Letter 27: C. R. Aikin to Lydia Rickards, 4 February 1808
- Physical form: One sheet folded into 2 leaves (18.1 x 23 cm)
- Cover: Miss Rickards / Crescent / Birmingham
- PM [partial]: E 4 8
- WM: none
- SM: Misc MS 4381
My dear Miss Rickards,
In answer to the very kind & affectionate enquiries of Mrs R. & yourself concerning the unfortunate situation of Mr Barbauld I must give you a short history of his case, the peculiarities of which you, who have known him so long, will be well able to enter into. I cannot say that this event has been altogether unexpected, for, besides the natural extreme irritability of his temper & a family disposition to great irregularity of spirits,  nearly the same train of symptoms of mental derangement occurred several months ago, which though they did not proceed to any act of outrage were amply sufficient to give a foreboding of a future & more violent attack. He did however compleatly recover from the former unfortunate state of mental irritation after having suffered an equal depression of spirits, but I am grieved to say that at present the hopes of a permanent recovery appear very far distant.
The present attack may be traced in its beginning to an unusual eagerness for argument & debate of all kinds, an extremely disputatious spirit & unbounded fluency of words which had been occasionally remarked by several of his friends, & in mixed company only enlivened the conversation. Still however it was observed that only one or two favourite topics particularly of a religious nature could interest him & these he was constantly recurring to. Added to this there came on such an excessive increase of all his restless personal habits that the day was scarcely sufficient for his numerous little operations about his person. It would have been very fortunate for his friends & Mrs B. in particular if this state of mind had gone no further, but the spirit of disputation which in company only led to long arguments on religious topics, in private with Mrs B. took the distressing
[fol 1v] turn of incessant unkind harassing on the merest domestic trifles, during which he was in the habit of insisting in the most peremptory manner on inexhaustible patience in her to listen for hours together to his fancied complaints & even went so far as frequently to use the most insulting & unhandsome language & to lock the door to prevent her from escaping from his violence. The distress & anxiety which such treatment produced on her feeling heart you will readily conceive, & I as well [as] many other of her friends can bear witness to the extreme forbearance which she shewed, being aware of the unsettled state of his mind & the frequent threats of suicide with which his fits of fury were accompanied whenever she made any attempts to escape from them. This kind of usage however was proceeding so far & so totally destroying all her comfort & occupying all her time, that her friends had actually resolved to make a strong remonstrance to him, when the a most violent paroxysm came on during which after a storm of the most furious & shocking language he was induced to threaten both her life & his own, & on her escaping from him he actually put in execution the threat against himself by taking a large quantity of laudanum in presence of his servants who of course spread the alarm over the village & made the circumstance quite public. He was perswaded however to take the proper means to prevent the effect of his rashness, & a day or two after, as I found that the whole of his mental disease took the turn of ^settled^ anger against her, I invited him to Broad St  where he stayed a week. During the time he was with us, his opinion of fancied ill usage on the part of Mrs B. remained unalterable, though he expressed the highest esteem & even love for her & was readily brought to an acknowledgement of the impropriety of his conduct. Under these circumstances we thought that he might be trusted to return to Newington under a most solemn promise of refraining from all violence towards her & of allowing her a separate bed & sitting room to which she might retire at all times, & though he still fully insisted on an ample discussion of his supposed grievances & fully expected great concessions on her
[fol 2r] part before he would consent to live again with her, we were in hopes that in time these preposterous ideas would subside & his mind resume its usual serenity. This we ^the^ more repeated, as he was at all times ready to allow even with utmost vehemence of expression the great degree to which he had been indebted to her kindness her excellent conduct during life, & as the sum total of his grievances was only her refusing to persevere in discussing with him, his which for reasons which I have already mentioned she most prudently declined. I should add that he has at all times expressed a perfect acquiescence in the proposal of separation & on the most liberal pecuniary terms, but he has at the same time accompanied this with such strong expressions of distress amounting to despair at being obliged to resort to this alternative, & with very unequivocal hints at suicide if compelled to it.
But he had no sooner returned to Newington than he resumed the subjects of altercation which were always uppermost in his mind, & one morning in direct violation of his promise he again resorted to the same violence of language, to locking her up with him & to the threats of suicide, & in the course of the morning his frenzy became so violent that my father  was at last, after waiting to the utmost, compelled to put him under confinement in his own house. He is now sufficiently tranquil, though immoveable as to the particular points of his insanity, highly indignant at his confinement & the supposed conspiracy against him, & to any common friend he talks with so much plausibility & coolness as would impose on any one unacquainted with the previous circumstances. He is fully buoyed up with the hope of perswading all the world to be on his side & I believe partly for that reason he has such a guard on his conduct that no personal restraint has been necessary, so that his confinement is as gentle as possible. My father has taken the opinions of Mr Haslam & Dr Simmons both men of high eminence in such unfortunate cases,  who are both decided as to the insanity & the absolute necessity of the coercion, but it is not improbable that after a time he may again be trusted to his own guidance. It is clear however that Mrs B. can never safely continue to live with him. The very circumstance
[fol 2v] of her presence would constantly recall to his mind the subject of his malady & as he has once threatened her life & forfeited a solemn promise towards her (both of which are so totally foreign to his nature) when I am convinced it would be running infinite hazard to herself & would even tend to keep up his disease.
I have thus dear Madam, given you a full account of this unfortunate affair, which I shall beg to refer to if any other common friend in your neighbourhood should interest themselves on this unfortunate subject. I shall mention your kind inquiries to Mrs B. as soon as I see her, which I know will give her the greatest interest, & indeed she requires the consolation of all her friends. Mrs C.A. begs her kind remembrance to Mrs R. in which I beg most cordially to join & remain
very faithfully yours
C. R. Aikin
Feby 4th 1808
 John Haslam (1764–1844), author of Observations on Madness (1809); CRA said after RB's death that Haslam, from examining RB, had predicted his suicide. James Foart Simmons, MD (1750–1813), a supposed authority on insanity whose treatment George III, during his illness, highly resented. BACK