Laura Purcell

Deaf, peevish old beast

Henrietta_Howard

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.’

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