Thursday, September 25, 2008

I thought I was out of the woods

John Churton Collins, a writer and literary critic at the turn of the last century, died 100 years ago in mysterious circumstances. However, the last few pages of his diary - available online thanks to the New York Times archive - point to a near-suicidal depression. In a particularly poignant entry five days before his death, Churton Collins writes: ‘Last night I was so calm and contented when I went to bed I thought I was out of the woods.’

Publication of this article was planned for the 100th anniversary of Churton Collin’s death - which, according to Wikipedia, took place on 25 September 1908. But, while researching the story, it soon became clear that, in fact, he died 10 days earlier on 15 September 1908. So this article is ten days late. I mention it only because the 25 September death date can be found all over the internet, and is a prime example of how the nature of the internet, which is mostly marvellous, can lead to the extensive propagation of mis-information (but I don’t wish to suggest I’m any less guilty of this than the next web-man.)

The 1911 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica gives a short biographical summary for Churton Collins. Born in 1848 in Gloucestershire, he graduated from Oxford in 1872, and embarked on a writing career. Books on Joshua Reynolds, Bolingbroke, Voltaire and Swift followed, as well as many literary reviews. In 1904, he became professor of English literature at Birmingham University. And on 15 September 1908, it says, ‘he was found dead in a ditch near Lowestoft, at which place he had been staying with a doctor for the benefit of his health’. (Wikipedia uses almost the exact same text, but with 25 September instead of 15 September!) The circumstances necessitated the holding of an inquest, and the verdict was ‘accidental death’.

In an article on the death of Churton Collins, dated 22 September 1908, the New York Times (which, very usefully, has scanned and put online so many of its archived articles) said he was ‘esteemed as one of the sanest recent critics of literature’; it described him as ‘an old-fashioned, hard-hitting critic’ and as having sound, if somewhat prejudiced, views but a mind that was ‘well balanced’.

Two days earlier, on 20 September 1908, the New York Times had run a news story about the death, calling it ‘a remarkable pathological case’. It said Churton Collins had suffered for several years from fits of depression, probably caused by overwork, and it quoted extracts from the last pages in his diary (which had been cabled to New York by the paper’s London correspondent). It also noted that he had written a Voltaire quotation (ironic in the circumstances) on the inside cover of the diary: ‘Apres tout c’est un monde passable’.

Here are most of the diary entries published by the New York Times on 20 September 1908.

26 August: I am at Dr Daniel’s, at Oulton Road [Lowestoft], having had for nearly a month one of the worst attacks of depression I ever experienced. It began in London, got worse at Cardiff, and reached its climax at Oxford. The doctor insisted I must leave at once, and it was arranged I should come here, where I have been better, but am still suffering terribly at times. I can trace the cause of the attack to great stress of work and its sudden cessation. This undoubtedly set it up. My agony at times has been intolerable. . .
27 August: Much better; then came a reaction for the worse. I am now in the extreme of misery and depression.
28 August: Complete collapse again - intense depression
29-30 August: Wretched time, with occasional alternations, but nothing lasting. I can sleep well, God be thanked, and then wake up depressed.
31 August: Fearful depression, sensation that I was worn out mentally, fearfully sleepy. What will become of my children if I get worse?
2 September: I am now in a dead, dull suicidal misery.
3 September: Very good news - rest from awful depression. Then came on a terribly acute attack.
4 September: Woke up as usual without depression, but it soon began.
5 September: Miserable depression till about 7, when the cloud lifted and I got peace and began to think contentedly about future work.
6 September: Terrible in the morning; better as day advanced.
7 September: Very mixed day.
10 September: Last night I was so calm and contented when I went to bed I thought I was out of the woods. I felt perfectly well; but, alas, morning came and I had a terrible relapse into utter depression. Better after breakfast. Now, sitting on the porch at 12 o’clock, I feel calm.
No date: I have been through an awful time. My nerves are completely shattered. I have taken a drug this morning to get a good sleep and appease my agony.

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