September 2, 2017
In part I of “At the Seashore,” I began exploring references to the seashore in classic literature and looked at the English holiday. I now turn to the seashore as a treatment.
To Treat Tuberculosis (and other diseases)
Sadly, some of the most gifted writers of literature were taken from us too soon and left us with preludes of what they may have written had they lived on even another twenty years. Oh, how I would love to read another Emily Bronte novel or find out who John Keats would have married.
On the other hand, Elizabeth Barrett Browning gave us a great gift in her letters written and received during her battle with consumption (an early term for tuberculosis).
She was forced to leave England when the cold and damp began to affect her daily life. Browning explains in a letter to her friend, written in London in 1852:
“[I have been] coughing in my old way, and it has been without intermission up to now…this climate won’t let me live.”
Robert Browning, concerned about his wife’s health, insisted they move from England to Italy, where they wintered and lived more often than not from that point forward.
Although Elizabeth Browning might have been inspired by living near the sea, she indicates strongly that she and her husband and son likely would have stayed in England or perhaps lived in Paris, had it not been for her lung illness. According to Elizabeth, her husband described Florence, Italy as, “dead and dull and flat”!
Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy
Elizabeth Barrett Browning eventually succumbed to the disease in 1861 (nine years later), but she did not seem to agree that a warm climate was recommended as a treatment. I had always wondered why they didn’t live on the southern coast of Italy. Rather, it was a temperate climate that was advised. Studies in the mid-1800’s led many doctors to not be in favor of moist air for the treatment of such diseases.
Health experts at the time assumed that since fewer people seemed to acquire the disease in drier climates, humidity was somehow related to the acquisition and development of consumption or at least the tendency toward developing it. This was not so strange, given that city dwellings were damp and often had mildew or even black mold growing. Still, nasty moldy air hardly compares to salty sea air!
Certain writers ran in the same circles, and family members such as the Bronte siblings did not seem to realize they were contagious to one another, possibly because the symptoms might not present in earnest for years or might not present at all, in some cases. The treatments of this era are as intriguing as the general findings of the disease:
In the early to mid-1800’s, around the time Elizabeth Browning was suffering from tuberculosis, Henry Congreve promoted his patented elixir. In a booklet he used to convince sufferers that his elixir would cure them, he claimed, “colds are often brought on by taking hot liquors previous to going out of a warm room into the air in a cold evening; but generally they arise from an exposure of the body to the atmosphere, when it is heated above its usual temperature; or from a sudden transition from heat to cold” (Consumption Curable).
Congreve insisted that if a cough were not treated early on, it would definitely lead to consumption, the symptoms of which he described as:
“general emaciation, debility, pain in the side or chest, difficulty of breathing on taking the slightest exercise, and a Cough…[and] in its advanced stage a viscid expectoration, with hectic fever…” (Consumption Curable).
He explained that with over 50,000 people dying of tuberculosis each year in England at the time, the purchase of his elixir (containing ten percent alcohol) was the answer for consumption, as well as other lung ailments. He also told his readers:
“A temporary sojournment at the sea-side, for the purpose of inhaling the saline particles, with which the sea breezes are impregnated…will be attended with much advantage, as a means for stimulating the lungs to deeper and more frequent inspiration…” (Consumption Curable 1839 ed.).
Here we clearly see a connection between salt air and the improvement of symptoms in lung patients. Even medical journals and booklets from this same era recommended the sea as a treatment, especially for those who lived in the cold climates of northern England.
Charlotte Bronte watched her own family members waste away, one by one, and was especially tormented by memories of Emily’s last days. Although it was too late for Emily, Charlotte hoped to extend Anne’s life.
Anne Bronte, in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, claimed:
“The doctors say that change of air or removal to a better climate would hardly ever fail of success in consumptive cases if the remedy be taken t is generally deferred until it is too late (The Brontes: Life and Letters: Volume 2, 39).”
Sketch of Anne Bronte, published 1898
Anne’s choice was Scarborough, located in northeastern England, where she had often accompanied the family she worked for (as a governess) on their holidays. Perhaps it was of Scarborough Anne was thinking when her well-known character Agnes Grey was made to proclaim:
” no language can describe the effect of the deep, clear azure of the sky and ocean…the unspeakable purity and freshness of the air! (Agnes Grey, 1847 ed.)”
Anne, Charlotte, and even close friend Ellen made the journey to Scarborough, and Anne was able to see her beloved sea again. Unfortunately, she could not breathe well, even in the climate upon which her hopes were set, and she passed away within the month.
According to a book written by Dr. Edward Smith and published in 1865, the average high temperature during this time of year at Scarborough was around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, indicating a somewhat temperate climate (Consumption 218).
By the late 1800’s, Koch had discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis, and the world seemed to have discovered not only the health benefits, but also the mental benefits of a trip to the seashore.
Sea-bathing at resorts could now be reached by railroads, and all sorts of ailments were purported as being helped by a trip to the shore, everything from skin disorders to asthma.
Suddenly, it was dipping into the cold water and then rubbing down with a brisk towel afterward or taking a Turkish or Russian bath or even taking a “sand” bath that seemed to be the newest fad! They focused on the cold, the extremes, and the wind, believing that a good disturbance to the system was always beneficial.
Symptoms of depression were supposedly “shocked” by the cold waters of the English sea, which afterward gave the sufferer a kind of reboot and lifted his or her spirits. Many today still believe in the benefits of this type of therapy.
Soon, even songs proclaimed, “By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea…” as America joined her European sister in yearly visits to the shore. In part 3, I will explore how and why writers were inspired to write and create near the seaside.