Gowland’s Lotion & Syphilis

In the Jane Austen Society Newsletter, Dr. Tony Corley of Reading University gives an exasperated history of the ” foundation” for the claim that Jane Austen meant us to associate Sir Walter’s recommendation of the use of Gowland’s Lotion with a cure for syphilis.

Dr Corley has traced the origins of the ” syphilis” theory to a letter by Mrs Nora Christine Crook published in the Times Literary Supplement of 7th October 1983.

She had found a reference making the connection between Gowlands and “bad habits of the body”, in Richard Reece’s The Monthly Gazette of Health, published in October 1816.

Seizing upon this reference,Mrs Cook makes the surmise that “Gowlands could also have carried with it associations of vice”.

Dr Corley has looked at Reece’s original article, and has found that :

“Reece had correctly identified in the remedy’s almond emulsion a solution of sublimate of mercury, a corrosive substance, which, Mrs Cooke continues ” had a particular connection with the old -fashioned treatment of syphilis”.

As Sir Walter had claimed that the lotion had carried away Mrs Clay’s freckles, the surname of Clay suggests both the “weaker vessel” and “corruption”, which imples that she is morally flawed and her freckles are likewise symbolic”

In short, “as the kept mistress of William Elliot she actually is a prostitute , a high class one.”

After more of the same Mrs Cook posited two questions, Did Jane Austen take out the manuscript of Persuasion,completed that August, and later in 1816 slip in a reference to Gowland? (highly implausible); did she gain her information from that issue of Reece’s Monthly Gazette? (not widely read in Hampshire

Dr Corley then read subsequent issues of the TLS and found that the contents of Mrs Cokes letter were ignored (rightfully as he says). They were only resurrected in 1986 when Professor Tony Tanner in his book Jane Austen ;

expressed himself surer than Mrs Cooke- though on no more evidence-that Jane Austen was in that passage hinting at Syphilis , ” the most ruinous sexual disease among the upper classes”. Thus to him Mrs Clay was a ” fitting partner” for the morally corrupt Mr Elliot..” A fine end to be inscribed in that volume( the Baronetage) chronicling the history and rise of the ancient and respectable family”

Dr Corley finds this assumption one that goes too far from the evidence he has already uncovered: namely that Gowland’s was notorious from around 1810 for its ruinous and not its curative properties. And that to use it was to court disaster for one’s complexion. And further that such usage was not synonymous with attempting to cure syphilis.

Indeed,there were cures for syphilis available from apothecaries (and quacks) during this era: why didn’t JA mention those, if she wanted us to make the connection between Mrs Clay and the disease?

Similarly, freckles were not an outward manifestation of the presence of syphilis: syphillitic sores or swollen lympathic glands were.

Mrs Clay does not seem to suffer from either of these aliments.

As Dr Corley states:

To sum up , it must be temptingly easy, as there is so much about Jane Austen that we do not know, for clever people to heap speculation on speculation in their efforts to fill gaps in our knowledge.