In the Great War novels that I read, soldiers and ex-soldiers not infrequently suffer from amnesia. Sometimes this seems to come from a physical wound and sometimes as a nervous reaction to the horrors of war. Novelists from Rebecca West to Ruby M.Ayres found the theme useful as a way of exploring the psychic harm potentially caused by war.
Because of this interest, I was intrigued when I read of a challenge relating to the beginnings of this literary convention. Harrison Pope and others at the McLean Biological Psychiatry Laboratory in Boston are interested in the phenomenon of apparently recovered memory – where, for example, a middle-aged person suddenly “remembers” that he or she was sexually abused forty years ago, though he/she had forgotten all about it in the meantime. Dr Pope and his colleagues have been highly sceptical about such suddenly recovered “memories”, and in particular have argued that such phenomena are not part of universal human psychology, but that the idea of them somehow entered the culture about 1800.
To prove a negative – no “repressed memory” or “dissociative amnesia” before 1800 – is very difficult, so the researchers decided to issue a challenge, with a prize of $1000 to anyone who can find a clear example in fact or fiction before the nineteenth century.
I am very much in sympathy with their scepticism on this score, but a challenge is a challenge and $1000 is $1000.
I thought the likeliest place to find an example would be in the sentimental novels of the late eighteenth century, or maybe the comedies larmoyantes of the stage in that period; I did a bit of lateral thinking and a bit of Googling, and after a while I homed in on an opera composed by Paisiello (with a libretto by Giovanni Lorenzi and Giuseppe Carpani} called Nina. It was premiered on 25 June 1789,and its plot has been summarised as follows:
Nina and Lindoro love each other, and are betrothed with the consent of Nina’s father, the Count. Yet, when Nina’s hand is requested by a wealthier suitor, the Count favours the latter, thus breaking the pact with Lindoro. A duel between the two suitors ensues; when Nina sees her beloved lying in his own blood, and her father asks her to accept as her spouse Lindoro’s slayer, she loses her reason. The Count cannot bear the sight of his daughter’s sorry state: he leaves Nina in his country estate, entrusting her to the benevolent care of the governess Susanna.
Nina—having lost all memory of the recent, tragic events—spends her days thinking of Lindoro and waiting for his return, surrounded by the affection and compassion of servants and peasants. On one occasion she falls into a delirium, and believes she sees Lindoro. Some time later the Count comes back, stricken with sorrow and remorse; but his daughter does not recognize him. When Lindoro, whom everyone thought dead, returns, the Count welcomes him with open arms, and calls him son. At first, Nina does not recognize Lindoro. Father and lover ‘cure’ Nina by showing her that Lindoro is back and still loves her, and that she can marry her beloved with her father’s consent.
Well, this sounds quite a lot like repressed memory, so I researched a bit further, and discovered that the Nina story was a performance phenomenon in the late eighteenth century, almost a small industry. Paisiello’s Nina was apparently based on a French opera performed three years earlier, in 1786, with music by Dalayrac and libretto by Marsollier, which in turn was based on “an anecdote reported by our newspapers a few years ago, used by. Baculard d’Arnaud in his Délassements de l’homme sensible , under the title La Nouvelle Clementine.”
This double origin is interesting. The reference to a newspaper story (I wonder if it is still findable?) seems to give a guarantee of authenticity to an unlikely story, while “La Nouvelle Clementine” points in a different direction altogether – to Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, a huge seven-volume novel that had thrilled Europe since its publication in 1753 (and which would become one of Jane Austen’s favourite books). Clementina is an Italian noblewoman who falls in love with the (Protestant) Sir Charles. Torn between her duty to family and religion and her love for the foreign “heretic” Sir Charles, she becomes mad in a way that proves the tragic strength of her love (The novel refers to Ophelia, the depiction of whose madness was an influence on this and other eighteenth century representations of insanity.)
The story of Nina took on many other forms in the late eighteenth century. Emilio Sara in his Women Crazed by Love (Opera Quarterly, 1994) notes that the story of Nina was known in Italy even before Paisiello’s opera, through Marsollier’s score, as a straight play, and even as a ballet. The play Nina by Pietro Andolfati was a great success in Venice in 1793. I have found three markedly different contemporary English translations. In different versions the names of other characters apart from Nina may be changed, and the way that the story is told may vary, but the central character and her traumatic amnesia of the killing of her lover remain a constant.
Is this amnesia or mania? Once again, versions differ, and operatic composers find it difficult to resist the temptation to provide a mad scene with abrupt and spectacular changes of key and tempo. Sara’s article quotes Daleyrac’s description of the entrance of Nina. She is clearly an Ophelia-figure, with all the standard eighteenth-century signifiers of picturesque madness.
“Her hair is unpowdered, carelessly bound; she is dressed in a white gown; she holds a bouquet in her hand; she walks unsteadily; she halts,she sighs, and goes to sit silently on the bench, her face turned towards the grating.”
What makes Nina different from other contemporary depictions of madness, however, is her amnesia, the one constant through all the versions, and it is this that seems to have caught the imagination of her contemporaries.
I have been corresponding with Professor Pope about this, and he considers Nina a promising candidate. He is in London this week, so we met for lunch today and talked about it. He is a very interesting man, and extremely good company. I learnt a great deal about amnesia and trauma – and about how false memories can be created.
He has taken a couple of eighteenth-century Nina scripts away to examine. There are some other contenders, and the decision will be made in due course, possibly after some Internet debate. I’m enjoying this.
Here is a picture of the actress Madame Dugazon in the role of Nina:
Or at least, some people think this is La Dugazon as Nina. Some experts disagree. Nothing is certain in this world of ours…
P.S. (Jan 2008) A fuller account of the matter can be found by clicking here.