Polite Sickness: Illness narratives in 18th-century letters

I have always found letters a brilliant source of information about patients. If writing to friends, relatives and business contacts was commonplace, then one of the most common topics was the writer’s health. Illness was a natural topic to discuss. It was a worthy news item and served to keep the recipient updated with the latest symptom or condition. It could be pragmatic; some sufferers wrote directly to doctors and procured their medicines by post. But others used letters as a means to gather information about their illnesses, not from doctors but from others in their social networks. These would often elicit a stream of responses with favoured recipes, which had never yet failed or were ‘probatum’ (proved) to work.

But letters worked on another level. They gave sufferers the chance to assemble their illness into narrative, and sometimes even episodes. As I have argued in my book Physick and the Family, the eighteenth century  in particular witnessed the rise of what I term the ‘heroic sufferer’. Here, rather than simply listing symptoms, or providing a description, letter writers began to create sickness stories with themselves often as the hero. Sometimes the letters have a resigned air; the missives of the Morris brothers of Anglesey are a good case in point. Their letters commonly contain entries along the lines of ‘the end is near, remember your dear brother’, sometimes suggesting that this might be their last letter and, inevitably, carry on as normal thereafter. Also interesting in their case is the virtual competition that seemed to exist among them as to who could be the most ill! Another common trope was to represent oneself as the battered victim of sickness, nonetheless heroically battling on in the face of almost insurmountable misery.

Depending on the writer though, some sickness narratives take an almost humorous view of their symptoms, treating the reader to a light-hearted walk through what were almost certainly unpleasant episodes. To me these are the most engaging. One set of letters I came across in my research for my PhD fits into this category. They are letters from a Breconshire attorney, Roger Jones of Talgarth. I haven’t researched much about the man himself (maybe I will one day) but he was clearly a ‘man about town’ – in eighteenth-century parlance, a Beau Monde. One particular run of letters were fired off in rapid succession following an abortive trip to Hay on Wye. In February 1769 he wrote to his brother, clearly in some distress.

“Dear Brother…on the fifth day of last month I was visited with a palsy which advances upon me…I was going to the Hay market and before I went halfe a mile off I was taken with a numbness and a kind of stiffness(?) in my left hand. It surprized me much and I turned home. I was immediately bled and sent for my apothecary in ye town of Hay whose advised to contact a physician. I directly sent for Dr Applby(?) of Hereford who attended me on Saturday. I have been bled, cupped, blister’d [and purged] and yet without effect. My disorder has advanced that it now affects all of my left side, both arm and leg.”

Poor Roger. Advised by his physician to eat nothing but puddings(!) he was forced to cancel a trip to Bath, and asked his brother, a clergyman, to pray for him.  Judging from other letters, he was not a man who held physicians and their prescriptions in any great esteem.  In July 1770 he wrote to his brother that he was again “greatly afflicted in both mind and body”, and felt that his body was “gradually wearing out” and that he now had a most “melancholy life”. Despite this, some of his accounts are also comedic. Struck down with an attack of some mystery condition, he attempted to get his servant, Morgan, to help him take a vomit. Unfortunately, Morgan was ‘thick of hearing’ and clearly failed to grasp what his ailing master was trying to tell him. In the end Roger was forced to repair to the local inn, the Lyon, where a Mrs Morgan assisted in giving him “the puke”.!

A sample of Roger Jones's spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.
A sample of Roger Jones’s spidery writing. Copyright for this image belongs to the National Library of Wales. Please do not use without their permission.

In August 1770 he was again sick and ailing at home, this time under the stewardship of a Dr Isaacs. He was first prescribed ‘opening pills’, presumably purgatives to try and drive the malady out of him. When these failed to take effect, Dr Isaacs subjected Roger to a veritable barrage of the 18th-century’s most potent medicines. He took a glister (an enema) which, as he ominously reported “worked”, which was repeated with a purge daily for a week! It is difficult to imagine today a treatment regime that subjected the already weak patient to seven days ‘worth of self-inflicted diahorrea and vomiting. Roger’s verdict? “I think I am rather better but am grown a great deal thinner”!

Through the words of Roger’s letters we get a very intimate and human image of him; something of the character of the man comes out and he speaks to us very directly through more than 200 years’ distance. As we read letters from patients like Roger it is striking how little human nature has changed. We are all still obsessed with our symptoms and will readily tell everybody about them. What has changed are the means of communications; the quick-fire nature of texts and emails are not suited to the construction of sickness narratives. But next time you are in a doctor’s waiting room, see how willing complete strangers are to tell others all about their symptoms and treatments, maybe share the name of a favourite tablet! Treatments might have changed; we haven’t

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