Jane Austen has a certain mythical status. Her six novels are in the lists of most read books across the globe. She also wrote poetry and that too deserves to get the same attention. In the poem “I’ve a pain in my head” it seems that she is into medicine for headaches.
Jane Austen in 1873.
Image source: Wikipedia
Who was Jane Austen?
Many wrote about Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), so why should a biography be part of this article? To make it complete, perhaps.
Austen was born op 16 December 1775 as a daughter of William George (1731 – 1805) and Cassandra (1739 – 1827). Her family consisted of six brothers – James (1765 – 1819), George (1766 – 1838), Edward (1767 – 1852), Henry Thomas (1771-1850), Francis William (Frank) (1774-1865), Charles John (1779-1852) – and one sister – Cassandra Elizabeth (1773 – 1845). Her father worked as a pastor in the Anglican parishes of Steventon, Hampshire.
There aren’t that many details left of the life of Austen. What is left are mostly letters. She wrote about 3.000 to her sister Cassandra. Only 160 are left. This is because Cassandra burned most of the letters. The 160 letters that are left aren’t original: Cassandra decided to censor these letters.
But Cassandra wasn’t the only one to blame. The heirs of Admiral Francis William – her brother – destroyed many letters.
What is left was the result of the first fifty years after her death in writing. It shows us a friendly aunt. Researchers agree that this might not be based on reality.
Let’s agree that there isn’t much information available for what we can say that it’s very accurate.
About the poem
How about this poem? It almost seems that Austen is covering some cures for headaches. Cures or medicine no longer in use nowadays.
It’s most certainly a narrative poem. It tells us about Beckford. Beckford is a lady who sees her doctor over the pain in her head. So far there is nothing wrong. It gets strange when Austen talks about this doctor, in passive language. Whose name it was Newnham instead of something like The doctor’s name is Newnham. It seems that there is something wrong with this doctor.
Miss Beckford suggests a medicine and they end up taking it both. It’s a calomel brisk. Calomel happens to be a mercury chloride mineral (Hg2Cl2). The name comes from the Greek words Kalos (meaning: beautiful) and Melos (meaning: black). It turns black when there is a reaction with ammonia. When Austen was alive, this chemical compound was used as a purgative and disinfectant. The word brisk implies that the dose is weakened.
Austen brings forward a problem related to medicine at the time she lived: doctors didn’t know everything and made fame with false medication and treatments. She knew because she almost died of typhus.
On the other side: doctors at that time were known to take the medicine they purscribed themselves. To show it was harmless and would help to cure people.
What is your opinion about this poem?
I’ve a pain in my head
“I have a pain in my head”
Said the suffering Beckford;
To her Doctor so dread
“Oh! What shall I take for’t?”
Said this Doctor so dread
Whose name it was Newnham.
“For this pain in your head
Ah! What can you do Ma’am?”
Said Miss Beckford, “Suppose
If you think there’s no risk,
I take a good Dose
Of calomel brisk.”—
“What a praise worthy Notion.”
Replied Mr. Newnham.
“You shall have such a potion
And so will I too Ma’am.”