Murky waters

British spas in eighteenth-century medicine and literature

Sophie Vasset
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In the medical world of eighteenth-century Britain, doctors, caregivers and relief-seeking patients considered mineral waters a valuable treatment alongside drugs and other forms of therapy. Although the pre-eminence of Bath cannot be denied, this book offers to widen the scope of the culture of water-taking and examines the great variety of watering places, spas and wells in eighteenth-century British medicine and literature. It offers to veer away from a glamorous image of Georgian Bath refinement and elegant sociability to give a more ambivalent and diverse description of watering places in the long eighteenth century. The book starts by reasserting the centrality of sickness in spa culture, and goes on to examine the dangers of mineral water treatment. The notion of ‘murky waters’ constitutes a closely followed thread in the five chapters that evolve in concentric circles, from sick bodies to financial structures. The idea of ‘murkiness’ is an invitation to consider the material and metaphorical aspect of mineral waters, and disassociate them from ideas of cleanliness, transparency, well-being and refinement that twenty-first-century readers spontaneously associate with spas. At the crossroads between medical history, literary studies and cultural studies, this study delves into a great variety of primary sources, probing into the academic medical discourse on the mineral components of British wells, as well as the multiple forms of literature associated with spas (miscellanies, libels and lampoons, songs, travel narratives, periodicals and novels) to examine the representation of spas in eighteenth-century British culture.

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