Whilst on holiday in Suffolk a few weeks ago I bought a small book at a second-hand stall at the market in the lovely little town of Framlingham. Called The Victorian Book of Dreams, it is clearly a forerunner of the little books you might have picked up at the till in Past Times as a desperate last moment Christmas present for someone who has everything (other than a book about Edwardian manners or tips for husbands).
The picture on the front cover is magnificent and reading through it has been fun; but it has made me realise that the interpretation of dreams has come a long way in the past one hundred and twenty years or so.
For example, one entry in the book states ‘Bagpipes – to dream of this musical instrument is always unfortunate; it denotes extreme poverty and you will have to labour hard all your life.’ I can’t help feeling there is some stereotyping involved in that meaning. Another suggests that should you be unfortunate enough to dream of a butcher cutting up meat, ‘some of your friends will be hanged and you will experience much misery and poverty’. However, if you dream that you or a friend is being hanged, it means you will become very wealthy. Work that one out.
Nor is it a good idea to dream about love. If you dream of a thoroughly enjoyable and passionate embrace, it ‘denotes that you are likely to be afflicted with some dangerous sickness, probably unto death’. Sadly, dreaming that someone is madly in love with you is not a blissful reverie – it means you will end up alone and should you have the misfortune to dream of marriage it could prove fatal, or at the very least mean you will never be married. And if you want to be certain of marrying your sweetheart, whatever you do don’t dream of stinking mackerel…
The book also offers some ‘signs and auguries’. Particularly striking ones include:
‘An itching in your loins is an indication that you will soon receive an addition to your family…’
‘Should your left eyebrow be visited with a tantalizing itching, it is a sign that you will soon look upon a painful sight – the corpse of a valued friend, or your lover walking with a favoured rival’.
I rather liked the section devoted to ‘Physiognomy’ though. I have hazel eyes, which apparently shows me to be ‘a person of a subtle, piercing and frolicsome turn, rather inclined to be arch, and sometimes mischievous, but good-natured at the bottom. Strongly inclined to love, and not over-delicate in the means of gratifying that propensity’. I am not sure whether that is anything like me, but it sounds as if living up to one’s eye colour could be fun…
Of course, these interpretations are a little like reading one’s horoscope in the daily papers – I am sure I don’t have a day identical to every other Aquarian in the world. However hard experts try, and although certain symbols are repeated, we can be pretty certain that everyone has dreams that are unique to them and their life events. Sometimes when we wake up and grasp those last images as they fade before we have put our feet in our slippers we realise a dream was directly influenced by the previous day’s events, a particular worry or even the last television programme we watched.
I am sure some of my dreams have no deep meaning at all. But some – the recurring ones for example – really intrigue me. Why do I often dream that the house I am living in (not always the same one) surprises me with new rooms I have never entered before? Or contain a room with a door I am afraid to open, as I know it to be full of things I am slightly scared of? Why do I dream of being desperate for the loo, only to find that the only ones available are right in the middle of someone’s sitting room, or are public ones and utterly filthy?
Last night I dreamed that I was back working for an old boss, in a high powered environment. I felt uncomfortable at my desk, and was told off for not ‘speaking properly’. However, it seems I also had a role milking cows and otherwise helping a local farmer. Now if that isn’t indicative of a crossroads in my life, or a dilemma over a major decision I don’t know what might be…
The Victorian Book of Dreams can’t help me with an answer, but it is something I would like to know more about as new century stresses impose themselves on my life. Freud would probably have made mincemeat of me, suggesting all sorts of paranoia and perversion that would be no more accurate than any Victorian interpretation. Even Scrooge’s response to the spirits in ‘A Christmas Carol’ might be more accurate: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’
I envy people who can remember their dreams well enough to write them down and weave a narrative around them. Author Vivienne Tuffnell writes eloquently and with wonderful clarity about some of her sleep experiences. The only ones I remember are those ‘repeats’ and ones that wake me, leaving me anxious and sometimes deeply disturbed. Even then they evaporate eventually, into an unsettling mist about the day ahead.
John Keats wrote a wonderful sonnet ‘To Sleep’ – try reading the last two lines aloud and feel them in your mouth, they are two of the most sensual lines of poetry I have come across..
O SOFT embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.
Dreams are clues to what is preoccupying our minds, but can we interpret them to find solutions to our 21st century problems or divine our fates? I would love to hear your views.
All the same, I hope I don’t dream of butchers, mackerel or bagpipes any time soon…