Irishwomen dealing with infirmity
Many years ago, when we were holidaying in a quiet seaside resort in the south of the country, we discovered that time went very slowly and hung heavy on our hands. There were few young people of our own age to converse with, no suitable books to read, and nothing of any particular interest in the locality to excite our curiosity. What was worse, before leaving home we had promised to write to an old invalid lady and her two daughters and tell them about anything that occurred during our stay at this seaside retreat, but there was nothing that we could write about. After some time, something turned up and we greedily seized upon it. This became the subject of a letter, which long after being forgotten, has come into our possession once again through the hands of the elder of the two daughters, to whom it was addressed. When returning it she added a note that the letter had been the one thing that kept her mother throughout her life, which had now come to an end. Naturally, we were saddened by the news but the note she had written consoled us, especially because we had thought the letter, we had sent, to be anything but a brilliant. But you can judge for yourself.
“Dear Mrs. M —
“Since we arrived at this place, I have noticed that there are two ladies with wooden legs. These ladies have to be described separately, however, because the legs differ considerably in their character and, I am certain, in their price. Perhaps, it would be better to speak of them legs Number 1 and 2, with leg 1 consisting of a rounded black pin, similar to that of the old genuine wooden-leg type, which is less common than it used to be. The leg itself is very well made and it does not pretend to be anything but what it is, a simple, nondescript wooden leg as that anyone would recognize. But it must be said, it does not form an entire leg, and it goes only as high as the lady’s knee. I suppose we should correctly call it a wooden half-leg. Anyway, this wooden half-leg belongs to a smart, well-dressed young lady, who stumps about the place with a certain degree of graceful beauty, although she must expend considerable exertion. The lady’s knee appears to rest on a form of a cushion, causing the lower part of the limb to project rearward a little, but not in a too obvious manner. Thanks to her long dress, the real leg and foot are to a certain extent hidden from view. But an observer can see a kind of jerking out of the foot, every time her red petticoat and tucked-up dress behind moved.
‘While feeling some sympathy that a person so young and so beautiful is afflicted by what appears to be a terrible misfortune, it is quietly encouraging to see how she smartly goes about her daily tasks while wearing that wooden leg. She is always brightly dressed, usually wearing a stylish hat with a delicate feather, and with her dress tucked-up, she walks at a good pace, laughing, chatting, and as full of high spirits as if nothing was the matter with her. Alongside two young-lady companions, she walks daily on the coastal promenade that overlooks the shingly beach of the resort. Naturally, it is not good manners for anyone to openly notice another person’s infirmity, and because nobody pays any attention to it her life-affirming sprightliness is unhindered. From the bay window of our apartment, which gives a commanding view of the promenade from one end to the other. This has given me an excellent opportunity to observe how cleverly she manages her wooden limb. But before continuing, it might be best to say something about the other artificial leg.
“The best thing that can be said about ‘leg two’, as I have called it, is that it is an ‘ambitious’ leg. It is a false leg that makes a not very successful attempt to appear to be real. The person who owns this leg is a somewhat unfashionable lady. She is a very dull sort of person who has a permanently sad expression on her face. I’ve heard the remark that she has a face that looks like a smacked arse. But undoubtedly, this lady’s leg had been amputated above the knee, as a result of being seriously injured in some terrible accident. Watching her as she walks along with a halt in her step, I can almost feel the pain that this lady has experienced, her sufferings, of her unfulfilled hopes in life, and her constant discomfort. I can also imagine the trouble that this woman had in finding a good manufacturer of artificial legs and, when she found one, how she looked over an assortment to find one that might be suitable. Can you imagine how she felt when she had chosen a suitable pattern of leg and had to be measured for a leg of the same type? Imagine, also, the lady’s servant coming into the parlour, and announcing, “Excuse me, ma’am, but the man has come with the new leg you ordered.” Next, think of her taking the leg upstairs to her room and trying it on for size! How awkward did she feel when she first heard that stump, stump, as she walked across the floor. It must have taken weeks before the leg became familiar to her and she could wear it for prolonged periods every day.
“Now, I know that I said this artificial leg is to a certain extent a failure, but I have to say that it is more fit for purpose than if it had been an unyielding wooden pin. The opinion I formed, therefore, is that there is a deficiency in the way she walks. While the heel goes down, the forepart of the foot does not fall or take the ground neatly. I am informed that this all depends on the arrangement and easy working of the springs and other machinery of the false leg. You could have a five-pound leg or a ten-pound leg, or even a twenty or thirty-pound leg, according to the nature of the springs, pulleys, straps, and wheel-work it has. For all that I can tell, the leg in question was a five-pound leg, for it does not appear to be heavier.
“One thing is for certain in this matter, however, and that is that trying to get it all done on the cheap is not good. If you want an artificial leg that will look and act as much as is possible like a real leg, my advice would be to not go for the cheapest product and buy yourself the best article available. My father told me the story of a man who had lost his leg in battle. He bought an artificial leg, which appeared to be so real and worked perfectly through the placement and quality of springs, etc. That man was able to ride horses, dance, and do all the things he could do before he lost the leg.
“When you consider the two cases of these ladies with artificial legs that it must strike you, as it did me, that it is all very odd. Not so long ago it would have been no rare spectacle to see old soldiers and sailors with wooden or false legs, but seldom any other person. It was very rare for a civilian to get their leg so badly shattered that they needed amputation, but women in such difficulty almost never occurred. Except on rare occasions, civilians did not get their legs shattered, ladies almost never. The progress of transportation these days appears to have changed all that. Accidents, blunders and sheer carelessness have caused the number of people who need artificial legs, of one kind or another, to grow considerably. Travellers are now in the same bracket as military men when it comes to the likelihood of losing a limb, and it is fortunate that mechanical science continues to keep pace with these disasters. Lately, great improvements have been made in the design and construction not only of artificial legs, but of hands and arms and, with good care and a suitable expenditure, the horrors of mutilation are greatly reduced.
“The modern artificial leg-makers should be thought of as being public benefactors since such titles will not make us less inclined to sympathize with those young ladies who suddenly suffer some sort of calamity that necessitates amputation of the leg and its replacement with an artificial leg. All fashionable ladies take pride in the neatness of their and feet because these are usually the main areas to be criticized. Unfortunately, the acquisition of an artificial leg of any description ends all that. It’s sad to think that there will be no more dancing or flirting, or hooking up with parties of young gentlemen, or hopes of marriage. There is also the personal inconvenience to be thought about, the unbuckling of the leg at night when going to bed and having to hop about or use a crutch when the leg is off. Putting on the leg in the morning and, when you sit down, you always must consider how the leg is to be adjusted. Going up and down stairs, the real leg first at every step, and the artificial leg is brought up behind it. The unpleasantness of ordering boots and shoes, and the still greater unpleasantness of being generally pitied by people.
“These were just some of the thoughts that passed through my mind. But, the one thing that puzzled me was, how did it happen that the young lady with leg number one was always so happy-looking? All my preconceived notions about losing a leg were turned upside down. I began to think how you and your sister would think it an utter calamity if you and your sister were left stumping down the street to church with an artificial leg, even a good ten-pound leg full of springs. But here, to my amazement, there is a sweet, happy young lady going about with a wooden leg of the simplest structure, and she appears not to be affected in any with her misfortune. So, I began to think, that this lady’s conduct is a fine example of philosophy and faithful resignation. She knows full well that she is destined to be lame all her life, and yet she submits to her fate with good grace, putting a pleasant face on the matter. Although deprived of certain hopes of happiness that most girls her age and position have, she has instead learned to overcome her misfortune by simply saying, “Thy will be done.”
“This is the conclusion that I have come to, regarding the young lady, and I will admit that the cheerful manner with which she endures her infirmity does my own spirit good. This poor young girl is a practical example of resignation. It appears that she is saying to me and others, “You pretend to have troubles and tribulations, but look at me! You have been spared all the discomfort of having a wooden leg.” That makes me feel happier than I might otherwise be. So, we learn that Providence, while sending us misfortunes, beneficently sends consolations, and in all the circumstances we find ourselves we are not without reasons to be thankful.”