With the earlier-today discussions of Jane Austen burning holes in my brain, and little to nothing available on the TiVo* for solo viewing, I decided to watch Mansfield Park on OnDemand. I figure if Janet Szabo digs on them, then maybe I will too. After all, I DO like the Pride & Prejudice movie. Then again, maybe I just like Colin Firth.
Oh. Right… So I’m watching Mansfield Park and there’s this Figger O’ Fun in the form of the Matriarch of the family. She’s “always suffering from some fatigue brought on by embroidering something ugly” and downing draughts of laudanum. The screenwriter–playing off Austen, I assume–portrays Mama as a bit of comic relief. “Look at the lazy druggie who’s checked out of everything except her dogs!”
That business with the laudanum made me flash forward to a movie I’ve seen approximately 1,000 times. Even though most of those viewings were down to my Doc Holliday fascination and my awe at Val Kilmer’s interpretation of the deadly dentist, I remember well the second Mrs. Earp, the erstwhile prostitute thrown over for Dana Delaney. Maddie Earp was another laudanum-swiller who in real life complained of headaches, body pains and fatigue. And she’s yet another woman conscripted by popular culture to the role of Useless Drug Addict.
There are other stories from the annals of history–both fictional and factual–that depict such women. More often than not they are either jokes or footnotes. Just another hophead addicted to opium. Oh, those wretched souls.
For years I went along with the party line, and every time I came across these dames in my reading it was always with the assumption that yes, they were probably just addicts and malingerers. And then, ha ha. Here I am. In constant pain, suffering some fatigue brought on by writing something useless or knitting something ugly. Here I am, taking opiod pain relievers on a daily basis to enable baseline functioning. Here I am with several demonstrable diseases, viewable on X-rays, under microscopes and through the lens of a surgeon’s fibre-optics. I’ve got a valid, legitimate illness no less real than cowboys’ bullet wounds or whatever ailments struck the Ton in the early 1800s.
How many of these women known to Austen, to Dickens, to Collins and others were less malingerers and more truly ill? How often did these women suffer the loneliness and despair of living the ghost life of chronic pain? I have the internet to keep me in daily contact with other sufferers around the world. We bolster one another. In drawing rooms of English Manors and hovels and saloon hotels there was no such luck. There was only laudanum and liquor and, if you were lucky, a dog.
So how far back does invisible disability stretch? And how far forward does the prejudice (“they’re just lazy junkies!”) extend?
I’m curious about the first answer. I dread the second.
*For Jason especially….finally fixing my hanging asterisk with regard to TiVo. Yes, we still have the original TiVo. With any luck we’ll never switch to an off-brand DVR. I’ve seen the ones that come with cable packages and satellite dishes and they’re all one version of yuck or another. The programming software is Betamax-clunky and there is ALWAYS a split-second delay noticeable to any real TiVo user that comes from the viewer accessing data housed remotely. I hate it. So when I say TiVo, I MEAN TiVo. The actual, totally real thing.