Again, this is my most current article for Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine. I’m writing about ‘Cranks, Quacks and Miracles’ – alternative health treatments in the Regency.
Jane Austen shows a number of hypochondriacs in her stories (Mr Woodhouse in Emma, with his gruel and his soft-boiled eggs, and Mary Musgrove in Persuasion with her tendency towards ill health whenever she felt herself neglected come to mind) but it is in her unfinished novel Sanditon that she particularly concentrates on medicine – looking at both conventional and experimental (to put it mildly!) treatments. Indeed, Jane Austen specifically uses the phrase “quack medicine” in describing the Parker sisters, saying that they had “an unfortunate turn for medicine, especially quack medicine”. Mr Parker, their brother, is first introduced to the heroine, Charlotte Heywood, when he sustains a carriage accident, trying to find a doctor for the village of Sanditon. (As an aside, I was fascinated when I first read the book that he had seen a notice in the ‘Kentish Gazette’ – a local newspaper I grew up reading, and which is still in print.) His sisters’ alleged poor health had encouraged him to look for the doctor, though it turns out, when Diana Parker writes to her brother, that she has for the moment eschewed conventional medicine, saying:
“[P]ray never run into peril again in looking for an apothecary on our account… We have entirely done with the whole medical tribe. We have consulted physician after physician in vain, till we are quite convinced that they can do nothing for us and that we must trust to our own knowledge of our own wretched constitutions for any relief.”
Of course, this is a decision not dissimilar to ones made by many people today, who find themselves dissatisfied with the results of conventional medicine – though perhaps, given the limits of medical knowledge in the Regency, Miss Parker had more reason for her suspicions!