Illness, Vintage-Style

I have, of late, been undertaking some unprofessional nursing: the Caped Gooseberry had his wisdom teeth out this week, and bronchitis the week before. (These things happen. Especially they happen during (PseuDo)NaNoWriMo.)

Lovis Corinth Vater Franz Heinrich Corinth auf dem Krankenlager 1888
Unprofessional nursing… It sounds like the censure of conduct that should have been professional and wasn’t, but in fact a good many people in this world undertake such work in caring for a loved one, either temporarily or long-term.

These days it is termed ‘caregiving’ to make the distinction that nursing is done by nurses, but it used to be considered that nursing the sick was nursing the sick, regardless of the qualifications involved, and many household guides had advice for these only-to-be-expected times in life.

Take, for example, that worthy tome, Whitcombe’s New Everyday Cookery, published in 1966 by Whitcombe and Tombs. (My copy, one of the “35oth Thousand,” has my mother’s maiden name inscribed on the title page.) Chapter XXXVI is entitled ‘Food for the Sick’, and it begins with a section of advice on sickbed room-service. For example:

“3. Serve only small portions daintily, and so encourage a flagging appetite.
4. Vary the method of service by changing the linen and china and by placing a small posy of flowers on the tray. Linen must be well laundered and scrupulously clean, china and silver well cared for.”

Jean-Étienne Liotard - The Chocolate Girl - WGA13062
All very well, although it does suggest rather a lot of dish-washing and laundry will be involved in Keeping Standards Up. While my dearly beloved did get a variety of linen and china in his bed-bound meals, that was more because I hadn’t washed the last lot than from some angelic wish to put a bit of spice in his life. Posies there were none.

Where New Everyday Cookery really excels itself, however, is in the suggested dishes. Most of it is sensible enough: soft, easy to digest foods etc. However… Things I would not like to see on my tray, were I sick, ill or invalided, include a raw egg beaten up with a little sugar, sherry and cold water; gruel; beef tea (which contains about a teaspoon of actual nutrition per half-pint, according to Florence Nightingale); and fricasseed brains or sweetbreads (with white sauce, presumably by way of disguise).

Especially not the fricasseed brains, although I might well make a sudden and miraculous recovery, if the alternative was to be eating brains (fricasseed or otherwise, and with or without white sauce). I feel enough like a zombie when I’m sick, I don’t need to eat brains to enhance the illusion.

Gabriël Metsu - The Sick Girl - WGA15092Needless to say, I did not inflict these horrors on the Caped Gooseberry.

Aunt Daisy’s New Book of Handy Hints is also an invaluable vol.,  and also published by Whitcombe and Tombs, though it doesn’t say when. Prices are given in shillings and pence; and my grandmother’s maiden name is inscribed on the cover. (Answer: 1951, according to Te Ara.)

While Aunt Daisy doesn’t mention the nursing of the sick (apart from recommending a brisk massage of pressure points with neat meths to avoid bedsores), she does include a number of First Aid hints, not all of which would be looked upon with kindness by the medical authorities of today. For example, if someone drinks a corrosive poison, soothe the burnt membranes with something bland, like milk or egg-white – and then “a little brandy for a stimulant.” If there is one thing I would not like poured down my throat after a corrosive poison, it is brandy, little or otherwise. Ouch.

Vallotton Die Kranke 1892
Aunt Daisy also suggests liver tea for anaemia, made by pouring warm water over minced liver, steeping, and then adding marmite, pepper and salt. This can be made palatable, she argues, if you heat all the utensils before you use them. Personally, I have my doubts. For neuritis, she recommends neat lemon juice, first thing in the morning, which would at least take your mind off it!

But it’s Eileen Ascroft, in her book The Magic Key to Charm (first published 1938) who really takes the cake for vintage sickbed advice. While she doesn’t touch on the work of caring for a sick person yourself, she has plenty of advice for women in those difficult times of life when it is harder than usual to show your inner charm.

“Change your nightie every day and keep your curls brushed and combed and tied up with a pretty ribbon to match your nightie,” she advises. “Keep a soft big baby shawl to cuddle into when you are alone and a pretty, fresh dressing jacket for visitors or when the doctor comes.” Like this one, perhaps?

The Ladies' home journal (1948) (14579330107) “Keep the skin of your face nourished with face cream and your nails prettily manicured.
If you can’t do them yourself, nurse will be only too pleased to do them for you.” One can only assume she is not talking about a hospital nurse here; I am sure they have much better things to do with their professional qualifications than give people manicures.

She does, however, suggest that you give up worrying about how people will cope without you and just enjoy the chance to rest and relax. After all, “it gives you time to pause in your life and think where you are going… to take stock of yourself and make plans for the future. So lie peacefully and dream and plan for your career, your home, your husband, your children, your clothes, your hobby, your interests, your games and your future behaviour.”

Once you are convalescing, she recommends improving your mind by reading the newspaper from cover to cover, reading the latest books and catching up with your correspondence. And keep your hands busy: “Embroidery, sewing, knitting, crochet, drawing or painting – there are a dozen exciting things to do.”

Ill woman recovers surrounded by flowersAfter all, if you’re going to be ill, you might as well enjoy yourself.

What are your tips for sickness in style – or unprofessional nursing?

My Husband Is Not Lazy

Suppose you know a man who doesn’t have a paying job (and isn’t looking for one), who gets up late, goes to bed early, and often spends a good deal of his waking hours lying on the couch; a man who doesn’t always get his share of the household work done on time; a man who frequently isn’t available if you need a volunteer.

What would you think of him?

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Here’s the thing: that man is my husband (aka The Caped Gooseberry). And I think very highly of him. Because he isn’t lazy; he has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).

And unfortunately, a lot of people seem to think that unless you’re visibly ill, you must be a hypochondriac, a malingerer, or just plain lazy. “It’s all in your head.” Well, so is a brain tumour, and who would tell someone with cancer that they just need to pull themselves together?

There are two particularly frustrating reactions to my husband’s illness. One is the suggestion that he just needs to try [insert pet vitamin/mineral/other here] or getting more exercise, or self-hypnosis, or… As though being cripplingly unwell for years at a time only happened to people who didn’t think to try a herbal remedy, or eat lots of oranges.

Evidence of Toronto people

The second is the suggestion that he’s only ill – or pretending to be – because he prefers it to work. Which isn’t true. My husband does a larger share of the housework than a great many able-bodied men (although, to be scrupulously fair, they’re more likely to spend hours each day at a paying job). He’s worked when his health has allowed it, to the extent that he could, and he gets very frustrated when his energy levels force him to stop work.

He could just go on a benefit and lie in bed all day watching TV, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t even spend all day in his jammies (which, I must admit, I would be very tempted to do in his place). He dresses well, even if that’s the only thing he has the energy to do that day. And when he can, he works – on programming, audio-book narration, or other projects – even though the work is unpaid.

The thing is, the Caped Gooseberry doesn’t look sick, apart from an occasional tendency to resemble a tomb effigy when at rest.

St-Denis Heinrich-II

So it’s easy for people to assume that he isn’t really that unwell. Easy to assume that if they see him out doing the grocery shopping or going to church, he must be all right. They don’t see the rest of the day spent lying down to make up for it. They don’t see him when he’s too tired to leave the house, or too tired to even sit at the table and chew.
In some ways, it’s an invisible disorder, because not only are the symptoms frequently not visible, the sufferers often ‘disappear’ as well.

But Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as myalgic encephalomyelits/ME and chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome/CFIDS) is a very real illness.
According to Wikipedia, symptoms may include “malaise after exertion; unrefreshing sleep, widespread muscle and joint pain, sore throat, headaches of a type not previously experienced, cognitive difficulties, chronic and severe mental and physical exhaustion…. muscle weakness, increased sensitivity to light, sounds and smells, orthostatic intolerance, digestive disturbances, depression, painful and often slightly swollen lymph nodes, cardiac and respiratory problems.”

General Thaddeus Kosciusko by Benjamin West

And then, with classic understatement, the article adds “Quality of life of persons with CFS can be extremely compromised.”

And there are few things worse than having your life maimed by illness, only for people to treat you as though you’re a slacker, a bludger, or just hopelessly inept. As though you aren’t really suffering, and if you are, it’s your fault.

Of course, most people are too polite to suggest to the Caped Gooseberry that he just needs to pull himself together and get on with it. So they suggest it to me, instead. Because there’s nothing offensive in telling a woman that you think her husband’s a lazy slacker who pretends to be sick to avoid having to get a job like a real man.

'Around the Moon' by Bayard and Neuville 04

Seventeen million people are said to have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. That’s a lot of people being looked down on by people who don’t know their circumstances, and, sadly, by many of those who do.

So please, before we judge the person doing the grocery shopping in their pyjamas, or the person whose house or yard isn’t up to neighbourhood standards, please, let’s remember that we don’t know what else they’re going through, and they don’t need the weight of our condemnation added to the burdens they’re already bearing.

Rx for Readers

Are your humours out of balance? You could be cupped, or bled, or purged. You could consider emetics, or even dally with leeches. Or perhaps you could just read a book instead.

Myself, I always go for the book.

Karoly Ferenczy 22

I don’t know when I realized that I self-medicate with books. Possibly when I wrote this post, or possibly this one.
Or possibly when I read one of the new editions of P.G. Wodehouse and noted that his works were described as “cheaper than Prozac, and 100 per cent more effective.”

Here are a few of my favourite prescriptions.

Feeling blue? In a brown study? Life just drab and grey? Take a course of P.G. Wodehouse. Read anything he wrote: a novel, a preface, even the account of his experiences being interned by the Nazis. Uniformly hilarious.
Overdoses can cause symptoms similar to intoxication; possible side effects include aching stomach muscles and snorted drinks.

Original caption- A couple of hearty characters roar at a good joke Art.IWMARTLD135c

Are you jaded by the harried complexities of urban life, the rush, the pollution, the noise? Try the old classic Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. Warning: may cause uncontrollable urge to move to Switzerland.

Plenty of housework to do, but don’t fancy drudging it? Monica Dickens’ autobiographical caper One Pair of Hands should get you in the mood – or, for a more fictional twist, try the exploits of Lucy Eyelesbarrow in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington.

Edouard John Mentha Lesendes Dienstmädchen in einer Bibliothek

Most of Agatha Christie’s works are ideal for when you are in need of something warm and comforting to curl up in. They’re not mindless junk, but neither are there nasty surprises. (Not unless you read Endless Night.) Plenty of unexpected twists, though – I’ve read them over and over again and I still sometimes miss whodunnit.

Also excellent for the early stages of recuperation are Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels. There is no-one I would rather have in my sick-room than this quietly knitting, Tennyson-quoting gentlewoman detective, ahem, private enquiry agent.

Edwardian lady writing (6908558900)

Are you oppressed? By life, by work, by circumstance? If, like the man trapped by the date tree which grew under him as he slept, you are unable to alter circumstances to your will; adapt your will to circumstances instead: try being heroically or nobly oppressed, for variety.
Nicholas Nickleby (by Monica’s great-granddaddy Charles) would be delighted to be of assistance; or Part One of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women may serve the turn instead.

Like Hamlet, do you find life “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable”? Try Terry Pratchett for some “interesting times.”

Edwin Booth as Hamlet lithograph

Does time weigh heavily on your hands? Do the days bore you by their prosaic banality? The ideal solution is J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings – the ultimate reason to “not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel,” as Miss Prism warns her charge.

What home remedies do you have on your bookshelf? I’d love to hear!