There are many reasons why Henrietta Howard, the heroine of my new book Mistress of the Court, is a fascinating woman to write about. In previous posts I’ve covered her determination, early feminism and struggle against domestic abuse. However, the aspect of her life that contemporaries at court chose to concentrate on, in poems and in jests, was her partial deafness.
Not all of these were malicious. Pope charmingly uses the affliction to highlight Henrietta’s modest nature:
When all the world conspires to praise her
The woman’s deaf and does not hear
Indeed, Henrietta herself was inclined to make light of her condition with her friends, writing to Lord Chesterfield
I know you so indulgent to your friends, that you would not interrupt their diversions . . . you always affirmed pain was my particular one
But this frivolous comment hid, as so often with Henrietta’s life, a world of pain and suffering. She was not born with any hearing impediment. Her biographer Tracy Borman believes the trouble began in Henrietta’s late 20s or early 30s. The cause is not clear, although for dramatic effect in Mistress of the Court, I attribute the damage to a blow received by her husband.
Henrietta’s was certainly a painful deafness; she often described her ‘poor pain in the face’ and letters from her correspondents are rife with regrets that she is not in better health. Her friend Dr Arbuthnot constantly treated her for headaches. It may be that Henrietta started to have difficulty hearing her own voice and adopted some signs; one of her letters refers to ‘that gesticulation of the hand for which I am so famous.’
Despite the fact that George II, in one of his rages, referred to her as a ‘deaf, peevish old beast’, it appears Henrietta was perfectly stoical about her condition. In fact, one wonders if she could have born for so long with George II if she were not partially deaf. With the writer Jonathan Swift, she engaged in a kind of playful competition to see who was the most unwell. ‘I should make you the best husband in the world,’ wrote Swift,’for I am ten times deafer than ever you were in your life.’ Henrietta, however, beat him by showing superior fortitude. Deafness and headache were ‘misfortunes I have laboured under these many years,’ she boasted, ‘and yet never was peevish with myself or the world.’
Eventually, the agony became too severe. Something had to be done. In the summer of 1728, Henrietta consulted the eminent surgeon Mr Cheselden. He suggested an operation – something to be feared and dreaded in the pre anesthetic/disinfectant era. One only has to read Fanny Burney’s account of her own mastectomy to swoon in horror.
Horace Walpole makes an interesting reference to Henrietta’s operation in his anecdotes. He claims that Henrietta heard a condemned man at Newgate, who suffered from the same condition. According to Walpole, Cheselden arranged for the prisoner to be pardoned, on the condition that he submitted to an experimental operation. This is not impossible – Queen Caroline made a similar deal when testing her smallpox inoculations.
Despite reading treatise and advice on treatment for bad ears, I could not establish the exact nature of the procedure Henrietta underwent. Suffice to say, it involved some sort of boring tool. Her own description is rather chilling, calling to mind a sweating surgeon and horrific instruments.
I sent for Mr Cheselden, who, give him his due, worked very hard, but found so much resistance, that I was justified to inquire no further then into my jaw; besides, finding nothing there, we were afraid to proceed.
Henrietta admits that the pain of the operation was ‘almost unbearable’, but it seemed to do good. ‘‘I am much better;’ she reported to John Gay in August. ‘Whether I owe it to the operation I underwent, or to my medicines, I cannot tell.’
When I write biographical novels, I often draft little scenes that I have no intention of putting in the final draft. I like to explore important events in the subject’s life and see even the mundane parts of life through their eyes. As I wanted to get a feel for the medicines Henrietta would take daily, and think about how she would cope with an operation, I wrote the following scene with my research into hearing difficulties. It is not in the novel, but I hope you will enjoy it.
The doctor peered down his nose at Henrietta. He was dressed in black and white like a parson; as if he was prepared to perform the funeral rites, should she take a turn for the worse. A short, unpowdered wig sat beneath his hat. He looked eminently respectable, but Henrietta eyed him warily. Could this man help her? No doctor had been able to save her parents or siblings from their fate. In her experience medical men were mere harbingers of death; crows that sat on the lychgate and cawed as the coffin passed by.
‘Mrs Howard. An honour.’ He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on her ear.
Suddenly, pain pulsed through her head, nearly felling her. She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her brow. This would not do. The pangs were coming frequently now, with greater strength. She had to try something to stop them.
A whiff of smelling salts beneath her nose jerked her back to her senses. She looked up gratefully at the doctor, who now stood beside her. ‘Thank you Mr Cheselden. I came over most queer.’
Her frowned. ‘It is your head that troubles you?’
‘Yes, my head and my ears. I do not hear well at all. My friends Dr Arbuthnot and Lord Chesterfield have spoken very highly of your skill with such things. They believe you can help me.’
He wet his lips. His face was plump and ruddy; like most doctors, he looked astonishingly well living off others’ pain. ‘Perhaps I can. Tell me how this first came about.’
With lowered eyes, she explained the gradual loss of her hearing and the headaches that arrested her, especially in times of distress. She told him she had knocked her head many times in the past, but attributed it to riding accidents instead of Charles’s well-aimed fist.
He lifted his bag and began to rummage in it. ‘And what have you taken so far?’
‘Some pills made of Jesuits’ Bark and gillyflower syrup. Laudanum, of course. I try to sleep with half an onion on the bad ear.’
‘With this type of pain, you should be kept cool and take emollient substances such as milk and spinach. Did you never think to shave your head?’
She could just imagine George’s reaction to that. ‘I wish to keep my hair. But I did have a blister, here.’ She ran her finger along her jawbone from the side her chin to just below her earlobe.
‘Yes. The corner of your jaw, just there. That is where we should concentrate.’ He drew out a small wooden case and laid it on a side table. Then, with his index finger, he tilted her chin to the light.
She swallowed. ‘What – what do you mean to do?’
‘You are familiar with the theory behind bleeding? Letting the ill humours flow out?’ She could not nod while he held her head, so she blinked. ‘Then there is a process where we go deeper, especially in cases of lunacy. You may have heard of trepanning?’
She froze. Everyone knew of the horrific procedure where a hole was drilled in the skull to release pressure in the brain. Sometimes discs of bone were removed permanently.
Mr Cheselden smiled. ‘Do not turn so pale, dear madam. I only mean to say that whatever obstructs the flow of blood through the head may cause the ache. With an instrument similar to the trepan, I can bore a small hole in the angle of your jaw to unblock it.’
Her heart bounded within her. Suddenly she did not want any help; she would rather be left alone. ‘Would it hurt?’
Evading her question, he gestured to an armchair. ‘We might do it just there. You could sit comfortably with a cambric handkerchief over your eyes; you would not see a thing. Have you an old sheet, and some lint?’
The ache in her head was dull now; terror drove it off. She moved her dry tongue. ‘I believe I do. But sir, pray tell me how much it will hurt. I must prepare myself.’ She watched him as he passed to the side table and opened his box. Polished steel glinted from within. She turned her face away, sick with horror.
‘I do not believe it will be much greater than the pain you already labour under,’ he said gently. ‘Unless . . . Perhaps you do not feel yourself equal to withstand it?’
Unexpected pride kicked in her chest. Unequal to withstand it indeed! This man had no idea what she had been through. ‘I am accustomed to discomfort, I assure you. What is your price?’ He named a large sum. ‘For such a fee sir, you must be sure of success.’ He inclined his head.
It did not feel right to spend so much, after begging George for more money. But didn’t she deserve some relief; a slither of money to spend on herself, instead of Charles and his blasted debts? ‘If you are certain, I will proceed, Mr Cheselden.’ Fear crept through her as the words left her lips.
‘I must ask for the payment upfront. In case of . . . difficulty.’
Trembling, she told the money into his hand. George’s impassive profile stared back at her from a coin. Despite everything, her lip twitched. It seemed absurd to pay out such a great sum, when George would gladly put a hole in her head for no charge at all.