Constructing the Sufferer (part 1)

I’ve always been interested in the ways that people construct narratives of sickness, and the sickness persona. I was watching a comedian recently who brought up the subject of the ‘phoning in sick’ voice; the slightly husky, weak and tired tone people adopt when they have to convince the boss that they really are ill, and not having a ‘duvet day’. One day there’s going to have to be a study of the language and art of phoning in sick – stuff like having been ‘up all night’ being ill, ‘really don’t think I can make it in today’, ‘see how I feel tomorrow’ are all stalwarts. But sufferers have always constructed and deployed sickness in some measure. When I was researching for my book I looked at petitions by the sick poor in the seventeenth century, written to try and convince the parish authorities to give them money.

Consider this example written to a wealthy lady in Cardiganshire in the eighteenth century – the spelling is original. (National Library of Wales, MS 182D)

“Madam Lloyd, by submission to your Honour, my little grand Child whome I nurs’d since he was a year old, happen to fell sick, this day fortneight (sic), and had been very low, I hope that he begin to recover. He is longing for rosted meat that ever he had in my cottage, and I sure that he cannot distinguies between any sort of rosted meat. If your honour please to send a bit, or order me to wait for it, I will be very glad and in so doing you will add to the obligation of your honest old shoemaker, and your most humble servant, John Jenkin, alias, little shoemaker”

Here, we have the heart-wrenching tale of a sick [and presumably orphaned] child, desperately ill and longing for something substantial to eat. The writer of the letter appeals to the charitable nature of ‘Madam Lloyd’, but it is interesting to note the language used, of the humble, honest old shoemaker, trying to use whatever personal connections he has to secure something for his grandchild.

Others appealed to the charitable nature of people in their surrounding areas to provide support or relief (National Library of Wales, MS 434B):

“To all faithfull people to whome it doth appeare or may concerne, 3rd October 1656

Whereas John Owen, being a poore ould man borne and breed in the parish of Llanfydd being grievously troubled with a disease…that he is not able to travel and seeke or get his bodily foode & sustenance by reason it is broken out in several places of his body, the quantity of seven or eight places…so beseeching all good and charitable people out of charitie to commiserate his distressed state to bestow their benevolence towards payment to the churgeon…”

Another, Mary Jones of Llandenny, petitioned the parish to offer her support as her husband had fallen sick for ‘five quarters of a year’ and was ‘sick now’. Unable to raise the money herself to feed her family, and facing eviction from her cottage on the waste by the Duchess of Beaufort “to punish the poor man in spite and malice’, Mary was forced into desperate measures.

It is interesting to note, though, that although occasionally such letters were written by the parties involved themselves, they were more often written by an amanuensis – someone who knew the people involved but had more skill in writing. These notes are usually deliberately constructed to emphasise the individual’s suffering. They often highlight the symptoms and use emotive language to highlight the particular suffering.

The reasons for this are clear; the petitioner wanted and needed money, and thus needed to convince the authorities that their need was special. They make interesting reading not just for the language of sickness, but for the ways that it could be deliberately deployed.

I think there could be another post to follow on the ‘heroic sufferer’, but enough for today!

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