Wednesday 27 October 2021

James' Fever Powders - about as silly as Invermectin


When Christopher Smart had a life-threatening bout of illness, he wrote a poem about it, detailing the despair he went through when reviewing his own life. He wrote about how hard it was to see the crying of his wife wife and his ‘little prattlers’, how he feared leaving them alone. He wrote about how his ‘feeble feet’ wouldn’t take is weight, his eyes couldn’t admit the ‘glorious light’ and how his nerves ‘convulsed’ and ‘shook fearful to their fate’. More than this, he wrote about the spiritual transformation of his illness. He wrote about how he reflected on his life and soul and found nothing redeemable about it, that he despaired of ever being loved by God or man and how he pledged to do better, thus becoming born again ‘a birth of joy’. By the end of the poem he commits to God ‘deep-rooted’ in my heart and he was to do exactly that, leading some people to think he was mad and lock him up. 

The poem was published in 1756 by Smart’s publisher and Father-in-Law, John Newbery. A still moving testament to the pain and fear of illness, a truly felt expression of a faith renewed and a celebration the joy of recovery - Newbury put an advert at the front for James’ Fever Powders.

Robert James was a legit medical expert, a full member of the Royal College of Physicians and reputedly travelled to Holland to train for a time under Boerhaave. He was at Lichfield Grammar School the same time as Samuel Johnson, who wrote proposals (and a couple of entries) for James’ own medical dictionary. That dictionary was a huge success and remained an authoritative text into the end of the 19th century, despite how much medical theory and practice had changed since his time.

Another legacy of Robert James were his fever powder, which was still being used into the early 20th century. A marketing pioneer more than anything else, James at first upset society by patenting his medicine, seen as a money-grubbing mood for someone of private means. This was especially true as he lied in the patent about the ingredients, stopping people from bootlegging it in any way. The powders came in individual paper-wrapped doses in a larger bottle, one of the first designed to be bought and kept at home in case it was needed, rather than buying a new bottle per dose.

Then there was advertising. As well as the usual adverts in journals and newspapers, James had his powders thanked in place of a dedication (as in Smart’s poem) and even featured as product placement in a children’s story. In Goody Two-Shoes (probably written by Oliver Goldsmith), the eponymous heroine’s father died because he lived in a place where the miraculous powders could not be bought. It’s no co-incidence that both Smart’s poem and Goldsmith’s children’s story praised the powders, they were both published by John Newbery, who was an official licensed seller of the powders, using his book network to sell them across the country. Such marketing worked and tales of miraculous cures poured in and were used for copy-edit, even King George III used the powders to help his cataracts.

So, what was in these healing powders and how did they work? Eighteenth Century medicine was in a strange place at this time, the old mediaeval theories of humours had largely been displaced but there wasn’t a coherent new theory of health. The language had changed a little, doctors talked of nerves rather than humours but the practice had stayed the same. In the old system, humours would be unbalanced and medical practice was to remove the excess humours and bring the body back to balance. This meant if symptoms showed a patient to have excess of blood, they were drained of blood. Another humour was choler, or yellow bile and the treatment was to sick it up. As choler was regarded as the key ‘fire’ element of the body, fevers were a clear sign that the body had too much of it and so needed to purge that nasty yellow bile. As such, emetic pills were a standard technique in medicine, with people even taking pre-emptive pills to ward off sickness and one of the key treatments in Bedlam was to make its patients throw up to get rid of the fire of madness.

James’ Fever Powders, largely containing antinomy and phosphate of lime, could certainly make a patient throw up. Oliver Goldsmith, who had advertised the powders in his Goody Two-Shoes found himself very ill (we now think of a kidney infection). He took immense amounts of James’ Fever Powders in an effort to get better. His friends, seeing his condition decline rather than improve told him he should stop with the vomiting and build his strength up but Goldsmith refused. He had some medical training himself, having been a medical practitioner and (according to him) a graduate of Scottish and European medical universities. He proscribed himself more and more, and it probably killed him. He didn’t reach his 50th birthday. Incidentally, Horace Walpole wrote in one of his letters that "I think that (he) might have been saved if he had continued James's powder, which had much effect."

James himself lived to the age of 73, celebrated for his dictionary and a household name for his wonderful healing powders. Luckily, we live in an age with proper testing and safety standards. I would in-fact not be alive today if it were not for Beechum’s Powders - my parents met at a Beechum’s factory. (Incidentally, the inspiration to look into this was a cold I just can't shift.)

Wednesday 20 October 2021

Dick Turpin Retrospective: Episode 5 - The Pursuit

 I'm back on the Dick Turpin horse, I hope to have this series reviewed by the end of the year.

Wednesday 13 October 2021

Jenny Uglow's Nature’s Engraver: A life of Thomas Bewick at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

It was with delight that the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met again in person for the first time in sixteen months. While the more regular online meetings had been something of a lifeline for members, they were not the same as being together and in Dr Johnson’s House. Much had changed, people had moved to further flung corners of the country but there was still enough people to form a decent group and there were even a new visitor, who had a family connection with one of Thomas Bewick’s works.

We were there to discuss Nature’s Engraver: A life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. We had greatly enjoyed Lunar Men together and anyone who picks up one of her biographies would agree that she has a talent for telling a life in a way that is both authoritative and enjoyable to read. 

Bewick engraved on wood, often for publications and his work has probably seeped into British consciousness. It was only the American member in the room who had never come across him before, everyone else having grown up with him, either in the Opie’s collection of nursery rhymes, as end-pieces in country cookbooks or with his own Book of English Birds. Since creating his images, they’ve become a part of childhood in the UK, popping up in Jane Eyre, as she hides behind the curtain to look at the pictures or with Virginia Woolf, sitting on her father’s lap. What kind of life led to the creation of these images?

Uglow starts the book in the countryside outside of Newcastle, in a small village called Cherryburn where the oldest son of a farmer (and coal-mining sub-contractor) is running wild. He bunks off school, scribbles pictures in the back of a pew and takes his friends on a voyage down an almost freezing river on an iceberg. Spanking doesn’t correct him, nor does being locked in the church bell tower - he proceeds to ring the bells as loud as he can. The boy needs an outlet for his energy.

He finds this in Newcastle, the nearest large city, which is growing rapidly at this time. It’s a place subject to massive storms, one of which swept its only bridge away, complete with the houses on it. There, Bewick became the apprentice of an engraver. He’d always enjoyed drawing and found himself very skilled at the task. At first he was given the easy jobs but he began to work on more difficult ones. He heard of a new way of achieving woodcuts far more textured and detailed than the ones that had been in chap books and cheap broadsides, using the dense end of boxwood to create subtler pictures. It’s interesting that someone with so much energy could concentrate for hours at a time carving out careful lines. Both his scattershot energy and his ability to focus minutely would aid him to become the best at what he did.

He seems to have been a tremendously physical person, walking seventeen miles home in all weather every weekend to see his family and taking even longer walks to distant parts of the country. The countryside made him happy and although he grew to hate bloodsports, he would go out fishing for days at a time. These walks inspired many of his characteristic little engravings, all of them full of detail and movement, often telling stories. There’s one of a horse with evil intent in its eye as a baby comes to pat it. The mother is running to the baby as the nursemaid is meeting company in a bush beyond. There’s another of a farmer carrying a cow across a river to save the toll on the perfectly good bridge behind him. These are small works full of energy but engraved with care and the book gains massively from their inclusion throughout.

In some ways, the book could be read as an example of the story of the ‘good apprentice’. A formally unruly child knuckles down to hard work, produces things he can be proud of and builds up a business and family that allow him to be respected in his community and beyond. Unlike Hogarth, he doesn’t yearn to be more than an engraver, he wishes to be the best engraver he can. There are tragedies in his life, he is greatly affected by the deaths of his parents and his younger brother, but his is a life relatively unruffled. He had a quick temper and often fell out with business associates but was also quick to make up, and these associations continued long after they were useful. He was politically radical, attending discussion and debate groups, but not so outspoken he was ever picked up by the increasingly paranoid authorities. He loved animals and hated cruelty to them, but would frequently depict fox-hunting scenes because he knew they would sell with the wealthy horse and dog set. Like his work, his life was a balance between his energy and his steady focus.

As a result, this biography is a pleasant, gentle, measured book. The story of a man who diligently made beautiful things. There isn’t the tragedy of Mrs Jordan’s Profession, nor the hubbub of Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy. It’s a book to read on a calm, summer’s day - or when longing for one, and it was a smooth, unruffled return to meeting in person.

Wednesday 6 October 2021

Review: The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia by Sarah Fielding

 Sarah Fielding seems something of a dark horse, whether it was being ahead of the sentimental novel trend with David Simple, or being the first writer of a school story with The Governess, she was a writer who wouldn’t be contained by genre. (I’d love to get my hands on a copy of The Cry, which she wrote with The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting author, Jane Collier). The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia is another experiment but not one that I think succeeds.

It’s a paired biography of two women from the first century AD who were both linked to Mark Anthony, as wife and mistress. My copy of the book (edited by Christopher D Johnson) went to great pains in the notes to show how much research had gone into the book, citing not only Plutarch, Suetonius and Josephus but also fictional representations of the characters by authors such as Shakespeare. The aim seems to have been to create a genuine, factual biography but to twist the telling of them for other purposes.

Although the book is biography, the lives are narrated by the women themselves who have come from the underworld to tell their stories in the first person. This seems to be a bit of a faf at one point, I came across it in the snippets of Friendship in Death by Elizabeth Singer Rowe The overall aim of the book is clearly didactic, to compare the ambitious, relentless and dishonest Cleopatra with the straight-forward and uncomplicated loving nature of Octavia and recommend the second. Like many didactic works though, Cleopatra, the negative example gets three times as much page space as the positive one of Octavia. (Also, who are people more likely to have heard of? Which is the star name on the cover?)

I can see how the first-person perspective could have worked to invigorate the biography but Fielding doesn’t fully commit to the idea. As ‘shades’ of themselves they are more objective than they were in life, able to ‘reveal those secret Motives of my Actions, which were so little known to myself’. Thus they seem too impartial and cold in describing their actions, like people blandly reading a pre-written statement, not feeling the feelings they describe that animate them. Cleopatra was clearly a fascinating person, but she has no personality in this text.

If anything, the Cleopatra part of the text becomes boring. She has no love for Mark Anthony and recounts the ways she kept him wound up in a knot of passion, preferring him angry with her than reflective, because any thought would bring him to his senses and away from her. Most of the time she plays him like a fiddle, flatters his ego, pretends to great waves of sadness or joy and is secretly laughing up her sleeve the whole time. 

There was some interest towards the end when she manipulates Mark Anthony into war with Octavian knowing he would probably lose but considering it a crowning achievement to push him to lose all for her. There were also the parts right at the end where she had to make it so Mark Anthony would lose without making the world see she was betraying him but making it clear to Octavian that she was, so she could begin the process of snaring him. Then, when Mark Anthony had died in her arms, she shilly-shallied with Octavian, testing the water but when she ultimately saw the cold, calculating Octavian wouldn’t fall for her tricks, killed herself to cement her legend. (There was also a whole paragraph where, preparing for this eventuality, she tried a variety of poisons on prisoners before settling for a snake to “execute its friendly office”.)

Of course, this book uses the character of Cleopatra as handed down to us by Roman sources and they are deeply unfair. The real Cleopatra was a polymath, known as ‘the Queen who needs no translator’, a scholar and the inheritor of a declining kingdom and a dynasty with a royal bloodline with a gene pool as shallow as a puddle. Her last hurrah for the many thousands of years of Egyptian self-rule almost came true and she seems to have been a very capable monarch (even if there was rather more brother-marrying/murdering than a modern politician can get away with). To have her so resolutely bad, so predictable in her selfish choices, untouched by any love or affection made her all the more boring.

The Octavia stuff is shorter and does nip along far quicker. I was interested in her description of perfect first husband, Marcellus because Sarah Fielding doesn’t merely give us the list of rational virtues we expect but lingers on the fact that he was also fun, funny and full of imagination. “He gave way to his Imagination, loved to indulge it; and from the most Trifling Circumstances could derive Pleasure and Amusement.” The notes stated that this characterisation of Marcellus comes from no other account, so I presume it must be a description of the kind of person Sarah Fielding was attracted to, someone who could be enjoyable to be with as well as good - I found it quite touching. Then Marcellus dies, Octavia is pledged to Mark Anthony but he goes off with Cleopatra and we largely get repeats of what we’ve already heard but from a slightly different perspective.

Sad to say, the part of the text I found most engaging was the list of subscriptions. I liked finding names I knew, such as Richardson (who worked with her on other projects) Garrick, and her brother’s friends like Hogarth and Saunders Welch the Bow-Street Runner. 

That said, I respect Fielding’s ingenuity, for trying a different kind of book and if it didn’t quite come off this time, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth attempting.