Health and Society in Georgian Spas

As part of the ‘Fashionable Diseases’ Leverhulme Trust project, we have held five workshops in the first year. The last of these in November 2013 was entitled ‘Fashion and Illness in Georgian Bath.’ Although Bath is well-known as the eighteenth-century centre for fashionable society, it is easy to forget that it only became so due to its identity as a health resort. As with other spas in Britain and Europe at this time, people originally travelled to Bath for the healing effects of the waters. Phyllis Hembry explains in The English Spa, 1560-1815 that in the Medieval period the waters of many spas were thought to be miraculous while from the Elizabethan period onwards, more emphasis was placed on the chemical properties of the mineral salts and water1. By the eighteenth century many spas throughout Britain and Europe were popular resorts for those hoping to cure various illnesses as well as for more preventative measures. As the wealthy upper and moneyed middle classes toured the spas for their health, the towns began to provide better amenities and increased entertainment for recreation. It is only because of the health tourism that spas like Bath, Tunbridge, Cheltenham, Bristol and others became such popular eighteenth-century social centres.

What I find most interesting in late eighteenth-century novels set in spa towns is the curative effect, not of the waters themselves, but of the society. In an article entitled ‘In the Bowels of the Novel: The Exchange of Fluids in the Beau Monde’ Daniel Cottom argues that ‘Even writers concerned to puff the medicinal virtues of the waters would allow that the social life to be found at the spas, in promenades, and sightseeing and such, was no inconsiderable contribution to the process of the cures that might be found there.’ 2 Society was an important element of the holistic health benefits of the spas. This seems to me to be particularly relevant to sufferers of melancholy. When many puritans suffered from what was commonly termed ‘religious melancholy,’ Anglican ministers like John Langhorne (1735-79) argued that, amongst other causes such as too much prolonged study, their denial of music and lively enjoyments was partially to blame. In Letters on Religious Retirement, Melancholy and Enthusiasm, Langhorne writes,

[An] amiable person, about the age of nineteen, [...] had been induced by a maiden aunt to go several times to a conventicle. I observed her chearfulness abated, and imputed the change to want of health; till one evening, when I visited her, and, thinking to divert her melancholy humour, ventured to ask her for a song – She started at the proposal, and – ‘What,’ says she, ‘would you have me sing? enough has been given to vanity’ – ’Twas in vain that I represented to her, the innocence of such an amusement – in vain that I told her, it was necessary for the mind to suspend its attention, and vary its persuits. [...] At length her Melancholy affected her constitution; and she languished away in the bloom of life, a Sacrifice to FANATICISM.3

In contrast to puritan nonconformist sects, many Anglicans believed and strongly argued that society was a necessary part of a balanced lifestyle. Languishing in isolation or in ‘religious retirement’ could lead to a downward spiral of melancholy and declining health.

While Bath may have become a target for eighteenth-century satire as a place of dissolute behaviour and pompous fakery, it is interesting how the society nevertheless has the power to heal even the most cynical and virtuous of heroines. In Annick Cossic’s workshop, she spoke of how in Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliott’s features begin to revive and her beauty restore after many years of suffering from love melancholy and isolation from her family. Cossic argues that this is partially due to the social circles she becomes part of in Lyme Regis and Bath, before it is finally cured by the longed-for engagement with Captain Wentworth. 4

The same could be said of Burney’s Evelina. After a childhood spent in isolation is ended by her entrance into society in London, where she falls in love with Lord Orville, Evelina finds herself back at home, separated from her love under unfavourable terms, and removed from all of the lively enjoyments of London society. What ensues is a deep and affecting illness from love melancholy. Robert Burton had given a large section of his 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy to defining love melancholy as a recognized illness. Here Evelina suffers both mentally and physically from this unrequited love, hopelessness and isolation. The proposed cure is, not Bath with its more dissipated, overly indulgent social scene, which comes in for some severe criticism in the novel, but rather its smaller but conveniently close neighbour, Bristol Hotwell. No sooner does Evelina arrive in Bristol than she finds herself ‘already better [...] in regards to mere health’ though she has not yet even taken the waters.5 Then at the first sight of Lord Orville, despite not yet clearing up the confusion that led to her despair, she is

restored at once to spirits and tranquillity, is no longer sunk in her own opinion, nor discontented with the world; – no longer, with dejected eyes, sees the prospect of passing her future days in sadness, doubt, and suspicion! – with revived courage she now looks forward, and expects to meet with goodness, even among mankind.6

Although Evelina has been sent to Bristol for the waters, her ailment stems from isolation and unrequited love, and her cure is not from the waters of the spa, but rather from its society and the love she finds there.

Spas like Bath and Bristol Hotwell, and later seaside resorts such as Brighton, Margate and Lyme Regis, provided not only health and society, but also health through society for the characters of these novels. The fact that they were fashionable social centres should not detract from their impact as health resorts. The two are not mutually exclusive. Rather the combination of health and society in the spa towns could well be seen as a holistic approach to wellbeing.

Anita O’Connell

To listen to Professor Annick Cossic’s workshop on ‘Fashion and Illness in Georgian Bath’ or any of our other workshops, visit our ‘Podcasts’ page.

There will be more workshops, as well as a major conference, in 2014. Please continue to watch our website for more details:

Back to post 1. Phyllis Hembry, The English Spa, 1560-1815: A Social History (London: Continuum, 1989) p. 1-10.

Back to post 2. Daniel Cottom, ‘In the Bowels of the Novel: The Exchange of Fluids in the Beau Monde,’ NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 32.2 (1999), p. 171.

Back to post 3. John Langhorne, Letters on Religious Retirement, Melancholy and Enthusiasm (1762) in David Walker and Anita O’Connell, eds, Volume One: Religious Writings, Depression and Melancholy, 1660-1800, gen. eds. Leigh Wetherall Dickson and Allan Ingram (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012), p. 146-7.

Back to post 4. Annick Cossic, ‘Fashion and Illness in Georgian Bath,’ podcast from workshop on Fashionable Diseases, See Jane Austen, Persuasion, ed. James Kinsley, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004).

Back to post 5. Frances Burney, Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World, ed. Edward A. Bloom, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002; 2008), p. 269.

Back to post 6. Burney, Evelina, p. 278.

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