Who hasn’t suffered it? A longing for the quality of the light, the green of the country, the sound of the waves, the language of your origins, or for familiar food. Homesickness might strike at odd times and be triggered by the senses.
Watching Marina Willer’s Red Trees recently, a documentary about Willer’s Jewish refugee father who went to Brazil, I learned a new word, saudade, which her father said he felt for Europe. Saudade has no real English equivalent, though Wikipedia suggests ‘missingness’. In English we might think of nostalgia, a longing for past good times, but we do not have a day of official celebration of this emotion, as the Brazilians apparently do, on January 30th.
I had been thinking about homesickness in reading about the first known Māori visitor to London. In 1806 Moehanga expressed his feeling of being overwhelmed on arriving in that vast city. He reported that ‘in New Zealand he was a man of some consequence, but he saw that in such a country as he was now in, his consideration must be entirely lost.’ That feeling of losing oneself by losing all that is familiar became known by the mid-nineteenth century as ‘nostalgia’.
The New Zealander newspaper offered a medical description of nostalgia: ‘a vehement longing for home.’ Jane Oates, an immigrant from Derbyshire, expressed such longing in a letter home on the 30th of May 1857. Writing from a Wairarapa farm, Jane wrote of her inability to sleep, and her fretting: “I cannot bare [sic] thouts [sic] of being so far from home.”
Sometimes that vehement longing led to derangement. On the 5th of November 1868, forty-year-old Ellen Rochford was admitted to the Dunedin Asylum suffering from ‘Servants’ Melancholia’. Quiet and retiring, Ellen brooded over leaving Ireland. She said she was ‘of no use’ in New Zealand and that she ‘should not have come’. After a little over two months care in the Asylum, Ellen’s spirits improved and she was able to take care of herself again. She was discharged on 13 January 1869. Not all immigrants, however, recovered and some remained desperate to return home.
A Dr Bakewell pointed to homesickness as a possible contributing factor to consumption (tuberculosis) in the colony in an address to an interested audience at the Otago Institute in 1874. One of the causes of the disease among women, he suggested, was ‘depression of spirits, nostalgia or home sickness, caused by the extreme dullness and monotony of the life they led.’ The reporter found this speculation hardly tenable but printed the doctor’s explanation:
Few of us men sufficiently appreciate the dull leaden monotony of the lives passed by the majority of women in these Colonies. We are occupied all day with our business; we can go out in the evening for amusement if we like. The women are at home all day occupied in household pursuits … Few women can put into words the yearning and longing they feel for something more than material well-being; but yet they all have this longing, and if unsatisfied it has a deleterious effect on their health. Of course if a woman is not inclined to be consumptive mere lowness of spirits will not make her so; but if she be, it will have a very serious effect.”
The Daily Southern Cross suggested in response that husbands bore some responsibility for women’s ‘aching loneliness’ which might result in melancholia. By giving up ‘the attractions of the bar and the billiard room’ men could assist in making their homes ‘bright and happy’.
In September 1878, the New Zealand Herald declared confidently that ‘Home-sickness is an actual disease’. In an article reprinted from Cassell’s Magazine, New Zealanders were informed that a distinguished French physician, M.H. Rey, had declared ‘nostalgia’ to be a form of insanity which might result in death. It was an illness more common in men than women and less common among children and old folk.
Just how ideas about homesickness have changed over time is the subject of Susan J. Matt’s Homesickness: An American History. She suggests that in the later nineteenth century leaving home became seen ‘as necessary for progress, both for individuals and for society as a whole’ (p. 102). This trend is reflected in New Zealand with the Auckland Star suggesting in 1899 that one should not give in to ‘nostalgia’ and that the Celtic Anglo-Saxon looked upon ‘querulous repining as a weakness unworthy of a man.’
In the conclusion to Matt’s expansive and fascinating study, she suggests how Americans, from the early twentieth century, have been trained to see homesickness ‘as a condition that strikes the young and the premodern, but never the mature and well-adjusted’. In a society that values individualism above all, she suggests, homesickness threatens the high value placed upon independence. New technologies, such as phones and Facebook are incredibly popular for keeping connections yet Matt suggests that they have ‘ambiguous effects on emotions’ – both assuaging and provoking homesickness.’ While the virtual image and voice of our loved one may make us feel close, it might also be unbearable since we cannot feel their touch.
Maybe a day of celebration of ‘homesickness’, seeing it as a positive emotion of longing for all that we cherish and those we hold close in our hearts, might be a good thing.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus.
- John Savage, Some Account of New Zealand, J. Murray, London, 1807, p. 102.
- Dr Robin Holmes and Allan J. Farley, Dear Sister: Letters between a pioneer Wairarapa family and relatives in rural England, 1856-1883(Wairarapa Archive, 2006), pp. 45-6.
- Dunedin Lunatic Asylum Casebook, 1868-88, p.22. Archives New Zealand, Dunedin
- New Zealand Times, 17 August 1874.
- Daily Southern Cross, 19 September 1874.
- New Zealand Herald, 21 September 1878, p.7.
- Auckland Star, Supplement, 26 August 1899.
- Susan J. Matt, Homesickness: An American History (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).