I do like to read a good newspaper and increasingly I like to read them on-line. But whilst we were on the high seas, hard-copy newspapers were impossible to obtain and digital versions were prohibitively expensive to download. I therefore decided before we went on holiday that, if I was going to have to read old news, I might as well read really old news. I therefore downloaded onto my iPad a whole raft of 19th century newspapers in order to keep my occupied on the Atlantic crossing.
And that is how I came to be acquainted with the poor Marchioness de Brehan and her upset tummy.Back in the 1890s newspapers were obsessed with patent medicines and quack remedies. Adverts for pills, potions, infusions and tonics of every kind dominated the columns of local and national newspapers promising to rid the reader of everything from coughs to constipation, sallow skin to torpid liver. Prominent among the products advertised was "Du Barry's Revalenta Arabica", which, it appears, was a kind of unappetising lentil mash. Unappetising it may have been, efficacious it certainly wasn't, but with the power of the new science of advertising, almost anything could be sold. Du Barry's used to push their own particular short-cut to "perfect health to stomach, lungs, nerves, liver, blood, brain and breath" by printing extracts from the 10,000 annual cures they claim to have received notification of. Mr Spadara of Alexandria in Egypt was cured of "nine years of constipation" (a frightening thought in every sense) whilst a certain Miss De Montlouis of Paris managed to get rest after two years of sleeplessness only after taking an infusion of Du Barry's Revalenta Arabica. As for the dear old Marchioness, she had suffered from "seven years of liver complaint, sleeplessness, palpitation and the most intense nervous agitation and debility" which rendered her "unfit for either reading or social intercourse". After a cup or two of lentil broth, the dear Marchioness was once again reading and participating in intercourse like a spring chicken.
But who was this rather unfortunate - and later, one supposes, rather fortunate - Marchioness de Brehan, and who was the life-saving Du Barry? The latter question is easier to answer as it appears that the medicine was named after Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry (1743 – 1793) who , when not serving as the last mistress of King Louis XV, liked to cook up recipes involving lentils and cauliflowers. Her elixir of life didn't work in her own case as she had her head chopped off in the French Revolution. The Marchioness is more difficult to track down, but it could just possibly be the same Machioness de Brehan who was a friend of George Washington and who was responsible for one of the most famous early paintings of the President. If it is indeed the same lady, she must have been getting on a bit by the time that she wrote her letter of recommendation for Revalenta Arabica. But, whatever age she may have been, let us raise a glass - of Revalenta Arabica or Bass Pale Ale (whichever is closer to hand) - in praise of the cure that allowed her to pick up her book again and do whatever else she felt up to.