In the late-Victorian period considerable speculation that dreams provided access to ancestral memories appeared in both literary and psychological texts. Psychologists and psychical researchers such as Thomas Laycock, Samuel Butler, and F. W. H. Myers, among others, conceptualized memories and dreams as social, rather than solitary, mental functions, capable of making trans-historical connections with other minds. Their theories of ancestral memory effectively challenged the boundaries of subjectivity and the singularity of selfhood by extending identity across generations. One of the most sensational and sustained explorations of ancestral memory was George du Maurier’s 1891 novel Peter Ibbetson, which simultaneously adopted, popularized and expanded this ongoing debate about the nature of memory and the evolutionary scope of the unconscious. This essay traces the various ways in which these discourses on ancestral memory intersect. Both echoing and anticipating writers in the newly emerging memory sciences, Du Maurier’s novel explores the central role of the senses in producing and retrieving involuntary memories and envisions the mechanisms of memory as akin to modern technologies such as photography and phonography. Du Maurier’s account of ancestral memory thereby dramatizes some of the most far-reaching questions in late-Victorian psychology about the relationship between memory, identity, and the material world.
Corps de l’article
In his 1888 essay “A Chapter on Dreams,” Robert Louis Stevenson laments how
the past… is lost for ever: our old days and deeds, our old selves, too, and the very world in which these scenes were acted, all brought down to the same faint residuum as last night’s dream... an echo in the chambers of the brain. Not an hour, not a mood, not a glance of the eye, can we revoke; it is all gone, past conjuring. And yet conceive us robbed of it, conceive that little thread of memory that we trail behind us broken at the pocket’s edge; and in what naked nullity should we be left! for we only guide ourselves, and only know ourselves, by these air-painted pictures of the past.127-28
Mourning the fragility of that “little thread of memory”—those “air-painted pictures of the past” that sustain our sense of self—Stevenson identifies two important, yet competing, issues that shaped late nineteenth-century portrayals of memory: the failure of recollections to adequately recapture the past, and the power of memory to bind together the fragments of our consciousness. Stevenson’s lament contains a set of tacit questions: Should we consider memory a tenuous and fleeting mental function or the central component of identity? If memories are unstable—if they can be “broken at the pocket’s edge”—is selfhood unstable as well? Can we learn to control those dim “echo [s] in the chambers of the brain” or to recover memories that lie outside consciousness? In the late nineteenth century, as this essay will go on to demonstrate through the fiction of George du Maurier and theories of ancestral memory, questions such as these about the uncertain nature, power, and boundaries of memory were posed with some frequency in both scientific and literary writings. After regretting the seeming inadequacy of memory to preserve history, Stevenson goes on to describe his own attempts to control both his memories and his imagination through dreams. Rather than experiencing dreams as random, fragmented images and events, Stevenson claims he has learned how to shape them into coherent, interconnected narratives, “to dream in sequence and thus to lead a double life—one of the day, one of the night—one that he had every reason to believe was the true one, another that he had no means of proving to be false” (129). Stevenson describes how he gains increasing control of his dream life by focusing his memory. Through autosuggestion, he sets his unconscious imagination to work assisting him in his profession as a writer by creating “better tales than he could fashion for himself” (132). Becoming an enthusiastic audience to his own “nocturnal dramas” (132), Stevenson describes how he subsequently develops those dreams and memories into the basis for many of his published stories, most notably his 1886 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson’s detailed psychological account of directed dreaming and a nocturnal double life received immediate attention in the late-Victorian psychological and psychical communities because it coincided with ongoing debates in the 1880s and 90s about the relationship between dreaming and memory—and particularly the ability to subject both dreaming and recollecting to scientific study and control. Stevenson was both aware of and interested in these debates, as his correspondence with the psychologist and psychical researcher F .W. H. Myers demonstrates. Myers began corresponding with Stevenson about Jekyll and Hyde in 1886, and, a few years after publishing “A Chapter on Dreams,” Stevenson wrote a letter to Myers describing three further dream experiences that suggested the divided influence of both a conscious and unconscious “self” (Letter 2435, Letters, vol. 7). Myers cited Stevenson’s “Chapter on Dreams” in his 1892 article on “Hypermnesic Dreams,” which constituted the fourth of eight chapters on “The Subliminal Consciousness,” published in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical_Research. Myers also discussed Stevenson’s follow-up letter in a subsequent chapter published in 1894. In the 1892 article Myers praised Stevenson’s description as “indispensable,” claiming that it offered “the most successful dream-experiments thus far recorded” (371; ch. 4). Myers compared it to a variety of British, American, and Continental accounts of intensified memory and clairvoyance through dreams.
The close relationship that Stevenson and Myers trace between memory and dreaming was part of a more widespread interest among late nineteenth-century writers and researchers in the possibility that dreams might rechannel collective or ancestral memories. Resisting the tendency to see the mind as isolated and enclosed, many of these writers conceptualized memories, dreams, and the imagination as social, rather than solitary, mental functions, capable of making both telepathic and trans-historical connections with other minds. Faced with the growing existential anxieties of modernity, they sought recourse to a social identity that was embodied in the very material of memory. Myers had thus attempted to explain the complex and uncanny relationship between memory and dreaming embodied in Stevenson’s memoir by entertaining a speculative theory of unconscious memory that grew out of both Darwinian and Lamarckian accounts of evolution (especially Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of inherited habits). Variously termed “ancestral memory,” “antenatal memory,” “unconscious memory,” or more broadly “organic memory,” an early version of this concept was proposed by the physician and lecturer on mental physiology Thomas Laycock in an 1875 article titled “A Chapter on some Organic Laws of Personal and Ancestral Memory” in the Journal of Mental Science. Laycock frames his discussion of ancestral memory as a continuation of already “well known” accounts of the “origins of acquired habits, instincts, and capabilities, and their transmission hereditarily as atavism” (155). Laycock argues that the laws of heredity can be better understood if they are “classed with memory” (155). Differentiating between personal and ancestral memory, he observes that there can be reminiscence of events “under varying states of consciousness” (159). Ancestral memories, according to Laycock, do not usually reach the conscious mind. Rather, they appear in dreams and states of trance. “The state of dreaming,” he argues, “essentially consists… in abnormal reminiscences and reproductions” similar to those produced in mesmerism, somnambulism, and brain fevers, as well as in the delusions of the insane (168). Ancestral memories that exist in the “substrata” of consciousness “may be transmitted to offspring to be reproduced in them only during sleep” (169). Laycock writes,
We may, therefore, reasonably conclude that when men or animals manifest impulses of an unaccountable character, and experience pleasures, and sympathies, and pains, and antipathies which seem to be out of relation to their culture and personal experience, or to the culture of the family or the race, whether in dreams or when waking, the source of these must be found in long-past or ancestral memories reproduced according to the law of reversion.171
Laycock ultimately links this theory to both past and present philosophical speculations about metempsychosis, transmigration, reincarnation, and other attempts to account for those “obscure feelings and intuitions as to some distant existence mentally in the past” (181). Citing both E. S. Dallas’s and J. D. Morell’s discussions of “preconscious mental activity” and quoting some of the most famous lines from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Laycock sees the transmission of ancestral memory through dreams as a scientific means of explaining the “widespread” human belief in the pre-existence of the human soul (182).
Laycock’s article on “Ancestral Memory” was followed by the more speculative scientific theories of Samuel Butler in Life and Habit (1878) and its sequel Unconscious Memory (1880). Like Laycock, Butler argues that we inherit both habits of thought and unconscious memories of our forefathers through a largely physiological as well as psychical process. Butler goes beyond Laycock, however, in claiming that our identity is, therefore, continuous with and inseparable from the memories of all those who have come before us, whose “germ plasm” we share. While these memories are latent, Butler argues, they can be “rekindled” by a recurrence of associated ideas (Unconscious Memory 30). For Butler, memory constitutes the sole basis of our identity, yet it is also the means by which the boundaries of individual personality dissolve in an infinite regress of ancestral inheritance and evolutionary history. “Memory,” Butler writes, is the “ultimate and original power, the source, and at the same time the unifying bond, of our whole conscious life” (Unconscious Memory 105-6). Butler goes on to explain that
Between the “me” of to-day and the “me” of yesterday lie night and sleep, abysses of unconsciousness; nor is there any bridge but memory with which to span them.… Memory collects the countless phenomena of our existence into a single whole; and as our bodies would be scattered into the dust of their component atoms if they were not held together by the attraction of matter, so our consciousness would be broken up into as many fragments as we had lived seconds but for the binding and unifying force of memory.Unconscious Memory 110, 115-16
Memories constitute, for Butler, a form of mental glue; they are the metaphoric “matter” that binds together the fragments of time, consciousness, and selfhood.
While Butler’s more sweeping account of ancestral memory and identity was not widely accepted by the Victorian scientific community, articles dealing with the subject appeared with increasing frequency in the 1890s and through the first decades of the twentieth century. Myers and a number of other writers explored the potential for organic memory to explain uncanny psychic phenomena such as retrocognition and clairvoyance. In 1906, for example, the Rev. Forbes Phillips explained the concept of ancestral memory in terms that alternately mystified and de-mystified the mind:
That a child should present certain features of his father and mother, and reproduce certain well-known gestures and mannerisms of his grandfather, is looked upon as something very ordinary. Is it not possible that the child may inherit something of his ancestor’s memory? That these flashes of reminiscence are the sudden awakening, the calling into action of something we have in our blood; the discs, the records of an ancestor’s past life, which require but the essential adjustment and conditions to give up their secrets? If so, then we have in ancestral memory a natural answer to many of life’s puzzles, without seeking the aid of Eastern theology.
Whether we believe in apparitions or not, this world is a haunted one. Our thought-world is full of deep undertones that roll in upon us from the past... . Far-away generations of ancestors have cut deep the channels of our memories.980
With its capacity to explain everything from experiences of déjà vu to accounts of reincarnation, ancestral memory provided a fertile link between evolutionary theory and the perennial “puzzles” of the human mind. Expanding upon Laycock, Phillips argues that dreams constitute the “free play of…ancestral memory” (982). They are “images of adventures in the life story of some forebear brought into relation with us through the avenues of a subconscious[ ] .…They are ancient soul or race memories” (983). Eventually, modified versions of ancestral memory received consideration from a number of early twentieth-century psychologists, including both Freud and Jung.
One of the most sensational and sustained Victorian explorations of ancestral memory and directed dreaming appears in George du Maurier’s first novel Peter Ibbetson, which was published in 1891—more than a decade after Laycock’s and Butler’s writings, and in between Stevenson’s and Myers’ studies of hypermnesic dreaming. Du Maurier’s novel bears striking parallels to all of these accounts. Like Stevenson’s description of his personal dream-experiments, Peter Ibbetson focuses on intensified memory, dual life, and the capacity for directed dreaming; in the process, it both draws upon and popularizes theories that linked ancestral memory to dreams. Du Maurier’s portrayal further overlaps with broader scientific theories and debates about the nature of memory and consciousness from the 1880s and 90s, including comparisons between the mechanisms of memory and emerging technologies such as photography and phonography. In the process, as I will show, the novel exposes some of the tensions and contradictions in the way late nineteenth-century writers envisioned the relationship between memory, identity, and the material world.
Although it has been critically overlooked in favor of the even more sensational mesmeric story of Trilby, Peter Ibbetson was considered by du Maurier and his family, as well as his close friend Henry James and his granddaughter Daphne, to be his best work (Auerbach 25). While the novel was not initially a popular success, it gained a wider audience after the triumphant publication of Trilby in 1894, and had a curious afterlife in twentieth-century opera and film. Narrated by a convicted murderer who suffers episodes of madness, Peter Ibbetson is both a nostalgic memoir of Ibbetson’s childhood on the outskirts of Paris (that closely parallels du Maurier’s own childhood experiences), and a romantic exploration of Ibbetson’s shared dream life with his lost childhood love, Mary (Mimsy) Seraskier, who grows up to become the Duchess of Towers. Though physically separated by her marriage and his incarceration, the lovers create a life together through their intersecting dreams. The central focus of the narrative is on the double life that Ibbetson leads from his prison cell for over a quarter of a century. Both he and Mary learn to manipulate the otherwise fleeting, unstable, and seemingly irretrievable immediacy of their childhood memories through a process called “dreaming true.” This effectively reshapes the act of reminiscence into an experience of absolute mental control that dissolves the boundaries of space and time, self and other, and allows them to live a nocturnal double life in the mental space of their shared recollections. Together, the lovers transform memories into building materials, and they revisit the history of the human species by moving backwards in time through the memories of their recent and, ultimately, their most distant ancestors. In the process, du Maurier’s narrator outlines a theory of matter and memory, ultimately identifying the endurance (and mingling) of memories across time and space as the material basis of the universe and the only “eternity” that man can experience. As Ibbetson claims, “We are all… little bags of remembrance that never dies” (241).
This endurance of memory in Peter Ibbetson both exploits and anticipates debates that emerged in the memory sciences in the final decades of the nineteenth century. In particular, du Maurier’s novel enacts (and complicates) some of the central distinctions that were being made between different forms of memory. Du Maurier seems to be playing, in particular, with different concepts of unconscious and conscious memory. On the one hand, “unconscious memory” was thought to be automatic, produced by repetition or habit. It was associated with bodily processes and behaviors that, by becoming both organized and routinized (sometimes over many generations), escape consciousness. Through the process of repetition, habitual memories (which might involve learning to walk or learning to play a musical instrument) were inscribed on the body and brain in such a way that they became automatic and were performed unconsciously. “Conscious memory,” on the other hand, involved both the willed recollection of specific events from an individual’s past and the spontaneous eruption of reminiscences—which came to be termed “pure” or “desultory” memory—that intruded involuntarily upon consciousness. Henri Bergson was one of the first to codify distinctions between these types of memory in his 1896 Matière et mémoire, but the division had been at least implicitly present in a variety of earlier nineteenth-century studies, including works by G. H. Lewes, Herbert Spencer, and William James. Whereas the concept of “ancestral memory” that du Maurier explores draws extensively upon theories of unconscious memory to conceptualize the transmission of mental impressions between generations, the portrayal of fleeting childhood reminiscences in Peter Ibbetson conforms to theories of “pure” or involuntary memory, and their potential interactions with (and transmission through) the material world.
While Peter Ibbetson offers a sensational and at times indiscriminate mingling of late-Victorian theories of ancestral memory, directed dreaming, telepathy, and eugenics, the novel also portrays the intricate, sensory texture of reminiscence and consciousness in ways that anticipate some of the central preoccupations of literary modernism. Like some of his contemporaries in the newly emerging memory sciences, especially in France, du Maurier explores the central role of the senses in both producing and retrieving memories, consistently emphasizing the powerful relationship between objects in the material world—a child’s wagon, a Parisian street, an abandoned pair of gloves—and the experience of happiness, consciousness, and sense of continuous identity in the subject’s acts of recall. Yet, at a time when both fiction and psychology were beginning to speculate about the wandering, uncontrolled, and involuntary aspects of memory and consciousness, du Maurier both recognizes and resists the fragmented nature of reminiscence, and instead seeks ways to explain and, ultimately, control it. “Surely, surely,” his narrator writes, “we ought to find some means of possessing the past more fully and completely than we do. Life is not worth living for many of us if a want so desperate and yet so natural can never be satisfied. Memory is but a poor rudimentary thing that we had better be without, if it can only lead us to the verge of consummation…and madden us with a desire it cannot slake” (120). Thus, while the first half of du Maurier’s novel foreshadows modernist accounts of involuntary memory by emphasizing the random, fleeting, and discontinuous character of reminiscences as they pass through a solitary consciousness, the second half of the novel resists these limitations, instead envisioning memories as infinitely retrievable and recorded with photographic accuracy in the ancestral depths of the unconscious mind.
The opening chapters of du Maurier’s novel focus entirely on reminiscences, providing a striking immersion in the sensory and emotional intensity of childhood memories that anticipates Marcel Proust more than any other work of Victorian fiction. Henry James described these chapters as a “delightfully dusty haze… a rare exhibition of the passion of reminiscence” (“George du Maurier” 605). Throughout these reminiscences, most of which are autobiographical, either an object, a strain of music, or a place unleashes a flood of memory and longing. The iconic object of nostalgia in the novel is a toy wheelbarrow, which the narrator remembers as “quite the most extraordinary, the most unheard of and undreamed of, humorously, daintily, exquisitely fascinating object I had ever come across in all my brief existence” (14). The discovery of the tiny wheelbarrow sparks the narrator’s first realization of selfhood, and this childhood self comes to represent his own (and du Maurier’s) conception of identity and interiority throughout the novel.
The toy wheelbarrow also constitutes Ibbetson’s first and last experience of a perfect, transcendent joy. He describes the “enchanted hours…[of] newly-aroused self-consciousness, at the intensity, the poignancy, the extremity of my bliss” (14). Du Maurier’s descriptions of this childhood transcendence correspond to psychological accounts of childhood memory in the period. Myers, for example, notes “the singular intensity which happiness may assume…—‘that thoughtless sense of joy bewildering’ which seldom recurs in waking life after early youth,” and which can be recaptured only “in dreams” (371; ch. 4). Yet it is the human mind’s inability to maintain the intensity of childhood experiences and recollections that shapes much of Ibbetson’s frustrated longing and his obsessive desire to recover and relive the memories of his childhood throughout his adult life. “Thus did I,” he claims, “on the very dawning of life, reach at a single tide the high-water mark of my earthly bliss—never to be reached again by me on this side of the ivory gate” (15). Beginning with this elusive “high water mark,” du Maurier’s novel moves from an initial celebration of spontaneous reminiscences—the “strange capacity” of a bar of music, for example, to “preserve the essence of bygone things” (23)—to an increasing emphasis on the human desire to control memory—to harness its fragmented and involuntary intrusions into consciousness. And it is here that du Maurier turns to unconscious memory for a solution. As if in reaction to his poignant recognition of the limitations of recollection, du Maurier constructs a romantic fantasy of perfect recall in which the intensity of childhood bliss can, indeed, be recovered at will, replayed like a favorite phonographic recording, and shared with another mind. Ibbetson notes, “Such was our insatiable fondness for ‘the pretty place of our childhood’ and all its associations, that our greatest pleasure of all was to live our old life over again and again” (197).
By learning to control their conscious recollections through their shared unconscious dreams, Ibbetson and his lover not only collapse the boundaries between self and other, but also between different forms of memory. As in Butler’s concept of memory as “matter,” and Stevenson’s account of unconscious imagination, memories in Peter Ibbetson become the raw material of creation. Once the narrator has learned to “dream true,” he and Mary use their individual memories to construct new lives together. The most striking instance of this occurs when Mary first welcomes Peter into what can only be described as a literal “dream house” that she has constructed for them out of her detailed memories of European palaces, gardens, and art galleries. Together, they select (from her memories) the art that will adorn their walls, the furnishings of each room, and the scenery out of each window. They “robbed every palace in Europe of its very best,” taking “a long time to build and arrange them” (181). In this telepathic version of interior decoration, memories become material possessions that can be appropriated, rearranged, and transferred to others at will.
This capacity to manipulate or remix memories into creative new hybrid forms is predicated, for du Maurier, on memory itself being a reproducible record of past details, whether consciously perceived by a living organism or registered subliminally. Here du Maurier turns to technologies such as photography and phonography for his models. “Evidently,” Ibbetson explains,
our brain contains something akin both to a photographic plate and a phonographic cylinder, and many other things of the same kind not yet discovered; not a sight or a sound or a smell is lost; not a taste or feeling or an emotion. Unconscious memory records them all, without our even heeding what goes on around us beyond the things that attract our immediate interest or attention.139-40
Elsewhere, Ibbetson compares his ability to relive ancestral memories that skip over the centuries to the ease with which one might change slides on a “magic lantern” (213), and he describes the slightly blurred and indistinct quality of distant evolutionary memories, such as the vision of an ice age mammoth that Mary and Peter experience through the memories of their cave-dwelling ancestors, as having the visual quality of a “composite photograph” (223). The vaguely blurred image of the mammoth, writes Ibbetson, is “merely the type, as it had been seen generally by all who had ever seen it … every one of whom…was necessarily an ancestor of ours, and of every man now living” (223). This power of both photography and phonography to memorialize the past seems to have influenced not only du Maurier, but also many psychologists of this period; photographic metaphors appear repeatedly (though not always uncritically) in speculations about the mechanisms of latent and unconscious memories, and are particularly prevalent in theories of ancestral memory and dreams. Thus Myers compares the process of dreaming to selecting images from a “gallery of photographs” in the unconscious mind (392, Ch. 4), and he explains that memories accessed through hypnogogic states are much more vivid than our usual powers of recollecting and imagining: “The difference is like that between an instantaneous photograph (and in natural colors!) and a dim dissolving view cast by a magic lantern on the point of going out” (370, Ch. 4). Photographic metaphors also appear in Phillips’ explanation of ancestral memory. He writes,
If the memory cells of our ancestors were the collected photographed impressions of their experiences, and these cells in the process of photographing were subjected to some subtle change in physical structure, then that these negatives of impressions should be handed on to posterity is not difficult to understand and accept. That these negatives may be broken, blurred, indistinct, obliterated, is to be expected; but at the same time some of them may be passed on intact.983
In Phillips’ account of “memory cells,” organic and technological metaphors merge. The “negatives” of ancestral memory pass through the ages, either blurred or intact, holding within them the power of infinite reproduction and involuntary intrusion in both our waking consciousness and our dreams.
Like photography, which seemed to promise a permanent and reproducible (but also manipulable) record of the past by which we could maintain our social relations across time and space, du Maurier’s narrative extols memory’s power to escape the prison house of the mind. Though he spends most of his adult life locked in a solitary cell that mirrors the isolation of human consciousness, Peter Ibbetson’s dream life affirms his essential connection to all of human history. As he triumphantly proclaims: “Nothing is lost—nothing! From the ineffable, high, fleeting thought a Shakespeare can’t find words to express, to the slightest sensation of an earthworm—nothing! Not a leaf’s feeling of the light, not a lodestone’s sense of the pole, not a single volcanic or electric thrill of the mother earth” (237). They are all contained within those “little bags of remembrance” that constitute the “matter” of the mind.
In developing this extended fantasy of mental permanence and control, du Maurier seems, further, to have been influenced by Frances Galton’s theories of visual imagery. In his 1880 study of “Mental Imagery” in The Fortnightly Review, Galton explicitly connected the power to manipulate mental imagery to advanced intellect—describing the ability of exceptional minds to exert
complete mastery over their mental images. They can call up the figure of a friend, and make it sit on a chair or stand up at will; they can make it turn round and attitudinize in any way, as by mounting it on a bicycle or compelling it to perform gymnastic feats on a trapeze. They are able to build up elaborate geometric structures bit by bit in their mind’s eye, and add, subtract, or alter at will and at leisure.319
Galton’s examples of mental agility describe a veritable circus in the mind, complete with trapeze and bicycle and infinitely flexible figures, celebrating the capacity for control over the raw materials of one’s imagination. We find this same celebration of mental agility in du Maurier’s novel, though here it is memories that form the raw material for imaginative manipulation.
Galton’s influence on du Maurier is more pervasive, however, than in their parallel accounts of mental dexterity. In the second half of Peter Ibbetson, du Maurier’s narrator repeatedly invokes eugenics as a necessary and logical accompaniment to ancestral memory, and a comparable form of mental control. Hinting that he has voyeuristically experienced, through his nocturnal wanderings into the memories of his ancestors, some of the promiscuous and ill-planned couplings that shaped his own heritage, Ibbetson admonishes his readers to “select the very best of your kind in the opposite sex…that all your future reincarnations …however brief, may…bring you…the priceless guerdon of well-earned self-approval” (218). Although Peter and Mary decide, for “sacred reasons of discretion,” not to probe the experiences of their “own more immediate progenitors” (217), their vicarious experiences of ancestral memories prompt Ibbetson to chastise those who breed recklessly. He explains the potentially degenerative consequences of our evolutionary inheritance, viewing the continuum of mind and matter that links us through countless generations as an incentive to temperance and forethought: “If anything can keep us well within the thorny path that leads to happiness and virtue, it is the certainty that those who come after us will remember having been ourselves” (217). More powerful than the fear of an omniscient deity, the fear of being judged and mentally inhabited by one’s offspring becomes an evolutionary substitute for divine judgment. Once Ibbetson discovers that memories connect us to both the past and the future, he observes that we are not only able to relive the experiences of our distant ancestors, but also able to participate in the minds and actions of our distant progeny through the mental “reincarnations” that link us in “unconscious memory” and dreams:
Beware and be warned in time, ye tenth transmitters of a foolish face, ye reckless begetters of diseased or puny bodies, with hearts and brains to match! Far down the corridors of time shall club-footed retribution follow in your footsteps, and overtake you at every turn! Most remorselessly, most vindictively, will you be aroused, in sleepless hours of unbearable misery (future-waking nightmares) from your false, uneasy dream of death; to participate in an inheritance of woe.219
Because we are linked to all those who come before and after us, we are doomed to experience, through the intertwined memories and dreams of our offspring, the inherited effects of our own transgressions. To experience the endurance of memories across time and space is thus to recognize the necessity of eugenics as a personal and social imperative. Eugenics, for Ibbetson, offers a form of self-protection—a means of ensuring that our ancestral memories are not experienced as “future-waking nightmares” filled with recrimination and regret.
By embracing eugenics as the logical extension of ancestral memory, and as a solution to the problem of evolutionary continuity, Peter Ibbetson both echoes and participates in a widespread discourse of degeneration that marks the late-Victorian period. Eugenics is framed in du Maurier’s novel as a personal imperative that extends its benefits into the wider sphere of human history. It offers a fantasy of mental control as social control. In his desire to lay bare the devices of memory, Ibbetson thus exposes the cultural logic of eugenics. In the process, du Maurier unwittingly reveals some of the ideological underpinnings of theories of ancestral memory that were exploited, to catastrophic ends, in the twentieth-century.
Despite this final, problematic view toward the future, du Maurier’s novel ultimately looks backward far more than it looks forward. Du Maurier shares Stevenson’s passionate desire to preserve our “air-painted pictures of the past” against the ravages of time. But whereas Stevenson laments that all is eventually lost, du Maurier’s fantasy posits that nothing is lost. Far more than a “little thread,” memory, in du Maurier’s novel, carries the power not only to bind together the fragments of individual consciousness, but also to reconnect individuals to a larger social and historical fabric—a fabric they can shape at will. While it is not clear which psychological theories du Maurier read directly, which he absorbed through cultural osmosis, and which he merely stumbled upon through his preoccupation with (and transcription of) his own nostalgic reminiscences, it is clear that his novel simultaneously participated in, popularized, and pushed to its logical extreme, an ongoing debate about the nature and power of memory and the evolutionary depths of the unconscious. As new scientific understandings of memory and consciousness threatened to shatter the social contract by emphasizing the fragmentation and isolation of the human mind, du Maurier joined a group of psychological theorists and literary fantasists who found optimistic alternatives in the strange habits of the imagination and the shared inheritance of unconscious memories and dreams. In both du Maurier’s novel and in the more “scientific” accounts of ancestral memory proposed by writers such as Laycock, Butler, Myers, and Phillips, we see how the memories that seem to make up a continuing sense of identity and individuality migrate from past to present and mind to mind. Unconscious memories become the flexible material of imagination and dreams, “little bags of remembrance” that are the shared property of generations. This fluidity of memory effectively challenges the boundaries of subjectivity and the singularity of selfhood by extending identity across generations. In these accounts of ancestral memory individual personality becomes virtually unrecognizable—dispersed over time and space, and merged with human history through hauntingly familiar “echoes in the chamber of the brain.”
Athena Vrettos is an Associate Professor of English at Case Western Reserve University. She is the author of Somatic Fictions: Imagining Illness in Victorian Culture (Stanford, 1995) and numerous articles on nineteenth-century literature and psychology, including studies of displaced memory and déjà vu.
As I will go on to discuss, Thomas Laycock, E. S. Dallas, J. D. Morell, Samuel Butler, and F. W. H. Myers all contributed to these discussions of memory, dreaming, and the unconscious mind, as did numerous other psychologists and psychical researchers writing in this period. For more specific accounts of some of these debates and their intersections with theories such as multiple personality, spiritualism, and telepathy see Hacking, Oppenheim, and Luckhurst.
Similar accounts appeared in continental writings of this period. For example, Butler compares and translates the scientific theories of Ewald Hering and Edward Von Hartmann, identifying Hering’s (but not Von Hartmann’s) as parallel to his own. Laycock makes reference to a range of contemporary French theories of metempsychosis.
Although she does not discuss theories of ancestral memory, Laura Otis’s study of organic memory (which was the underlying theory used to explain ancestral memory) suggests the widespread influence of theories of organic memory on late nineteenth-century literature and philosophy.
In addition to du Maurier’s novel there were a number of short stories written about ancestral memory in the 1890s, including Rudyard Kipling’s 1893 “The Finest Story in the World” and Grant Allen’s 1897 “A Freak of Memory.” In addition, Samuel Butler’s semi-autobiographical novel The Way of All Flesh, written between 1872 and 1884 but published posthumously in 1903, applies his scientific theories about the relationship between unconscious memory, heredity, and individual personality.
The story was adapted into an opera by Deems Taylor in 1931 and a film starring Gary Cooper in 1935.
In her biography of du Maurier, Leonée Ormond discusses the close parallels between Ibbetson’s nostalgic reminiscences of his childhood and du Maurier’s own upbringing and “aching nostalgia” (15). See also Catherine Golden and Richard Kelly for discussions of the autobiographical context for the novel. Golden notes the autobiographical basis for all of du Maurier’s fiction and claims his explorations of psychic phenomena—telepathic dreaming in Ibbetson, hypnotism in Trilby, and automatic writing in The Martian—are ways of allowing Du Maurier’s alter egos “to attain the fulfillment denied Du Maurier in his actual life” (44). For a discussion of the changing meaning and portrayal of nostalgia in the nineteenth century, and its role in British fiction before the development of the memory sciences, see Nicholas Dames.
Critics have frequently noted the influence of Bergson’s theories of “pure” or involuntary memory on Marcel Proust’s fiction and upon British modernists such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Similarly, William James’s identification of “desultory” (Ch. 16) memory and his description of the fluctuating “stream of consciousness” (Ch. 9) have been linked to the psychological explorations of literary modernism through the “stream of consciousness” novel. See, for example, Leon Edel and Judith Ryan.
I am indebted here to Carolyn Steedman’s work on childhood as a symbol of human interiority and subjectivity.
Expanding upon Laycock’s and Myers’ writings on ancestral memory, C. Staniland Wake singled out childhood memories as especially powerful, arguing that the influence of ancestral memories was strongest before the child’s personality developed. After childhood, he noted, access to ancestral memories was primarily limited to hypnotism, somnambulism, and dreams (73).
For a discussion of the role of photographic metaphors in nineteenth-century theories of memory, see Deidre Lynch.
- Allen, Grant. “A Freak of Memory.” Washington Post. 14 Nov. 1897: 27.
- Auerbach, Nina. Daphne du Maurier, Haunted Heiress. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000.
- Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory. New York: Zone Books, 1991.
- Butler, Samuel. Life and Habit. 2nd ed. London, Trubner and Co., 1878.
- Butler, Samuel Unconscious Memory. London: David Bogue, 1880.
- Butler, Samuel The Way of All Flesh. 15th ed. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1916.
- Dallas, E. S. The Gay Science. 2 vols. London: Chapman and Hall, 1866.
- Dames, Nicholas. Amnesiac Selves: Nostalgia, Forgetting, and British Fiction, 1810-1870. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001.
- Du Maurier, George. Peter Ibbetson. Doylestown, PA: Wildside P, 2006.
- Edel, Leon. The Modern Psychological Novel. New York: Lippencott, 1972.
- Galton, Francis. “Mental Imagery.” British Psychologists of the Late Nineteenth Century. Ed. Robert Thompson. London: Routledge/Thoemmes P Reprints, 1993. 312-324.
- Golden, Catherine. “Turning Life into Literature: The Romantic Fiction of George du Maurier.” College English Association Critic 58.1 (1995): 43-52.
- Hacking, Ian. Rewriting the Soul:Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995.
- James, Henry. “George du Maurier.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 95 (September, 1897): 594-609.
- James, William. Principles of Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.
- Kelly, Richard. George du Maurier. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.
- Kipling, Rudyard. “The Finest Story in the World.” The Man Who Would be King and Other Stories. London: Collectors Library, 2005. 37-74.
- Laycock, Thomas. “A Chapter on some Organic Laws of Personal and Ancestral Memory.” The Journal of Mental Science 21 (July 1875): 155-187.
- Lewes, George Henry. Problems of Life and Mind. 5 vols. London: Trubner and Co., 1874-9.
- Luckhurst, Roger. The Invention of Telepathy 1870-1901. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.
- Lynch, Deidre. “Matters of Memory: Response.” Victorian Studies 49.2 (Winter, 2007): 228-240.
- Morell, J. D. An Introduction to Mental Philosophy on the Inductive Method. London: Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, 1862.
- Myers, F.W.H. “The Subliminal Consciousness.” Chs. 1 and 2, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 7 (1891-92), 298-355; Chs. 3-5, PSPR 8 (1892), -407 and 436-535; Chs. 6 and 7, PSPR 9 (1893-94), 3-128; Chs. 8 and 9, PSPR 11 (1895), 334-593.
- Oppenheim, Janet. The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.
- Ormond, Leonée. George Du Maurier. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1969.
- Otis, Laura. Organic Memory: History and the Body in the Late Nineteenth and EarlyTwentieth Centuries. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1994.
- Phillips, Forbes. “Ancestral Memory: A Suggestion.” The Nineteenth Century and After 59 (1906): 977-983.
- Ryan, Judith. The Vanishing Subject: Early Psychology and Literary Modernism.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1991.
- Spencer, Herbert. Principles of Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: D. Appleton, 1897.
- Steedman, Carolyn. Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. “A Chapter on Dreams.” R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays. Ed. Glenda Norquay. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 126-138.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Ed. Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew. 8 Vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995.
- Wake, C. Staniland. “Individuality and Personality.” Mind 1.2 (1897): 70-76.