‘Drooping with the Century’: Fatigue and the Fin de Siècle

This is a guest post by Steffan Blayney, a PhD student in history at Birkbeck, University of London researhcing fatigue, the science of work, and the working body in Britain c.1870-1939. He is also one of the organisers of History Acts.

In the prologue to his 1892 short story, ‘Number Twenty’, the English satirist Henry Duff Traill personifies the nineteenth century as an exhausted, dying old man. Opening at 11.30p.m. on the 31st December 1900, Traill’s story finds Old Seekleham – an ungainly pun on the Latin saeculum (century) – with just half an hour to live.  Far from mourning his impending death, however, Seekleham greets it with a weary resignation, even relief:

“It was not that he had attained to a greater age than his ancestors …; it was that his life, as measured by exciting and consequently fatiguing experiences, had already far exceeded most of theirs”.

As he reaches his final minutes, our dying century is joined at his bedside by a choir of Decadents, who sing ‘in praise of exhaustion, and disillusion, and failure, and emptiness, and weariness’. Finally, as the clock strikes midnight, they all join in an ‘Ode to the Spirit of Decadence’. By the time it is over, however, Seekleham has already succumbed to his exhaustion, disappearing to make way for the new-born Twentieth Century.[1]

Traill, who fittingly died himself in 1900, was not alone in associating the end of the nineteenth century with exhaustion. Across a diversity of texts, metaphors of fatigue were used to signify political decline, social regression, and cultural deterioration. In an influential article of 1871, the historian James Froude painted a picture of an England overcome by ‘lethargy’, the political and racial ‘vigor’ of its people teetering on the brink of ‘exhaustion’.[2] By the end of the century, in the words of Conservative politician Joseph Chamberlain, the nation had become a ‘Weary Titan’, overburdened by its vast colonial possessions and struggling to match the energy and dynamism of its international rivals.[3] In British culture too, the critic John Addington Symonds diagnosed a pervasive ‘world-fatigue [which has] penetrated deep into our spirit.’[4] Fatigue took its place alongside those other fin-de-siècle (fin-de-Seekleham) signifiers – decline, degeneration and decadence – with which historians of late-nineteenth century Britain are familiar.

dorian-gray-f60078-27-3Majeska illustration (1930) to Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): “Fin de siècle,” murmured Lord Henry. “Fin du globe,” answered his hostess. “I wish it were fin du globe,” said Dorian, with a sigh. “Life is a great disappointment.” “Ah, my dear,” cried Lady Narborough, putting on her gloves, “don’t tell me that you have exhausted Life. When a man says that one knows that Life has exhausted him.” (The British Library)

Medical writers, as the physician Clifford Allbutt observed in 1895, were likewise concerned that the British population was ‘drooping with the century’; that the energies of the population were being depleted as a result of the vast and rapid social and technological changes that had characterised the nineteenth century.[5] The spread of industrialisation, urbanisation, education, and new technologies such as the railway and the telegraph had increased the pace and intensity of modern life to such a degree that the body was unable to withstand its constant pressures and demands.

Practically absent from medical or scientific discourse before the 1870s, the final decades of the nineteenth century saw a proliferation of attempts to define, describe, measure, and control physical and mental fatigue. By the end of the century, contemporaries were certain that they lived in an ‘age of fatigue’, with medical professionals concerned that their era would be remembered by posterity as ‘the Tired Age’.[6]

mcdougall-dotter-3The ‘McDougall dotter’. A device for measuring mental fatigue designed by English psychologist William McDougall in 1905. (Museum of the History of Science, Oxford)

Increasingly, distinctions were drawn between normal and pathological states of fatigue, or between ‘fatigue’ and ‘over-fatigue’ or exhaustion. While a certain amount of fatigue was the natural consequence of normal work, continued over-exertion put body and mind at risk of severe, or even permanent, debility. Behind every discussion of fatigue lay the entropic spectre of ‘total collapse’ or ‘irrecoverable degeneration’.[7]

For all its obvious anxieties, however, the fin-de-siècle discourse on fatigue was inherently equivocal. While fatigue expressed itself in individual bodily decline, it could also be read an expression of national progress. If fatigue was a disease of modern civilisation, then an epidemic of exhaustion was the best evidence possible of a civilised society. For many, the archetypal subject of fatigue was less modernity’s discontent than its agent: ‘the eminent lawyer, the physician in full practice, the minister, and the politician who aspires to be a minister … the literary workman, or the eager man of science’.[8] Moreover, authorities on the subject were keen to point out that pathological fatigue was a problem which afflicted only the most advanced societies, the superior races. If fatigue was a common metaphor for Britain’s decline, it could also be exploited as evidence of its social and cultural pre-eminence and imperial dominance; in a word, its modernity.

Late-Victorian doctors were thus faced with an uncomfortable paradox. On the one hand, fatigue represented a failure of the body to meet the demands of modern life, and yet, at the same time, its increasing incidence was the best possible evidence of a society’s supreme modernity. As Britain entered the twentieth century, the problem that would preoccupy both scientists and policy-makers was the following: how could the constraints on the powers of the body be reconciled with boundless social progress? Did fatigue represent a limit to modernity, or an obstacle which it was possible to overcome?

Steffan Blayney

[1] H. D. Traill, Number Twenty: Fables and Fantasies (London: Henry & Co., 1892), 1–13.

[2] James Anthony Froude, ‘England’s War’, Fraser’s Magazine 3, no. 14 (February 1871): 135, 144.

[3] Joseph Chamberlain (1902), quoted in Julian Amery, The Life of Joseph Chamberlain, vol. 4 (London: Macmillan & Co., 1951), 421.

[4] Joseph Addington Symonds, ‘A Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry’, Fortnightly Review 45, no. 265 (January 1889): 60.

[5] T. Clifford Allbutt, ‘Nervous Diseases and Modern Life’, The Contemporary Review, 1866-1900 67 (February 1895): 210.

[6] Mona Caird, ‘The Evolution of Compassion’, Westminster Review, 145 (1896), 635–43 (p. 643); “A Physician”, ‘Fatigue’, Quiver, 1908, 1012–13 (p. 1012).

[7] Robert Farquharson, ‘On Overwork’, Lancet 107, no. 2731 (1 January 1876): 10; J. Mortimer Granville, Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease (London: J. &  A. Churchill, 1883), 11.

[8] W. R. Greg, ‘Life at High Pressure.’, The Contemporary Review 25 (December 1874): 629.


One thought on “‘Drooping with the Century’: Fatigue and the Fin de Siècle

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #14 | Whewell's Ghost

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