Wednesday, 22 August 2018

JRR Tolkien's nervous breakdown

(This post is adapted from several previous posts on this blog, supplemented by subsequent information. For what I mean by a nervous breakdown, see below*.) 

I believe that JRR Tolkien suffered what could be termed a 'nervous breakdown' in 1945-6; after taking-up the Merton Professorship of English Language and Literature in June of 1945, and at exactly the time when he was writing the Notion Club Papers (NCPs). The Notion Club Papers is therefore itself an indirect source of evidence about Tolklien's state of mind.

This period of 1945-6 was also associated with an apparent marital crisis, during which Tolkien (with his son Christopher) and his wife separated for some weeks.

My impression is that this breakdown was mostly a matter of alienation brought-on by overwork and stress.

Evidence to prove Tolkien's psychological breakdown 1945-6

Tolkien's nervous breakdown is a fact of considerable interest - especially in terms of the composition of Lord of the Rings, with its prolonged interruption from 1944 to the second half of 1946; and it gives added interest to the unfinished Notion Club Papers novel. This was composed during this hiatus and (I suspect) indirectly conveys information concerning Tolkien's strange state of mind.

Humphrey Carpenter's authorized biography of Tolkien (1977), describes that there were significant problems during his marriage; but these were not made explicit by Carpenter; nor were the problems referenced to any particular time or situation.

I have drawn on several sources of information below, which are identied as they occur. My first inference is that the main nervous problems began in late 1945.

From Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers:

December 11-14 1945: Tuesday-Friday. An Inklings victory holiday takes place at The Bull Hotel, Fairford, with Jack, Tolkien, Warren, and, part of the time, Dr. Havard.

December 11 Tuesday. Warren and Tolkien go to Fairford on the 9:35 a.m. train and spend the day together. In the afternoon Warren and Tolkien take a two-hour walk around by Sunhill and Meysey Hampton with Tolkien talking frankly about his domestic life.

From Warnie Lewis's selected dairies (Brothers and Friends):

Saturday 15 December 1945: "Tollers [i.e. Tolkien] and I went out by the 9.35 [train] on Tuesday morning and spent a pleasant day together; he spoke with much more frankness about his domestic life that he has ever used to me before, and did me good in making me realize how trivial after all are the things which I have to complain of at [the] Kilns."

From the Tolkien Chronology in the JRR Tolkien Companion and Guide by WG Hammond and C Scull:

Christmas vacation 1945-August 1946. Tolkien writes during 'a fortnight of comparative leisure' around Christmas 1945 [the beginnings of The Notion Club Papers].

End of 1945-early 1946 ...But neither [Simonne d'Ardenne] nor Tolkien are in sufficiently good health to do extensive work.

End of February-March 1946. Tolkien is ill, the result of various worries.

20 March 1946. ... He is unwell, and although his doctor has ordered him to apply for a term's leave, he realizes that this is impossible in the present academic plight, short of a complete collapse. He is, however, going away for a while...

25 March - 1 April 1946. Tolkien stays at New Lodge in Stonyhurst, Lancashire (...). In a letter to Stanley Unwin on 21 July 1946 he will say that he came 'near to a real breakdown' around this time, and went away and 'ate and slept and did nothing else, by orders, but only for three weeks, and not for the six months that my doctor prescribed...

From Joel Heck's Lewis chronology:

Tuesday 2nd April 1946: "An exquisite sping morning, J[ack] poor devil in Manchester. To the Bird and baby where I was joined by Humphrey [Havard], Tollers and Chris[topher Tolkien]. Tollers looking wonderfully improved by his restcure at Stonyhurst, and in great spirits (having packed his wife off to Brighton for ten days). He has shut up his house and he and Chris are living at the Bear [Hotel] at Woodstock [a small town just north of Oxford]..."

April 11 Thursday. Jack and Warren go out to Blenheim by the 6:25 p.m. train for an Inklings dinner to celebrate the Tolkien’s last night at the Bear. Present are both Tolkiens (Christopher and Tollers), Humphrey Havard, Jack, and Warren. They have a good dinner, good beer, and good talk.

From the Tolkien chronology: 

Early June 1946. ... [Tolkien] is unwell and also heavily engaged with an extremely difficult term...

21 July 1946. Letter to Stanley Unwin... I have been ill, worry and overwork mainly, but am a good deal recovered... I hope after this week actually to - write.

And from Joel Heck's chronology of the Lewis brothers, we have the following: 

August 22 Thursday. Warren dines with Tollers (Tolkien) at Merton College this evening during a thin rain. They dine in Common Room by candlelight, a party of seven, and Warren is seated on the right of Garrod. They have a glass of port and then coffee after dinner, where Warren talks with the Chaplain. They (Warren and Tolkien) attend a meeting of the Inklings with Christopher Tolkien, B (a gate crasher [almost certainly JAW Bennet - invited, without consulation, by Tolkien the previous week]), and Jack. [From Warnie's diary we learn that Tolkien read from 'a magnificent myth which is to knit up and concludes his Papers of the Notions Club' - referring to the downfall of Numenor, in one of its versions. So Tolkien was still working on the NCPs in late August.]

Back to references in the Tolkien chronology:

c 23 September 1946... Tolkien returns again to The Lord of the Rings [delayed by the 'tiresome business of the election to the Merton Chair'].

On September 30th Tolkien writes a letter (published in the JRRT Selected Letters of 1981) to Stanley Unwin to say he has again started working on The Lord of the Rings.

In conclusion; by the end of September 1946, which was the time we know that he began work again on The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Tolkien had recovered from his breakdown.

This makes the dates of Tolkien's psychological problems building-up to become severe by December 1945, peaking in March and April of 1946, and resolving in July of 1946.

The probable cause and effects of Tolkien’s breakdown

Tolkien seems to have written most of The Notion Club Papers during the darkest and most difficult time of his life - the period of somewhat more than a year which followed after his appointment to the Merton Chair of English Language and literature in June 1945.

The root of the problem seems to have been overwork and stress brought on by the fact that he took on the duties of the new professorship (from October of 1945) while overlapping with duties of his previous professorship (in Anglo Saxon, at Pembroke College). So Tolkien was doing a double work load, plus all the extra work of taking on a new job.

Another factor he refers to in later correspondence was that this was the only period of his academic life when he had to teach subjects in which he was not interested; and he absolutely hated this.

From Tolkien's selected letters - To Michael Tolkien 1 November 1963: "...I was never obliged to teach anything except what I loved (and do) with an inextinguishable enthusiasm. (Save only for a brief time after my change of Chair in 1945 - that was awful.) 

It seems that this put sufficient stress on Tolkien's marriage that he talked about the resulting problems with his friends; and Ronald and Edith temporarily separated for some period of time in early 1946 as described above.

(Unless, as is possible,  problems in the marriage were themselves a contributory cause of his nervous breakdown.) 

It is interesting that Tolkien, despite the extreme psychological stresses, did not stop writing; but apparently worked-through his psychological difficulties in fictional autobiographical terms - specifically the Notion Club Papers. This story has many descriptions of unusual mental states - such as trances and lucid dreams which Christopher Tolkien confirms were sometimes accounts of JRRT's own experiences.

It may also be significant that by the time Tolkien resumed work on the Lord of the Rings in the autumn of 1946, probably during September; and after a prolonged break, the book seems firmly to have become conceptualised as a deeper and more serious book than it was when he embarked upon it as a sequel to The Hobbit.

My guess is that the nervous breakdown experience of late 1945-1946 had a permanent effect on Tolkien - and that the effect was beneficial to his writing. On the one hand he was able to write with increased emotional depth. More speculatively; it is possible that the experience of his 'self-therapy' in writing the Notion Club Papers was able to give him surer access to altered states of consciousness, especially dreams, and these provided a source of other-worldly sub-creative reality to the Lord of the Rings.

Without the nervous breakdown of 1945-6, and without the experience of writing the Notion Club Papers - The Lord of the Rings would have been a different, and probably lesser, book.

*Note on the meaning of 'nervous breakdown'. 

I should clarify the key inference which I make: and this is quite simple. That when Tolkien has a period of time off work, leave of absence, of a few weeks, on psychological grounds - then this is strong evidence of psychological illness. I believe this inference is correct, because (partly due to my training in psychiatry) I know that it was unusual in the mid-twentieth century to take time off work explicitly for psychological reasons. Indeed, it is still unusual - and the majority of people who are diagnosed with anxiety or depression do not stop work. It is even more unusual for people who have stopped work for psychological reasons in addition to take a rest cure away from home, a therapeutic holiday, as Tolkien did; but this difference may be more a matter of fashion. Therefore, I consider it very highly probable that JRR Tolkien suffered significant psychological problems, and that these would at the time have been regarded as severe enough to be termed a 'breakdown'  (since he needed to stop work). The diagnosis of these kinds of problem is not precise and has changed over the decades - the usual symptoms are mostly anxiety and depression. The illness was certainly 'neurotic' rather than psychotic, and was an exacerbation of predisposing personality ('reactive') rather than coming out of the blue ('endogenous'). But during Tolkien's era the term 'depression; was reserved for severe illness requiring admission to a hospital. So the diagnosis of the 1945-6 episode at that time was probably some kind of stress-related anxiety state - which was usually termed a nervous breakdown.


Anonymous said...

Not having done any reading in published letter or diary extracts after reading this, I wonder:

what element could the end of years of concern about his sons in the war, now they had survived, have in this?;

where was Priscilla (away at school?)?

How much of the Notion Club Papers early draft version(s) are written prior to May 1945, given the deleted reference to The House of the Octopus, which I presume must have been there in badinage with Williams while he was still alive?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - "How much of the Notion Club Papers early draft version(s) are written prior to May 1945". Christopher Tolkien says NCP was written from late 1945, months after the death of CW. Which fits with CW Not being included in the early-draft musings about which Notion Club members corresponded with which Inklings - CW could hardly have been left out if he was alive. (Although Warnie *was* largely left out, despite being a regular attender - perhaps because his contribution to the issues of the NCP was mainly convivial and as a discerning appreciator).