Oh My Poor Nerves! Health and Hypochondria in Jane Austen’s England

My poor nerves

Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such a way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Chapter 1.

The set

The Set for Oh My Poor Nerves in the Barn at Red House

What fun I had at The RedHouse this afternoon! And not just fun – I learnt a lot too. A few weeks ago I noticed a flyer for a History Wardrobe performance this Saturday, checked their website and knew that I had to book a ticket to see what it was all about.

Lucy

Lucy and her costumes. Left – original Georgian gown. Right – copy of Georgian maternity support corset

Here is Lucy’s witty introduction to the presentation :

This talk focuses on an often overlooked period in the history of healthcare, giving an overview of living conditions in late Georgian England that hardly squares with our usual picturesque view of Regency life. Details of home cures, quack remedies and crude surgery highlight the battle between science and superstition, putting the later medical advances into context. For those who feel faint after viewing a pregnancy corset or the leech jar, I do have plenty of ‘infallible’ Regency advice for good health and long life. And sal volatile.

Interspersed with quotations from Austen’s books (Jane Austen loves hypochondriacs) Lucy entertained us for nearly two hours with details and examples of all kinds of diseases and dangers prevalent in Georgian England and how they were treated by dubious doctors and questionable quacks.

Reece's medical guide

Dr Richard Reece’s Medical Guide

She read to us the list of diseases from which one could die in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – the list extracted from Doctor Richard Reece’s “The Medical Guide” of 1811 which, along with all Lucy’s other original and reproduction props, we were able to inspect for ourselves after the performance.

Props

Reproduction and original props

I am now highly enlightened on subjects as diverse as the dangers of red stockings (the dyes); that wallpaper killed Napoleon (arsenic); the extent of cholera epidemics and the locations of cholera burial grounds; body snatching (for medical dissection purposes); the benefits of a porringer of gruel (as recommended by Mr Woodhouse in “Emma“); the greatest danger for the Georgian militia and navy (disease); the biggest killer of women (childbirth); shifts and chemises; detoxing Georgian style; drugs and leeches; lancets and forceps; operating theatres and quack medicine.

Georgian dress

The prize item in Lucy’s collection of historic costumes must be the original Georgian gown.

Lucy’s entertaining presentation this afternoon went to prove that history, science and medicine can all be fun.

Lucy's new book

She even made reference throughout to her new book in which, although titled “Great War Fashion“, she demonstrates that even by the early decades of the 20th century some clothes, medical treatments and aspects of hygiene had never changed.

Before I left the Red House I bought a ticket for another presentation next year – Titanic!

6 comments on “Oh My Poor Nerves! Health and Hypochondria in Jane Austen’s England

  1. Fran says:

    Fascinating. What a interesting lady, hope her book does well.

  2. Nilly says:

    This looks as if it was great fun! I must admit I encounter that arsenic green colour quite often in old books, sewing boxes and fan cases. Must remember to never lick my fingers!

  3. […] on Saturday. Last November I attended Lucy Adlington’s History Wardrobe presentation “Oh my poor nerves!” at The Red House in Gomersal and found I was “hooked”. After that performance I […]

  4. […] been some time since I last attended a History Wardrobe presentation. However, that has now been corrected as yesterday I spent the afternoon enjoying yet […]

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