Cheryl Kinney, Walter Young and Arnie Perlstein

Cheryl Kinney

Walter Nelson demonstrates mesmerism.

Walter Nelson demonstrates phrenology.

The audience at the Athletic Club

Laurie Viera Rigler, Syrie James, Laurel Ann Nattress and Diana Birchall at the book signing

Sandy Lerner

Kay Young

Dessert with rout cakes, baked by Jan Fahey and Nancy Gallagher

Winter 2011

Do Not Physic Them:

Medicine in Jane Austen’s Time

December 3, 2011

Los Angeles Athletic Club


Cheryl Kinney — A Dangerous Indulgence: Women’s Health in Jane Austen’s Time
Arnie Perlstein — Concealed Pregnancies in Jane Austen’s Novels
Walter Nelson — Quackery, Snake Oil and Flim Flam Medicine


At the Winter 2011 meeting, more than 150 JASNA-Southwest members and guests learned just how fortunate women are to live in the 21st century with all of benefits of modern medicine!

Cheryl Kinney started the day, describing how, in the 19th century, women lived about half as long as we do today, 40 versus 81 years. Women’s medical care was not just bad, it was “atrocious.” Apothecaries prescribed drugs, surgery was performed by barbers and physicians were the diagnosticians. Let us not forget the quacks who “treated medicine as a cash cow” and didn’t mind if the potions they peddled were deadly.

Childbirth was a leading killer of women. Midwives, who had taken care of women for centuries, were pushed out by male physicians trying to expand their practices. Pregnant women received dubious benefits from the latest technology, the obstetrical forceps. While forceps saved some mothers, it left others with lifelong pain. Royalty was not spared. Princess Charlotte, the heir apparent, died in childbirth due to multiple blood lettings and an overly conservative approach to intervention. The royal obstetrician shot himself in disgrace.

Women tried to limit their families, but birth control was primitive and dangerous. Most methods didn’t work. The condom, invented by a Colonel Cundrum in 1665 was available but, not surprising, was no more popular then than it is today. Abortions were clandestine, usually induced by potions that often killed the mother as well as the baby. The most common method was abstinence. In Jane Austen’s own family, three of her sisters-in-law gave birth multiple times and died in childbirth. No wonder Austen remained single. If a woman survived childbirth by age 44, most women had to cope with menopause, a condition widely misunderstood. Common treatments were daily purging, bleeding or sea bathing. Some women ended up in an insane asylum. Beyond childbirth, women died of the same diseases as they do today, breast cancer and cervical cancer.

Jane Austen comments on doctoring in her novels. Several of her characters get sick. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Bennet gets sick and is confined to Netherfield. In Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood is seriously ill and almost dies. In both cases the apothecary is called in first and, when things take a turn for the worse, the physician is called in. In Persuasion Mrs. Smith is bedridden and treated by a nurse. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, who suffers constantly, sums up his aversion to London as “nobody can be healthy in London.“

What about Jane Austen’s own last illness? In January 1816, while in London, Austen nursed her brother through a serious illness, most likely tuberculosis. That summer, at home, she felt OK, but by December was weak, by January nauseous and by March her face was changing colors. In April she wrote her last will and testament. In July she finally succumbed, most likely to Addison’s disease. Did exposure to her brother’s tuberculosis (a disease implicated in 70 to 90 percent of cases of Addison’s disease), lead to her death? The jury is out.

The day’s second speaker was Arnie Perlstein, who theorized that Jane Austen had a code or parallel fictional universe and that her stories contained “shadow stories” that were covert, indirect and possibly autobiographical. According to Perlstein, there are two stories, one leading to a happy ending and the other a shadow world of “offstage motives” and “inconvenient family secrets,” such as concealed pregnancies. Early in the talk he cited an example of a possible covert meaning in Pride and Prejudice when Kitty coughs during one of her mother’s indiscreet comments. He claims the cough is ironic, showing Mrs. Bennet’s shallowness, and foreshadowing Mr. Collin’s proposal scene. Perlstein said he believes Austen intended the reader to understand the double meanings.

Perlstein went on to offer further examples of shadow stories. Emma, he said, is particularly fraught with double stories. Perhaps it is no mere coincidence that, toward the end of the novel, the wealthy and needy Mrs. Churchill finally dies, releasing Frank to marry Jane Fairfax. Did Austen need to tie up a loose end to finish the book, or did she intend us to believe there was some foul play? Then there is Jane Fairfax. Was she a sympathetic gentlewoman in a delicate situation or did she have a past to hide? What about Northanger Abbey? Did General Tilney invite Catherine Moreland to the Abbey for Henry’s sake or because he wanted Catherine and her money for himself? In Sense and Sensibility, was Willoughby just a cad or in fact a stalker who had singled out Marianne and planned her seduction?

Now for the heart of the presentation, the concealed pregnancies. Having been secretly married to Frank Churchill it is possible that Jane Fairfax might have been pregnant and that might explain her illness and nervousness about Churchill’s interest in other women. But no, that isn’t what Perlstein meant. He meant that Jane is truly a fallen woman, with Colonel Campbell, Mr. Elton and John Knightley and, to top it off, who leaves a baby for Mrs. Weston to raise. Perlstein intimated that Marianne may also have been pregnant and that poor Mrs. Tilney was “murdered by childbirth.” And that Harriet is a little schemer in bed with Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton, among others. But Perlstein’s worst theory was yet to come — that the real reason Jane Bingley moved to be close to Pemberley was to be close to Mr. Darcy.

Walter Nelson spoke on “Quackery, Snake Oil and Flim Flam Medicine.” He extended the theme of medical care from Jane Austen’s time a few years into the Victorian era, when mesmerism and phrenology captured the world’s attention. Mesmerism was given its name by its “inventor” Franz Mesmer, who presented introduced it to Paris in the 1770s when everybody, including Benjamin Franklin, was talking about electricity.

Mesmer built on this fascination with electricity by asserting that there was an invisible force or electricity, that he called animal magnetism, which flowed between two people. He postulated that “nerves cause the essence of life” and that nervous disorders could be cured through this invisible current. The world, especially the scientific community, did not immediately take to Mesmerism and ultimately concluded there was no such thing as animal magnetism. When Mesmer died in 1815, it was hoped that mesmerism was on its way out. Instead, 19th century mediums and faith healers took up the cause. In the 1830s, hypnotism, an offshoot of mesmerism, became popular with “relax, look into my eyes” becoming a popular mantra.

Phrenology started out as a theory cloaked in science. Fredrick Gall developed a map of the brain which he divided into regions or phrenological organs that he said controlled some aspect of yourself. If a certain part of the brain was used more, it was bigger. The shape and size of a skull could predict personality. A receding forehead designated a brute, a person with lesser intellect. Measurements were taken to evaluate the brain patterns. It became fashionable to have parties and phrenology became a parlor game. Literature took up the cause. Mary Shelley used the concept in her book Frankenstein. By the 1840s, phrenology was dismissed by doctors but the theory hung on in popular culture into the 20th century.

During lunch, the audience was entertained by readings from the new Ballantine anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It by contributing authors Diana Birchall, Syrie James and Laurie Viera Rigler. They signed copies as well, as did Sandy Lerner, who was on hand with Second Impressions, her new sequel to Pride and Prejudice. She donated a copy to one lucky raffle winner. Kay Young signed her new book Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy and her first book, Ordinary Pleasures, an exploration of narrative intimacy and happiness that features a piece on Pride and Prejudice.