Recently, a thing–as some will know–really got up my nose.
Which, after I’d come down off the wall, got me to pondering what it was that had so enflamed my ire?
And I, at last, in the small hours of the morning, came upon it: it’s the trivialising and minimising of people’s lives and challenges in the early 19th century so that these people become nothing more than a ‘fun’ setting for some novel or other.
The spark that fired me up was, of course, George Brummell.
So today, I’m going to talk about him. Specifically about him and about the thing that killed him–slowly and agonisingly–syphilis–the medical term for one of the several sexually transmitted diseases also known in 1811 as a Drury-Lane Ague.
(And…I’ve just lost half my audience right there! Because yes, what this blog isn’t going to be is ‘fun’.)
You’re right, syphilis isn’t fun. And it’s not sexy. It’s not romantic. It doesn’t have great hair.
It’s horrible, it’s terrifying and it’s brutally painful. But it was, in the 18th and 19th centuries, as prevalent and as fatal and widespread in its destructive sweep as Aids in the 1980’s and 90’s.
There are various theories and discussions about how and when it arrived in Britain. Obviously, there are all those urban legends (which vary depending on which nationality is speaking) about it being the French disease or the Italian disease or the Spanish plague, brought back from the New World by the Conquistadors…
I don’t know which if any of these stories are true, half-true or complete and utter vermin dander. The point is that even by the late 17th century, it was known as a killer. And a messy killer. (Anyone who’s seen the film about the Earl of Rochester as played by Johnny Depp will attest to that.)
They’d also worked out exactly how they believed one got it–the heterosexual exchange of bodily fluids with an infected person.
So prevalent was it, that by the mid-18th century, veneral diseases had become very much part of the reality of popular culture.
And we know this, in part, by the runaway success of Hogarth’s works which feature many characters showing the tell-tale signs–The Rake’s Progress and The Harlot’s Progress–and also by the numerous terms associated with it to be found in Captain Grose’s dictionary of The Vulgar Tongue: fire ship (a girl carrying VD), peppered (infected with VD), Lock’s hospital (a hospital for VD patients), Drury Lane Ague…
(To give you a sense of how prevalent it was Europe-wide during the 18th century, some 25% of the population of Venice was infected…there’s even a Syphilis museum in Venice….it’s not for the squeamish–that’s all I’ll say.)
They’d also learned, by trial and error, that the disease was passed down to one’s children.
And all of this had led through the latter part of the 18th century to a lessening of overt promiscuity and a tightening up of morality (which plays in with the rising tide of Methodism from the 1780s or so)–at least on the part of the growing middle classes and gentry.
As for the upper classes–the artistocracy and their friends–those who could afford to pay higher prices for their pleasures–they too became more particular (though, as you will see, not particular enough) about limiting their sexual partners and lovers to those who did not show signs of the infection…
George Brummell had come to London and had made a name for himself as a paragon of good taste, of elegance, an advisor on all things sartorial and taste-related to the rich and famous. He was a gentleman.
From 1802 until his departure for Calais in May 1816, he held sway as the arbiter of fashion. Daily he sat in the bow window of White’s Club on St. James’s Street, cracking jokes with his friends, in an English Regency version of the top football player and friends of an American teen movie. Or at least that’s how it strikes me. He was ‘the man’.
But that’s only fourteen years of his life. And this is what gets me so very cross. Because like those teenage sporty-boys, these fourteen years offer only a glimpse of the full life of the man. And the full life of this man, Brummell, was one of debt, depression and disease. And it wasn’t fun.
Like many of the other gentlemen of his acquaintance and class and at his club, Brummell frequently was seen at the soirees of Harriette Wilson, the well-known Regency courtesan.
He generally was known to stop there regularly–late in the evening after the theatre; he was exceedingly fond of the cold chicken she served as part of her suppers…He may have had an affaire with one of Harriette’s fellow demi-mondaines…and there were certainly plenty of willing partners at these parties she threw…That was, in fact, the whole idea.
So at some point, during the height of his fame and influence (judging by the progress of the disease) Brummell contracted a Drury Lane Ague. Sometime between 1810-14. Probably. His behaviour suggests he definitely had contracted the disease by sometime in 1814.
(Just as a point of reference, having a STD wasn’t that uncommon at this time–Viscount Castlereagh contracted some sort of venereal complaint which laid him low whilst he was at Cambridge, and which caused him to cut short his university education…It wasn’t syphilis though. That much is fairly certain.)
1814 is a pretty key year in terms of the history of syphilis in Britain too, because that’s the year the victorious soldiers and officers returned from Europe after defeating Napoleon’s troops in Spain. And in their luggage, as it were, they brought back a more virulent strain of the disease than had previously been recorded here.
As one contemporary author wrote: “…there is a splendid pox in town, as pure as at the time of Francis I. The entire army has been laid up with it, boils are exploding in groins like shells, and purulent jets of clap vie with the fountains.”
From the outset, within weeks of contracting the disease, Brummell would have known he had it. Primary syphilis is recognisable by the chancres and rash…the treatments for which could be obtained quite discreetly during the 19th century. These were mercury-based pills and/or ointments that would clear up the rash and cause the initial chancre to disappear.
Less curable was the wildly fluctuating libido which was a tell-tale sign of the disease, and that would range from mad for sex (called syphilitic euphoria) one minute to the next in which the sufferer is repelled by it.
Reckless behaviour, severe depression, lethargy and frequent bouts of self-loathing also accompany this primary stage, and these characteristics certainly increasingly define Brummell’s behaviour during his final years in London–his wild and ever-wilder schemes for raising money, his depression at his deepening debt, his wild addiction to gambling which consumed all else, his rash and unstable behaviour toward old friends, including the Prince Regent.
How long this stage lasts varies between individuals. But, at the time of the Regency, they believed that the disappearance of the chancres, the mouth ulcers and rashes signified that a sufferer was cured and could no longer communicate the disease. They couldn’t have been more wrong.
And Brummell, although he wasn’t bearing the outward insignia of the disease any longer, was far from well. He was forced by his mountain of debts to flee England in May 1816, and once established in Calais, he shaved off his hair and bought a wig–another sign of the advancing disease is that the hair grows irregularly in unsightly patches.
So from 1816, Brummell was hard up for money and living in very reduced circumstances, suffering from bouts of fitful depression, physically he probably felt rough all the time, and by now, he was probably impotent too.
As the years progressed, the disease advanced into its secondary stage which in Brummell’s case (as in so many others) would have meant he ached all the time and the pain would be so bad at night that he couldn’t sleep.
The onset of secondary syphilis is also accompanied by a measles-like rash a.k.a. roseolas. And Brummell would have had terrible recurring headaches too. He would have been acutely sensitive to cold and to heat, as well as suffering from a full gamut of tummy problems. The mercury would be causing him to salivate excessively. His teeth would loosen and fall out, along with all his hair. His eyesight would begin to fail and he wouldn’t be able to distinguish certain colours either. Certainly, his depression would deepen even further.
(And anyone who saw him at this time would have known what it was that had infected him thusly–they might not have talked about it, but they all knew.)
By 1834, he was suffering from neuro-syphilitic strokes caused by his continual use of mercury–which is a poison in case you didn’t know. They also included arsenic and iodide in their treatments at the time…they were mostly concerned with the outward symptoms of the disease, believing as they did, that if you could treat these, the disease wouldn’t act as quickly on the central nervous system. (Wrong again.)
Brummell appeared to recover from the two recorded strokes. But that’s deceptive. He did a spell in prison for debt where he slept on a straw mattress–and that can’t have helped his condition.
By 1835-36, he was suffering from tabes dorsalis which is the physical manifestation of the onset of the final stage of tertiary syphilis and its accompanying dementia. In other words, it’s the slow attack of the disease on the spinal chord and the spinal nerves, hence by this time, those who saw him would have noticed that his walk was ‘creeping’ and ‘snail-like’ and that he stooped.
The dementia started to kick in as well and his moods would have ranged from extreme mania (hence the stories about him giving imaginary balls and ordering invisible staff about) to periods of quiet realisation of just what was going on and bitter weeping…
On 17 January 1839–against his will–Brummell was admitted into the asylum of Bon Sauveur near Caen.
He was now suffering from the final stages of Meningovascular syphilis and his many symptoms included facial paralysis andquaking, the loss of bladder/bowel control, his teeth would all have fallen out, his tongue would have been swollen and cracked and turning black as would his privates, he would have had tumours in the groin, weeping tumours would have appeared on his legs, and his brain would have been shrinking away from the bone casing of his skull and turning eventually to a kind of granulated powder. He would have been quivering or raving and in constant agonising pain which would make him violent–and the treatment for that was to be hosed down with icy water…
Towards the very end, he suffered from almost continual seizures and quaked pretty much non-stop. He died at 9.15 on the evening of 30 March 1840.
I dare say, you now can see why I have a hard time with the presentation of Brummell as merely a man of witty repartee and a fashion icon. His story is too terrible for that.
And regardless of how one feels about his morals or lack thereof–I’m not particularly fussed or interested: he was a man of his time–no one, not any one (no matter what they have done!) deserves to suffer like that.
It’s like reading about the French soldiers who died on the retreat from Moscow. Now I’m not a fan of the Napoleonic empire, and I’d be the first to list the atrocities Napoleon’s troops committed all over Europe, but when I read accounts that tell me, “We saw round the fires, the half-consumed bodies of many unfortunate men, who, having advanced too near in order to warm themselves, and being too weak to recede, had become prey to the flames. Some miserable beings blackened with smoke, and besmeared with the blood of the horses which they had devoured, wandered like ghosts…they gazed on the dead bodies of their companions, and, too feeble to support themselves, fell down, and died like them…”
When I read that, I think “No one deserves what Napoleon did to his men. No one!”
Even though I know that these very men were carrying the virulent form of syphilis all over Europe and spreading it far and wide via gang-rape–the exhumations of the mass graves of Napoleon’s soldiers from outside Vilnius and Smolensk have revealed (upon forensic analysis) that 80% of Napoleon’s troops were suffering from secondary syphilis. (Which kind of gives the lie to all Nappy’s claims that he looked after his men like a father…the fellows he took to Russia were dead-men walking.)
It’s probably down to them too that Vienna was so infected with syphilis that young men like Franz Schubert contracted the disease on a night out. Years later, Robert Schumann had to be incarcerated for the same reason…
But no one deserves these dreadful sufferings, and equally, no one deserves to be reduced to a caricature. These were all real people, as real as you and me, and that needs never to be forgot nor lost sight of. Not ever…
Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.