Georgian

Launch Day!

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Raise a glass of virtual champagne, it’s publication day! Mistress of the Court is out in UK paperback now.

There are plenty of exciting offers to kick off the launch. If you missed the Goodreads giveaway that closed today, do not fear. My publisher is offering a special pre-order price on the Kindle edition, which comes out on 25 September 2015. You can reserve yours now for just £1.99 ($3.10 US, $4.99 AUS). The price will go up after publication, so make sure you lock into this deal.

For UK readers, I’m delighted to announce I will be signing at Waterstones Bury St Edmunds on 8 August 2015 between 10:00 and 12:00 and Waterstones Colchester on 15 August 2015 between 12:00 and 13:00. The staff are wonderful and both shops are lovely, so please do come along and see us. If you can’t make it in person, they can take your reservation over the phone and post a signed copy to you.

Mistress of the Court will also be going on its own virtual blog tour with TLC. Watch this space for reviews and more!

Giveaway Time

Mistress of the Court

Make haste, there are only a few days left to enter the Goodreads giveaway for Mistress of the Court! An amazing 20 copies are up for grabs for UK readers. Entries close on 4 August 2015, so get in quick!

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The Penny Heart

24378570It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut, An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.

There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.

When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.

I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.

Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.

Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .

The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .

Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.

Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.

While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!

I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9781444780499_p0_v1_s300x475Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.

I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.

Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.

Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.

The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.

While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.

Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.

Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.

While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.

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Benjamin Franklin House

benjamin-franklin-house1A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to take an architectural tour around the Benjamin Franklin House in Craven Street. A delicious little Georgian townhouse hidden off the Strand, it is full of wonderful period features.

I have to admit, I knew very little about Franklin before attending the tour. Obviously I knew about his experiment with lightning and his involvement with the Declaration of Independence, but that was about the sum of my knowledge. The visit really piqued my interest; Franklin was a man at the center of diplomacy who lived through an astonishing time. Part spy, part scientist, diplomat, inventor and philosopher, he was a fascinating man. Franklin lived in London for nearly sixteen years in his role as Postmaster for American, returning home in 1775 with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Sadly, his Craven Street house is the last of his residences to survive.

I have visited many Grade II listed buildings, but Benjamin Franklin House tops the bill at Grade I – a place of exceptional interest to our heritage. The restoration project completed to bring the house up to its present condition was a huge undertaking. Fortunately for us, lots of love and devotion have rescued the place from dereliction and you can now see a genuine example of an everyday Georgian townhouse.

imagesI say ‘everyday’ – in fact, it seems 36 Craven Street was far from ordinary! Not only did you have Franklin lodging there with his experiments and important dinners, but there was an anatomy school running downstairs. A collection of bones found during conservation were on display, from where the school had practiced cutting up bodies – either obtained from the gallows or the resurrection men! I rather feel for the poor landlady, Margaret Stevenson, with such strange lodgers, but it seems she rather enjoyed her eccentric household.

One of my favourite parts of the tour was a chance to play Franklin’s famous glass armonica. You can get some seriously spooky sounds from this instrument, but also great music – Mozart and Beethoven both composed pieces for it. My musical skills were sadly lacking – still, I had fun!

glassHopefully I will be returning to Benjamin Franklin House later this year to take part in their Historical Experience. Through this attraction, the house is brought to life in its Georgian splendour. Actors read excerpts from Franklin’s writing and recreate every day scenes from the house. Using light projectors, the interior is returned to something like its original decoration, immersing you in the smells, sights and sounds of the era. I can’t wait!

You can find out more about Benjamin Franklin House here.

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Gregory and the Georgian Era

Meeting Philippa Gregory
Meeting Philippa Gregory

Here’s me meeting the lovely Philippa Gregory in July with her tour of The King’s Curse. Having read her work since I was an early teenager, I was hugely excited to get a chance to meet this best-selling author. She is one of my favourites, although I know this is not a popular opinion in the historical fiction world. People always tell me I can’t possibly like Gregory, because The Other Boleyn Girl was historically incorrect. Well yes, it was. It was also a darn good story, and the one that got me into the genre of historical fiction. Before I picked up that book, I had refused to read anything written after 1900. But I’m not here to write about the Tudor works that have made Gregory famous. I want to tell you about my favourites: her earlier works, stories made up by the author herself and set in the gorgeous Georgian era.

When I met Philippa, I gave her a copy of Queen of Bedlam as a thank you for all the inspiration her writing has provided. I will be delighted if it brings her even a fraction of the pleasure her Georgian books have brought me.

You might not associate Philippa Gregory with the Georgians, but you should. She studied 18th century literature and chose the period for her debut novel, Wideacre. As this is a blog dedicated to Georgian historical fiction, I thought I should give you a taste for Gregory’s Georgian novels. Below, I’ve provided a little summary of each one and my thoughts.

A Respectable Trade

n68145Like most women of her time, Frances Scott seeks a marriage for life-long security. But in order to achieve this, she has to stoop from the position she was born to. She finds Josiah Cole, a prosperous merchant who needs her connections. The two strike a bargain and embark on an amiable, if not loving marriage.

However, when a cargo of African slaves arrive, the politics of the family begin to shift. Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mehuru, which turns her world upside down.

I absolutely loved this book. I read it so quickly and it completely absorbed me. Not only does it treat the subjects of slavery, oppression and ambition with the darkness they deserve, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of the Bristol traders. In particular I remember feeling for Josiah, who is desperate to work his way up. The twists and turns in his story had me screaming at the pages – I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see them coming.

The only thing I didn’t entirely like was the romance aspect of the book. I think it would have been more powerful, and believable, if the relationship between Frances and Mehuru had stayed as a profound friendship. The end also leaves you guessing a little, which may not appeal to everyone.

The Wideacre Triology

Three generations, one estate.

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Wideacre

Beatrice Lacey, the darling of her father, is devoted to her home estate of Wideacre. She is at one with the land and the people upon it, but society has other plans for her. Her mother wants her to become an ‘indoor miss’ and marry. Terrified at the prospect of anything that might force her to leave Wideacre, Beatrice embarks on an increasingly desperate campaign to secure her place – at the expense of her soul.

Read if you dare! I won’t pretend Wideacre is a comfortable book. It will probably disturb you, and that’s why I like it so much. It had me turning the pages and gasping. The heroine clearly becomes mentally unstable during the course of the narrative, but while she is hard to like, you cannot help secretly rooting for her. You understand her motivations, even if you do not approve with her methods (any of them).

On a historical note, I also found Wideacre a great tale of a village and its squire in the 18th century. You gain an understanding of the farming methods and the way the labouring classes lived. I had read a lot of academic work about enclosures and wheat prices, but it took this novel to bring home to me just how much the poor suffered.

The Favoured Child

Julia is growing up on the dilapidated estate of Wideacre with her kind mother and bullying cousin Richard. Money is short and the villagers are openly hostile. Her difficult childhood is punctuated by vivid dreams that offer glimpses into both the future and the past. She cannot be sure if she has a gift, or she is going mad.

As Julia grows, she is torn between her love for her cousin and her desire to help the village. Her tentative steps toward independence meet with crushing obstacles. At last she finds two men who seem willing to further her schemes for social improvement, but Richard is not willing to let either Julia or the land go.

Julia Lacey is a very likeable character, a refreshing breath of air after Beatrice. I found her to be a realistic representation of a woman of her time, although at times that could be annoying – you really wanted her to stand up to her male cousin. Hers is a sad story, but I found it captivating. Another page-turner, though perhaps not as fast-paced as Wideacre. The visions and trances – almost akin to possession – that Julia experiences are, at times, overdone.

Once again the plight of the poor comes into fascinating focus: children abducted from the village to be apprentices, corn-riots, the back-streets of Bath. The dirty truth behind the glamour of the Georgian era is revealed in a very human way.

Meridon

The last of the trilogy and in my opinion, the best. This was a relief, as I have read so many trilogies let down by the final book!

Meridon is a gypsy orphan, keeping body and soul together by training horses for an abusive step-father. Her only comfort is her sister Dandy; a reckless, beautiful girl. At night, Meridon dreams of a place called Wide and a girl named Sarah. She vows to find the land of her dreams. Somehow, she will make life better and save her sister from a future as a whore.

The sheer scope of this story is amazing – you travel from a gypsy wagon to horse shows, Wideacre to the highest London society, balls to card-sharping dens. The story is good, but the main pull for me was the characterisation. Meridon is someone you enjoy spending time with, despite her gruff ways. She reacts in ways that ring true based on her experience. I found her a deeply sympathetic character, especially since she was so rough around the edges.

While this book refers to The Favoured Child, you don’t actually have to read the first two installments of the trilogy to understand Meridon. If you just pick one of the three, I’d make it this one.

 

An Appetite for Violets

violetsIt’s always a pleasure to read new fiction set in the Georgian era, but that delight is intensified when the story is written by a captivating new author like Martine Bailey. I was lucky enough to get chatting to Martine on Goodreads, where she told me about her upcoming Georgian release. As you can imagine, my ears perked up and I dashed to the launch party! Since this blog is the haven of Georgian historical fiction, I’d like to share my thoughts on Martine’s wonderful book, which I have just finished reading.

I have to admit that if left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have picked An Appetite for Violets off the shelf. The cover and the title struck me as a bit girly to start with – I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is not a twee tale of flowers and baking, but a dark mystery that explores the underbelly of Georgian life. Venereal disease, unwed mothers, a cursed jewel, slavery and poison all feature in this rich adventure across 18th century Europe.

Our heroine is Biddy Leigh, a straight-forward but kind-hearted undercook at the old estate of Mawton Hall. At the beginning of the story, Biddy’s life seems simple. She is planning to marry a local lad and save for a tavern of her own. But when the master of Mawton Hall takes a new wife, a rich young woman descends on Biddy’s world and changes it forever. Biddy’s good heart and ambition draw her deeper into her mistress’s life, until she is forced to leave all she knows behind. Stuck abroad with a secretive employer and increasingly shifty fellow-servants, she must use all her wits before she is entrapped.

Biddy has to be one of my favourite heroines to appear for a long time. Whilst hard-working and generous, she has a sharp tongue and will not be taken for a fool. She felt very realistic to me – in almost every situation, she acted as a normal person would do. Moreover, I found her a convincing representation of a rural eighteenth-century servant; keen to advance, loyal, gently mocking of the rich folk whilst envying their possessions. But the real triumph of Biddy has to be her language. As you know from my previous posts, I often struggle when historical authors use outdated words. Sometimes it seems they are just chucking them in to sound clever, or it distracts from the meaning of the sentence. Not so with Martine Bailey. Every Georgian slang word Biddy uses is clearly expressed, and is often used to marvelous comic effect. I have never seen language so lightly and skillfully interwoven into a historical character.

There are other voices in the narrative: that of Loveday, a slave forced to work as a footman; Mr Pars, whose correspondence Loveday reads to us and most importantly, the recipe book The Cook’s Jewel. I liked the touch of letters telling part of the story; it reminded me of the eighteenth-century epistolary novels. And while I am no cook, I found the old recipes intriguing. You do not have to be a foodie to love this book (although you will adore it if you are one!). Bailey’s descriptions and Biddy’s enthusiasm soon give you an appetite for a fascinating culinary world.

Loveday’s character is excellent and again, his speech is convincing. He speaks imperfect English, but it is never hard or jarring to read. Bailey has clearly done her research on the island and culture Loveday would have come from, giving a wonderful glimpse into the man behind the slave. Through his foreign eyes we see oddities of eighteenth-century culture that Biddy would not remark upon as strange. We also root for him on his quest to discover the man he once was. But along the way, Loveday manages to discover one or two other things that thicken the plot . . .

It is very hard to find a genre for An Appetite for Violets. It is a historical novel with mystery, crime, romance, comedy and gothic elements. Whilst parts of the story are dark, the book has an overall cheerful feel to it. It is easy to read and never feels cumbersome. I suppose at the end of the day, it is like one of Biddy’s recipes. There are many ingredients, some of which you would hesitate to blend together, but when all is mixed and cooked, the finished dish is a triumph.

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Happily Ever After?

Anne 1736It’s easy to get carried away in romance, especially where history is concerned. We imagine fine dresses and top hats, forgetting about lack of sanitation and bad personal hygiene. When we study historical princesses, the temptation to lapse into fairytale is even greater. But as you will know, if you have read my blog for a while, the life of a Georgian princess was anything but romantic!

So what happened when a prince finally did come along to sweep our heroines away? Well, settle down and I will tell you the unromantic story of George II’s eldest daughter, Princess Anne.

Assertive and ambitious, it was always Anne’s intention to marry well. But as a princess whose father’s throne depended on his Protestant religion, her choice was limited. After failed negotiations with the French and Prussian courts, it became clear there was only one path for Anne to travel down. Since the days of William III, England had looked kindly on the House of Orange as their liberators from Catholic oppression. An alliance with young William, Prince of Orange, would be joyfully received. Not that there was any alternative. As Lord Hervey put it, Anne’s choice lay between hell and Holland.

William was neither important or handsome, in the grand scheme of things. Moreover, he had a severely hunched shoulder, with increasing curvature of the back and chest. Considering the deformity, George II asked Anne if she was sure she wanted to proceed with the marriage. When she assured her father she would marry William even if he were a baboon, he replied, “There is baboon enough for you.”

William of orangeConcerned for her daughter, Queen Caroline sent Lord Hervey to look at William and tell her “what sort of animal I must prepare myself to see.” Hervey assured her the prince’s body was as bad as possible, with a short waist, long legs and no calves. It seemed William’s breath was also distasteful. But, Hervey conceded, his countenance was “engaging and noble”.

Te treaty concluded, William arrived at Greenwich to wed the English princess. In true George II style, the King snubbed the new prince. In his opinion, William would be nothing until he married his daughter. But the people of London were excited by the young prince’s arrival, wearing orange cockades and decorating the streets with orange ribbon. This popularity sent George II into one of his famous rages.

Very soon after his arrival, poor William collapsed at church. He lay ill with pneumonia for three weeks, his life in danger. The wedding had to be postponed and George II forbade his wife and daughters from visiting the sick prince. While her fiance stood at death’s door, Princess Anne was calmly playing on her harpsichord. To do the females credit, they did have William over when he was well again – only to be told by the King that he didn’t want such an episode repeated.

The wedding finally took place on 14 March at seven in the evening, four months after William’s arrival. The Chapel Royal at St. James’s Palace was fitted up suitably for the occassion with crimson velvet and tafetta, studded with golden roses. Anne wore blue silk looped with diamonds and robes of silver tissue, her train being six yards long. She was accompanied to the altar by her eldest brother Prince Frederick, which must have been an uncomfortable business. Not only did the siblings quarrel in private about music, running rival operas, Fred was resentful that his sister was marrying first – with a dowry of £80,000 – while he was strapped for money. Anne’s family (brother Frederick excepted) wept throughout the ceremony, making it “more like the mournful pomp of a sacrifice than the joyful celebration of a marriage.”

220px-George_II,_Queen_Caroline,_and_childrenWhilst taking his vows, William was “a less shocking and less ridiculous figure” with a long peruke to cover his bad shoulder. But when the time came to put the couple to bed, the poor prince could no longer hide his deformity. In a rare act of sensitivity, the King arranged for William to be behind a curtain, so that the assembling masses in the bedchamber could only see his cap and brocade nightgown.But Lord Hervey glimpsed William’s body, and thought that from behind the prince looked as if he had no neck. Queen Caroline was frantic at the idea of her daughter going to sleep with “this monster”, owning his appearance had “stunned” her to the point where she might pass out.

The couple left England at the end of April – not soon enough for George II, who was jealous of the popularity William excited wherever he went. However, Anne’s stay in Holland was remarkably short. With war brewing in Europe, her new husband went to join Dutch troops on the Rhine, and she seized the opportunity to return to England. Her mother was overjoyed to see her again, especially when she confided she was with child.

Time passed. Neither sense nor politics could tempt Anne away from her family. She was constantly pressured to return to her new people by the Dutch ambassador. If she carried William’s heir, he argued, it was imperative the boy should be born at the Hague. But Anne clung to the hope she would give birth in England. It wasn’t until William sent Anne a letter announcing he would be home in two weeks that she finally set off – and even then, she had to be urged by her parents. Caroline had to remind her daughter: “You are now William’s wife – God has given you skill and judgement, you are no longer a child.”

AnneWhen Anne reached my home town of Colchester, she received a letter from her husband saying he was delayed for a few days. She took this opportunity to return to London, despite the fact poor William was traveling day and night in a quest to get home on time. She managed to stay with her family another week before her exasperated parents packed her off again. Her ship actually set sail from Harwich on 7 November, but Anne pleaded sickness and convulsions, forcing the vessel to turn around. The King was at the end of his patience. He refused to receive his daughter back at St. James’s Palace. Anne’s exploits had cost him nearly £20,000 and earned her universal condemnation. She went back to Holland with her tail between her legs.

Sadly, Anne’s child turned out to be a phantom, and she was to suffer several horrific stillbirths and miscarriages in the course of her marriage. However, she finally had a healthy son and daughter. Even her thirst for power was eventually satisfied when, in 1751, poor William died aged just 40 and Anne was appointed regent for her three-year-old son.  But  I won’t leave you entirely devoid of romance. I can tell you that, despite Anne’s reluctance to return to Holland, she and William became a happy couple, addressing each other affectionately in letters as “Pepin” and “Annin”. Here is one of the last notes he wrote to her:

Farewell dear heart, pearl among women, my joy whom I love more every day. As God is my witness, you are my life’s good fortune. Know that I am your most faithful, most tender and best of friends, Pepin

A Nervous Disposition

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Today I have the lovely Maria Grace in my Georgian parlour, talking about a subject close to my heart: nerves. We all remember Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet and her whimsical illnesses, but what of those who suffered genuine problems? What were the treatments available and how were they viewed at the time?

It’s interesting to see from Maria’s article that some modern day stereotypes date back to the early nineteenth century. It seems some doctors considered those affected by panic attacks to blame – they were “indolent” and didn’t go out in “cheerful company” enough. How infuriating!

Take it away, Maria.

Nervous conditions

The fine sensibility prized by women in the 18th century gave rise to an epidemic of nervous disorders in the early 19th century.  Maladies of affluence and sophistication, nervous disorders paraded one’s wealth, refinement and sensibility. Women were particularly susceptible to nervous because of their ‘more delicate physiological network’.  In fact, ‘Nerves’ were a woman’s claim to superior social status, the mark of being a lady.

The wealthy and indolent were not the only suffers though.  Given that during the early 19th century people lived in a world where a small ache or upset stomach could be the harbinger of something far worse, or even fatal, it is not really surprising that hysterical diseases, hypochondria and melancholy—what we would call depression—were prevalent, especially when legitimized as disorders by respected doctors.

While doctors agreed that they existed, “there’s no Disease puzzled Physicians more than the Vapours, and Hysterick Fits. These complaints are produced by so many Causes, and appear in so many various Shares, that ’tis no easy Matter to describe them.” (Tennet) “The Annual Review” said that after doctors started taking nervous disorders seriously, everyone was taking medication for them, outdoing each other with exaggerated symptoms and buying an array of medical equipment to deal with them. How strangely 21st century it all sounds.

Symptoms and Types of Nervous conditions

According to William Buchan in his book  Domestic Medicine, 1790, “Of all diseases incident to mankind, those of the nervous kind are the most complicated and difficult to cure. A volume would not be sufficient to point out their various appearances. They imitate almost every disease; and are seldom alike in two different persons, or even in the same person at different times. Proteus-like, they are continually changing shape; and upon every fresh attack, the patient thinks he feels symptoms which he never experienced before. Nor do they only affect the body; the mind likewise suffers, and is often thereby rendered extremely weak and peevish.”

The symptoms of nervous disorders were often thought to begin in the stomach which was thought to be the center of the nervous system. Buchan suggested, “They generally begin with windy inflations or distensions of the stomach and intestines, the appetite and digestion are usually bad; yet sometimes there is an uncommon craving for food, and a quick digestion. The food often turns sour on the stomach; and the patient is troubled with vomiting of clear water, tough phlegm, or a blackish colored liquor resembling the grounds of coffee. Excruciating pains are often felt about the navel, attended with a rumbling or murmuring noise in the bowels.”

These symptoms might be accompanied by difficulty breathing; violent palpitations of the heart, sudden flushes or a sense of cold in various parts of the body, pains throughout the body, variable pulse, fits of crying and convulsive laughing, poor sleep and night-mares.

Progression of the disease would bring headaches, body cramps, mental disturbances including terror, sadness, weak memory and failure of judgment. “Nothing is more characteristic of this disease than constant dread of death. This renders those unhappy persons who labour under it peevish, fickle, impatient, and apt to run from one physician to another; which is one reason why they seldom reap any benefit from medicine, as they have not sufficient resolution to persist in any one course till it has time to produce its proper effects.” (Buchan)

By the beginning of the 19th century, hysteria was no longer attributed to a wandering womb, but the nervous system. Other forms of nervous conditions were also recognized including: melancholy, nightmare, swoons, low spirits, hysteric affections and hypochondriac affections.

Causes of Nervous Disorders

Doctors did not agree as to the cause of nervous conditions.  Some, like Tennet, argued the stomach was at core of the disorder. “Because the Stomach is suspected to be much in Fault, I would have That cleans’d in the first Place, with a Vomit of Indian Physick; the next Day, purify the Bowels, but a Purge of the same; which must be repeated 2 Days after.”

Others, including Buchan believed the causes more complex.  Indolence and other things that relaxed or weakened the body like drinking tea, frequent bleeding or purging could lead to nervous disorders. While those things which hurt digestion could contribute to the problem, unfavorable postures of the body and intense application to study were equally likely to cause difficulties. “Indeed few studious persons are entirely free from them. Nor is this at all to be wondered at; intense thinking not only preys upon the spirits, but prevents the person from taking proper exercise, by which means the digestion is impaired, the nourishment prevented, the solids relaxed, and the whole mass of humours vitiated. Grief and disappointment likewise produce the same effects.” (Buchan)

Treatments for Nervous conditions

In many ways, the recommended treatments for nervous disorders were quite progressive. They included a multipronged approach that included diet, exercise, and adjustments of daily routine as well as medication.

Since digestive troubles were considered a large contributor to nervous disorders, careful attention to diet was a major part of treatment.  “Persons afflicted with nervous diseases ought never to fast long. Their food should be solid and nourishing, but of easy digestion. Fat meats, and heavy sauces, are hurtful. All excess should be carefully avoided. …Wine and water is a very proper drink at meals: but if wine sours on the stomach, or the patient is much troubled with wind, brandy and water will answer better…All weak and warm liquors are hurtful, as tea, coffee, punch, &c. People may find a temporary relief in the use of these, but they always increase the malady, as they weaken the stomach and hurt digestion.”

As some doctors argue today, exercise was seen as superior to all medicines. Horseback riding and walking were considered ideal, but simply being quick about one’s business and active in their chores was recommended as well. When these were too much, even riding in a carriage could produce beneficial effect.

“A change of place, and the sight of new objects, by diverting the mind, has a great tendency to remove these complaints. For this reason a long journey, or a voyage, is of much more advantage than riding short journeys near home. Long sea voyages have an excellent effect; and to those who can afford to take them, and have sufficient resolution, we would by all means recommend this course.” (Buchan)

Patients were also advised to avoid great fires and seek cool dry air to brace and invigorate the body, though chills were to be avoided. Regular cold baths as well as frequently rubbing the body with a special brush, or a coarse linen cloth should be incorporated into the patient’s routine. Further, “they ought likewise to be diverted, and to be kept as easy and cheerful as possible. There is not anything which hurts the nervous system, or weakens the digestive powers, more than fear, grief, or anxiety.” (Buchan)

Though not seen as actual cures, a number of medicines might be recommended to render the patient’s life more comfortable. Mild purgatives to relieve constipation were recommended as were elixirs to improve digestion and strength the stomach.

Though laudanum was easily available, doctors cautioned against their overuse as opiates “only palliate the symptoms, and generally afterwards increase the disease (and) habit render them at last absolutely necessary.”

Avoiding Nervous Disorders

Not only were doctors concerned with treating nervous conditions, they also advised in how these disorders might be avoided. “Excessive grief, intense study, improper diet, and neglect of exercise, are the great sources of this extensive class of diseases…Grief indulged destroys the appetite and digestion, depresses the spirits, and induces a universal relaxation and debility of the whole system… (While) misfortunes indeed are not to be avoided, but surely their effects, by a vigorous and proper exertion of the mind, might be rendered less hurtful…

The effects of intense study are pretty similar to those occasioned by grief. It preys upon the animal spirits, and destroys the appetite and digestion. To prevent these effects, studious persons ought… never study too long at a time; nor attend long to one particular subject, especially if it be of a serious nature. They ought likewise to be attentive to their posture, and should take care frequently to unbend their minds by music, diversions, or going is to agreeable company.” (Buchan)

Attention should be paid with regard to proper diet, which avoided extremes of all forms. Regular exercise and fresh air should be a part of one’s routine. “BUT the most general cause of nervous disorders is indolence. The active and laborious are seldom troubled with them. They are reserved for the children of ease and affluence, who generally feel their keenest force. All we shall say to such persons is that the means of prevention and cure are both in their own power. If the constitution of human nature be such, that man must either labor or suffer diseases; surely no individual has any right to expect an exemption from the general rule.” (Buchan)

References

Buchan, William. Domestic Medicine: Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines, 11th ed. , 1790

Parissien, Steven. Regency Style. Phaidon Press Limited (2000)

Sales, Roger. Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England.  Routledge (1994)

Shoemaker, Robert B. Gender in English Society 1650-1850 Pearson Education Limited (1998)

Tennet, John . Every Man his own Doctor: or, The Poor Planter’s Physician,   Williamsburg, VA, 1736.

Wilson, Ben. The Making of Victorian Values, Decency & Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837

The Penguin Press (2007)

Wiltshire, John   –   Contrib. to Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press (2005)

Author Bio

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts, three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six cats, seven Regency-era fiction projects and notes for eight more writing projects in progress. To round out the list, she cooks for nine in order to accommodate the growing boys and usually makes ten meals at a time so she only cooks twice a month.

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