In honor of the triumphant return of Sanditon this spring, GBH Drama put together an email series to accompany each episode. For those who missed the emails, we now present them here (lightly edited for formatting).
As you may have gathered from my previous articles in this series, I’m slightly obsessed with the history behind our favorite shows. Fun fact: before I worked at GBH, I studied the history of science and medicine, so I couldn’t help but devote this episode's coverage to hysteria, laudanum, and mental healthcare in the 1800s, all topics that show up in period dramas all the time. Grab your smelling salts: we’re diving in!
First, let’s talk laudanum. It’s a pain medication made by dissolving opium in alcohol, and until the early 20th century it was sold without a prescription. In the early 1800s, laudanum was kind of a wonder drug: not only as a pain killer, but because it could stop diarrhea, which was actually a pretty big problem at the time between cholera and dysentery. But as with all opiates, laudanum is very addictive, and because it was a medicine, and thus not taxed, it was widely popular with all classes of people. It’s also very potent; given his previous behavior, I wouldn't be surprised if Horrible Edward was deliberately trying to make Esther overdose.
In episode 5, Dr. Fuchs diagnosed Esther with hysteria: a historical catch-all diagnosis for “excess emotion,” actual medical issues like epilepsy and mental illness, and “unusual behavior” like avoiding marriage. The term comes from the Greek word for uterus, and yes, it was an appallingly sexist way to attempt to help and/or control women. Originally, the diagnosis was tied very directly to the uterus itself, and the idea that the womb could quite literally roam around the body, Kerouac style. But by the time Sanditon takes place, doctors had narrowed hysteria down to a psychological condition, and this definition would remain until 1980 (yes, you read that right). There is a well known theory that hysteria was at one time treated by proximal convulsions… i.e., orgasms, but this may not actually be historically accurate. There’s a lot more info about this recent debunking in this article. Regardless, it's unlikely that Esther is in for a good time, because in this era, “treatment” for mental illness was particularly bad.
Because Horrible Edward is the person who suggests institutionalizing Esther in the first place, you can probably guess that he isn’t planning something nice. In the UK, psychiatric hospitals have a long and fairly gruesome history: the word bedlam comes from the first such hospital in the UK, which was founded in 1247. Because doctors still thought that mental illness could have a physical cure, patients were made to vomit and bleed, and were forced into freezing baths. This theory was starting to come into question in the late 1700s, but was still hotly debated around the time Sanditon takes place. Even worse, underfunding meant that in addition to these dangerous “treatments,” patients were likely to experience neglect. Once admitted to an institution, it would be difficult to survive at all, let alone make it out unscathed.
All in all, while Sanditon is fiction, and focused on entertainment, it’s notable that this particular storyline has taken a very dark historical turn. We’ve always known that Horrible Edward is, well, horrible, but in this context he’s much much scarier.
Looking for more of the history behind Sanditon season 2? Check out our other coverage on our Sanditon hub here.