Chapter One: Through the lens of the antiquary: conceptualizing the nineteenth-century dream.


"Of dreams, you foolish lad!--why, what should I think of them but as the deceptions of imagination when reason drops the reins? ... Lord! Lord! How this world is given to folly!" ... The antiquary burst into a fit of laughing. "Excuse me, my young friend, but it is thus we silly mortals deceive ourselves." So responds Mr. Oldbuck, the good-natured title character of Sir Walter Scott's The Antiquary (1816), when asked for his opinion of dreams. (4) The subject of oneirocriticism arises when his young friend, Mr. Lovel, has an apparently meaningful dream. (5) The description of this playfully Gothic dream and the discussion that it incites provide insight into nineteenth-century approaches to dream interpretation and analysis. While the narrator introduces a sense of ambiguity to the origin of the dream, Oldbuck espouses scientific dream theories, and Lovel adopts an unscientific but popular oneirocritical stance (130-31).

The contested dream occurs while Lovel is sleeping in the Green Room, the purportedly haunted chamber of Oldbuck's home (99). According to legend, this chamber is the abode of the ghost of Aldobrand, who is Oldbuck's great-great-great-grandfather and the house's original proprietor (93). But this vision of Aldobrand is preceded by a nonsensical dream in which a series of metamorphoses transform Lovel and several of his acquaintances into various animals. There is a distinct shift when the first dream ends, and the second begins, as Lovel mistakenly believes that he has awakened. (6) While he looks on, the tapestry above his bed springs to life. The huntsmen, the dogs, and the deer in the woven hunting scene become fearfully animated. Gradually, one of the huntsmen transforms into a man matching the description of Aldobrand and points with otherworldly import to a phrase in an unknown language (99). Upon awakening, Lovel ascertains that the words are German, translates them into English, and discovers that the phrase exhorts perseverance (131).

Revelatory Oneirocriticism

In contrast to the nonsensical dream with which it is juxtaposed, this vision likely strikes both the dreamer and the reader as especially significant. (7) Of the two dreams, only the second communicates a distinct message, and it features the dramatic appearance of a ghost who literally points to a moral exhorting perseverance (99). Moreover, the message is relevant to Lovel's current situation, as he has been deliberating over whether to persevere in an endeavor of great personal importance. The translation of this phrase convinces him that the dream must really convey a message from a benevolent spirit. Lovel asks Oldbuck,

Why should I have thought of those words which I cannot remember to have heard before, which are in a language unknown to me, and which yet conveyed, when translated, a lesson which I could so plainly apply to my own circumstances? (131) The events at the end of the novel support this revelatory interpretation, as Lovel is rewarded for his perseverance in pursuing the hand of Miss Wardour. Instead of leaving town and renouncing his intention to marry her, he persists in executing his plan to gain her father's approval. To this end, he researches his unknown parentage in the hope of proving himself a worthy suitor. Ultimately, because he remains in town to investigate this query, he discovers not only that his birth is legitimate, but that he is the next earl of Glenallen. In addition to receiving Miss Wardour's hand in marriage, Lovel gains a title, inherits a fortune, and is able to meet his infirm father before he dies (386).

Although the text never provides a definitive answer to whether the vision of Aldobrand constitutes a monitory dream, these factors would likely validate many nineteenth-century readers' suspicions that it does. The revelatory dream was not only a literary device, but also an accepted means of enlightenment for many curious dreamers of this period. In "The Meaning of Dream Books" (1999), Maureen Perkins describes revelatory dream interpretation as common in nineteenth-century Great Britain (104). Catherine Bernard also notes the numerous published accounts of people claiming to have experienced prophetic dreams in her article, "Dickens and Victorian Dream Theory" (1981) (198). Nineteenth-century believers in the revelatory significance of dreams speculated that although some dreams might be nonsensical, others could transmit revelatory missives (Glance 4).

Collections of prophetic dreams such as Mrs. Blair's Dreams and Dreaming (1843) and Catherine Crowe's The Night Side of Nature (1848) were very popular during the long nineteenth century (Bernard 198). The Society for Psychical Research also published numerous letters detailing these experiences in Phantasms of the Living (1886). Magazines such as Chambers's Journal, Blackwoods, London Magazine, and Gentleman's Magazine published similar anecdotes as well as opinion pieces supporting the possible existence of revelatory dreams (Perkins 107; Glance 5). In one of these opinion pieces, James Hogg, the author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), questions the scientific certainty that dream content is meaningless. (8) His article in the May 1827 edition of the Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine calls attention to the inconclusive nature of the scientific studies of the time. In the article, Hogg declares that the "expert" on dreaming could not even adequately define "sleep," let alone begin to comprehend the "eternal part of it wherein the soul holds intercourse with the external world" (Glance 4-5).

Opinion diverged regarding this "external" power with which "the soul holds intercourse" during revelatory dreams (Glance 5). Suspected sources ranged from supernatural creatures and ghosts to the divine. In Essay on Superstition (1830), W. Newnham remarks that even "ghosts and fairies ... claimed the privilege of nightly visitation" in popular opinion (36). Adherents of secular spiritualism believed that nighttime visions could bring the dreamer into contact with the dead (Bernard 197). For the secular spiritualist, it would not be outside the realm of possibility for the ghost of Aldobrand to visit Lovel's dream in order to offer important guidance (Scott 99). (9) Skeptics considered this type of ghostly vision akin to "table rappings, seances, and house haunting" (Bernard 197). Alternately, in The Night Side of Nature (1848), Catherine Crowe asserts that while dreaming, it is possible for the sleeper to communicate not only with the dead, but also with the divine. According to Crowe, this phenomenon could occur during naturally occurring dreams as well as in mesmeric sleep (Bernard 198). (10)

Religious spiritualists considered revelatory dreams solely the domain of the divine. Mrs. Blair, the editor of Dreams and Dreaming (1843), describes the revelatory dream as a moral directive sent from God "for the comforting of his tired people" (Bernard 198). This concept follows the oneirocritical tradition of the Bible. Some biblical accounts of dreams suggest that God communicates directly with the dreamer, as in Solomon's dream in 1 Kings 3:5 or Abimelech's monitory dream in Genesis 20:3. More often, an angel may act as an intermediary between them, as in Jacob's dream in Genesis 31:11 or Joseph's prophetic dream in Matthew 1:20. (11) But most often, biblical dreams require the interpretive analysis of a prophetic figure. For example, in Genesis 41:15-17, the pharaoh seeks Joseph's assistance when no one else is able to interpret his dream. In Genesis 40:8, Jacob associates the symbolic dream interpretation specifically with divine revelation: "Do not interpretations belong to God?" (

This hermeneutic approach took a different form for most nineteenth-century dreamers, though. Despite the lofty purpose to which Blair ascribes revelatory dreams (Bernard 198), those interested in oneirocriticism typically turned to a disparaged but common form of street literature. "In Europe, dream books were as old as publishing itself," writes Perkins. But over the course of the nineteenth century, they experienced a rise in popularity, becoming "in Britain at least, the dominant form of chapbook" (Perkins 104). These dream books employ universal symbols to decode dreams. According to one dream book, "a virgin dreaming she has put on new garments, shews an alteration in her condition by way of marriage," and according to another, "if a woman dreams she is with child, it shews sorrow and sadness." This type of dream interpretation would also frequently accompany prophetic almanacs and fortune-telling guides. For instance, Mother Shipton's Fortune Teller (1861) includes "A Charm for Dreaming" intended to invoke prophetic dreams (Perkins 106).

The dream book occupied...

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