The author in search of inspiration for a blockbusting novel could do worse than seek this in some recently catalogued manuscripts in the Library.
B. Bolton’s 1819 domestic recipe book (MS.8765) certainly suggests the groundwork for a gritty saga of early nineteenth century rural life, lying somewhere in the territory between Wuthering Heights and Cold Comfort Farm. The recipes include a number of veterinary treatments for livestock, predominantly sheep, as well as home remedies for a number of serious human medical conditions, including venereal diseases, implying a rather remote location without easy access to doctors or vets. The pains of existence were perhaps ameliorated by home-made Geneva spirits, and the highly alcoholic Peppermint Cordial, according to a recipe made in quantitites of 65 gallons at a time. However, there is a curious, and rather sinister, tabulation of ‘Poisons’, listing their effects and their antidotes, not to mention a cosmetic preparation for ‘Eruption of the Face’, of which one of the ingredients was arsenic – shades of the 1857 Madeleine Smith case in Glasgow, in which she claimed to have been purchasing arsenic for a face-wash, rather than to exterminate her former lover. The volume suggests scenarios, but doesn’t fill in any of the blanks in this possible story.
Also providing a suggestive blank for an imaginative narrator to fill in, we wonder how Fanny George, a spinster of unsound mind, the daughter and sister of illiterate labourers (MS.8801), had acquired a fortune sufficient for her to have been a ‘Chancery lunatic’, whose substantial assets were managed for her own good by the Court of Chancery. Although under the supervision of a Chancery-appointed ‘Committee’, she seems not to have been in an asylum but in the care of Mr Parkin, ‘a medical gentleman’. The documents dealing with the disposition of her estate indicate that this amounted to well over £3000, which in the 1840s was serious money, equivalent to a substantial 6-figure sum in the early 21st century. Possibly in her youth she had been a barmaid in the inn that another of her brothers was landlord of, and caught the eye of a passing gentleman?
A case which brought together (possibly temporary) insanity and (suspicion of) poisoning was that of the Rev. Joseph Cook (MS.8838), in which Cook, the incumbent of Chatton, near Alnwick, Northumberland, came to believe that his family were poisoning him, and ran away to Edinburgh early in May 1805. However, his suspicions appear to have been further aroused by the attentions of various medical men in the city, and it was reported towards the end of the month that ‘Mr Cook has made his escape’: he took refuge with his friend, a Mr Grey of Kyloe, before returning to Chatton, ostensibly recovered. His family doctor, Robert Pringle, was closely involved in the progress of the case, having made extensive recommendations for the treatment of Cook’s distressed condition, and most of the file consists of letters to or from Dr Pringle. It would seem that these documents survived because Cook, or his family, never paid off Pringle’s professional fees and expenses incurred in the course of this case, obliging his widow to initiate legal action some ten years later.