To live with anxiety is to live with a leech that saps you of your energy, confidence and chutzpah. A constant feeling of unease or fearfulness – as opposed to the sense of frustration that characterises stress – anxiety is both a response to external circumstances and an approach to life. While the external circumstances cannot be controlled, the internal response can; laughter, or a big intake of oxygen (the former leading to the latter), usually relieves systems at least temporarily, as well as offering an encouragement to relax. The cause of the anxiety, however, determines whether laughter or breathing and relaxing is the appropriate cure. Luckily, our cure offers all three.
Of the fourteen causes of anxiety that we have identified,* the first chapter of The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James can be expected to ameliorate ten. Opening as it does with a description of the civilised and serene institution of afternoon tea in an English country garden – complete with “mellow” late afternoon light, long shadows, tea cups held “for a long time close to [the] chin”, rugs, cushions and books strewn on the lawn in the shade of the trees – its indirect invitation to slow down and have a cup yourself (helpful for causes 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12 and certain elements of 13) is reenforced by James’s unhurried, elegant prose, a balm for anxiety arising from all of the preceding causes, and also serving to begin the complete eradication of anxiety arising from cause number 8.
To say that James’s prose spreads itself thickly, like butter, is not intended to suggest turgidness, but rather creaminess – and let us make that salted butter. For the pleasures of both prose and afternoon tea are made complete by James’s dialogue, which contains both frankness and sharpness of wit (a curative for causes 1–4, and also excellent for cause 7).
For the banter between the three men – the elderly chair-bound American banker, Mr Touchett, his “ugly, sickly” but charming son Ralph, and the “noticeably handsome” Lord Warburton with his quintessentially A English face – is always aiming to trigger a chuckle, and the characters are not afraid of teasing (note Lord Warburton’s markedly un-English reference to Mr Touchett’s wealth).
Freed of the chains of propriety and form that had been shackling dialogue on similar lawns three quarters of a century earlier, it is the sort of conversation which puts you at your ease (again, addressing causes 1–4 and 7, while also ameliorating causes 6, 9, and 10–12).
Once the little party are joined by Ralph’s American cousin Isabel Archer, recently ‘taken on’ by Mrs Touchett, the conversation loses some of its ease but gains in spirit – for Isabel, at this stage in her life, has a lightness, a boldness and a confidence both in herself and others that cannot fail to rub off on the reader. Those suffering anxiety from cause 9 will find her presence in the story especially curative.
Indeed, we recommend this novel for all sufferers of anxiety except those made anxious by causes 5 and 14 (for the latter, in particular, a novel of any sort is unhelpful, except perhaps to use as a weapon), though readers suffering anxiety from causes 1 and 2 should be warned that the ending may backfire, and prompt their symptoms to get worse. In which case, they should immediately turn back to the beginning for another dose of afternoon tea.
* 1) Trauma, including abuse, and death of a loved one; 2) Relationship problems, either at home or work; 3) Work/school; 4) Finances; 5) Natural disaster; 6) Lack of oxygen at high altitude; 7) Taking life too seriously; 8) Gnawing feeling that you should have read more of the classics; 9) Negative self-talk; 10) Poor health/hypochondria; 11) Taking too many drugs; 12) Being late/too busy; 13) Inadequate food, water, heat or comfort; 14) Threat of attack by wild animal/person.
Depression is a sliding scale. At the mild end, where most of us dip in a toe from time to time, are those days or periods when nothing goes right, it seems as if we don’t have any friends, and we feel plunged into a state of gloom (see: failure, feeling like a; left out, feeling; sadness; grumpiness; pointlessness). At these times, we need a novel that shifts our perception of the world, reminding us that it can be a place of sun and laughter too. See our list of The Ten Best Novels to Cheer You Up below for a positive pick-me-up read that will open the window and let in a blast of fresh air.
But at the other end of the scale, sufferers experience a heavy black cloud that descends without warning, for no particular reason, and from which they can’t see any way out. This is clinical depression, a severe form of mental illness which is hard to treat and can recur. If you are unlucky enough to be prone to this kind of depression, your spirits are unlikely to be lifted by a light and breezy read.
Such a novel may well make you feel worse – guilty that you can’t muster a chuckle, irritated by anything that strikes you as naïvely optimistic, and hating yourself even more. It sounds counter-intuitive at first, but at such times a novel that tells it like it is – with characters who feel as depressed as you do, or with an uncompromisingly bleak view of the world – is likely to hit home, encourage you to be gentler with yourself, and support you in a more appropriate way; a novel which can accompany you into your dark melancholic place, acknowledging and articulating it, so that you realise that others have been there too, and that you are not, after all, so different, or so dreadfully alone.
The mental torment and nightmares experienced by Tereza in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being may help in this regard. Tereza’s anguish is triggered by her lover Tomas’s inveterate womanising; having cut himself off from his failed marriage and young son, Tomas has chosen to embrace the life of a libertarian bachelor. But from the start Tereza is portrayed as someone weighed down by life: the heaviness to Tomas and his mistress Sabina’s lightness.
Because Kundera divides people into two camps: those who understand that life is meaningless, and therefore skim its surface, living in and for the moment; and those who cannot bear the idea that existence should come and go without meaning, and insist on reading significance into everything. When Tereza meets Tomas she knows that she has no choice but to love him forever; and when she turns up in Prague to see him again, with her worldly goods in a suitcase, she also brings a copy of Anna Karenina – a novel that perhaps sums up more than any other the suffering that results when meaning breaks down.
Much as he loves her, Tomas knows she will be a heavy presence in his life. When she is pushed to the brink of insanity by Tomas’s refusal to give up other women, Tereza berates herself for her weakness at wanting Tomas to change. At her lowest ebb she tries to take an overdose. Whenever you have sunk to such depths that it seems impossible for anyone else to reach you, pick up this novel and let Tereza keep you company down there. She, too, wants to live and rise above her sadness, and she finds a way to do so in the end.
A disproportionate number of writers suffer from depression. Some say creative types are more vulnerable to it, others that writing about one’s illness is carthartic. The American novelist Richard Yates would spend hours staring blankly at the wall in a state of catatonic depression. Ernest Hemingway too was increasingly plagued by depressive episodes, and drank heavily (and if this is your choice of escape too, see: alcoholism). He lost his battle with depression in the end, as did Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath, but not without leaving the invaluable gift of their experience behind. These gifts – novels about the experience of mental illness – are there for us to make use of, so that we can find solace where these writers did not.
Plath suffered from bipolar disorder, and in her powerful autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, she documents through her young heroine Esther Greenwood the bewildering mood swings that caused her to be searingly happy one moment, “lungs inflating” in a rush of delight to be alive, and unable to rise to any emotional reaction at all – “blank and stopped as a dead baby” – the next.
Esther’s voice is a great comfort for depressives: what makes this novel so readable is the lightness of Plath’s prose, and the way that even in the most disturbing passages of the novel Esther’s humanity and youthful zest shine through. Remember this when you can’t imagine ever feeling happy – or even just plain “normal” – again. Others can see the potential for lightness in you, even when you can’t.
Learning to perceive your depression as something separate from you – such as a big, black smelly dog – may seem a bizarre notion, but it can be a useful way of distancing yourself from your illness so that it doesn’t define who you are. Rebecca Hunt’s bold first novel, Mr Chartwell, will take you through the process.
Mr Chartwell is the manifestation of Winston Churchill’s “black dog” – the depression that haunted the august politician for much of his life – and which also moves in with his temporary secretary, Esther Hammerhans. Visible only to his victims, Black Pat (as the dog is called) arrives on the second anniversary of Esther’s husband’s death by suicide, ostensibly answering her advertisement for a lodger.
Soon he is making free with her house, crunching bones outside her bedroom door, and even doing his best to join her in bed. Black Pat may have revolting habits, but as only sufferers of depression will understand, he has a peculiar charm that is hard to resist and Esther receives him with a mixture of despair and fascination.
She is not the first of his victims. Because not only has Black Pat been visiting Churchill, but Esther deduces that he’s lived in her own house before, unperceived by her. As she begins to understand more about her husband’s illness, and therefore her own, her relationship with the shaggy mutt heads towards its resolution.
You’ll have to read the novel to find out if she overcomes her depression; we all know that Churchill managed to hold down a job through it all. And when Esther and her elderly mentor first realise that they can both see the dog, but are afraid to mention it – such is the taboo surrounding mental illness – Churchill’s tactful circling around the giant black creature’s malodorous presence and his rousing encouragement to Esther to ‘stand firm’ is touching and reassuring to Esther and reader alike.
In serious cases of depression, bibliotherapy is very unlikely to be enough. But we urge sufferers to make full and imaginative use of fiction as an accompaniment to medical treatment. Whether you require a novel to take you out of your funk, or one which joins you in it, novels can often reach sufferers in a way that little else can, offering solace and companionship in a time of desperate need.
Stand firm with Churchill, the two Esthers and Tereza. Take reassurance from the fact that they – and the authors who created them – know something of what it’s like to live with depression; and if their experience doesn’t overlap with yours, maybe one of the others on our list of The Ten Best Novels for the Very Blue will (see below). You might not be able to see a gap in the clouds, but the knowledge that you’re not the first to lose your way beneath them will keep you going as you wait for them to pass.
The ten best novels to cheer you up
- When the Green Woods Laugh – HE Bates
- Auntie Mame – Patrick Dennis
- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café – Fannie Flagg
- Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
- All Creatures Great and Small – James Herriot
- Fever Pitch – Nick Hornby
- Man and Boy – Tony Parsons
- Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand – Helen Simonson
- I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith
- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
The ten best novels for the very blue
- Herzog – Saul Bellow
- Betty Blue – Philippe Djian
- The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera
- The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
- The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
- Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby Jr
- Some Hope – Edward St Aubyn
- By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – Elizabeth Smart
- To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
- Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates
Excerpted with permission from The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Bertoud and Susan Elderkin with Indrajit Hazra, Roli Books.