Friday, 13 January 2012


My guest today is Lauren Gilbert, a member of The Jane Austen Society of North America and the author of Heyerwood, a Regency Novel. Read her post about Flu Season at Jane Austen's Time, and welcome her at My Jane Austen Book Club! If you live in the US or Canada, you can enter a giveaway contest to win the hardback cover book of Heyerwood. To be entered you have to leave your comment or a question for Lauren and add your e-mail address.

Here we are in the depths of winter.  We all know someone who has it, has recovered from it, or is trying hard not to get it.  What might “it” be?  That miserable cold, the awful flu, whatever it is that is going around.  Interestingly enough, it was all going around in Jane Austen’s time, too.  However, the seriousness of the winter ailments and their effects in the late 18th and early 19th century is frequently forgotten or overlooked today.
In the early part of the 19th century, medicine had improved dramatically.  Superstition was waning-people no longer believed that the ruler’s touch could heal a form of tubercular infection called scrofula (or “King’s Evil”).  Bathing was becoming more common.  Vaccination with the cowpox vaccine was making inroads on that dreaded scourge, smallpox.  However, bleeding, laudanum and bathing in or drinking spa waters were still standby treatments for many illnesses. 

Mrs Bennet always complains for her poor nerves and health - Pride & Prejudice 1995

Two of the winter ailments in Jane Austen’s time were the “epidemic cold” and the “putrid sore throat.”  The epidemic cold appears to be basically the same as it is today; a virus resulting in sneezing, sore throat, coughing, slight fever, and so forth.   It would appear that the standard treatment was staying in, keeping warm, and getting plenty of rest, as it is today.  (It must be noted that the stricture to get plenty of rest would have been reinforced with a few drops of laudanum, if necessary, in Jane’s day!)

Jane Bennet is sick in bed and Elizabeth, her sister, takes care of her (Pride and Prejudice, 2005)

The second ailment, the “putrid sore throat,” was much more serious, indeed life threatening.  This term appears to cover a variety of ailments, all manifesting in the throat.  At its most basic, a putrid sore throat seems to be a sore throat complicated by serious infection resulting in any or all of these: accumulation of pus, ulceration and sloughing of soft tissue at the back of the throat, and even gangrene.  In trying to identify this illness with modern diseases, it has been linked to tonsillitis, diphtheria, bronchitis, and even a form of streptococcal throat infection, as well as scarlatina or scarlet fever, and possibly measles.  Obviously, this would be a very painful condition.  Scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and strep are also quite contagious.  It is also worth noting that all of these conditions frequently resulted in death or disability, such as damage to the heart.   While most are considered childhood diseases, adults can also contract these illnesses.  Lacking knowledge of germs, bacteria and other microorganisms, as well as the issues of sepsis, these conditions could sweep through a household (or a neighborhood), creating havoc if not outright death. 

Diphtheria produces fever and weakness, and causes the formation of a thick gray membrane in the throat, causing difficulty breathing and swallowing.  Scarlet fever and scarlatina result from infection with type A strep bacteria, and are characterized by a fever, sore throat, and a bright red rash; there is also flushing from high fever.  Tonsillitis is the inflammation of tonsils resulting from infection by a virus or bacteria, with symptoms including fever and sore throat; if the result of a bacterial infection, this can be contagious.  Measles also manifest with fever, sore throat, a rash. 

Colonel Brandon rescues Marianne - She will lie in bed sick for days (Sense & Sensibility 1995)

The similarities of the symptoms of these diseases, as well as the fact that they were all common in Jane’s time, make the question of pinning down an exact definition of what disease constituted a putrid sore throat very difficult.  The real issue is the lack of modern medical treatment, some of which evolved later in the 19th century, made treatment very difficult, infection hard to contain, and recovery as much a matter of luck and a good constitution as anything else.  The discovery of how disease spreads, improved vaccination for more diseases, and antibiotics have drastically reduced, if not eliminated, these conditions today, and the resulting damage that these conditions can cause, which include heart damage, blindness, deafness, and even brain damage from an uncontrolled high fever.    Thanks to modern medicine, our concept of “flu season” is much more an uncomfortable inconvenience; in Jane Austen’s time, it was truly a major threat.

Lauren Gilbert
“18th Century Medicine.”  Life in the 18th Century.  http://www.local (viewed 12/29/2011)
19th Century Diseases. (viewed 12/29/2011)
Bader, Ted, “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!” PERSUASIONS On-Line, V. 21 , No. 2 (Summer 2000).  (viewed 12/29/2011)
“Health and Medicine in the 19th Century,”  LIFE IN THE 19th CENTURY.   (viewed 12/29/2011)
Landers, John.  DEATH AND THE METROPOLIS Studies in the Demographic History of London, 1670-1830.  Cambridge Books On-Line.  The Autumn Diseases and the ‘putrid sore throat’ pp. 363-364.  viewed 12/29/2011, (viewed 1/82012)
Rudy’s List of Archaic Medical Terms.  http;//  (viewed 12/29/2011)

The author

An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert has always dreamed of writing books, and has written all her life. She enjoys non-fiction (especially history) and fiction alike. Favorite authors include James Thomas Flexner, Alison Weir, Diana Gabaldon, Dorothy Sayers and, of course, Jane Austen. Lauren is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and has delivered presentations for chapter meetings, as well as a break-out session at the recent JASNA Annual General Meeting. Now semi-retired after a career spanning almost 30 years, HEYERWOOD: A Novel is her first published novel. Another novel and a non-fiction work are in process. Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband

The book and the giveaway

Power. Romance. Destiny. Step into Lauren Gilbert's Heyerwood and discover the journey of a young woman navigating the trials of Late Regency England: an arranged marriage, family, and love. A fairytale to delight austen fans, history buffs, and romance lovers alike, Heyerwood: A novel touches the heart.

If you live in the US or Canada, leave your comment or a question for Lauren Gilbert, add your e-mail address and get a chance to win a hardcover version of this intriguing Regency novel. The giveaway contest ends on January 20th when the winner is announced. Good luck!
- Lauren Gilbert's Website:


Alexa Adams said...

And I hear Mrs. Bennet sneering in my head, "People do not die of little trifling colds." What a sharp juxtaposition to Mrs. Palmer's dread of a putrid infection! Thanks for the interesting and relevant post (my whole family is battling colds this week), and also for the giveaway! Does illness play a role in the plot of Heyerwood?

Debra E. Marvin said...

Very interesting information and another reason to enjoy the present day (medical knowledge)for all that we long to be dwell in the 19thC.

I'm very interested in your book, Lauren, and would like to be in the drawing!
debraemarvin (at) yahoo

Lauren Gilbert said...

Alexa and Debra- Thank you both for the comments, and for entering the giveaway!

Alexa, illness plays a small role in HEYERWOOD. It is such an issue for the period, it is impossible not to have some reference to it!

Best wishes!

Linda said...

Very interesting post, reminds me I should perhaps get a flu shot. I love regency romances. This novel sounds great and I love the cover. Thanks for the giveaway.

Charles Bazalgette said...

As one of the 'putrid throat'infections we should add quinsy (peri-tonsular abscess). Anyone who has had this (like me) would think they were at death's door, and wouldn't mind too much if they were!

Maggi Andersen said...

Interesting post, thanks. Brings us down to earth when we romanticize the past too much!

Susan Heim said...

We are so fortunate to live in a time when a sore throat doesn't bring on thoughts of death! Thank you so much for a fascinating look at illness during Jane Austen's time.
smhparent at hotmail dot com

Sophia Rose said...

As I read about the illnesses, I though of some of the 'cures' and shuddered. So glad for modern medicine. That putrid sore throat just sounds horrid. I'm miserable with just a regular sore throat.

I love reading Regency era books.

Thanks for the giveaway opportunity.

Lauren Gilbert said...

Linda, Charles, Maggi, Susan and Sophia Rose-Thanks for your comments. Charles, thanks for mentioning quinsy-yet another entry for the category! It's so easy to forget how serious the "minor" ailments used to be.

marilyn said...

Basic hygienic practices that we take for granted were not known at this time such as the importance of handwashing with soap and water, isolation of small children from adults that were ill, as well as proper nutrition. Infant and maternal mortality was high. This post was very thought provoking.

Would love to read your novel!


J.A. Beard said...

Great post.

This is something I think about a lot in historical settings. We take things for granted. Heck, even at the turn of the 20th century, 0-to-5 mortality in the US, for instance, was 20% due to infectious disease.

Debra Brown said...

I'd love to have this book!

The post on flu season is something we should think about gratefully in our time. There was, however, a better time elsewhere.

Until the arrival of Europeans in Hawaii, the people there lived in a paradise, off the land and from the sea. They were free of the flu and similar illnesses. In many ways, they had a perfect life. However, when the Europeans arrived to a hearty welcome from the island peoples, they brought along with them flu, venereal disease and other plagues to which the islanders had built no immunity. It wiped them out by the thousands. Disease-wise, life went from bliss to horror. It was worse than what even the Europeans of earlier times suffered. Thanks for the post and the giveaway! kescah at comcast dot net.

Lauren said...

Marilyn, J.A. and Debra-thank you for commenting. Amazing what soap and water, and a little space can do, isn't it? It is important to note that for the poor and lower classes, isolation would have been difficult if not outright impossible. Debra-you are so right about the spread of infection and disease; the colonization of the entire north and south american continents are full of that issue, even the use of blankets belonging to smallpox victims to infect Indian camps. Truly tragic.

Best wishes to you all!

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating post! Thank you Lauren for your in-depth writings on illness! It certainly explained why people didn't live long in those centuries! How tragic!

I did some further research because of your post. It turns out back in early Bible times, anything that came in contact with dead bodies or that were polluted in other ways had to be cleansed according to prescribed formulas. The development of leprosy in a garment or in the walls of a house was a much more serious matter, for if it could not be contained and seemed to spread, it was necessary to destroy the garment or tear down the house completely! (Levitcus 13:47-59; 14:33-53 & Lev:11:32-35; 15:11, 12)

Thank you again Lauren for your great post and giveway! Would love to read your book! Cheers Susan (bromiegirlatgmaildotcom)

Literary Chanteuse said...

This sounds wonderful I would love to read it! Thank you so much for the giveaway!


MonicaP said...

We have much to be thankful for in the way of modern medicine. Having a sore throat is terrible when it's minor, I can't imagine how excrutiating it would be to die from it. Two years ago a 21 yr old guy that I worked with died suddenly from something called Lemierre syndrome, caused by an infection of the throat.

I would love to win a copy of Heyerwood, it sounds great. :)

monicaperry00 at gmail dot com

Lauren said...

Hi, Susan, Margararet and Monica P! Thanks for joining the conversation! Susan-so much of the dietary laws really seem to boil down to common-sense health issues. Good luck to you all!

Angie W said...

I believe I would rather not revisit the illnesses of the time, it is a horrible thought to ponder, losing a loved one to a fever, or less. I wonder how many "mental" illnesses went undiscovered or even hidden from all society as in Jane Eyre. However, if we could bring back the manners and etiquette of the time, I would gladly suffer the sniffles. Heyerwood sounds like something I would definitely enjoy. Thank you for the giveaway. amwreyn(at)gmail(dot)com.

Lauren Gilbert said...

Anemailname, thanks for your comment! It would be a horrible, helpless feeling to watch someone suffer like that. However, I agree that a return to civility would be a wonderful thing, well worth a sniffle! Good luck in the giveaway!

Erica said...

What an interesting post! I guess we can be glad for modern medicine when we get sick now.

Lauren Gilbert said...

So true, Erica!

BeckyC said...

Interesting! I love getting lost in Austen, but am very glad I get to come back home to modern life and modern medicine!