates with life away from town.1 For Charlton Montagu, depression comes in spite of—indeed because of—her awareness of "the numberless [End Page 41] blessings that surround me," and that sense of failed duty, of visible but unavailable pleasures, is, I will argue, characteristic of women who write from the country of an experience variously described as a depression of spirits, as lowness, or more simply as depression.

Though the relationship and location of the two Montagus is peculiarly close, I will also argue that it is more than coincidental that an engagement with depression is expressed from within a landscape garden; rather, the cultural weight put on the garden as a site for moral rectitude or easy pleasure makes this almost inevitable. Thus, this essay focuses on the sense of solitude, loneliness, and debilitating failure so characteristic of depression, but also on the garden as a space in which both resistance to and fear of low spirits is played out. I draw on the private letters of eighteenth-century women who owned or inhabited the culturally privileged but acutely gendered space of the landscape garden, and I turn to a characteristic language of depression expressed in terms of languor, low spirits, and melancholy; to the strikingly articulate nature of that expression; and to the abiding sense of shame so often expressed in terms of the failure of religious duty.

As the numerous modern accounts of depression demonstrate, a clear or simple diagnosis of depression remains elusive (for example, see Gilbert, Papageorgiou and Wells, and Wolpert), and I am certainly not going to try to offer one here; however, as Lewis Wolpert has noted, until at least the end of the eighteenth century there was a tendency to equate depression with either an imbalance of the humors, or with a disorder of the soul expressed in terms of joylessness, abandonment, and unaccountable loss (18). It is these latter expressions in which I am interested, and in particular I am concerned with a self-expressed language of depression used by women in that highly charged space which is the garden.

Intertwined with expressions of languor or low spirits is a more...


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