People Who Make Themselves Sick

People Who Make Themselves Sick

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.


sick jane

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.

Mrs. Bennet sick

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

27 Responses to People Who Make Themselves Sick

  1. I also cared for my father in the end (cancer) and fully empathize with what you are going through. It is tough but in the end, no matter how hard it was, I was very happy I was able to do it.

    BTW, Jane rode on horseback in the rain to Netherfield, Lizzy walked there.

  2. Excellent post about a subject that I don’t remember being considered before as a whole. People have talked about Mr. Woodhouse– he is usually given little sympathy and few feel he is actually ill. However, he reminds me of a lady I knew who became ill from drinking unpasteurized milk in her youth when it was all unpasteurized . She was a semi invalid and subject to great fatigue but seldom actively and visibly ill. I don’t think Mary Musgrove is depressed. She is bored, spoiled and stuck up and one of those who is always discontented . Her husband doesn’t dance attendance on her nor treat her as a delicate creature who is too delicate and fine for hard work or even watching her children. Jane’s illness after riding the Netherfield is a bit too convenient because usually one doesn’t become ill so quickly but she no doubt was chilled and wet. I can’t think of illness in NA which seems to be a novel about healthy reality . There is absolutely no indication that Tom had any feelings about slave owning or slave owners or anything to do with slavery in the book. he was a heedless young man who didn’t learn his lesson the first time and had to come close to death to start thinking about being an adult. Henry has a sick psyche and poor impulse control but not an actual physical illness. Modern day thought has Lady Bertram an addict of laudanum instead of just indolent an acting like a doll to be dressed and set in place and not moved.

    Sorry about your personal pain and family illnesses. I am fortunate that so far others in the family dealt with such problems for me so I can only imagine the fatigue and pain mixed with love that caretakers suffer.

  3. I’m sorry to hear about your father. ((hugs)) You have some good insights here about what Austen is saying with illness. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it that way through each novel!

  4. Sorry about your dad’s dementia. We went through that with both my mother in law and gandmother at roughly the same time (they were nearly the same age). Your post was very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  5. A very nice post, and you remind me why I’ve always liked Fanny Price. I respond to her as a caregiver. And also why I like Anne Elliot. I think Louisa Musgrove falling off the Cobb is key to reuniting Anne with Wentworth.

    And to borrow from my aikido training, I am extending ki to you and your family.

    • Thank you, Jennifer. The more I study Mansfield Park, the more I like Fanny. It hasn’t come easily for me. I’ve had to really delve into the history of the era about “Lover’s Vows” and all that. I felt an instant affinity with Anne Elliot, though.

  6. (((hugs))) to you, Rebecca! I was my mother’s caregiver, and while most of the time she did not require daily care, the last two months of her life she spent in hospitals and nursing homes, ending in hospice care. It’s a very hard thing, and I feel for you!

    I know some hypochondriacs in real life, and at least one person who has real issues, but she constantly complains about them to me. It can be frustrating, and I could clearly see these things in all of the Jane Austen novels and adaptations you mentioned. I do see, especially in my one friend, that one’s mental health can adversely affect one’s health, so I give Mary Musgrove a pass, as annoying as she is. If she is truly as depressed and unhappy as she seems, maybe she is ill!

    I don’t know that I have ever seen this topic discussed before in relation to Jane’s novels, so I think you for posting it!

    • You’re so sweet, Zoe. I’m sorry you had to go through that with your mother.

      It seems the comments are a bit divided over Mary Musgrove. We all see her a little differently. You’re right, it’s likely she could be depressed.

  7. Sorry to hear of your Father’s Dementia. it is rough to be a care taker. God Bless You and yours. Prayers for your family.

  8. My paternal grandma and my Mum both ended their days suffering from dementia, so my heart goes out to you Rebecca.

    Jane Austen could quite easily have killed off Jane Bennet and Marianne Dashwood. The illnesses they both suffered after their respective soakings could have been fatal in those days. I’m just thankful for 21st century health care!

    • It is a horrible disease, isn’t it, Anji? You’re right. I suppose the Regency Era reader would have been much more agitated about the health of Jane and Marianne than a modern reader would. I’m glad Jane made the happier choice of keeping them alive.

  9. Thank you all for you comments and sympathy. I’ve been touring care facilities today, and I didn’t remember today was my blog day until I saw something on facebook. I love your insights. This is definitely a topic I could research a little more, but it’s also sort of timeless. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • Thanks, Katherine. I have found some humor in my father’s illness this week. It’s better than getting angry when he won’t swallow the pill for the twentieth time.

  10. Rebecca, my best to your family and thank you for this post – there’s always another way to look at Austen’s material and this is one I’d never considered before.

  11. Rebecca, This is a very moving post. The pictures are wonderful! You captured so many examples that when taken together make for a study in human nature. How did people keep a happy attitude when surrounded by illness, both real and contrived? My heart goes out to you as I have a very dear friend who was taken by early onset Alzheimers at the age of 51. It breaks my heart to see her now, lost to me, and in a nursing home. Her name is Lizzie and so in my comedy series I spell Lizzy in honor of my dear, lost Lizzie. She is a lady who had the quickest sense of humor I have ever encountered.

  12. What a fascinating post Rebecca. I have never dwelled on the fact that in every Jane Austen novel there is someone who is sick/ill or gets sick/ill during the book. Of course, in that time it would have been easy to die if one got sick and so little was known about hygiene. I thought Mary Musgrove a slacker who took advantage of Anne and would have loved for someone to give her a swift kick in the butt. Especially when her child was hurt and she went to the party. Sigh. In any case, you opened my eyes to another thing to look for in our dear Jane’s novels. Thank you!

    • Oh, I forgot to mention that I know what you are going through and can sympathize. Both my parents had dementia in their later years and I cared for both of them. It can be exhausting. I shall pray for your family.

      • Thank you, Brenda. It’s funny how everyone’s views on Mary differ so much. The party decision was definitely revealing, though. That’s a good point. She really seems selfish there.

  13. My prayers and thoughts are with you as you and your family goes through this difficult time.

    Jane wrote about what was around her…so sickness was always a part of life. The clergy were always called when someone was sick or injured. They made regular visits to the sick or infirmed. Jane apparently had a kind heart, in most stories someone is always visiting the sick. She sets the example for us to follow.

    Women in that era used the headache and illness to avoid the advances of their husbands or, like Mary in Persuasion, to get out of doing anything that was… disagreeable.

    The gentlemen of the era also suffered from gout. Many of our Austen stories are featured in Bath, the watering hole for the rich and infirmed. Mr. Allen [Northanger Abby] suffered from a gouty constitution and needed to go to Bath for his health, as did Admiral Croft.

    The pictures were great of our favorite characters… good observation.

    • Haha. I had not considered the headache factor in avoiding the advances of husbands. That adds a different element to Mary and Anne’s stories.

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