Potato Quixote

Kathy Chamberlain, in her biography of Jane Welsh Carlyle (“and her Victorian world”) tells us that, in August 1844, Jane became concerned about a German friend of hers named Richard Plattnauer. He was an attractive, witty, and personable young man, aged about thirty, who had come to London in search of adventure.

Disturbed by a letter she received from him, Jane tracked young Richard down to the Accordium, Ham Common, Surrey. This vegetarian community was apparently associated with the Alcott House school nearby, which in turn was named after Branson Alcott.

Alcott, father of the author of “Little Women”, had founded Fruitlands, a short lived cooperative vegetarian community near Harvard, Massachusetts. Annoyed that the idealistic Alcott when in England had proselytised tediously about adhering to a diet of vegetables, Jane’s husband Thomas had called him “a good man, but a bore,” and liked to use his London nickname, Potato Quixote.

Chamberlain continues: “Ham Common, land that had survived an ancient enclosure, was possibly symbolic to the Accordium’s founders of communal property and happier days, and redolent for Richard of the utopian ideas that had seized and excited him…

….As Thomas Carlyle explained it (seeming to refer to the Accordium), the place offered the water cure or hydropathy, that popular Victorian remedy for every sort of ailment, which involved drinking of plenty of fluids and being wrapped in ice cold body packs.”.

Following a breakdown, Plattnauer was removed to the Wandsworth Lunatic Asylum. He was seen there by Sir Alexander Morison, the inspecting physician of lunatic asylums in Surrey, who happened to meet Jane Carlyle while she was visiting her friend.

Not long afterwards, Morison called unannounced at the Carlyle home, on a Sunday afternoon:

“Mr Plattnauer had “appeared before the Committee on the previous day (and) been pronounced cured.”. As Jane wondered how the transformation could have come about in so short a time, the physician gave an additional urgent reason for this visit. The young man had proved ready for release, “but,” he demanded abruptly, “where will he go?”….

….Jane kept Richard stable until arrangements could be made to send him to his family in Silesia.”

(The naturally occurring element Lithium was first discovered in 1817, and was first used to treat the arthritic inflammatory condition, gout. At least one doctor, in fact, concluded from this that gout was the cause of mood disorders. It was first used for mania in 1871, with Denmark leading the way. In 1949, Australian psychiatrist John Cade published the first paper on the use of Lithium in the treatment of acute mania. On 13th September, 2014, the New York Times published a piece by Dr Anna Fels entitled “Should We All Take a Bit of Lithium?”.)

Following Richard’s departure on 20th September, 1844, Jane received two letters from him, “the first highly satisfactory, the second more flighty.”.

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