Right now, I’m visiting my parents in Virginia. My father is in the advanced stages of dementia, and my mom has been caring for him in their home. Caring for the ill and injured is not a cheery topic, I know, but sick people play important roles in Jane Austen’s books, so I wanted to explore the topic a bit today.
Most of the time, when I’ve read Austen’s books, I’ve thought of how caring for the sick can bring out the best in a character. How we love Captain Wentworth for expressing such remorse over Louisa’s accident, Mister Bingley for taking care of Jane, and Mister Knightley for being so attentive to old Mrs. Bates. But there is also a lesson in sickness itself. In Austen’s books, we find hypochondria, mental illness, addiction, bad attitudes, and good attitudes. There’s also an underlying social commentary in all this talk of illness and injury.
Even in our cheerful Pride and Prejudice, we have a few characters who fall ill. Lovable Jane falls ill because her mother was silly enough to send her to walk to Netherfield in the rain. This gives the other characters a way to show off their compassionate natures, and it also forces Elizabeth and Darcy to spend hours together at Netherfield. Little did Mrs. Bennet know that by getting Jane sick, she would also be able to marry off Elizabeth.
Later, Mrs. Bennet makes herself sick out of her worry for Lydia. She definitely has my pity, but I also have to chuckle a little at Mrs. Bennet’s gift for creating sickness.
Let’s not forget Anne de Bourgh, Mr. Darcy’s cousin, who has a “sickly constitution.” Since she has no dialogue, we don’t know much about her personality or illness, just that she is rather overshadowed by her mother. It’s clear, though, that she wouldn’t make a very fun match for our Mr. Darcy.
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen delves deeper into the idea that our mental states can affect our healh. Marianne Dashwood is genuinely depressed, and falls deathly ill because of it. Her sadness almost kills her.
Mr. Woodhouse in Emma is a bit of a hypochondriac, worrying how every detail may affect his health. Though the other characters treat him with admirable sensitivity, he misses out on a lot of fun . . . and wedding cake.
Mrs. Bates, being poor, deaf, and elderly, manages to enjoy life at least as much as Mr. Woodhouse, which, now that I think about it, actually isn’t that much.
Emma has plenty of other sick characters also, perhaps in order to show that Emma herself is not quite as spoiled as she might seem. She takes Harriet to visit a poor, sick family, and when Jane Fairfax falls ill because of emotional distress, Emma attempts to visit her also.
I suppose we’ll all have to make up our own minds about Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park. I’m not sure whether she’s meant to be a laudanum addict, ill, or just lazy. With a family like hers, I couldn’t really blame her if she were addicted to laudanum. Force me to spend a day with Aunt Norris, and I might be reaching for the stuff too.
Tom Bertram, however, has definite addiction issues. Of course, there’s speculation about the underlying cause of the addiction. Could he have been traumatized by the harsh reality of the slave trade? Or is he just a spoiled party animal? One way or the other, his addictions bring him close to death, and Fanny seems the only one who can nurse him back to health.
We meet another hypochondriac in Persuasion–Anne’s sister, Mary Musgrove. Having been a mother of young children, I can relate to Mary. Sometimes, it’s just easier to be sick and have someone else take care of the kids. But it’s also clear that Mary could do a better job of appreciating the blessings she has in her life–a nice family, including in-laws, and a comfortable situation.
Who can forget Louisa Musgrove and her risky behavior on the steps of Lyme Regis? Her family agonized during her coma, and it was all her own fault. (Not that anyone ever said “I told you so.”)
Are you noticing a pattern? It seems a great many of the characters bring their illness upon themselves, either through their sensibility or through risky behavior. None of them (with the exception of the poor family in Emma) seemed to contract one of the communicable diseases that was common during the era.
There is one character, however, who definitely breaks the mold–the cheerful, friendly Mrs. Smith, Anne Elliot’s old school chum who has contracted a crippling illness. Though she has fallen on hard times, she supports herself with her needlework and does more to protect Anne than any other female character in the book. Since Jane wrote Persuasion while her own health was dwindling, it seems likely that she felt the need to provide a good example for herself in dear old Mrs. Smith. Like Mrs. Smith, Jane’s illness was mysterious and debilitating, but Mrs. Smith fared better than Jane. In the end, Mrs. Smith recovers and goes on to lead a happier life.
I couldn’t think of any examples from Northanger Abbey, other than Henry Tilney’s mother, who died of a sudden illness before the story began. Perhaps, some of you can remind me of those I’ve forgotten.