In the 18th century, relaxation was seen as harmful; now we fret about stress. Historian Rachel Hewitt on translating feelings from the past to the presentIn November 1804, a 31-year-old woman called Anna Beddoes wrote to a close friend, the engineer Davies Giddy. Giddy was a student of Anna’s husband, the physician Thomas Beddoes; both Giddy and Anna maintained lengthy correspondences which are preserved in the Cornwall Record Office. The archives reveal two people caught up in a period of dramatic and profoundly unsettling political and cultural change. In 1804, Giddy was suffering, in his own words, from “mental or moral lethargy” and he had begun threatening to “rob” his friends and family of his “society … forever”. He was expressing a sincere desire for “euthanasia”, for some relief from his emotional distress. Anna was appalled. “Tell me,” she insisted, “how you could possibly wish to be without feeling!” Without feeling, he would no longer be “morally invulnerable”. The conversation was between two people on either side of a cultural gulf. For Anna, still buoyed up by the optimism of the 18th century, the passions were guides that allowed individuals to behave in a moral and sociable way. But during the early 19th century, that hopeful belief and the entire vocabulary of “the passions” were being displaced by new ideas, and a new lexicon, about “emotion”. For Anna’s correspondent – gloomy, guilt-racked, suicidal – this chimed with his sense that his own profound sadness had no greater purpose. Giddy soon turned to pharmaceutical remedies in his quest for emotional oblivion.
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