Judith Cutler

Writing Historical Novels

On Medical Treatment In Regency Era Britain

historical image

I’ve always thought I was born in the wrong era – I see myself living in a wonderful spacious Georgian house, elegantly dressed, reading the latest great novels from Fanny Burney and Jane Austen and generally living the life of Riley. However, as I type this with one leg heavily strapped and propped up on a mound of cushions, I’m beginning to change my mind.

First let me establish that I am not suffering from gout; a disease that seemed to afflict so many people in that era. Even with modern medicine and dietary knowledge, that’s not much fun. Mine is a sporting injury – I tore a calf muscle on the tennis court (not a very authentic eighteenth/early nineteenth century activity, I admit, though we have a suggestion from Northanger Abbey that girls played cricket and baseball, and we also know that overarm bowling was developed so that women didn’t tangle their bowling arm in their extensive skirts).

What happened next? I was carried off court by two handsome men, shoved into a car and whizzed straight to A and E. Painkillers on arrival. Immediate triage. A thorough inspection and treatment by a doctor specialising in trauma. Now the offending limb is awaiting expert physio.

What would have happened to me in 1800? Let us speculate that the most likely equivalent would have been a hunting accident. Probably my fellow riders’ first concern would have been the horse – a very expensive item. Then they might have taken a handy gate off its hinges and plonked me on top of it – it would be like lying on an unpadded futon. Then there would have been a very painful journey home – perhaps with the odd nip of brandy to keep me going. At last the local sawbones would arrive to treat me (I’m still assuming I belong to a family with enough money to pay for medical treatment!). He was most likely to have been an apothecary – basically a man with a knowledge of the few drugs and many so-called remedies available then. Were I really important, and really wealthy, and only then, would a doctor be called.

Laudanum would be the main form of analgesia – highly addictive, of course. And a drop more brandy.

A visit to any country churchyard gives the best illustration of mortality in that period. One beloved husband, who may have had up to four or even five wives, all dying in their twenties. Childbirth, of course. Remember that if the baby’s head was too big to pass through the birth canal, they had to kill it in utero and drag it out in bits, just to have a chance of saving the mother. Then there was puerperal fever…

If you survived childbirth, and lived long enough to get breast cancer, you might end up like Madame d’Arblay, aka Fanny Burney, and have your breast removed without anaesthesia.

Perhaps life wasn’t so good in those days. Elegant and refined my life is not – but at least it’s been a lot longer than women’s in that period. Now I’ll reach for my NHS walking stick and hop off to tackle the next job.