‘From bog to jug: a risky remedy?’ explores the multiple representations of the dangers of the water cure. It challenges the idea that mineral waters were yet another cure-all in the quack pharmacopoeia of the eighteenth-century commercialised and competitive medical world. Relying on recent scholarship in the history of medicine, I contextualise the contemporary accusations against water doctors in eighteenth-century medicine, and I address the question of spa promotion, rooted in the relationship between commerce and medicine at the heart of the development of spa towns. In a second section, ‘waters as pharmakon’, I turn to the descriptions of water treatment as a corrosive and potentially dangerous remedy. Waters, doctors argued, were not to be taken lightly, and could have dramatic consequences on the patient’s life if their intake was not properly monitored by medical prescription. This discourse aimed at fighting the practices of self-prescription, especially the habits of the local people of drinking purging waters at smaller wells. The last section, ‘Brine, mud and dung’, focuses on the waters themselves and their literal murkiness: some drinking wells produced cloudy waters with stinking smells, and their origins could be traced in the muddy ponds of nearby swamps. Contemporary descriptions of baths and bathing facilities could be revolting. Many a watering place was satirised as a house of office, and the results of constant purging were exposed to the reader in rich scatological imagery.
The introduction provides a useful synthesis of the development of British spas in the long eighteenth century. It is both a preliminary reading to the chapters and a pedagogical overview of the phenomenon. It provides a map of spas in the eighteenth century specifically designed with cartographies, based on an original survey. It aims to give the reader a set of categories so they may navigate the book with a clear idea of the size and scale of spas, the various types of mineral waters and the methods of treatment, as well as an account of the chemical analyses performed. This introduction takes stock of the multiple primary sources under study, their genre and their popularity, as well as the methods implemented to interpret them. It clearly sets out the purpose of the book and gives a synthetical review of previous and current scholarship on the topic.
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.
‘Pump room politics and the murky past of spas’ takes a look at the political impact of spa societies of temporary visitors, who gathered for a season before returning to their homes bearing new ideas and new information. It starts by examining the politics of gossip, a recurrent theme in spa literature, made no less dangerous by its gender bias and its ramifications into cultures of power. In a second section, ‘Healing the nation’, the chapter addresses the national issues at stake in the spa towns, and the political role of master of ceremonies and the colonial dynamics at work in British spa towns. Finally, the chapter dwells on the religious heritage of healing waters in the eighteenth century by tracing the resurgence of Catholicism in the culture of British spas, and the ways in which this was negotiated in the discourse of medical doctors, visitors and literary authors. Relying on the work of A. Walsham on the reformation of holy waters, their disappearance and their modes of persistence in early modern culture, this chapter investigates the eighteenth-century sites of Roman Catholicism in which mineral waters kept some of their original holiness. Spas such as St Winifred’s in Wales and St Chad’s in London were clearly remembered as holy wells, and the rituals associated with them were not forgotten by contemporary authors.
‘Pumping and pouring: watering places and the money business’ looks at the representation of investment, speculation and the circulation of money at private and public levels. The first section focuses on the discourse on gambling in watering places. Before casinos existed, games rooms were open and gambling was one of the attractions of spas available to the sick and bored – games like pharo, quadrille and hazzard were at the heart of many a cautionary poem. The metaphor of gambling extended to the ambitious investors in the development of spas. Their hubris was exposed in narratives of failure or corruption such as Austen’s unfinished Sanditon. Further examples of urban speculation are exposed in a second section. At the other end of the spectrum, lack of money was a lurking phenomenon in spa literature. In the major spas, medical doctors published propositions for monitoring the poor, regulating and financing their access to the baths or the wells. In medium-sized spas, the discrepancy between advertising tracts and the scarcity of lodgings was often acute. In all cases, social promiscuity was an object of constant worry, and fortune-hunting was represented as a favourite sport.
This chapter reasserts the importance of illness and medicine in watering places. Sick bodies took centre stage, and spa towns were first and foremost places of cure and care rather than the clean and sparkling Georgian places of leisure to which they have sometimes been reduced. The chapter opens on the major literary references regularly invoked for eighteenth-century spas: the novels of Smollett, Austen and Burney, stressing how their initial attraction to the spa was rooted in one character’s illness. It also relies on letter-writers’ testimonies to show the degree of trust that could be placed in the curative virtues of mineral waters and thus fight the idea that illness was only a pretext to visit spas. A second section presents the various forms of sickness which could require water treatment, and which were regularly written about in medical treatises, namely gout and nervous diseases, sex-related diseases and diseases of the skin. The one characteristic they all share is they are chronic. Spas are therefore relevant to the cultural history of chronic diseases, as they were integrated in wider forms of care than the reductive patient–doctor relationship, which is only a small fraction of the experience of sickness. It suggests that the focus could be shifted from the sickness to the sick and their experiences, and spas are a good place to start, with the multiple case histories presented in mineral water treatises.
‘Waters of desire: promiscuity, gender and sexuality’ shows how spa towns were a favourite setting for narratives of transgression. Watering places were an imaginary space opening up possibilities of otherness in self-fashioning as much as in relationships. The chapter centres on bodily behaviours, and cultural constructions of the body. It starts with a section on ‘Nudity’, from the desirable neoclassical nudity of bathing women celebrated in the lyrical poetry of miscellanies to the farcical nakedness of men trapped on the beach with no clothes. The unusual proximity of bodies, the ‘dishabilles’ or ‘riding dress’ of women staged in songs and satire, created a suitable setting for the marriage market and adultery, as argued in the following section. A spa visit, in comedies and novels, triggered many possibilities of dangerous meetings and secret relationships. At the same time, women were represented with some degree of agency in such plots – many women would go to a spa independently of their husbands and their stories permeated many a narrative that used spas as a setting. Spa comedies revolved around the idea that the multiple public spaces of spa towns fostered performance in all manners of relationships, and mocked such theatricality of manners in their excessive characters. The last section, ‘Gender roles and gender fluidity’, offers to explore these excessive performative behaviours and the gender-bending possibilities they opened up.
This final chapter explores why madness could evoke so much social anxiety. Fears of perceived rising lunacy rates were used as proof of over-civilization and decline. As the nineteenth century progressed, cure rates seemed to plummet, and degeneration literature flourished. Fear that madness was hereditary led to gloomy predictions about the decline of the British race paralleling conversations about urban decay and criminal classes. This chapter places medical conversations into broader cultural contexts.
Particular masculine anxieties were linked to fears of overwork and the emasculated neurasthenic, the criminalized degenerate, and the alcoholic madman. A final focus on the diagnosis of General Paralysis of the Insane demonstrates the social construction of medical thinking. GPI was one of the few mental diseases that could be seen in the brain after death, and it had a relatively clear and consistent set of symptoms. Despite this, GPI was often diagnosed through lifestyle as much as symptomology. The fact that GPI seemed to affect men more than women and led to almost inevitable death made it the embodiment of degenerationist fantasies that only increased as the century progressed. Insanity was a central point of argument in theories of decline.
The final section of the book points to the significance of Edwardian thinking going into the twentieth century. The doctors deployed to treat soldiers in the First World War were largely trained in an Edwardian and Victorian medical world, and thus their understanding of men’s madness is the missing link to most studies of shell shock. This epilogue highlights the continuity of concerns over men and mental illness into the twentieth century.
This introduction outlines the scope of the book, its methodology and approach, and gives a brief discussion of historiography. The text sketches in broad strokes what examining the experience and representation of madness tells us about Victorian masculinity. This includes a study of sufferers, families, and the culture at large. It argues that the social, medical, and personal explanations of men’s insanity point to increasing anxieties about manhood and civilization in general over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century.