Mansfield Park’s Lady Bertram is the epitome of laziness and indolence. Her favourite activity is sitting on her favourite sofa, with a piece of sewing on her lap and pug at her feet.
Jane Austen’s character is wonderfully well depicted. But as a writer, I like to ask questions, and mine in her case was: what if her laziness, which everyone took for a personality trait, was, in reality, a health issue?
Laziness or Tiredness?
Mansfield Park has been on my mind a lot of late. My new Austeniana book, Miss Price’s Choice, begins in the home of the Bertrams about five years after the elopement of Mrs Rushworth. The protagonist is Susan Price, Fanny’s spirited little sister, who becomes Lady Bertram’s companion when Fanny marries Edmund.
Writing Austen-inspired fiction involves re-reading Austen in no small degree. This time, as I was listening to Karen Savage’s excellent audiobook version, something hit me. I realised that Lady Bertram may well have a thyroid condition.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland that sits in our necks, wrapped around the base of our throat. It is small but mighty and is responsible for much of the body’s metabolism. When it does not work well, the consequences are severe. In hyperthyroidism, the body speeds up and goes too fast. In hypothyroidism, everything slows down, and the sufferer is in a permanent state of exhaustion.
A Personal Experience of Hypothyroidism
My thyroid began to misbehave in my twenties. My thyroid was underperforming. I had dry skin, and I was always cold. Unbeknownst to me, I also had a swollen neck (or goitre), although it was only discernible to those with medical knowledge. Above all, I was tired all the time.
I began to wonder if Lady Bertram might not have been tired instead of lazy. She often naps during the day, and that is certainly something I wanted to do all the time before I was diagnosed. Lady Bertram is not fat, but neither was I: although weight increase is typical in hyperthyroidism, I did not experience it. She is also the age at which many women experience thyroid issues. A story began to form in my head.
Lady Bertram’s Possible Thyroid Problem
Hypothyroidism is slow to develop. The changes to the body happen so slowly that they are difficult to notice. The person affected and her loved ones do not immediately realise that something is wrong.
Lady Bertram had a lethargic disposition, so a thyroid problem may well go unnoticed for some time. It would take a while for her loved ones to notice the tiredness and foggy brain. Perhaps they would not worry until other symptoms like the dry skin or the bulging eyes made an appearance.
At that point, a loving husband like Sir Thomas would surely take decisive action. But what remedies would have been available to Lady Bertram?
New and Old Solutions for Goitre
Once I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, I began to take synthetic thyroxine. The difference in my energy levels took a few weeks, but the change was striking. After a while, my thyroid was working well again. Going for long walks, keeping focused or having a late night was no longer a struggle.
Of course, synthetic thyroxine was not available during the Regency, but there were medical treatments for the condition. Iodine, an element essential for the thyroid gland to function, was discovered in 1811 in France. Bernard Coindet, a pioneering Swiss doctor, began to use it as a tincture to treat his patients soon afterwards.
However, remedies for goitre had long existed. Seaweed and kelp, naturally rich in iodine, were used in ancient China and Central and South America to treat goitre issues. Word of such treatments probably made its way to Europe in the Middle Ages, and eventually, England as well.
The Coventry Remedy
The famed “Coventry remedy”, first written about by Thomas Warton in 1656, was a tincture developed by a Dr Bate sold as a remedy for goitre. The enterprising Dr Bate and his descendants kept the recipe secret for many years, earning a tidy sum in the process.
By the late eighteenth century, the main ingredient in the Coventry remedy was revealed to be the ashes of burnt sea sponge. The reason why the tincture worked was not understood, but some doctors continued to prescribe it to their patients.
A Decision for the Bertrams
I thought that Sir Thomas, given a choice between a cutting-edge new therapy developed by a foreigner and an English-made remedy with centuries of proven success, would not think twice. The Coventry remedy had decidedly rustic roots, but it would surely be his preferred course of action.
And this is precisely what happens. After a few weeks of following the treatment, Lady Bertram’s energy levels surge, just as mine did when I started to take thyroid supplements. She even begins to take her new puppy for walks!
But this is a different story, one that I hope to share with you in the autumn.
Miss Price’s Decision launches on 17 October and is now available for preorder.
Do you suffer from a thyroid condition or know someone who does? Was there a symptom in particular that told you that something wasn’t right? What do you think of the Coventry remedy and Regency medicine in general?