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

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

Regency society was obsessed with infirmity. Letters from the period are peppered with references to health or the lack thereof, a worry shared by much of the population. In a world with no antibiotics and no real notion of sterilisation or basic hygiene, the most minor concussions, cuts and colds had the potential to take a turn for the worse and end up as a chronic condition, amputation or even death.

As a woman of her time, Jane Austen shared this concern, and in her novels, we find many references to health predicaments of all kinds. Ailments, fractures and infections affect not just minor characters, but also Jane Austen’s heroines. But Austen’s use of illness in her stories is very deliberate, as a way to reveal the nature of her characters, add tension and move the story forward. Here are some of the most memorable health complaints in her works.

A sudden death in Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is possibly the novel by Jane Austen that is least concerned with health, maybe because the author was young and healthy at the time of writing. Nevertheless, the few references to illness are crucial to the story. Catherine Morland only gets to go to Bath with the Allens because Mr Allen has “a gouty constitution” and is ordered to take the waters. Had he been healthy, perhaps Catherine might have never got to leave her village.

When Catherine is invited to stay with the Tilneys in Northanger Abbey, she soon discovers that Mrs Tilney died of a “sudden and short” illness, a fact that encourages her mind to run wild with speculation. Later in the novel, Henry Tilney explains that, although the illness was sudden, Mrs Tilney had long suffered from the condition that eventually ended her life. His words “open (Catherine’s) eyes to the extravagance of her late fancies”, helping her grow from an excitable adolescent with an overactive imagination to a young woman ready for marriage.  

Pneumonia in Sense and Sensibility

After an unhappy London stay, Elinor and Marianne accompany Mrs Jennings and her daughter and grandchild to Cleveland, home of the Palmers. Spurred by the proximity to Combe Magna, and wallowing in the grief brought about by Willoughby’s marriage to another, Marianne takes several solitary walks in the gardens, “where the trees were the oldest, and the grass was the longest and wettest.” She ends up catching a cold that makes her seriously unwell, to the point that there is a real danger to her life.

Marianne’s illness brings about one of the most extraordinary scenes in Austen’s novel: the arrival of a drunk Willoughby in the middle of a suitably stormy night, anxious at the news of Marianne’s imminent death and eager to explain his side of the story. However, her grave condition also paves the way for the future. By volunteering to fetch Mrs Dashwood, Colonel Brandon has the chance to shine and get his future mother-in-law on his side. As for Marianne, illness tempers her emotions, which in time will allow her affection for Colonel Brandon to flourish.

Hypochondria in Emma

Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s father, is a shameless hypochondriac, but his fear of malady isn’t just a quirky trait. Mr Woodhouse’s standing in society and with his family means that many things happen (or don’t happen) because of his exaggerated health concerns. When it begins to snow during the Christmas party at Randalls,  Mr Woodhouse’s panicked reaction causes the confusion that ends up with Emma finding herself alone in a carriage with Mr Elton – and an unwanted married proposal.

If Emma is the very picture of good health, her nemesis Jane Fairfax is the exact opposite. She arrives at the Bateses because her friends the Campbells, who have left for Ireland, “have no doubt that three or four months at Highbury will entirely cure her.” Jane, however, remains unwell, and her health problems appear intertwined with similar mentions to the ailments of Mrs Churchill, Frank Churchill’s adoptive mother. It is no coincidence that the novel ends with the former restored to full health, and the latter on her deathbed.

For Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, please join me in the next blog post. And in the meantime, as the weather turns chilly, please stay healthy!

Are there any other illnesses or complaints in Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility or Emma that should be included in this list? Share them below:


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14 Responses to Sickness and Ill-health in Jane Austen’s Novels (I), by Eliza Shearer

  1. The titles are wrong. You have Pride and prejudice listed but are referencing Sense and Sensibility. Also there is a lot more uses of illness then what is presented here throughout her novels. Thomas’s illness in mansford park, Jane’s in Pride and prejudice which moves the plot and connects Elizabeth closer to Mr. Darcy. In Emma, Harriet gets sick which is the time apart needed for Mr. Elton to be alone with her and have his feelings known. I would say she uses illness as a way for main characters at times to have a moment of penitence. Like Marianne in Sense and sensibility and Thomas from Mansfield park. Through these illnesses they learn how to improve their shortcomings. In another way she uses illness as just a way to move the plot along as well, as you pointed out

  2. Interesting post, Eliza. Sometimes when I’m reading an Austen variation, or another Regency, an illness or an injury is used as crisis point to bring the protagonists together. But the cures so are so often reflections of a modern knowledge of nutrition, hygiene and medicine. The doctor is acknowledged as progressive and modern in his methods, but I wonder where these modern medical practices are being learned.

    Sure, I love the idea of the manners and dress of Regency period whether in a book or in movie, but then I think about having to go to the bathroom and that bubble is popped!

    I cannot remember from my actual reading of Emma, if it said how Emma’s mother died. I don’t remember how old she was either, but I seem to recall Emma was quite young at the time of her mother’s death. I always wondered if Mr. Woodhouse was so over protective of his daughters because of the way his wife died. His dietary needs seems personal to his own constitution, but sometimes it also seemed connected to his worry for his daughters’ health.

    • That is such a great point, Michelle. We take so much for granted I think!

      I believe that Austen does not specify why Emma’s mother dies, although we do know that Mrs Weston “had played with her (Emma) from five years old”. I agree with you with regards to Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria. Even if he had a natural tendency, such an event would have certainly exacerbated it!

  3. Can’t wait to see what you have for the next installment. I am racking my brain on these three but can’t think of anything off hand. I keep thinking. Well done on this post.

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