I am delighted to be involved in the blog tour for the latest instalment in the Campbell Lawless series of crime thrillers set in mid Victorian London, perfect reading for the Madwoman in the Attic. Thanks so much to William for the guest post he has provided here about Victorian advertising and to Lydia Gittins at Titan for sending me a copy of the book.
Lawless & the House of Electricity by William Sutton, third in his series of Lawless mysteries exploring the darker sides of Victorian London, is published by Titan Books, and features a mad woman in the attic, whose symptoms are all too Victorian.
ASTHMA CIGARETTES: ADVERTISEMENTS AND INSPIRING ILLNESSES
Victorian advertisements beguile me. They speak volumes of the age, of its anxieties and its swindlers. Dr Batty’s Asthma Cigarettes For the temporary relief of paroxysms Not recommended for children under 6
You couldn’t make this stuff up. Well, you could, but the real examples are better. (View more on Pinterest.)
With all our vitamins, homeopathics and aromatherapies, you might think this is the age of dodgy medications, but you wouldn’t believe the things Victorians tried. In writing Lawless & the House of Electricity, I returned over and again to advertisements and other picture inspirations for two strands of the book: terrorism and illness.
A wonderful range of ailments is purportedly cured by Dr Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People: “paralysis, locomotor ataxia, anaemia, weakness, scrofula, sundry ailments”. From this I derived diagnoses, more and less reasonable, for Lady Elodie, the mysterious absentee at Roxbury House.
Arsenical Soap was used to treat “disfigurements: blotches, blemishes, freckles, pimples and pustulance”. The fact that it was poisonous caused problems, and suspicious deaths accelerated through the mid-century. The Arsenic Act of 1851 did not stop the panic over poisonings, as seen in ITV’s drama Dark Angel.
I recommend you read further in Kathryn Harkup’s A is for Arsenic, which gives encyclopaedic detail on the myriad ways you may poison your loved ones (or your characters).
DIABOLICAL DIAGNOSES I got so inspired by all this, I wrote a ditty about it for the Writing Edward King project (hear it on Soundcloud), characterising the wild range of diseases that sent people to those daunting and magnificent asylums that sprung up around the country after the Asylums Act.
I’ll admit that scrofula and pustulance aren’t too common today (at least in Europe, though Dickensian concerns are often still operative in the wider world). But researching hysteria in Asti Hustvedt’s excellent Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris made me think twice before mocking Victorian medicine.
We may laugh at “strolling congestion, drawing room anguish, dissipation of nerves and imaginary female trouble” (genuine contributory factors cited upon commitment to a Victorian asylum). But if we mock Victorian diagnoses, what will today’s diagnoses look like in future?
Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test explodes the alarmingly arbitrary origins of today’s diagnostic criteria (psychologists using DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Perhaps we should think how today’s diagnoses will be laughed at in the future.
I resisted classifying Lady’s Elodie’s disease by modern criteria (depression, epileptic absences, fugues). It has more in common with the encephalitis lethargica of Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings and the catalepsy-lethargy-somnambulism of Charcot’s hysterics in the Saltpêtrière Hospital of Paris.
The pictures remind us that the past was once the present: laugh if you dare, but you will be laughed at in turn one day.
TOP VICTORIAN PIC SOURCES
Follow these stars of Twitter and the blogosphere and the world of Victorian pics will open up: 1. My pictorial inspirations on Pinterest 2. British Library’s Open Source archive 3. Whores of Yore (Kate Lister @WhoresofYore). See especially her Word of the Day and Historical Hotties 4. Victorian London (Lee Jackson @VictorianLondon) 5. Wayward Women (Lucy Williams @19thC_Offender
Electric Blog Tour Day 1 (Tags: writing, Vic Pics, diagnoses, ads, inspiration, asylum, madness)