Disability – a thorny issue to grasp

Disability – a thorny issue to grasp

I can think of no character in Jane Austen’s completed works who would qualify as what we understand today as being ‘disabled’. And yet it seemed to me that a book set in Brighton in the 1780s would be unrealistic if it did not include at least one character physically incapacitated in some way.
Brighton was a town just beginning to be fashionable as a health resort due to the recent discovery of the healthful properties of sea water; the sea was used for bathing and for drinking – which must have been revolting. The fashionable folk of Georgian England began to use seaside towns as an alternative to spas like Bath and Cheltenham. The medical profession burgeoned to take advantage of the new obsession with health, and doctors – some of questionable qualifications – congregated at health resorts where patients were numerous. In Brighton, as elsewhere at this time, with the American war of Independence being fought as well as wars with Spain, France and Holland, it is inevitable that wounded soldiers would have been commonplace. Add to this that life in Georgian England was dangerous, even for the well-to-do. Carriage and horse-riding accidents were everyday occurrences, claiming many victims.
Having decided to set The Other Miss Bates in Brighton and because it was inspired by Jane Austen’s fourth novel, Emma, it was inevitable that illness should play an important part in it. Illness – real or imagined – is a frequent theme. Imagined illness – such as that ‘suffered’ by Mary Musgrove in Persuasion, is used to imply weakness of character, a lack of fibre, selfishness or at least self-absorption, all characteristics to be mildly disapproved of. Actual illness occurs infrequently in Jane Austen’s books but always to great dramatic effect. (Think of Louisa Musgrove’s concussion in Persuasion, Tom Bertram’s illness in Mansfield Park and of Marianne Dashwood’s fever in Sense and Sensibility.) The plots of these books absolutely pivot on the life-threatening illnesses depicted in each, and, crucially, on the way the principal characters respond to them.

The illnesses themselves are generally a physical result of some morally reprehensible behaviour, like Louisa’s wilfulness. That Jane Austen was interested in the narrative possibilities of illness and the influence of illness on character is illustrated by her final – unfinished – novel Sanditon, which is set in an imaginary seaside town and peopled by characters variously unwell or believing themselves to be so.
I felt justified, then, in tackling it, but wanted to explore a different aspect of the subject, so I invented two characters who are confined to wheelchairs. Mrs Sealy is a young and wealthy widow, rendered disabled by a carriage accident. Captain Bates is a casualty of war whose initial injury was compounded by poor medical treatment to leave him an amputee.
Disabled people are not necessarily ‘ill’ although of course sometimes their disability is a consequence of illness or causes issues of ill health. I didn’t want my wheel-chair bound characters’ disability to be a tool of the plot; that would have been cynical and patronising. Their being in wheeled chairs affects their actions just as much as their behaviour, choices, attitudes and values. Like all Jane Austen’s characters they are weighed morally. Although both are ‘victims’, ie, were not born with a disability, they deal with their situations very differently. Mrs Sealy is without self-pity; she is always cheerful, dressed beautifully, attends balls and parties a-plenty and has herself carried from one place to another by an extremely handsome, well-muscled young footman by the name of Ironside. Her being a woman of her time – not her disability – makes her vulnerable to the terrible machinations of her step-son.


Captain Bates on the other hand has allowed his life-affecting injury to rule his life. In an effort to compensate for the admittedly terrible time he had endured under the surgeon’s knife he treats himself constantly to food, drink, fine clothes and expensive trinkets. It is this self-indulgence – especially to food – which is the real cause of his incapacity; he has become too fat to move, even with a rudimentary prosthetic (wooden leg).
I think the way I have handled these characters is true to Jane Austen’s technique. They are not judged by who or what they are, their birth, wealth or cleverness but by how they behave. I agonised over them, though. I did not want them to be pitiful, nor villainous, nor ridiculous. Just because Jane Austen chose not to represent the disabled in her books did not seem a valid reason for me to omit them from mine although in all other aspects – plot, character, tone and language – I have attempted to reflect her style.
With trepidation, I invite you to let me know how you think I did.

16 Responses to Disability – a thorny issue to grasp

  1. Sounds good to me. I have read several books where JAFF favs have disabilities or continue to suffer because of an injury.

  2. I think you will do well you seem to have handled it well anyway. I thought of Anne De Bourgh too! We never do know what her illness is.

    • Thank you Cindie. Anne de Bough is a strange case isn’t she? I think of her as a tender flower stifled by the strangling influence of her mother’s expectations.

  3. I enjoyed reading about the characters you describe above. In Austen’s works we are not exposed much to the “gritty” side of physical life in those times. Some of the gentry in her stories had real or “imagined” illnesses or disabilities which, as you said, were part of her behavioral characterizations. In your books, I thought your inclusion of the two characters and the contrast in how they reacted to their situations was interesting. Their disability was not the focus but rather their response to it was – similar to how other characters respond to poverty or the threat of it (and thus the need to “marry well”). Therefore, I think you achieved “inclusion” because those two were just there in the milieu, just like the other characters, all with unique burdens to bear or surmount. Well done!

  4. This will be interesting. Mrs. Smith in Persuasion was staying at Bath for her health and was assisted by nurse Rook into the bath. I think better care and less worry over her situation helped her to recover somewhat. Mr. Allen suffered from gout and went to Bath for the waters. Poor Mr. Woodhouse was another that was constantly indisposed and seeking Emma’s attention and that of his doctor. Poor Mrs. Bennet’s nerves ruled her with an iron fist and she used them to escape whatever was disagreeable to her. However, none of these are what we could call dibilitating conditions. I look forward to reading how you handled this. Blessings on all your hard work.

    • Thank you JW
      I like all your references. Illness in Jane Austen’s works has always interested me. If I’d ever gone on to do my PhD I would have based my thesis on this topic. Mr Woodhouse is very careful of everyone’s health, not just his own. There seems little evidence that he is actually ill or prone to illness. He just believes he is and that everyone is likewise vulnerable. You could argue that this makes him very caring. I know that Bill Nighy sees the character that way in the upcoming film adaptation.

  5. I haven’t read all of Ms Austen’s novels. But I wonder about Col Fitzwilliam. havin greach his rank by his own merit during wartime, he should have been deployed and should have sustained something, maybe not to the point of incapacity but something.

    Th one character that came to mind is Anne De Bourgh. I am not sure what her true illness was, but she was depicted as someone with a disability. She may have been a weak baby or maybe a healhy baby who had a rheumatic heart disease etc. However, either due to the illness or overprotectiveness, she never gets over her malady.

  6. I have not read all of Ms Austen’s books, but I was initially curious of Colonel Fitzwillam. Having reached the rank on his own merits during wartime, I doubted him not being deployed and sustaining something. Maybe not to a point of incapacity but something.

    I am not sure during those times how they perceivedsomeone with disability, if they come out at all or are they sheletered most of their life. Take Anne for example, I am still not sure what her illness truly is. Maybe she was weak as a baby, but due to overprotectiveness, she never gets past such malady.

    In some variations I have read they used the wonders of sea bathing to one’s health. Maybe that’s why they don’t have any, coz it worked for them 😉

    • Indeed it does seem odd that Col Fitzwilliam sustained no injury that we know of during his active service. We could say the same of Capt Wentworth, Admiral Croft and Fanny Price’s brother William who also escaped unscathed physically. What mental scars they carried I guess we will never know.

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