Opium Encounters: Bluestocking Letters and Thoughts on Embodiment

In the Montagu-Bath correspondence, there is a note from Elizabeth Montagu that reads as follows:

of what elements can your Lordship be composed that neither pain nor my troublesome enquiries about that pain can disturb the harmony of your temper! I am rejoiced that some of your enemy’s forces are fled but till all are dislodged one cannot be at ease about you.  Thank God your Lordship took the opiate last night . . . The opiates operate towards a perfect cure as well as give a temporary relief” (MO 4504).

I have mused on this note, considering and reconsidering a familiar word in an unfamiliar context: “opiate.”  Opioids have been much in the news here, of late, with Purdue Pharma stopping the production of OxyContin, and provincial governments reacting with suspicion and caution to its replacement, OxyNeo.  But Oxy is only one of a number of opiates and opioids used for pain control in our society, and our society is only one small piece of a long and poppy-coloured history.  Opium has been around for a very long time—Paracelsus is credited with spreading its medicinal magic through Europe during the Renaissance; and in 1680 Thomas Sydenham apparently commented: “among the remedies which it has pleased Almighty God to give to man to relieve his sufferings, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium.1 During the eighteenth century, opium was available as a powder and a tincture; it could be smoked, and it could be suspended in ethanol to create laudanum.  In the nineteenth century, the poppy extract was further refined, and isolates like morphine and codeine became available.

Although I have long known in theory that opium was available in England in the mid-eighteenth century, this colourful drug has never really been associated with that period of time in my imagination.  In my imagination, conditioned by the canon of English literature, opium magically appears—in all its exotic eastern glory and mysticism—with the Romantic writers: its odour clings to Xanadu and wafts around St. Agnes’s Eve.  Later, it becomes associated with frustrated women who desperately dull the anguish of their boredom with discreet sips from beautiful glass vials hidden in their bosoms.  Opium, like absinthe, swirls in Pre-Raphaelite colour; and I escaped its seductive power when I moved back through time to the enlightenment.2

Opium is, for the most part, conspicuously absent from the bluestocking letters,3 and I have, while reading, occasionally wished for its presence.  For, while the letters lack the comfort of opium, they repeatedly evoke the spectre of pain. Though long, the lives of Montagu, Elizabeth Carter, and Lord Bath (all of whom surpassed 80 years) were punctuated by accidents and illness, and by uncomfortable physical conditions–both chronic and acute. Elizabeth Carter, for example, suffered life-long, often debilitating headaches (Lord Bath opined that if she drank less green tea, took less snuff, and studied less, she would suffer less!) and Montagu was plagued by digestive complaints.  While some illnesses and conditions seem to have responded to various remedies, others required that the pain be patiently endured: “I am sorry,” wrote Montagu to her cousin Gilbert West, “that the gout, by the frequency and length of his visits, behaves with the familiarity of an intimate acquaintance, though he was never introduced to you by his proper introductor, intemperance; however, you have therefore to oppose to him the great conquerors of pain, Patience and Fortitude” (1755; 3:333).

And patience seems to have been required even in matters of acute agony.  Toothaches appear, from the letters, to have been fairly routine, and patient suffering was required while one waited for the tooth to loosen enough to be pulled.  Elizabeth Carter commiserated with Montagu: “I grieve to think of the pain you have suffered and most heartily congratulate you on the removal of the cause.  There are few animal comforts I think higher than seeing an aching tooth fairly out of one’s head” (1773; 3:48). Her comment is rather matter of fact, and there is no description of the pain Montagu suffered; but anyone who has experienced an aching tooth can gloss that passage with a visceral memory, shuddering at how long Montagu’s increasing pain must have been borne.  Montagu herself described another painful occasion, when her maids, in attempting to revive her from a faint,

let the eau de luce4 fall into my eye, nostril and mouth, my eyes were inflamed and nostril, the mouth and uvula of the throat excoriated.  . .  Dr. Askew unhappily lay at Durham that night, so had no assistance till 2 at noon, then I was blooded, which abated the inflammation so far I could articulate.  The Doctor told me my safety depended on frequent gargling and drinking, so for four days, I was never a quarter of an hour without doing so, the spitting was more violent than from a mercurial salivation . . . When I came out of my fit, to see blood running from eye, nose and mouth drove Mr. Montagu almost distracted, and I knew not which way my agonies would end” (Climenson, 2:144).

I like to believe that when Askew finally arrived, he kindly and efficiently knocked Montagu out with opium—in the same way I like to believe that the “cordial” administered to Frances Burney during her graphically-described mastectomy was laudanum.

But neither writer says this.  In Lord Bath’s case, though, opium is fact.  Montagu’s “opium” note to Bath seems to be a response to this one, from him: “To tell you the truth Madam . . . I was in a great deal of pain last night, when I took leave of you, and so I continued for some time, whilst the remainder of the enemy’s trenches were levelling, but at present as almost all the gravell is brought away, matters go on with much less pain and trouble, and I am almost totally at ease” (MO 4295).  The military metaphor, echoed by Montagu, seems to gesture towards the consuming pain Bath must have experienced before taking the opium.  If “gravell” denotes, as it usually does, “kidney stones,” then we can only imagine the blinding, searing nature of the “great deal of pain” mentioned by Bath himself.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry asserts that real pain resists linguistic description and cannot adequately be conveyed in language: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language” (4). And it seems that we witness this linguistic unsharability in the bluestocking letters, which evoke the spectre of pain–it haunts the edges of the text–without concrete manifestation or graphic description.  There were no words for Montagu’s agony following the spilling of the eau de luce; and Bath’s gravel pain could only be hinted at, figuratively.  As readers, then, we tend to imagine the pain, to fill in the gaps between the words by extrapolating from our own somatic experience—however limited that might be.

But what if our imagination, drawing on our own experience, is misleading?  What if the pain experienced by these writers could be neither conveyed in language nor accurately understood by comparison to our own bodies?  What if “pain” was quite a different experience for Montagu, Bath,  and Carter than it is for many of us?  My questions remind me that in her provocative scholarship on female patients in eighteenth-century Germany, Barbara Duden cautioned us—over 20 years ago—not to assume that we could meet the bodies of the past through our own corporeal senses.  Duden explained:

To grasp this ‘body’ of Eisenach, I went in two complementary directions.  I tried to understand my own body as a modern woman and—in contrast—to look at theirs.  I knew that I could only listen to the women if I was able to bracket the certainties about the body I ‘have.’  My body and theirs are woven out of different thematic strands.  I am housed in a body in which blood circulates.   All my blood is equally precious, it does not divide into bad and good blood.  I cannot have too much blood, an ‘excess’ of blood.  Nor does my blood ebb and flow; I cannot feel my blood clotting, stopping, trying to find its way out.  My blood cannot be lazy and it cannot erroneously go astray.  Yet this is what Eisenach’s women consistently report, and I cannot but take them at my word.  In my investigation I formalized two distinct procedures by which I hoped to come close to these women, without succumbing to the danger of indiscriminately using my sense of body to interpret theirs” (185-6).

But it is easy to forget Duden’s caution, and tempting to assume a kinship between bodies (apparent biological facts) across space and time.   However, if I try to “bracket” my body, I begin to more clearly see it: “pain” for me is unusual, wrong, and at odds with my understanding of “health” and “wellness.”  Pain is an anomaly to which I am extremely sensitized and of which I am always eager to rid myself.  To “bracket” my body is also to begin to more clearly see the implications of the body Elizabeth Carter describes in a letter to Elizabeth Vesey: “within this week my strength, I thank God, has returned amazingly, and I have quite recovered my appetite, and the power of reading.  Moreover my own natural head-ache is returned after five weeks absence, and very glad I was to receive it, in the room of that most outrageous pain which had taken its place” (1788; 3:294).  Carter’s sense of herself as strong and healthy (unlike mine) includes a headache—a constant “pain” that she describes as “natural.”  And, sitting here, in my bracketed body, I muse about the possible readings and meanings of this representation.   Is it possible that Carter’s “natural” headache made her less sensitive to other physical pain of all kinds than I am?  Is it possible that she had a higher tolerance or pain threshold than I do? And, in what way might this constant pain have affected Carter’s experience not just of her body, but also of her mind, her self, her world?

In Sensing Changes, Joy Parr draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s “embodied history” as she explores and theorizes “the body as a way of knowing” (9).  Quoting Katherine Hayles, Parr explains:

What humans know and how they organize and reason with that knowledge is ‘marked by the particularities of our circumstances as embodied human creatures.’ What are these particularities? Some of these we can assume persist over long stretches of history and across cultures.  Humans stand upright and are a certain distance above the ground when they crouch to sit or rest. . . . Some of these change with the lifecycle and over time.  A child’s sense of ‘too high’ is different from an adult’s . . . Some are altered by contemporary technologies . . . . Much of the bodily knowledge that comes from interactions with the world is not readily captured in words” (9).

Like Elaine Scarry, Parr interrogates the limits of language, and she focuses specifically on the intersection of technologies and bodies, giving as an example the invention of moveable type—which she suggests made people more dependent on their eyes, less on their ears—and thus affected humanity in numerous subtle and nuanced ways.

It seems to me that pain might function as one of Parr’s “particularities.”  And if it does, it is likely that the chronic pain experienced by some of my friends and colleagues does not merely add to or detract from an embodiment similar to my own, but fundamentally constructs that embodiment in ways that are foreign to me, difficult to articulate, and thus difficult for me to apprehend.  A similar “particularity” might exist in the remote northern communities I’ve visited,5 where a dentist flies in once or twice a year, and where people–like Montagu–must live a long time with the pain of a toothache; and in places and countries where medical assistance can be impossible to access, and where vast numbers of people live, like Elizabeth Carter, with constant pain as a “natural” condition.  If the concerns (like health, illness, pain) in the bluestocking letters are representative of the concerns of their time, then it seems that–unlike me–most eighteenth-century folk lived with some kind of constant or intermittent pain–a “natural” sensation that only became an anomalous signifier if it appeared in an unfamiliar body part or with unfamiliar intensity.  Thus, we might consider how this individual experience of “natural” pain may have nuanced ways of knowing; and then we might consider how that individual experience, shared by the majority of bodies in a generation or a century, affected history and also obscures our ability to clearly appreciate that history–a past that comes to us in language, a partial and at times erratic emissary.


1Additional Trivia: During my winding quest for information about opium, I encountered “theriac”—a panacea of mythic proportions—containing a high percentage of opium. “Theriac was an ancient multi-ingredient preparation; originating as a cure for the bites of serpents, mad dogs and wild beasts, it later became an antidote to all known poisons. The name theriac (treacle), (Greek theriake, Latin theriaca, French thériaque) was derived from the Greek for wild beast – theriakos. The first formula was created by Mithridates Vl, King of Pontus, a skillful ruler but a monster of cruelty, who, living in such a fear of being poisoned, took a great interest in toxicology. In the 1st century AD, Nero’s personal physician Andromachus improved the formula of Antidotum Mithridatium by adding flesh of vipers, which was commonly believed to be the best antidote against snakebite, and by increasing the proportion of opium. It became known as Theriac of Andromachus, and contained 64 ingredients including various minerals, herbals, poisons and animal flesh and blood, all combined with honey in the form of electuarium. Later it became the cure-all medicine which, accumulating all the simples into one form, was supposed to be a universal panacea against all diseases. In the Middle Ages this famous electuarium become a patent medicine and entered official dispensaries and pharmacopoeias. The most famous and expensive Theriac in Europe was that of Venice. It was not until the l8th century that it was excluded from medical use.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15125416

2However, Thomas Shadwell was apparently addicted to opium, and died from an overdose—hail MacFlecknoe

3while “opiate” does appear several times in the published letters of Montagu, Carter, and Talbot, it does so in a figurative sense–a long letter, for example, as an opiate—except on three occasions: a letter from Gilbert West, who reports to Montagu that doctors have dosed Mr. William Pitt with opiates (2:174) and two letters describing Catherine Talbot’s untimely decline and painful death.

4Eau de Luce: “Take spirit of wine one ounce, spirit of sal ammoniacum four ounces, oil of amber one scruple, white castile soap ten grains.  Digest the soap and oil in the spirits of wine, add the ammoniacum, and shake well together” (Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1806, V 100).

5 www.chinookproject.ca


  • Duden, Barbara.  “History Beneath the Skin” Michigan Quarterly Review. 30.1: (Winter 1991): 185-6.
  • Parr, Joy. Sensing Changes: Technologies, Environments, and the Everyday, 1953-2003. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.
  • Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. Oxford: OUP, 1987.

3 comments on “Opium Encounters: Bluestocking Letters and Thoughts on Embodiment

  1. [...] Opium Encounters: Bluestocking Letters and Thoughts on Embodiment « reading for their lives. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Project MUSE – Eighteenth-Century Studies-Volume 45, Number 3, Spring 2012 [...]

  2. Beta says:

    I ofen wonder about our experience of colour. We are taught that something is ‘red’, and we can all agree that a particular item is coloured ‘red’ – but is the hue that I call red and the hue that you call red, the same? It must be, to a point, because we generally agree on warm and cold colours – but it’s impossible to truly know, and I think that’s wonderfully mysterious. Pain, equally mysterious – clearly less wonderful.

  3. Sonja Boon says:

    as always, much to chew and think on. I know from my relatively superficial foray into translation studies and my own language background, that one thinks differently in different language; ergo, one might also feel differently in different languages. This suggests that even how we speak of something colours that which we experience at a bodily level (and what we say is also correspondingly influenced by that which we feel). Pain and suffering are very much culturally produced. They are specific to time, place, age, ability, sex, gender and all those fun things. and pain is correlated, too, to general states of being; thus someone with chronic illness (say someone who constantly has migraines) may experience pain very differently from someone who doesn’t. That’s what makes letters such as these so fascinating – what does it mean to experience pain and what can we take away from that – today? Have you read Lisa Smith’s piece in Eighteenth-Century Studies about pain: “‘An Account of an Unaccountable Distemper’: The Experience of Pain in Early Eighteenth-Century England and France”, Eighteenth-Century Studies 41, 4 (2008): 459-480.

    I wonder, too (and this was something I considered during my phd), to what extent the narration of pain and suffering might have functioned as a form of social glue within the context of sensibility. Pain and suffering, particularly when shared, was a way of writing intimacy, or at least it was in the case of the woman I was studying. That’s not to say that they didn’t happen, but that the foregrounding of it was related to a valourisation of the body and its physical ‘emotions’ and a need to share those experiences with others (and that leads me to the ‘weeping editions’ of Jane Austen, where there were indexes of weeping, so that the reader could immediately go to those passages in order to be moved to tears).

    sorry,a long and not extremely coherent ramble. But we REALLY need to have coffee/tea/Indian food and a long conversation about all of this!

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