Sickness and Ill-health in Jane Austen’s Novels (Part II), by Eliza Shearer

Sickness and Ill-health in Jane Austen’s Novels (Part II), by Eliza Shearer

Last month we discussed how Jane Austen used ill-health as a plot device in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Emma. Let’s look at how our favourite author uses sickness and concussions in pivotal moments in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

A violent cold in Pride and Prejudice

Good old Mrs Bennet! Herself a hypochondriac, always complaining of her poor nerves, she also thinks herself very cunning and loves nothing more than to orchestrate her daughters’ lives. When Caroline Bingley invites her eldest daughter Jane to Netherfield, Mrs Bennet deliberately sends her on horseback, “with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day”. Mrs Bennet believes that, if the rain forces Jane to stay longer in the grand house, Mr Bingley will have more of a chance to fall in love with her.

Things go horribly wrong, of course. Shortly after Jane leaves Longbourn, the skies open, she gets soaking wet and ends up catching “a violent cold”. Anxious, Elizabeth dashes to Netherfield on foot, famously muddying her petticoats and making an entrance that Mr Darcy is never to forget. Elizabeth’s only concern may be Jane’s health, but Darcy definitely takes notice of “the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion.” The time they share at Netherfield while Elizabeth is nursing her sister only increases Darcy’s admiration.

If Jane had never fallen ill, perhaps Darcy’s predilection for Lizzy’s fine eyes would have never evolved beyond a fleeting appreciation. In any case, we can all imagine a delighted Mrs Bennet explaining to anyone who wants to listen to her that, thanks to her clever stratagems, not just one, but two of her daughters married wealthy gentlemen, while Mr Bennet rolls his eyes….

General weakness and a severe fever in Mansfield Park

Fanny Price has a weak constitution with a tendency to get worse when her spirits are low, a fact that Austen uses throughout the novel to highlight the difficulties in her heroine’s journey. Thus, Fanny is blissfully happy when Edmund buys a mare to replace her old pony so that she can exercise, but her delight evaporates when Edmund offers the mount to Mary Crawford, who quickly monopolises the animal while learning to ride.

Without her daily exercise, Fanny’s health quickly deteriorates, and it is only restored when Edmund, ashamed, realises what is happening. Later in the novel, when feeling utterly abandoned in Portsmouth, Fanny’s health takes another turn for the worse (Fanny Price may be Austen’s most psychosomatic character).

Tom Bertram’s brush with death on account of a severe fever also marks a before and after in the story. When his condition worsens, he is rushed back to Mansfield Park, although Fanny notices that his sisters are keeping away from the family home (they are busy with their respective flirtations). Meanwhile, Mary Crawford callously admits to Fanny that she wishes that Tom would die so that Edmund would inherit Sir Thomas’ title and property. Tom pulls through, but things are never the same for the Bertram siblings. Maria is disgraced, Julia marries against her father’s will, and even Tom becomes “steady and quiet.” As for Edmund, his heart breaks when he becomes conscious of Miss Crawford’s true nature, paving the way for his realisation that Fanny can make him happy.

Concussions in Persuasion

Persuasion is a novel particularly concerned with ill-health, perhaps because Jane Austen herself was unwell when writing it. Several of the characters in the book suffer from complaints, some real (such as Admiral Croft’s gout and Mrs Smith’s rheumatic fever, both the reasons why they go to Bath), others imagined (Mary Musgrove’s many aches and pains, not to mention her nerves, which echo Mrs Bennet’s). Illness also generates tension in the story. When one of Mary’s boys breaks his collarbone, Anne’s offer to nurse him prevents her from meeting Captain Wentworth for the first time since their broken engagement, the delay increasing her (and the reader’s) sense of anticipation at their encounter.

Then, of course, there is Louisa Musgrove’s accident in Lyme Regis, when she resolutely ignores Captain Wentworth’s advice and jumps off the Cobb before he can catch her, seriously injuring herself. Louisa’s fall changes the course of many lives, not the least hers. Had Louisa not suffered a severe concussion, she would have never fallen in love with Captain Benwick.

Above all, the accident thaws the love story at the heart of the novel. The immediate aftermath of Louisa’s fall shows Captain Wentworth’s innate trust in Anne and her good sense. In the weeks that follow, he also has the chance to reflect on his past actions and feelings and realise he still loves Anne. When Anne and the Captain meet again in Bath, his mind is made up, and although there is one final obstacle in the shape of Mr Elliot’s admiration for his cousin, all is set for the famous love letter he writes at the end of the novel. Nevertheless, it is quite heart-wrenching to think that, if Louise had not fallen off the Cobb, Anne and Captain Wentworth might have never had their second chance at love.

Are there any instances of illnesses or complaints in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and  Persuasion that are key to the story and missing from this list? Please add them below! 

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8 Responses to Sickness and Ill-health in Jane Austen’s Novels (Part II), by Eliza Shearer

    • Great question!

      I think he would have felt obliged to do so. After the accident, when he realises that friends such as Harville consider him pretty much an engaged man, he certainly realises he has acted carelessly, and that he “must abide the consequences” of his prior behavour.

      Much of this soul-searching happens when he goes to stay with his brother in Shropshire, as revealed later, in chapter 23…

  1. Only ones I can think of – Wickham maybe suffering with a Narcissistic personality disorder. We all have lots in our life. We make the best of what we have, what one can make and not envy what was not given by fate/chance/heritage. He coveted all Darcy have, and he feels entitled to them eventhough he is not a Darcy. I think I will not demand more from the family who gave me an education I was not entitled to, to begin with.

    Anne De Bourgh – not really sure what illness she may have acquired. If she is truly weak by nature, she may have suffered like a rheumatic fever/heart disease that caused her weak constitution. Or a dependent personality disorder (given that her mother is so over-bearing).

    • What an interesting point regarding Wickham! I think he definitely suffers from some kind of delusion. With regards to Anne, P&P is quite sketchy about it but I agree that her mother’s influence can’t have helped…

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