Vera J. Camden

‘Sound and Soma: The Lived Experience of Hymns in Hannah Burton’s London Diary (1782)’


Hannah Burton (1723-1786), 60-year-old Presbyterian widow of a bankrupted London goldsmith, kept a diary from September to December 1782 chronicling her struggle to survive on the widow’s portion of her husband’s pension from the Goldsmith’s Hall. Amidst the constant threat of debt collectors and magistrates, the poverty of her unemployed adult children, and her despair following her husband’s death, Hannah turned to the comfort and assurance of spiritual writing. As part of her process of religious introspection, Hannah’s manuscript account is intentionally interwoven with excerpts from Anglican, Baptist and Congregationalist hymns by William Cowper, Isaac Watts, John Newton, Thomas Gibbons and Anne Steele. Using a psychoanalytic reading as a means to understand the power of oral memory, this paper examines how Hannah collected, internalized and augmented the spiritual voices of prominent hymn-writers, in order to explicate her female agency in crafting unique ‘sounds’ of personal devotion. As a result, this paper present news ways of thinking about the historiography of hymnology ‘from below’, as well as the distillation and reception of Dissenting hymns during the eighteenth century.


Vera J. Camden is Professor of English at Kent State University, training and supervising analyst at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, and assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University. She is associate editor of American Imago and American editor of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics.

The International John Bunyan Society

A society dedicated to the study of the life and times of John Bunyan (1628-1688)