This is the third of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.
Magic would seem to have no place in the world depicted by Jane Austen it is, after all, a very realistic depiction of the early nineteenth century. In fact that is one of the reason I enjoy the novels so much, they provide a wonderful window on the period. However, despite the apparently rationality of the age, magic did have a place in Britain at this time.
Medicine was remarkably ineffective, the way in which the body worked was only just beginning to be understood and many medical procedures were probably more dangerous than the condition they were attempting to treat. For this reason, even educated people, frequently resorted to magical charms to treat various ailments.
The Reverend James Woodforde, a former fellow of Oxford and rector of a Norfolk parish was, despite being highly intelligent and very well educated, a great believer in charms to cure medical conditions. He is also one of the greatest diarists of the period and records various charms he tried and the effect they had. In 1790 he suffered from a swelling on the eyelid.
‘Mar.11, Friday The Stiony on my right Eye-lid still swelled and inflamed very much. As it is commonly said that the Eye-lid being rubbed by the tail of a black Cat would do it much good if not entirely cure it, and having a black Cat, a little before dinner I made a trial of it, and very soon after dinner I found my Eye-lid much abated of the swelling and almost free from Pain.’
‘Mar. 15, Tuesday.. , My right Eye again, that is, its Eye-lid much inflamed again and rather painful. I put on a plaistor to it this morning, but in the Aft. took it of again, as I perceived no good from it.
Mar. 16,Wednesday …. My Eye-lid is I think rather better than it was, I bathed it with warm milk and Water last Night. My Eye-lid about Noon rather worse owing perhaps to the warm Milk and Water, therefore just before Dinner I washed it well with cold Water and in the Evening appeared much better for it.’
Fortunately he finally managed to do something sensible, there is no further mention of the eyelid so presumably simply washing it and keeping it clean worked.
In Mansfield Park the Bertrams and the Crawfords, accompanied by Fanny Price and Mrs Norris visit Sotherton, the home of Mr Rushworth. During this visit Mrs Norris;
‘Had been met by the gardener, with whom she had made a most satisfactory acquaintance, for she had set him right as to his grandson’s illness, convinced him that it was an ague, and promised him a charm for it.’
So there it is, the most unpleasant character in Jane Austen’s works is the one to offer magical help. An Ague was an intermittent fever, possibly a form of malaria. As the disease could naturally disappear it is one where charms would appear to work, so what might the charm have consisted of? It might have sounded vaguely medical, in The Compleat Housewife: or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman’s Companion there are several recipes for the cure of ague which would have had no practical benefit and so to modern eyes look like charms. This is typical,
Or perhaps it was a magical one such as this, recorded in Devon in the nineteenth century;
‘To cure ague, when a sufferer feels that an attack is imminent, he should go to the nearest crossroads at midnight, on five nights, and there bury a new-laid egg.’
Though let’s hope it wasn’t the cure that Parson Woodforde tried on his servant;
‘May 22 1779 My Boy Jack had another touch of the Ague about noon. I gave him a dram of gin at the beginning of the fit and pushed him headlong into one of my Ponds and ordered him to bed immediately and he was better after it.’
A nineteenth century ghost, no relation to what I am saying, but I like the picture.
Mrs Norris is, of course, the only character from Jane Austen’s works referenced in the Harry Potter novels, depicted as a wicked cat. J K Rowling says she chose the name as she always disliked Mrs Norris (who doesn’t), though I suspect she also knew that Mrs Norris practiced magic.