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Faces of Amy Johnson: A Struggle with Depression?

Another post by Trish Allen on Amy Johnson and what drove her:

Amy at Cairo on her return from Australia, 1930
So what interests people about Amy Johnson? In a small survey that I conducted amongst friends I asked the question “if Amy Johnson was sitting at your dinner table what would be the one question that you would like to ask her?” Many responses had similar themes. What made you fly? What was the most exciting thing you saw when flying? Did you have much resistance from men? In your darkest hour what helped you through? Gin or vodka? and did your ears hurt?

Amy started flying in 1928. By this time she had been jilted by Franz. During their relationship they wrote endless letters to one another and Amy’s are held at the Hull History Centre. They were lovers for about two years and her letters suggest she was convinced that they would marry. As no commitment was forthcoming she wrote in one of her letters:

It seems to me that you want to have me, and yet you don’t want to marry me……I do not like to say this, but whilst you are waiting to see as you are doing, you are utterly cutting out my opportunities and chances in any other directions.

Later Amy writes:

For two whole years we have been almost constantly together and yet you have never once of your own will mentioned the subject of marriage to me. I knew I loved you…

One can only deduce that perhaps this broken relationship was one contributory factor to her flying career. In 1929 she confessed to Sir James Martin, then known as Jimmy Martin, who became world famous for the ejection seats that saved the lives of so many pilots, that suicide had been her immediate impulse when told that Franz was going to marry someone else. She decided that the best way to accomplish it without upsetting her parents too much was to learn to fly and have a crash. However she had come to love flying so much that the idea had dropped away.

In fact, Amy’s sister Irene committed suicide in 1929. Perhaps Irene too had suffered from depression as apparently five years earlier she had given up training as a teacher and talked about drowning herself. At this time suicide was illegal with a tremendous stigma especially from the church. Irene’s suicide cast a shadow over the whole family.

Amy returning to Croydon in 1932
However, fortunately, Amy just loved flying and, in her first commissioned article ‘Joys of the Air for a Woman’, she writes:

You who fly-Do you tell your friends of the joys you experience in the air, of the exhilaration of knowing yourself free and alone in the glorious freedom of the skies, of the wonders to be seen.

For me this conveys what inspired Amy Johnson to maintain her career. Interestingly, on her flight to Australia, whilst stopping at Sourabaya in the East Indies, for fuel and repairs, which Amy supervised she wrote a letter to her parents. Although denying she was ‘religious’ she stated that during the later stages of her flight she experienced a faith that sustained and consoled her. Later in Australia she was quoted as saying she had been brought through by a “higher power” and talked about her belief in the efficacy of her family’s prayers and that she had prayed. Clearly there were numerous factors that inspired and supported Amy through good and bad times.

In her letters there are also several references to her ‘black moods’ which occurred throughout her life. She told Franz in relentless detail about her ‘evil forebodings’ and ‘deadly fits of lassitude’. In 1925, she also suffered a ‘nervous breakdown’ after working as a typist in an accountant’s office. She felt different from the other girls in the office; she was older and felt that her university degree made a difference.

Could she have suffered from depression? Could all of this have reflected an inner lack of confidence which paradoxically inspired her to fly? Initially Amy held the view that it was better to ‘give vent’ to these black moods than to ‘repress them’ but later wrote:

and if I don’t like a thing I do my best to alter it instead of grinning and bearing it. I don’t think there’s anything that one can’t change for the better if one wants to sufficiently!

This philosophy answers many of the questions asked in my survey.

Crowds waiting for Amy Johnson at Croydon Airport
One aspect of her flying career that Amy constantly struggled with was her newfound celebrity status and public mobbing. I wonder whether this stemmed from a lack of confidence? The press and newsreel cameras gave her so much publicity. Returning from Australia in 1930 she was awarded the CBE in the Kings birthday honours, a song Amy Wonderful Amy was popular and her first biography was written. An Australian tabloid had unkindly suggested that she was a ‘gold digger’, partly because she was awarded £10,000 from Associated Newspapers, for which she conducted an exhausting tour around Australia and Britain. Does anything change! She eventually became ill with stress. There appeared to be a vulnerability about Amy when she was not in the air.

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