Kipling, Traumatic Amnesia and “Nina”

Kipling’s Captains Courageous, is mostly the story of a spoilt young boy called Harvey and his initiation into the realities of life on a fishing boat, but it has a peculiar sub-plot. One of the crewmen, Penn, behaves oddly – “he ain’t nowise dangerous, but his mind’s give out,” Harvey is told. There is a story behind it. Penn used once to be a preacher, of the Moravian sect, went with his family to a large prayer meeting at Johnstown in 1888:

Well, that one single night Penn and his folks was to the hotel Johnstown was wiped out. ‘Dam bu’st an’ flooded her, an’ the houses struck adrift an’ bumped into each other an’ sunk. I’ve seen the pictures, an’ they’re dretful. Penn he saw his folk drowned all ‘n a heap ‘fore he rightly knew what was comin’. His mind give out from that on. He mistrusted somethin’ hed happened up to Johnstown, but for the poor life of him he couldn’t remember what, an’ he jest drifted around smilin’ an’ wonderin’. He didn’t know what he was, nor yit what he hed bin…”

(The flood actually happened. Here’s a photograph the scale of the damage. Kipling’s character Dan wasn’t exaggerating when he said, “I’ve seen the pictures and they’re dretful.”)


Penn’s mind has not only repressed the memory of the Johnstown tragedy, but he has also forgotten that he was ever a preacher. Later in the story, there is a dramatic shipwreck, and Penn regains his memory.
The story of Penn’s amnesia interests me for two reasons. First, my main research interest is the fiction of the Great War, and there are plenty of amnesic soldiers in the stories of that period. Usually they’re nursed back to health by the plain girl they spurned before the war, and so they discover her true worth, but the theme can be used in profounder ways, too, as in Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier.
My other reason for an interest in amnesia stories is the Repression Challenge. Harrison Pope is a psychiatrist based at Harvard who has been involved in the controversies about so-called repressed memory. There have been in America and elsewhere several cases where people have after a long time apparently rediscovered memories of painful events that happened to them in the past – often sexual abuse. The theory is that the experiences were so traumatic that they had been repressed – or dissociated – until recovered decades later, usually during the course of therapy. These cases often became the subject of controversy, and sometimes of litigation, as adults sought redress for events that they had recalled – or apparently recalled – from their youth.
Dr Harrison Pope was involved as an expert witness in one of these cases, and became increasingly sceptical about the phenomenon of recovered memory. It didn’t square with his experience of years of psychiatric practice; while there were plenty of examples of traumatic amnesia in literature and the movies – think of Hitchcock’s Spellbound or Marnie, or more recent films like Memento, verifiable cases in real life were hard to find. A trawl through the extensive psychological literature about survivors of many kinds of trauma found almost no evidence that amnesia was a likely human response to violent or disturbing life-events. Lives were being ruined and families destroyed because of a dubious theory, and on the evidence of “memories” that perhaps owed more to the therapist’s presuppositions than to the disturbed person’s authentic recall.
Attempting to investigate examples both in fact and fiction, he discovered something strange. There were plenty of fictional examples in European literature of the nineteenth and twentieth century, but he could discover none before the year 1800, and none in the early literature of other cultures.. This phenomenon seemed to suddenly appear in the culture of Western Europe during the Romantic period. He formed the hypothesis that repression amnesia was a culture-bound syndrome, a product not of universal human nature, but of particular historical circumstances. This was easy enough to assert,but hard to prove, because it means proving a negative – no repression amnesia before 1800. So he developed an interesting research technique, issuing a challenge and a reward. His institute offered a thousand dollars reward for an example from fact or fiction before 1800, and publicized the challenge widely, especially on Internet discussion boards. Many examples were offered for consideration, but all failed to meet Dr Pope’s tight criteria – many submissions from early literature involved the eradication of memory by magic, for example. Early this year Dr Pope and others published an article in Psychological Medicine claiming that so far as was possible they had demonstrated that repression amnesia began after 1800. The challenge remained open, however, and the article generated a new round of publicity. I read an article about it in the Guardian, I got interested, and I know one shouldn’t boast, but my claim to fame is that I won the $1000.
I submitted the example of the opera Nina, composed by Paisiello and first performed in 1789. it’s a very dramatic story, and hugely successful in its time. The story begins with villagers bemoaning the sad case of Nina, and gradually her back story is revealed. Nina had been in love with Lindoro, but their marriage was forbidden by her father, who wanted her to marry a richer and more aristocratic rival. Lindoro and the rival fought a duel, and Nina saw her lover killed.
Ever since then she had been amnesic about the event, refusing to accept her lover’s death, and wandering around distractedly, very much in the manner of Ophelia. Her father is stricken by guilt at what he has done to his daughter. Then, surprisingly, Lindoro returns – he had not been killed after all. There are some touching scenes – rather extended ones – and the lovers are reunited.
This opera was first performed at Caserta for the King of Naples in 1789, and soon became an international hit,with performances in Barcelona, Naples, Vienna, Paris, Dresden, Warsaw, Trieste, Lisbon, Prague, St Petersburg, London, Munich and Moscow. For much of the nineteenth century it was a staple of the operatic repertoire, and it is still sometimes performed today. A DVD is available of Cecilia Bartoli making the most of her opportunities in a recent (but slightly perverse) production in Zurich. It’s very pleasant music – rather like Mozart and water.
Paisiello’s opera was how Nina became famous, but she did not begin there. The libretto Paisiello used was very closely adapted from one presented earlier in Paris – also called Nina. The music was by Dalayrac, and the libretto by Marsollier. This had been an immense hit on the Paris stage, and had also been performed in London and various German cities.
The Paris version featured Madame Dugazon, who created a sensation in the part of Nina, dressed in white, distributing flowers to the villagers, singing unforced simple melodies. She was such a sensation that a fashion grew among girls in Paris, to dress like the deranged Nina, There is a clear influence of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, whose madness became very resonant in France during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Daleyrac’s text carried a sort of guarantee of authenticity – it was , said a note, adapted from “an anecdote reported by our newspapers a few years ago, used by. Baculard d’Arnaud in his Délassements de l’homme sensible (The Relaxations of a Man of Feeling.) , under the title La Nouvelle Clementine
That is an 1783 collection of short pieces, including one, just nine small pages long, called La Nouvelle Clémentine. This tells the apparently true anecdote of a woman in Normandy who was engaged to be married. Just before the wedding, her fiancé discovered that he lacked some necessary documents, and asked for a fornight’s delay while he searched for them. With declarations of undying love, he left on his errand. She was desolate without him, but eventually received a letter announcing his return. On the appointed day she went out early to meet him, but instead of her lover, his uncle arrived to greet her, announcing that her lover had suffered a grave illness.

At these words there escaped from the old man a torrent of tears… the young woman’s soul was in suspense. She could not move. Don’t you understand me at all, mademoiselle? He is dead!( He uttered an appalling cry.) The uncle fell silent and gave way to an abundance of sobs.

The young woman will not believe him. Every day she returns to the meeting place, and continues to do so for fifty years, refusing ever to accept that her lover is dead.
Baculard’s exclamatory style wrings a huge amount of pathos from this sad story, but a great deal of his short text is devoted to praise of another writer, the “sublime and true” Samuel Richardson. “Many people,including intelligent ones,” he says, “have felt that they should make accusations of unbelievability against the madness that attacks Clementina in Grandison.” His anecdote from Normandy is offered as a real-life parallel justifying the representation in madness in Richardson’s novel.
So we are brought to another precursor, Sir Charles Grandison,Richardson’s very long epistolary novel of 1854.with a perfectly virtuous hero, “a Man acting uniformly well thro’ a Variety of trying Scenes, because all his Actions are regulated by one steady Principle: A Man of Religion and Virtue; of Liveliness and Spirit; accomplished and agreeable; happy in himself, and a Blessing to others.”
Clementina is the secondary heroine of this novel, and a passionate Italian; she loves Sir Charles, but her father forbids her to marry him; she is Catholic and he is Protestant. Clementina goes mad under the strain, and the pathos of her sufferings thrilled and enthralled all of literate Europe. Clementina suffers, but she also inflicts pain on her father. She has internalised the feminine role, and and, as Margaret Anne Doody has put it, her hostility is concealed from herself, and she fights back through derangement. Madness allows her to retreat into childishness, and to force her will upon others. It has been suggested that the book’s great success came from Richardson’s use of madness as a way to express extreme female passion and sexuality, in a way that did not offend the taste of the time. She never says anything impure or immodest, but her sexual yearning is apparent to the reader. The strength of Clementina’s madness becomes an equivalent for the ferocity of her thwarted sexual feeling.
Clementina is not amnesic; what Baculard D’Arnaud means by calling his character “the new Clementina” is that her case illustrates the connection between love and madness. The “homme sensible” delights in the idea of a love that has survived against the dictates of reason for fifty years.
What Marsollier has done in his libretto is to combine his sources. Like Clementina, Nina is young, and her troubles are caused by a forbidding parent. Like Baculard’s woman of Normandy, she refuses to accept the death of her lover, and her memory has colluded with her unconscious mind to blank out the things that she cannot bear to believe.
Another thing that Marsollier’s work has in common with Richardson’s is that in both the father sees the error of his ways, and regrets what he has done. The late eighteenth century, as Joanne Bailey and others have suggested, was a time when the ideal stereotype of fatherhood was changing, and the stern paterfamilias was being replaced by the caring man of sentiment; the operas dramatise this change, as the father sings long arias about his regret and guilt for what he has done to his daughter. I wonder whether the success of these works didn’t partly come from the example they subtly offered to young girls of them a potent weapon in the family power struggle – look how much I’m going to suffer – then you’ll be sorry.
As Nina goes about the family estate, lovely, generous, deluded, he father feels the most appalling guilt, and understands that his previous behaviour was utterly wrong. This story of amnesia is one that shows the triumph of instinct over authority, the unconscious over the conscious, and the child over the parent. These were potent themes in the years immediately before the French Revolution, and I would claim that this discovery of a genealogy does not invalidate Dr Pope’s contention that repressive amnesia is a product of culture, but that it suggests reasons why this kind of story should have developed at this time. (There are echoes of the theme, by the way, in Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and in Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, both novels of the period that were strongly influenced by Richardson.)
Now the triumph of instinctive feeling over authority and the expression of female eroticism does not really sound very much like Rudyard Kipling. The whole point of Captains Courageous is that the spoilt child is tamed and ordered, in large part by the authority of Disko Troop, the ship’s captain. And amnesia is not at all characteristic of Kipling’s characters. Many of his stories are about people sharing their memories – often painful memories that define their identity. His own personal traumatic memories were certainly not repressed into amnesia; he remembered every detail of his experience in the House of Desolation at Southsea, where he had been miserable as a small child; he reproduced it with astonishing vividness in the story Baa Baa Black Sheep.
In the century between Nina and Captains Courageous, there had been various versions of amnesia stories. There is Dr Manette in The Tale of Two Cities, and there is Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, which Nicholas Danes sees as using a mechanistic model of memory in ways that anticipated end-of-the century psychologists. Danes suggests that amnesia in Collins is caused by an excess of experience, more than memory can cope with, and perhaps this is relevant to what Kipling is doing.
Towards the end of the century, however, lost-memory stories seem to be found mostly in rather lowbrow art, using the theme for the sensational complications that it can produce. There is an 1881 farce by Pinero – In Chancery, in which a train crash makes a man lose his memory, and the comical confusions involve three different women – his wife, the woman whom he thinks must be his wife, and the girl he has fallen for while amnesic. Alternatively, there were shockers like Recalled to Life by Grant Allen, about a girl who traumatically loses her memory on the night that her father is murdered. Some years later, still amnesic, she turns detective to solve her father’s murder, only to discover in the end that she herself is the killer.
Kipling, I would suggest, is using the theme for more than just sensationalism.
Captains Courageous is a “boy’s story” (though it was serialised in magazines for adults.) Some things had to be hinted at rather than stated. One thing that Kipling is doing with the boat on which Harvey finds himself is showing the power of a community to give strength. Like his Soldiers Three and many other groups in Kipling, the ship’s crew are vulnerable as individuals, but formidable as a collective. Each has his weakness.

How did he get the idea for Penn? In 1892 Kipling had made a trip across America, recorded in From Sea to Sea, and in section XXXVI he describes meeting a survivor of Johnstown:

I saw one, only one, remnant of that terrible wreck. He had been a minister. House, church, congregation, wife, and children had been swept away from him in one night of terror. He had no employment; he could have employed himself at nothing; but God had been very good to him. He sat in the sun and smiled a little weakly. It was in his poor blurred mind that something had happened—he was not sure what it was, but undoubtedly something had occurred. One could only pray that the light would never return.

In fictionalising the story of this unfortunate man, Kipling has made some significant changes. The real-life survivor has been helpless for three years, and “could have employed himself at nothing” but in the story when Uncle Salters “kinder adopted Penn” he gives him work on his farm. (This, by the way anticipates the work therapy that Kipling would advocate for the shell-shocked of the Great War in his later stories.) As Dan describes it,

Well, them two loonies scratched along till, one day, Penn’s church he’d belonged to – the Moravians – found out where he wuz drifted an’ layin’, an’ wrote to Uncle Salters. ‘Never heerd what they said exactly; but Uncle Salters was mad. He’s a ‘piscopalian mostly – but he jest let ’em hev it both sides o’ the bow, ‘sif he was a Baptist, an’ sez he warn’t goin’ to give up Penn to any blame Moravian connection in Pennsylvania or anywheres else.

Salters’ instinct tells him that the last thing Penn needs is being constantly reminded of his religious past, and takes him away to sea to work on his brother’s ship, where he can work purposefully. The original survivor of Johnstown was one for whom “the light would never return” but for Penn it does return, dramatically. A fishing boat sinks, and its captain is rescued by the “We’re Here”. The man’s son is drowned and his livelihood is gone.

“What did you pick me up for?” the stranger groaned.

…. the man’s eyes were wild and his lips trembled as he stared at the silent crew.

Then up and spoke Pennsylvania Pratt… and his face was changed on him from the face of a fool to the countenance of an old, wise man, and he said in a strong voice: “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord! I was – I am a minister of the Gospel. Leave him to me.”

Kipling here, I think, is dramatizing the change that can be wrought in a man by the discovery of a purpose and a role. The calamity at Johnstown that took away his family, also took away his authority as a preacher, one who was conversant with the will of God. He had been rendered utterly helpless, completely passive, and totally alienated from any sense of a divine purpose. Amnesia is standing here for a calamitous crisis in his relationship with God. Captains Courageous is harking back to that most Victorian of literary genres, the loss-of-faith novel. In a letter about the book, Kipling said that in it he had changed his style, to use allegory and parable and metaphor – a surprising statement in view of the naturalistic texture of most of the novel. Writing for young people, though, Kipling could not let himself do more than hint at the subject of loss of religious faith, so he provides a parable. The calamity that reduces Pennsylvania Pratt to a state of utter passivity, and takes everything else from him, takes away the memory that contains his religious faith. A different calamity gives him the chance to be useful again by reasserting his religious identity, and the memory that goes with it.

So a hundred years on from Nina’s introduction of the idea of repressive amnesia into the culture, Kipling is using the idea for very different purposes altogether, to generate remarkably different meanings. Trauma-induced amnesia has broken away from its romantic-period origins, to become a free-floating myth, available to storytellers to use as they will, and it is a myth that will continue to flourish and to be used in many other – remarkably different – ways throughout the twentieth century.


  1. Sophia
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 3:37 am | Permalink

    I’m not completely clear on your conclusion regarding dissosiative amnesia and recovered memories, but it is, in my understanding, an actual physiological event. Not a rare one either.
    I would suggest, which “provides evidence regarding Holocaust survivors.and in general counter the argument that recovered memory is (a) no more than a recent cultural “fad” and (b) specific to false accusers of sexual abuse”

    The entire site there is useful especially as it provides “101” instances of verified cases of recovered memories, and actually speaks of the very contest you won!

    Also helpful is The Neurology of Traumatic “Dissociative” Amnesia at describes what happens in the brain in response to trauma.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Thank you for your response. Nobody doubts that amnesia occurs – as a result of dementia, or of damage to the brain through injury or drug use, for example. What is at issue is the ‘recovered memory’ idea, according to which people who have been through a very disturbing experience will repress the memory until it is brought back by therapy, or by another trauma.
      Usually the problem for people who have been through very disturbing experiences is not an inability to remember, but an inability to forget.
      The problem has been that, especially in the 1980s, some over-enthusiastic therapists persuaded themselves that just about any emotional disturbance in a patient must be the result of repressed memories of child abuse. These activities caused great damage to patients and their families.
      The web pages to which you direct us are not, I’m afraid, convincing. The accounts there of ‘recovered memory’ are uncritical; there seems little awareness of the mutability of human memories, and the ease with which supposed recollections can be manipulated. The responses to critics by Professor Cheit and his team seem to be inappropriately ad hominem.
      For an account of the harm done by the ‘recovered memory’ movement, see Mark Pendergrast, Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives (1998)

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