Stephen Copley Research Award Report: Vinita Singh on Children’s Sickness and Health in the Memoirs of the Long-Eighteenth Century

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The Stephen Copley Research Award helped me spend the last summer in Leeds, exploring valuable long-eighteenth-century archival resources located at the special collections in the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. The primary research materials I consulted helped me develop my current postdoctoral project, which explores children’s perceptions of illness during the Romantic period in Britain.

As all projects mutate and develop throughout their research journeys, mine did, too. When I began exploring the resources held at the special collections, my goal was to locate primarily children’s letters from the period where subjects of their sickness and health were discussed however, as I progressed into my research, I was fascinated by the number of memoirs that were published during the long-eighteenth century about sicknesses and death of children. To my utter surprise, many of these memoirs were written abroad, often in the United States, and they were republished in Britain, often undergoing several reprints. Along with this, there were many memoirs originally published in Britain as well. Some publishers, for example, William Alexander, specialised in publishing memoirs of these kinds, with his advertisements placed in memoirs printed by other publishers too.

These memoirs about sick (and dead) children recorded not only the last phases of their sickness but also the whole journey, including the early onset of their illnesses and the slow progress over time. Many important stages in the development of diseases and their impact on children’s bodies were also recorded. For example, the memoir about Maria Mott’s sickness and death, titled A Short Account of the Last Sickness and Death of Maria Mott (1817), discussed how ‘the disease operated very severely, and being attended with distressing sickness of stomach for several days, soon reduced her strength so much that she was almost as helpless as an infant for a considerable time.’[1] Another memoir discussed an eleven-year-old child, Elizabeth Merritt, and her sickness and death stated that ‘between three and four years of age, she was visited with severe illness.’[2] Yet another memoir discussed a nine-year-old child, Jennett. B. Mott, and her sickness and death describes how ‘she was born a fine healthy child, and continued so till her third year, when, by an injury received on her back […] she began to complain of weakness and pain, which was increased in a distressing manner by the fever attending the hooping cough.’[3]

Along with this recording of the whole journey of a child’s ill health, the memoirs also discussed some remedies that parents employed in treating their children’s sicknesses. Maria Mott’s memoir, for instance, recollects how change of air benefited her recovery.[4] Similarly, Jennett. B. Mott’s memoir mentions how in order to tackle ‘the force of her disease’, she ‘was put under a strict diet, and had two blisters applied to her back every day, for six months’, and was given ‘nauseous medicine to take, many times a day for more than a year.’[5] Apart from providing details about symptoms of children’s diseases and how they progressed in specific cases, these memoirs also helped their readers see which remedies worked in actual instances and which proved futile. In this way, these memoirs can be considered to have helped their readers manage their children’s health by familiarising them with children’s diseases to some extent. This was more fascinating for me to know because my PhD project has explored that there was a surge in the number of popular health manuals written by university-trained physicians in the long-eighteenth century. In light of that knowledge, I also came to look at these memoirs as resisting modern medical opinion in some way.

Apart from the detailed picture of children’s symptoms, their sickness and the remedies employed, I found it striking that these memoirs consistently emphasise how patiently children bore their sickness and how this patience was more significant than that of other children and adults. For example, Maria Mott’s memoir mentions how ‘through the course of [her] long sickness, she showed a strength and firmness of mind not often met with, and during her confinement to her bed and chamber, (nearly two months) manifested much patient resignation.’[6] Similarly, Elizabeth Merrit’s memoir recollects her sickness ‘during which, her attendants observed her patience under suffering.’[7] Additionally, Jennett. B. Mott’s memoir mentions that ‘she bore [her sicknesses] with remarkable patience.’[8] If Maria Mott ‘was remarkably composed and sweet’ during her ill-health, Jennett. B. Mott ‘[manifested] great self-command and obedience’ when sick.[9] This consistent emphasis on children’s patience when sick and the transglobal fascination with such patient sick children’s memoirs (as evident in its reprints across the border) imply the cultural interest in seeing children suffering well. When childhood sickness and early death were rampant, there seemed to be a recognition of the fact that one must learn how to go through the whole experience, and that is where, I believe, the publication of these memoirs contributed: they instructed children and adult readers on how to be sick. Many memoirs clearly state the purpose of instruction behind them. Maria Mott’s memoir, for instance, states that it was ‘not originally designed for publication’, but since the story was ‘perused with much interest’ by [parents’] friends who also considered it ‘to be worthy of general circulation’, the text was published.[10] In the case of Elizabeth Merritt’s memoir too, the purpose of writing it is mentioned in the text, with parents exclaiming that it has been written ‘from a belief that some account of the life and last sickness of [their] daughter, Elizabeth Merritt, will prove instructive to the surviving part of the family, to her former associates, and perhaps to others of riper years’ which is why her parents were ‘induced to publish’ her memoir.[11] If contemporary popular health manuals written by university-trained physicians often taught their readers about the importance of restoring children’s health, these memoirs seem to have emphasised the value of undergoing sickness patiently when it strikes.

Apart from introducing their readers to the course of sickness a particular child experienced and asserting the instructional value of these stories of children’s sicknesses, these memoirs also tried to rebuild the early life of the deceased child. What I found very interesting is that most memoirs identify similar qualities in children’s nature to rebuild their past. For instance, most mention children’s interest in reading and spiritual subjects. For example, Elizabeth Merritt’s memoir stresses her inclination towards reading: ‘As she was particularly fond of learning, she soon began to read; her favourite companion then appeared to be her book, for the sake of which, she would frequently leave her little playmate.’[12] Similarly, Maria Mott’s memoir mentions that ‘being early taught to read, and furnished with books suited to her age, she soon acquired a taste for reading, delighted much in it, and was careful, as long as she lived, to devote suitable portions of time to this agreeable and useful employment.[13] Whether it is Elizabeth Merritt’s assurance to her anxious mother that ‘there is but one physician that can help [her]’ or Jennett. B. Mott’s exclamation to her grieving mother that ‘thou hast had many doctors to me, and they cann’t cure me, but the Lord can cure me, if he pleases’: most memoirs adopt a very similar format of writing.[14] These similarities in the reconstruction of children’s early lives suggest that these memoirs were possibly extremely popular in the period, with most people having read a few of them, leading to the adoption of a very similar format.

Children’s sickness in these memoirs is also depicted as a complex idea. Sick children are presented as more thoughtful beings from the beginning. For example, Maria Mott is described as having a capability to love ‘which [was] more than merely human’, suggesting some level of metahuman-ness in her personality before she got sick.[15] Similarly, Elizabeth Merritt’s memoir mentions her as ‘a child that early listened to the “voice of wisdom,” [and that] she was endued with a remarkable judgement in spiritual, as well as in temporary things.’[16] Additionally, in Jennett. B. Mott’s case, it is mentioned that ‘in all her discourse, there was a peculiar strength of mind observable, and a ripeness of judgement.’[17] ‘Her observations on the conduct of people, and on circumstances that had passed, bespoke a degree of reflection but rarely found in a child.’[18] This emphasis on how the deceased child was more mature than other children of their ages and even in comparison to adults around them convey the possibility that sickness perhaps was seen to have struck children who had something ‘more than merely human’ about them from the start.[19] This emphasis also implies that an early introduction to a life of sickness was considered to have made a child emotionally and spiritually more potent than others. Both meanings seem to be valid: sickness is presented to be affecting distinguished children, and it is also something that distinguishes them from other children of that age group.

Additionally, these memoirs present sickness as enabling children’s maturity and helping cultivate a fellow feeling in them. This was another way of looking at sickness beyond ideas of damage and destruction which popular health manuals of the period often presented. Maria Mott states that despite having ‘frequently thought of those people who traverse the deserts of Arabia, parching with thirst, but without water’, she had ‘have never until [she fell sick], been in a situation fully to sympathize with them’ and that during sickness her ‘tongue and throat [were then] in such a situation as to give [her] a pretty correct idea of the distress and suffering under which they must languish whose water [failed] in that burning clime.’[20] Similarly, Elizabeth’s Merritt’s memoir has her praying for the welfare of God ‘not on [her] alone, but on all thy afflicted children wherever they are’.[21] Additionally, when Jennett. B. Mott falls sick, she praises God to have blessed her with ‘a good bed […] when so many poor little children in New-York have not any to lay on!’[22] Sickness at an early stage familiarised children with the concept of suffering and ordeal and, in a way, improved their feelings for other sufferers. This approach to children’s sickness was more positive than the one offered by the health manuals of the period.

But unsurprisingly, as I found during my exploration, children’s painful voices lurk beneath these positive adult expectations of sick children. Jennett. B. Mott, for instance, is praised by her parents for her remarkable obedience and submission to God’s will. Nevertheless, the sickness ‘which she bore with remarkable patience’ has her often repeating to her mother: ‘I will try to be patient’; Dear mother! I will try to be patient’, indicating the effort that such patience required on her part.[23] Similarly, Elizabeth Merrit, who her parents describe as wholesomely patient and submissive throughout, grieves greatly the pain that slaughters her: ‘On third-day morning, being in great distress, she frequently said; that “her pain was greater than tongue could tell, and that if [her parents] knew how she felt, [they] [would] pity her,” while also requesting her mother to ‘supplicate [the] heavenly Father to relieve [her] from [her] pain.”’[24] Jennett. B. Mott’s statement to her mother that only ‘Lord can cure [her], if he pleases; and if it is not his will, [she was] willing to be sick to the day that [she] [dies],” bursting into tears, reflects her agony and pain, humanising these sick children more than the format of the memoir affords.[25] My research trip to the special collections was extremely fruitful, helping me to think of my postdoctoral project in more nuanced ways and I wholeheartedly am indebted to the financial help given by the Copley award to make this trip possible.


Dr. Vinita Singh is a Postdoctoral research fellow at the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute (LAHRI), University of Leeds. Her postdoctoral research project explores children’s letters written in the Romantic period about sickness, health, and wellbeing. She is a PhD graduate from the School of English, University of Leeds. Her doctoral dissertation, titled ‘Childhood Sickness and Health in British Romantic Writing’, was generously funded by the Leeds International Research Scholarship.

[1] Maria Mott’s memoir was originally published in New York along with its reprint in London in the same year. See Richard and Abigail Mott, A Short Account of the Last Sickness and Death of Maria Mott, Daughter of Richard and Abigail Mott of Mamaroneck, in the state of New-York (New York: Samuel Wood & Sons, 1817), p. 10.

[2] Elizabeth Merritt’s memoir was also published in both the United States and the United Kingdom in the same year, 1820. See John and Sarah Merritt, A Short Account of the Life, Sickness, and Death of Elizabeth Merritt: A Child Eleven Years of Age (London: William Darton, 1820), p. 4.

[3] Jennett B. Mott’s memoir was written by her mother and was yet again published both from the United States and the United Kingdom in the same year, 1815. See L. P. Mott, A Brief Account of The Life, Last Sickness, and Death, of Robert Mott, also of His Daughter, J. B. Mott (London: William Darton, 1815), p. 29.

[4] Maria Mott, p. 12.

[5] J. B. Mott, p. 30.

[6] Maria Mott, pp. 10-11.

[7] Elizabeth Merritt, p. 4.

[8] J. B. Mott, p. 30.

[9] Maria Mott, p. 19 and J.B.Mott, p. 30.

[10] Maria Mott, p. 2.

[11] Elizabeth Merritt, p. 3.

[12] Ibid., p. 4.

[13] Maria Mott, p. 8.

[14] Elizabeth Merritt, p. 8 and J. B. Mott, p. 36.

[15] Maria Mott, p. 6.

[16] Elizabeth Merritt, pp. 3-4.

[17] J. B. Mott, p. 31.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Maria Mott, p. 6.

[20] Ibid., p. 17.

[21] Elizabeth Merritt, p. 10.

[22] J. B. Mott, pp. 31-2.

[23] Ibid., p. 30.

[24] Elizabeth Merritt, p. 9.

[25] Ibid., p. 36.