The Pig Fat Lady

There are sayings which state that if you have very strange habits and you are rich, then you are an eccentric. However, if you exhibit the same traits and you are either poor or just not rich, then people will often say that you are mad. Today, when hopefully we are a lot more understanding of the various psychological conditions which can affect any of us, we can know what is likely to be the cause and that medical help will be available.

    But where does one draw the line if we are talking about the eighteenth century? Let’s look at one case which was all the talk of London society at the time. It concerned someone by the name of Lady Lewson. She married into wealth but by the time she reached twenty-six years of age, she was a widow. She lived in a big house in the then village of Clerkenwell, not far from Central London. In short, she became a recluse.

Lady Lewson

    Her behaviour suggests to me (I have studied psychotherapy in college), that amongst other conditions, she also suffered from an OCD. This stands for Obsessional Compulsive Disorder and is not uncommon today. It basically means that a person develops a fear of something bad happening to them or to someone close to them and to ward off this thought, they build often complicated rituals to stop them from happening. Over time, if not treated, it can progress until there are numerous bad thoughts and a whole host of rituals which can really hamper your normal life.

    But let’s see how it seemed to affect lady Lewson’s behaviour and life. As I said, she lived in a large house in Clerkenwell. She lived alone but every day she would make-up all the beds in the house. Unnecessary, but not terribly strange to someone who was overly houseproud perhaps. But it went further, much further. She never cleaned any of her windows for over sixty years for fear of breaking the glass. She also never moved any of her furniture because she believed it would lead to her being cold. Strange, but to someone with an OCD, it can be very real.

    But perhaps the strangest and saddest part of her rituals involved her never washing. She believed she could catch some awful disease from the water. For those of you in the know, yes, in those days, drinking water could be dangerous as there were outbreaks of cholera from time to time caused by drinking contaminated water. But she didn’t allow water to wash herself. Instead, she preferred to cover her face and neck in pig fat. She then sprinkled a pink powder on the areas. I suppose this was to give her a “normal” skin colouring.

    Did these conditions lead to an early death for her? Apparently not, as we believe she was born in about 1701 and died close to 1800. It is reported that after her death, her house was opened up and those entering, found a place which had not changed in over seventy years. To many, she could have been the real Miss Caversham of Dickens fame.

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