• Deborah Yaffe

On this day in 1813. . .

Sixty-seventh in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen’s letters.


Nostalgia for Jane Austen’s era has always struck me as misplaced, especially among women who take for granted small matters like financial equality, higher education, contraception, and the vote. But if you do nurture a tiny hankering for the world of the Regency, you may be cured by an anecdote in the letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 207 years ago today (#88 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).


Austen was in London visiting her brother Henry, and the siblings had been joined by one of their older brothers, Edward Knight, and three of his daughters – Fanny, then age twenty; Lizzy, thirteen; and Marianne, just twelve. The visit had its share of pleasures, but as it did for Harriet Smith in Emma, the agenda also included a visit to the dentist.


“The poor Girls & their Teeth!—I have not mentioned them yet, but we were a whole hour at Spence’s, & Lizzy’s were filed & lamented over again & poor Marianne had two taken out after all, the two just beyond the Eye teeth, to make room for those in front,” Austen writes to Cassandra. “When her doom was fixed, Fanny Lizzy & I walked into the next room, where we heard each of the two sharp hasty Screams.”


OK, I’m taking a break to recover from that. Tooth-pulling without anesthetic! Eek! Poor little Marianne!


Back to the letter, which makes clear that long before the age of dental implants, teeth bleaching, and Invisalign, patients wondered about dentists’ motives: “Fanny’s teeth were cleaned too--& pretty as they are, Spence found something to do to them, putting in gold & talking gravely--& making a considerable point of seeing her again before winter,” Austen continues. “He had before urged the expediency of L. & M.s being brought to Town in the course of a couple of Months to be farther examined, & continued to the last to press for their all coming to him.—My Br[other] would not absolutely promise.—The little girls teeth I can suppose in a critical state, but I think he must be a Lover of Teeth & Money & Mischeif to parade about Fannys.”


And then her hard-headed conclusion: “I would not have had him look at mine for a shilling a tooth & double it.—It was a disagreable hour.”


As it happens, I too visited the dentist recently. Just a routine cleaning and X-rays. No cavities. No sharp, hasty screams. And no nostalgia for the dentistry of two centuries ago.

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