Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How Not to Be a Hypochondriac: Jane Austen

Last Saturday night my darling daughter celebrated her 8th birthday with a slumber party, to which six of her friends were invited. No more on this subject for now; I shall recover in time, and I'm sure that the nightmares will cease. Eventually.

But what, I hear you ask, does this have to do with Jane Austen and hypochondria? Fear not, for my grasshopper-like brain has been at work!

In some blessedly quiet moments during the aforementioned slumber party, I had two options; one to retire to a corner where I could rock and mutter to myself until the children left; the other, which I chose, to wonder about the manner in which Jane Austen spent her own birthdays.

Jane Austen was born on 16th December, 1775, a time when an individual's birthday, especially when on of a large family, was not given the level of import that it is now. On the occasion of her birth her father wrote the following letter:

Steventon: December 17, 1775.

DEAR SISTER,–You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners, but so it was, for Cassy certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago; however, last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy, and a future companion. She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Harry as Cassy is to Neddy. Your sister, thank God, is pure well after it.

Still, I searched through her extant letters hoping for some glimpse of how her birthdays were spent. I was interested to note that the first line of the first letter is actually devoted to her sister Cassandra's birthday:

Steventon: Saturday January 9

In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer. Mr Tom Lefroy's birthday was yesterday, so that you are very near of an age.

The above was the entire sum of Jane's mention of the occasion; from this it would appear that very little fuss was made of such an event.

In 1798 Jane wrote to Cassandra on 18th December, two days after her birthday, so I had some hope of finding some mention of the occasion. However, apart from a mention of a sum of money, which may or may not have been a birthday gift, the only reference to the event was this:

" - I am very much obliged to my dear little George for his messages, for his Love at least; - his Duty I suppose was only in consequence of some hint of my favorable intentions towards him from his father or Mother. - I am sincerely rejoiced however that I ever was born, since it has been the means of procuring him a dish of Tea. - "

Further mentions of birthdays in Jane Austen's letters are scant, and only touch on the subject. However, while scanning the letter of 18th Dec 1798, I was struck by the following lines:

" - My Mother continues hearty, her appetite & nights are very good, but her Bowels are still not entirely settled, & she sometimes complains of an Asthma, a Dropsy, Water in her Chest & a Liver Disorder."

I find it quite striking that almost as much mention is made of her hypochondriac mother's health as is made of her own birthday. In fact, a passage of every single extant letter is devoted to her mother's health; on some occasions the entire letter is composed of such news.

Given the fact that Jane Austen's mother lived to a venerable old age, we can only conclude that there was little seriously amiss with her health and that she is the model for many of the ridiculous hypochondriacs featured in Jane Austen's novels, such as Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Frank Churchill's aunt in Emma, and Anne Elliot's sister Mary in Persuasion.

However, there are those characters in her novels whose illnesses are genuine, and who are treated with greater respect by Jane Austen's pen. Emma's father Mr Woodhouse, though considered by many to be yet another hypochondriac, is treated much more kindly than the other, more ridiculous characters of the other novels. There is an interesting difference, however, in his character; his concerns are not merely for his own health, but are very much for the health of those he cares for, in sharp contrast with the selfishness of, for example, Mary Elliot. It appears therefore that Mr Woodhouse was not a hypochondriac, but a genuine invalid. Though he was naturally preoccupied with his own health he never ceased to have regard for the health, safety and feelings of others.

In her final illness Jane Austen seems to have taken Mr Woodhouse's conduct as an example for her own. Though writing honestly of her symptoms, such as in this extract from her letter to her niece Fanny Knight, 23-25 March 1817:

" - Many thanks for your kind care for my health; I certainly have not been well for many weeks, & about a week ago I was very poorly, I have had a good deal of fever at times & indifferent nights, but am considerably better now, & recovering my Looks a little, which have been bad enough, black & white and every wrong colour. I must not depend on being ever very blooming again. Sickness is a dangerous Indulgence at my time of Life. - "

It is clear from the above that, while wishing to give a full report of her health, Jane Austen does not wish to descend into hypochondria, that "dangerous Indulgence". Later in the same letter, she enquires and reports with interest on "Little Harriet's headaches", "William's cough", and the health or otherwise of several other friends and family members, in direct contrast with the usual behaviour of her fictional hypochondriacs. Even in her last letter, which was to her niece Fanny Knight, she spent a considerable amount of the letter in commiserating with her niece after a family bereavement and discussing the health and welfare of others, only briefly interrupting to say:

" - I continue very tolerably well, much better than any one could have supposed possible, because I certainly have had considerable fatigue of body as well as anguish of mind for months back, but I really am well, & I hope I am properly grateful to the Almighty for having been so supported."

To the last Jane Austen asserted to her friends that she would recover, spoke with great intent of taking exercise and being healthful, and never succumbed to the selfish failings of her famous hypochondriacs.

On Saturday 24th May 1817 she moved to Winchester to be attended by better doctors, and by 18th July of the same year she was dead.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"Her teeth are tolerable, I suppose."

I hate the dentist.

I know, I know, everyone does; but after one and a half hours of sitting in that chair today, and receiving an absolutely whopping filling, I'm feeling especially sorry for myself.

One of the greatest trials for me was sitting for so long without being able to read, or tweet, or amuse myself in any way. At times like this my mind almost inevitably wanders to the subject of Jane Austen, and I found myself wondering what, if any, her experiences of dentistry were.

I'm still plowing through Jane Austen's Letters by Deirdre Le Faye, and I was surprised and pleased to come across this letter from Jane to Cassandra, dated Thursday 16th September, 1813, of which I reproduce this extract:

" - The poor Girls & their Teeth! - I have not mentioned them yet, but we were a whole hour at Spence's, & Lizzy's were filed & lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the Eye teeth, to make room for those in front. - When her doom was fixed, Fanny Lizzy & I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp hasty Screams. - Fanny's teeth were cleaned too - & pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold and talking gravely - & making a considerable point of seeing her again before winter; - he had before urged the expediency of L. & M.s being brought to Town in the course of a couple of Months to be farther examined, & continued to the last to press for their all coming to him. - My Br would not absolutely promise. - The little girls teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischeif (sic) to parade about Fannys. - I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it. - It was a disagreeable hour."

So it would seem, whatever my opinion of dentists, Miss Jane Austen's opinion was decidedly worse!

Since she would not submit to an examination herself, we can only conclude that her teeth were in pretty good shape - since a persistent toothache is so unbearable as to make a trip to even that dentist seem like a welcome relief.

Indeed, of all the illnesses of the time, toothache is said to be the one which was most dreaded; certainly there was precious little that bleeding could do to cure a rotten molar! If Miss Jane Austen did suffer from toothache, she may have resorted to this little remedy, once again taken from Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces, 1811 :

Remedy for the Tooth-ach

In two drachms of rectified spirits of wine dissolve one drachm of camphire, five grains of prepared opium, and ten drops of oil of box; mix them well, and keep it well corked for use. If the pain arise from a hollow tooth, four or five drops on cotton to be put into the tooth; or six or seven drops to be put on cotton into the ear on the side where the pain is felt. Should the patient not feel easier in a quarter of an hour, the same may be repeated. It has never failed on the second application.

I don't doubt that it never failed on the second application, but I find myself wondering why they bothered with any of the ingredients besides the opium!

After due reflection, I find that my dentist is tolerable. I suppose.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Thursday 14th January 1796 / 2010!

I'm currently reading Jane Austen's Letters edited by Deirdre LeFaye and was massively tickled to notice that 14th January 1796 was a Thursday, just as 14th January 2010 is! (I know, I know, but it's the little things in life that thrill us sometimes.)

And so, mostly as a treat to myself, I am going to transcribe an entire letter written on this date in 1796 to her sister Cassandra. Jane Austen was twenty-one years old at the time.

I can't help feeling tremendously close to Jane Austen as I read this particular letter, and to feel also a great sympathy for the two sisters. At the time of writing Cassandra Austen was engaged to Mr Tom Fowle, and Jane Austen herself had high hopes of a proposal of marriage from Mr Tom Lefroy, the cousin of some close family friends. A few short months later Tom Fowle was dead from yellow fever, and Tom Lefroy had been packed off home to Ireland for fear of his making an imprudent match with the virtually penniless Miss Jane Austen.

Steventon Thursday January 14th

I have received yours & Mary's letter & I thank you both, tho' their contents might have been more agreeable. I do not at all expect to see you on tuesday since matters have fallen out so unpleasantly, & if you are not able to return till after that day, it will hardly be possible for us to send for you before Saturday; tho' for my own part I care so little about the Ball that it would be no sacrifice to me to give it up for the sake of seeing you two days earlier. We are extremely sorry for poor Eliza's illness - I trust however that she has continued to recover since you wrote, & that you will none of you be the worse for your attendance on her. What a good-for-nothing-fellow Charles is to be-speak the stockings - I hope he will be too hot all the rest of his life for it! - I sent you a letter yesterday to Ibthorp, which I suppose you will not receive at Kintbury. It was not very long or very witty, & therefore if you never receive it, it does not much signify. I wrote principally to tell you that the Coopers are arrived and in good health - the little boy is very like Dr Cooper & the little girl is to resemble Jane, they say. Our party to Ashe to-morrow night will consist of Edward Cooper, James (for a ball is nothing without him), Buller, who is now staying with us, & I - I look forward with great impatience to it, as I rather expect to receive an offer from my friend in the course of the evening. I shall refuse him, however, unless he promises to give away his white Coat.
I am very much flattered by your commendation of my last Letter, for I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument. - Edward is gone to spend the day with his friend, John Lyford, & does not return till tomorrow. Anna is now here; She came up in her chaise to spend the day with her young Cousins; but she does not much take to them or to anything about them, except Catherine's Spinning-Wheel. I am very glad to find from Mary that Mr & Mrs Fowle are pleased with you. I hope you will continue to give satisfaction.
How impertinent you are to write to me about Tom, as if I had not opportunities of hearing from him myself. The last letter that I received from him was dated on friday the 8th, and he told me that if the wind should be favourable on Sunday, which it proved to be, they were to set sail from Falmouth on that Day. By this time therefore they are at Barbadoes I suppose. The Rivers are still at Manydown, and are to be at Ashe tomorrow. I intended to call on the Miss Biggs yesterday had the weather been tolerable. Caroline, Anna & I have just been devouring some cold Scouse, & it would be difficult to say which enjoyed it most. -
Tell Mary that I make over Mr Heartley & all his Estate to her for her sole use and Benefit in future, & not only him, but all my other Admirers into the bargain wherever she can find them, even the kiss which C. Powlett wanted to give me, as I mean to confine myself in future to Mr Tom Lefroy, for whom I donot care sixpence. Assure her also as a last and indubitable proof of Warren's indifference to me, that he actually drew that Gentleman's picture for me, & delivered it to me without a Sigh.
Friday - At length the Day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, & when you receive this it will be over. - My tears flow as I write, at the melancholy idea. Wm. Chute called here yesterday. I wonder what he means by being so civil. There is a report that Tom is going to be married to a Litchfield Lass. John Lyford & his Sister bring Edward home to day, dine with us, & we shall all go together to Ashe. I understand that we are to draw for Partners. - I shall be extremely impatient to hear from you again, that I may know how Eliza is, & when you are to return. With best Love, &c., I am affect:tely yours

J: Austen

Jane Austen's own voice is as clear as a bell in this particular missive. She is obviously young, giddy and in love, but is trying to do her duty by her sister by keeping her informed of the mundane day-to-day events in Steventon. However, here and there it is as though she cannot help herself, and she must let her true feelings burst forth again, displaying her excitement at the forthcoming ball and the "offer" she hopes to receive.

Soon after this letter, we know, her hopes were shattered, and a few months later Cassandra's heart was broken with the death of her fiance.

Neither sister would ever marry. This letter represents possibly one of the last happy days where both believed that a happily married future awaited them, and as such it is precious and poignant.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jane Austen's answer to Rimmel; Get the Longbourne Look!

I am currently reading Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by Laurie Viera Rigler, and have been chortling heartily at Courtney/Jane's horror at facing the Nineteenth-Century world with a face devoid of make-up.

Until the last couple of days I would have been in total agreement with her horror, but having spent three days without running water of any kind (thank you, "cold snap"), I've found being bare of face curiously uninhibiting.

However, old habits die hard and as soon as my water returned this morning I was in my electric power shower, blow-drying and ghd'ing my hair, and applying my usual slap. This all put me in mind of a little book I've recently bought and have only just glanced through, Regency Etiquette: The Mirror of Graces which was written by A Lady of Distinction and first published in 1811.

At the back of the book are a number of recipes for unguents, balms, and cosmetic substitutes, such as were acceptable for young ladies of good character to use. My eye was particularly caught by a receipt for "Virgin Milk", which I share with you now.

Virgin Milk

A publication of this kind would certainly be looked upon as an imperfect performance, if we omitted to say a few words upon this famous cosmetic. It consists of a tincture of Benjoin, precipitated by water. The tincture of Benjoin is obtained by taking a certain quantity of that gum, pouring spirits of wine upon it, and boiling it till it becomes a rich tincture. If you pour a few drops of this tincture into a glass of water, it will produce a mixture which will assume all the appearances of milk, and retain a very agreeable perfume. If the face is washed with this mixture, it will, by calling the purple stream of the blood to the external fibres of the epidermis, produce on the cheeks a beautiful rosy colour; and, if left on the face to dry, it will render it clear and brilliant. It also removes spots, freckles, pimples, erysipelatous eruptions, &c. &c. if they have not been of long standing on the skin.

Another one also made me laugh, from the days long before Botox:

A Paste for the Skin

(This may be recommended in cases when the skin seems to get too loosely attached to the muscles.)

Boil the whites of four eggs in rose water, add to it a sufficient quantity of alum; beat the whole together till it takes the consistence of a paste. This will give, when applied, great firmness to the skin.

If anyone cares to try these time-honoured receipts, do please, please, let me know!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion

"...the first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke and confusion."

- letter from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, May 1801

I am off to Bath tomorrow, to follow in the steps of Jane Austen, who lived there quite unhappily from 1801 to 1806. Jane had no choice in her parents' decision to relocate to Bath from her beloved Steventon, to live out their elderly years in a city which by now was more a popular retirement community than a fashionable watering hole. With no fortune of her own she, like her sister Cassandra, was entirely dependent on her parents and was not even consulted with regard to the move.

Jane Austen was not, by nature, a city person. She delighted in open countryside, small village communities, and the freedom to indulge in long, solitary walks. It is small wonder that she seems to have felt quite stultified in bright, bustling Bath. Certainly she wrote almost nothing new during the five years that she lived there. Creativity requires some measure of routine, contentment and security, all of which were in short supply while the Austens lived in Bath.

The family moved a number of times during their five year sojourn in the city. They stayed first at No. 1 Paragon Buildings, the home of relatives the Leigh-Perrots. From there they looked for lodgings, settling on 4, Sydney Place, though it was more expensive than they had budgeted for. Three years later they were forced to move to cheaper lodgings in Green Park Buildings, where George Austen, Jane's father, died.

Mrs Austen, Jane and Cassandra were now in very straitened circumstances and were only surviving on small dividends from Jane's various brothers. They moved to successively poorer accommodation, first in Gay Street and then in Trim Street, before leaving Bath behind for ever.

Jane's earlier visits to Bath had been much happier and more carefree, doubtless because they were only for fixed periods of time. This attitude is captured in Northanger Abbey, where Catherine Morland declares

"Oh! Who could ever be tired of Bath?"

This contrasts strongly with Anne Elliott's view of Bath, which seems to accord very much with the author's after living there for five years, of

"Oh! when shall I leave you again?"

My plan is to visit every former home of Jane Austen in Bath, as well as places she would have frequented, as part of my research into her life during this period for my new book, According to Miss Austen. I hope to blog and tweet about my research several times while I'm there.

Finally to walk in Jane Austen's footsteps, even if those steps were not happy ones!