Bacon's Essays: Of Dispatch

Dispatch is one of those delightful words whose meanings have clung close to their origin, in both theirpony-express nominal and verbal forms. It’s about sending things quickly, so we can dispatch a dispatch with dispatch. Bacon is talking about business: getting things done.

Be thou not hasty!

“Affected dispatch is one of the most dangerous things to business that can be.” He means that pretending to get things done quickly, merely for the sake of appearances, is a terrible idea. This must have happened a lot in Bacon’s day, because he spends a whole paragraph arguing against it.

“Therefore measure not dispatch, by the times of sitting, but by the advancement of the business.” This is the quote used in the OED definition of one of dispatch’s sub-meanings, “Prompt settlement or speedy accomplishment of an affair.” Prompt; not hasty.

cecil-court-of-wardsBacon served in Parliament most of the years of his life (from 1885 – 1607.) He must have served on a lot of committees with a lot of men whose efforts were aimed at something other than the task at hand. (Self-aggrandizement, pushing Puritan ideology, etc.) Many men must also have simply gotten bored with the increasing focus on detail resulting from a century of Tudor monarchs and their university-bred ministers.

But haste makes waste, of everyone’s time and effort. “And business so handled, at several sittings or meetings, goeth commonly backward and forward in an unsteady manner. I knew a wise man that had it for a byword, when he saw men hasten to a conclusion, Stay a little, that we may make an end the sooner.”

Those rooms are chilly, clammy, and stuffy, in my observation as a tourist, although ruffs are more comfortable than you might think.


Neither shalt thou dally

“On the other side, true dispatch is a rich thing. For time is the measure of business, as money is of wares…” An important thing to remember.

Philip II, by Titian

Here’s an example of the hazards of sluggishness: “The Spartans and Spaniards have been noted to be of small dispatch; Mi venga la muerte de Spagna; Let my death come from Spain; for then it will be sure to be long in coming.”

Spain had created a global empire in the sixteenth century. It took several months for a ship to travel to the Americas and back; nevertheless, all major decisions had to be made by King Philip personally. You can imagine what his to-do looked like! Decisions took forever.

This next whole paragraph is useful. “Give good hearing to those, that give the first information in business; and rather direct them in the beginning, than interrupt them in the continuance of their speeches; for he that is put out of his own order, will go forward and backward, and be more tedious, while he waits upon his memory, than he could have been, if he had gone on in his own course. But sometimes it is seen, that the moderator is more troublesome, than the actor.”

Anyone who has ever been in a meeting has seen this. The moderator (or bad teacher) keeps interrupting the poor speaker to hurry them along, succeeding only in getting them more muddled. I can feel a parody of this tickling at my memory, from some movie, a 40’s movie maybe…. Jimmy Stewart? Or one of those great character actors? Dick Van Dyke?

Avoid those long and curious speeches

running-ina-dress“Long and curious speeches, are as fit for dispatch, as a robe or mantle, with a long train, is for race.” Maybe a man couldn’t do it, but women could hike up their skirts and run with the best of them.

Bacon was also well-acquainted with the type we call the Gasbag. The Elizabethan word for self-display was ‘bravery.’ “Prefaces and passages, and excusations, and other speeches of reference to the person, are great wastes of time; and though they seem to proceed of modesty, they are bravery.”

This next analogy needs explanation; at least, I had to look up a word. “Yet beware of being too material, when there is any impediment or obstruction in men’s wills; for pre-occupation of mind ever requireth preface of speech; like a fomentation to make the unguent enter.”

You have to allow some amount of digression, especially to help set up the context. A fomentation is something warm, like a pad of flannel soaked in hot water, that helps the unguent be absorbed by the skin. Now that I understand it, I find the analogy a little creepy.

Make that list

Efficient time managers — people who get things done — make lists. Sorry, non-list-makers; it’s a fact of life. Bacon knew it. He probably made a list every morning, augmenting the weekly list he’d made on Monday morning. Did he check things off or strike them through? History doesn’t tell us, of that I am certain. History rarely tells us this sort of thing, so I am free to make it up in my stories.

“Above all things, order, and distribution, and singling out of parts, is the life of dispatch.”

On the other hand, “he that doth not divide, will never enter well into business; and he that divideth too much, will never come out of it clearly.” Be complete, but don’t split hairs!

“There be three parts of business; the preparation, the debate or examination, and the perfection.” The perfection means the conclusion. 

“Whereof, if you look for dispatch, let the middle only be the work of many, and the first and last thePhoenix_rising_from_its_ashes work of few.” I’ve read this notion somewhere else in his writings. Bacon strongly believed that important matters should be thoroughly discussed by everyone in such a way that everyone knows that everyone knows what everyone knows.

I agree. This is the part that many managers (dictators) want to rush through, impatient to get to the perfection. But consensus, at least of understanding, is important. And it’s crucially important to the ultimate success of the enterprise for everyone to know that they have been heard. Otherwise, they’re more likely to thwart progress than assist it.

He ends this essay atypically with a knotted construction, not the least bit quotable. “The proceeding upon somewhat [something] conceived in writing, doth for the most part facilitate dispatch: for though it should be wholly rejected, yet that negative is more pregnant of direction, than an indefinite; as ashes are more generative than dust.”

It’s a good idea to base your meeting on a written proposal. That will speed things up, because even though the proposal may be rejected, you’ll at least know exactly what it was. You’ll at least get a clear sense of what is not wanted.

I got nothing about ashes being more generative than dust, except that the phoenix arises from its own ashes. Bacon might have been thinking about this. His mind tended to leap first to the classical for analogies, like most well-educated Elizabethans.


Book review: Shattered Nerves

The Invalid by Louis Lang from the Brooklyn Museum

“Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England, by Janet Oppenheim (1991; Oxford: Oxford University Press) is the best book I read in researching the historical background for Moriarty Takes His Medicine. Oppenheim writes clearly, often elegantly, without pretension or unnecessary jargon.

I wanted to learn about neurasthenia and its treatment, having decided that my victims would be nervous women. I ended up not using the word, which is very uncommon, but my private hospital made its fortune pampering women who suffered from that very vague malady. 

OED tells us the word is largely obsolete, although there are citations as late as 1998. It was devised in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the emerging disciplines of neurology and psychology. 

Here’s the basic definition: “A disorder characterized by feelings of fatigue and lassitude, with vague physical symptoms such as headache, muscle pain, and subjective sensory disturbances, originally attributed to weakness or exhaustion of the nerves and later considered a form of neurotic disorder.”

But wait! There are more symptoms: “ticklishness, lack of decision in trifling matters, sensitiveness to cold or hot water, shooting pains, special idiosyncracies in regard to food, general or local itching, general and local chills and flashes of heat, partial or complete impotence, vertigo or dizziness, fear of lightning, fear of responsibility, fear of open or closed spaces, fear of society, fear of fears…”

Disease à la mode

Doctors might have been pressured by patients to dispense the neurasthenia diagnosis. People heard about novel illnesses and wanted to have them. (We still do that.)

“Like the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility, the late nineteenth-century incidence of neurasthenia was probably augmented by the potent influence of suggestion and imitation, for neurasthenia was widely perceived as a malady that bestowed on its victims special claims to consideration.”

Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer suffered from nervous exhaustion from time to time. Sir Richard Quain, consultant physician in London, had a clientele “at once fashionable, artistic, and literary.”

“Flora Thompson observed that the inhabitants of her rural hamlet ‘Lark Rise’ enjoyed excellent health in the late Victorian years, largely thanks to ‘lack of imagination.’”

Still, nervous exhaustion was common among all classes, both sexes, any age. And men and women of that day were not cowed by medical authorities. On the contrary, they were quite prepared to discard one doctor for another if the first one failed to satisfy on any grounds.

Biology vs. culture

Oppenheim’s book continually returns to the theme of how much culture affects our interpretations of biological realities. “Public perceptions of disease are never merely reactions to discoveries of microbes, toxins, or genes; they are molded, too, by systems of values, ethical codes, religious beliefs, and all manner of preconceived opinion.”

This is the part that fascinates me. We would never lump all those symptoms together, but we have many, many more diagnostic tools and a greater ability to discriminate among possible causes. Some of those symptoms sound like menopause to me, another term invented around this time.

We also distinguish more degrees of depression, separating situation-based cases from chronic ones. In the mid-nineteenth century, both doctors and patients used terms loosely, like nervous exhaustion or nervous collapse. These descriptions “sometimes indicat[ed] a condition of dullness, inertia, pessimism, and deep unhappiness that nonetheless permitted the victim to function and, at other times, describ[ed] complete paralysis of the will.”

Doctors worried that if left untreated, prolonged nervous exhaustion might develop into a complete loss of reason. But they didn’t like the idea of a purely mental disorder. They wanted the medical legitimacy of a bodily cause. “Yet to insist that mental illness revealed some malfunction of the nervous system brought alienists into competition with virtually every kind of medical practitioner.”

“The attempt to carve out a remunerative and prestigious medical niche for themselves involved nineteenth-century alienists in what might be called elaborate role-playing. Through the Victorian and Edwardian periods, they posed as scientists, single-mindedly pursuing their physiological inquiries, or as moral guides, firmly but sympathetically redirecting their patients’ thoughts away from morbid into healthy channels, or, yet again, as social disciplinarians, resolutely advancing against deviancy on all fronts.”

The nerve of some people!

Uriah Heep and David (Harold Copping)
Uriah Heep and David (Harold Copping)

Actually, there was no stigma attached to nervous disorders until Freud came along at the end of the century and told everyone it was really all about sex. Before that, men and women wrote openly about their nervous breakdowns and no qualms about seeking treatment.

Nervous disease might be attributed to heredity. Beatrice Potter Webb traced her ‘Weltschmerz’, suicidal constitution, depression, to her mother’s relatives.

But the nervous disposition could also be acquired during one’s lifetime. “It could ensue ‘as a sequence of some severe illness, of some grave anxiety, or of some physical or moral shock.’” It could derive from overwork, physical or mental. It could arise from indulgence in imprudent habits, ranging from the dissolute to the religious fanatic.

Any kind of excess could cause it. The Victorians were very concerned about excess and strain. In my previous post on mental illness, I mentioned that most of the male inmates at Halloway Sanatorium in Surrey were clerks. Think of poor Bob Cratchit and oily Uriah Heep.

Another obvious cause of nervous disorders was Londonism: the general indisposition caused by the fatigues and stress (and pollution) of the city. That giant, sprawling metropolis was very polluted and noisy through most of the nineteenth century.

Working hard enough to stress yourself severely enough to require special treatment was very fashionable in the eighties. Now in the new millennial teens, we’re all about balance.

Use the force

“All malfunctioning of the nervous system was believed to be attributable, in one way or another, to what Victorian doctors dubbed the vis nervosa [nerve force].” Doctors and patients both believed that human bodies contained a vital force which could be drained by excessive work, play, etc. Moderation was (and is) the key to health!

Victorians were also enchanted with modernity (like Elizabethans and, hm, possibly us.) They eagerly yodaturned to the achievements of their times for fresh metaphors to describe maladies of the mind and spirit.

Nerve force is an ancient idea. Galen invoked nervous spirits as transmitters of impulses from brain to muscle and of sensory information to the brain. The notion evolved over time, becoming a sort of fluid, reflecting the views of process and mechanics of the day. The Victorians’ favorite element of flow was electricity.

They compared the brain to a voltaic battery generating nerve force. Everyone possessed only limited amounts. “Heedless overexertion, whether mental or physical, could drain an individual’s supply, leaving an exhausted nervous system incapable of all endeavor. Failure of nervous power meant utter incapacitation.”

One of the principal functions of sleep was the restoration of nerve force. Time to recharge the batteries, an expression we still use!

Neurotic persons were compared to an engine with a light fly-wheel and a small furnace, whose work is fitful and unsteady. Nerves could easily be thrown out of gear or lose their spring of recoil. We still talk about being wound up or tightly wound or over-wrought (an iron-working metaphor.)

Flywheel of the Boulton-Watt steam engine

Another thriving area of invention in c19 was the world of finance. Man has a reserve of force, like the balance of a prudent firm at its bankers. If this is too far drawn upon, a sudden demand becomes a very serious matter. (A run on the bank.) Man cannot estimate his physiological capital as exactly as he can his financial reserve, but loans of force may be repaid by economy — by quietude and sleep.

George Beard, the American alienist who invented the term ‘neurasthenia,’ blamed modern civilization for the malady. Rapid transportation and communication, great advances in scientific learning, and the widespread education of women, all contributed to the depletion of vital nerve force at an extraordinary rate. 

One doctor of the day scoffed, ““Among the nerve-doctor’s best customers was the ‘City man’… [who] poisons nerves and blood with champagne, stodges his stomach with rich food three times a day, feeds his mind with vulgar shows and ‘dreams of avarice,’ finds his recreation in Zola and the Society journals, and then tells us, forsooth, that the nineteenth century is too much for his nerves.’”

That’s Emile Zola, the important and popular French writer. Caveat lector!



Officer Krupke’s dilemma

Treatments for nervous diseases hovered between physical and moral, medicine (diet, exercise) and exhortations. Gone are the eighteenth century ideas about restraint. In comes the new idea of moral management and humane treatment, consisting of decent food, proper beds, patience, kindness, and shuttlecockcheerfulness.

And outdoor exercise. The inmates of my imaginary hospital play badminton, a game invented in mid-c19, especially popular with the ladies.

Doctors walked a wandering line between science, therapy, and making a living. “The attempt to carve out a remunerative and prestigious medical niche for themselves involved nineteenth-century alienists in what might be called elaborate role-playing. Through the Victorian and Edwardian periods, they posed as scientists, single-mindedly pursuing their physiological inquiries, or as moral guides, firmly but sympathetically redirecting their patients’ thoughts away from morbid into healthy channels, or, yet again, as social disciplinarians, resolutely advancing against deviancy on all fronts.”

Oddly, considering the lack of social stigma, many phsycians believed nervous disorders resulted from failure of the moral will. 

“At the center of this moral physiology was the concept of the will, on which virtually all Victorian and Edwardian attitudes toward adult mental health and illness were constructed.”

The will managed all other activities of the mind: imagination, emotion, desire, ideas, reason, etc. Failure of the will meant these elements could run out of control and become imbalanced. The individual would no longer be able to reason or exercise judgement.

The absence of will wrought havoc with the personality of the sufferer. It could cause oppressive lethargy, painful indecisiveness, no control of impulse or capacity for intentional effort — half of the symptoms listed at the top. When the will is impaired, the patient is said to have broken down.

Morality was a strongly social concept. As late as 1881, George Savage made explicit the social concerns implicit in the diagnosis [of madness]: ‘The eccentric person who neglects his relationship to his fellow men and to the society and social position into which he is born must be looked upon as morally insane.’”

Pity the scholarly introvert, of whom there were many in Victorian England! We’ll assume such persons were blissfully unaware of their mental peril.

We’ll discuss treatments in separate posts, because I studied them all carefully with an eye toward their usefulness as murder methods. Electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, hypnotism, and of course, tonics augmented the age-old standbys of common sense: a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and a good night’s sleep.


Oppenheim, Janet. 1991. “Shattered Nerves”: Doctors, Patients, and Depression in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Read an Ebook Week

Smashwords is having a festival of freebies and deep discounts this week, from March 5 to March 11.bacon-1-3 Many books will be on sale, including the boxed set of my first three Francis Bacon mysteries. Usually $8.99, it’s 50% off this week only. That’s $4.50 for those whose arithmetic is as rusty as mine.

Click here to go straight to my book.


Lots of other great books too! Smashwords offers both Kindle (mobi) and EPUB formats, so you can enjoy your bargains on the reader of your choice.

Here’s the top page for the whole event.