Christi Phillips Discusses Leeches and Laudanum

Health care is hell-care in Christi Phillips' new historical novel.

A death begins Christi Phillips‘ new historical novel The Devlin Diary. Surrounded by idle courtiers and nervous maids in Paris’ Palace of Saint-Cloud in late June, 1670, Princess Henriette-Anne — sister of England’s King Charles II — “convulses and screams and clutches her Belly sobbing” while wracked with “copious Vomits,” reads the letter that forms the novel’s first few pages.

Henriette-Anne really existed. Married at age seventeen to her first cousin, the homosexual Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, she was rumored to have been romantically affiliated with his brother, Louis XIV. Shortly before dying, Henriette helped negotiate the Secret Treaty of Dover, an alliance between England and France.

“She died under very mysterious circumstances. She might have been poisoned. To this day, no one really knows,” said Phillips, who will be at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Wednesday, April 28, and Mrs. Dalloway’s (2904 College Ave., Berkeley) on Friday, May 14. A multiple-murder mystery, The Devlin Diary weaves an intricate, authentically rendered web between the late-17th and early-21st centuries, cross-cutting between the lives of modern-day historian Claire Donovan, who appeared in Phillips’ first book, The Rossetti Letter; and Hannah Devlin, physician to King Charles’ mistress.

Hannah is highly skilled, but hers is an era in which leeches and opium-poppy syrup — on which she relies — are state-of-the-art. “The level of medical knowledge back then was appalling,” Phillips said. “Charles II was treated by fifty different doctors in the week he was dying. They did all kids of terrible things to him,” thinking it would save his life.

The writings of 17th-century diarists such as Samuel Pepys and Robert Hooke were invaluable sources of information about life, manners, and what passed for medicine. “Many people — intelligent men and women, who were otherwise quite sensible — used a wide variety of substances that we now know have no curative power,” said Phillips. “What’s fascinating is that they didn’t figure it out … even though they would continue to be unwell after ingesting these supposed remedies. My personal faves were ‘powdered stag’s pizzel’ and ‘the stinking fumes of a burnt horse’s hoof.'”

Yet Phillips’ extensive research impressed her with how similar its preoccupations were to our own. “These people were incredibly modern in their concerns and ways of thinking,” she said. “They weren’t primitive; they were actually quite sophisticated. If you went back to their time, or if they were fast-forwarded to the here and now, you could have a conversation with them — and yet you would be amazed by all the things they didn’t know: basic things, such as germ theory.” Educated 17th-century Europeans, Phillips said, “were in some ways more educated than educated people of our own era, because they knew everything that was at that time possible to know. Yet, back then, doctors didn’t know that they should wash their hands.” 7 p.m., free.


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