Health Advice

“Silver fork” novels were a hugely popular genre from the 1820s to the 1840s, though we’ve all but forgotten it today. These books were ficitonal narratives dealing with class and the aristocracy, and usually provided a great deal of advice (sometimes satirical, sometimes not) to teach middle-class readers how to act like aristocrats, so they didn’t embarrass themselves by picking up the wrong fork at a fancy dinner or something (“A dessert fork for the fish course? SO VULGAR!”).

Today we will hear what the silver fork novels had to say about health:

The treatment of health issues in silver fork novels (and in upper-class circles in general) could be very faddish: fashionable doctors, miracle cures, holidays to rest and ‘take the air’–one’s health became a major topic of conversation and sometimes a full-time job.

Robust health was often portrayed as a sign of lower-class vulgarity, while a ‘delicate constitution’ was portrayed in these novels as a sign of refinement. It wasn’t enough, however, to feign frailty; one’s specific symptoms, combined with one’s appearance and habits, became a way for others to judge everything from the date of impending death, to morality, to intelligence, to the constitution of future children.

"Essay on Modern Medical Education, No. 4 The Lecture Room" From Vol. 1, no. 7: Northern Looking Glass 3rd September 1825. With permission of the University of Glasgow Library Special Collections. Shelfmark Sp Coll Bh14-x.8

  • “Old Burton assigns the engendering of melancholy chiefly to flatulence” (Cecil 3: 233). [Depressed? Nah, you just gotta fart.]
  • “When people have really nothing to do, they generally fall ill upon it; and at length, the rich colour grew faint upon Lady Erpingham’s cheek; her form wasted; the physicians hinted at consumption, and recommended a warmer clime” (Godolphin 2:134).
  • “’he has got a red face at times, to be sure, but that’s not health, Mr. Rodney, – it is too purple to be wholesome. Take my word for it, some of these fine mornings he’ll pop off suddenly’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 247-248). [If red cheeks are a sign of ill health, Prince Harry is DOOMED.]
  • “Mrs. Brashleigh, after a short illness, contracted by eating ice while overheated with dancing, shuffled off this mortal coil” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 304). [Slushie in a hot room = DEATH]
  • “it is a well-known fact in physiology, that annuitants and old women never die” (Romance and Reality 1:16).
  • “All a young lady should pray for, is a severe lingering fit of illness, to impress upon her debating lover a just feminine valuation; – fevers and agues are the best stepping stones to the hymeneal altar” (Romance and Reality 1:269). [“Oh, god, she’s ill! She is justly feminine! Quickly, to the altar!]
  • She “admonish[ed] me never to read above half an hour at a time for fear of losing my health” (Pelham 1:8). [Y’all, I would be years in my grave if this were true.]
  • “who, without taste, ever has the gout? and how few with, have ever escaped it!” (The Confessions of an Elderly Gentleman 3). [Gout: how you know you’re classy as balls]
  • “The poor young lady, after a few months of misery, died of what is vulgarly called a broken heart” (Sayings and Doings, or, Danvers 106). [Emotions are for poor people]
  • “’When I was ill last winter, Dr. F–’s prescriptions were so delightful . . . I was to take chocolate three times a-day, and eat a macaroon, with half-a-glass of water, on going to bed!’” (Finesse 1:208). [Is your doctor Milton Hershey?]
  • “ten hours rest is not more than sufficient for a delicate female. A mechanic may do with seven; – a robust man with eight; – a person in the decline of life with nine; – and a woman of nervous temperament with ten” (Pin Money 2:268). [Let me get this straight: if you are physically active or actually ill, you need less rest than someone who sits around all day? “And slaves don’t need sleep AT ALL!”]
  • “’I got into a sad, moping, nervous way; and my family physician . . . ordered me to Bath, and prescribed a pint of mulled claret every evening before going to bed. My recovery was miraculous’” (Mothers and Daughters 1:87-88). [Because was depression really needs is MOAR BOOZE]
  • “Lady Weldon followed her physician’s prescription, to eat little and often” (At Home 1:106).
  • “’Mr. Molesworth was firm about his sons; declared hunting was necessary to health’” (Dacre: A Novel 1:22). [Not to the health of the foxes, but that’s another issue]
  • “’I am one of those unfortunate persons . . . who are dyspeptic . . . indeed, I take charcoal before I dare touch any thing . . . it is the most fashionable medicine now, pure carbon, and I have reason to like it better than ever . . . The fine ladies take it constantly, and carry it in their reticules in the form of bon bons” (Country Houses 3:29). [Heartburn is so fashionable!]
  • “’my father used to call gout a gentleman’s disease, but nothing could be more vulgar than an indigestion’” (Country Houses 3:31). [Heartburn is so vulgar!]
  • “’I detest early rising and early walks, – the worst things in the world for delicate people’” (The Three Eras of Woman’s Life 2:177). [Most people would agree that mornings will kill you.]
  • “’One don’t look well when one faints – that is to say, really faints,’ observed Lady Ellersby; ‘it is surely best to avoid doing so’” (The Exclusives 2:2). [. . . yeah. It surely would be best to avoid actually fainting. That’s . . . that’s generally a good rule of thumb].
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2 Responses to Health Advice

  1. hearts_blood says:

    “it is a well-known fact in physiology, that annuitants and old women never die” (Romance and Reality 1:16).

    Omg, when was this written? Jane Austen must have been familiar with this one. Fanny Dashwood says almost the EXACT same thing in Sense & Sensibility:

    “Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.”

    “Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them.” (Ch. 1)


    • linda_lupos says:

      I thought of that too!

      And in Love And Freindship, she cautions against fainting: “run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint”. (Mostly because fainting will kill you, or something.)


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