We think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as being a modern concept, but this most disabling condition is not new. A recently discovered letter reveals that the famous nineteenth century novelist Charles Dickens could well have been a sufferer, following a train crash that took place on the afternoon of 9th June, 1865.
The story of the crash can be pieced together from Dickens’ own writings and the newspaper reports of the time.
Then aged 53, Dickens was on a steam express train going from Folkestone to London with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, and her mother. A routine journey: but just outside Staplehurst in Kent disaster struck. The train derailed, following a miscalculation by the maintenance crew engaged in repairs on that section of the line. A gap of 42 feet had been opened up in the track that went over a bridge, and although the train driver realised what had happened as they approached, it was by then far too late to brake.
The engine and the first part of the train cleared the gap in the tracks, but the coaches in the centre and rear of the train plunged down into the river bed below. Only one of the 7 first class carriages escaped the fall, and that was the coach in which Dickens was seated. Because it was securely coupled to the coach in front it did not fall, but dangled from the bridge, leaving its passengers caught in mid-air.
In a recently discovered letter to his friend Mitton, Dickens described what happened next. “We were…all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage… looking down, I saw the bridge gone and nothing below me but the line of the rail.” Eventually Dickens climbed down into “an open, swampy field” by means of some makeshift planks.
The scene that met him was of utter devastation. “No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages,” he wrote, “or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.”
According to Dickens’ own account, he then began to tend the wounded by giving them brandy and water. “I came upon a staggering man covered with blood with such a frightful cut across his skull that I couldn’t bear to look at him,” he wrote. Then he tended a woman with a face “the colour of lead” who died soon afterwards. There were others, too: dead, dying, or terribly injured. It was a nightmare scenario.
Dickens does not seem, at the time, to have fully registered what had happened – a key component of PTSD. He even had the presence of mind to retrieve the manuscript of his latest novel, Our Mutual Friend, from the wreckage of his carriage.
Yet afterwards, for many years, he was to experience some of the classic symptoms of PTSD. He had a lifelong fear of travelling, and was frequently subject to what he termed “the shake” – violent tremors that shook his whole body.
A year after the accident he was to confess, “I have sudden vague rushes of terror, even when riding in a hansom cab, which are perfectly unreasonable but quite insurmountable”. He withdrew from all public engagements, and his daughter Mamie recalled that “my father’s nerves never really were the same again”.
Was this PTSD? Today, the condition is recognised and sufferers are treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Little help, or compassion, was available in the Victorian era, and it is entirely possible, even likely, that Dickens was a victim.
It was not until the 1980’s that PTSD began to be recognised as a condition with specific symptoms. Today it is recognised as a psychobiological mental disorder that can affect not only those with combat experience but also those who experience terrorist attacks, accidents, or indeed any other traumatic event.