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.