by Margaret Mills
What reading material do you turn to if you are unwell? The novelist Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a letter early in 1865 to John Ruskin, about one of her own books, in which she said: “whenever I am ailing or ill, I take Cranford and – I was going to say enjoy it (but that would not be pretty!) laugh over it afresh!”
For a couple of months last summer, my own life was temporarily disrupted because I was “ailing or ill”, and spent most of my time indoors. No real hardship this, as I am, and always have been, a great reader, and at times like this I turn to one of my favourite authors, the divine Jane Austen. Well or not, I can’t begin to estimate how many times I have read Jane Austen’s works over the years. My favourites are probably Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but the reason I settled on Pride and Prejudice as my first selection rests partly on the first chapter alone: the immediacy of the introductory paragraph plunges you straight into the story, and I have always adored the dry humour of Mr Bennet, the father of those “silly and ignorant” daughters!
I also began thinking about Jane Austen’s attitude towards illness in her books and letters. Whatever place you occupied in the social scale, 18th and early 19th century life carried all sorts of risks if you fell ill, and with relatively limited medical knowledge and skills, death was simply a fact of everyday life for most. Jane Austen appears to have enjoyed quite robust health for most of her life and, like most things that we take for granted, this perhaps prompted what some commentators feel are her rather callous comments about others who were not quite so fortunate. Her letters to her beloved elder sister and confidante, Cassandra, give us some examples. In a letter of 27th October 1798, Jane writes “Mrs Hall, of Sherbourne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened to look unawares at her husband”. Poor Lady Sondes’ forthcoming second marriage is mentioned in a letter of 27th December 1808 with the words “ …….provided she will now leave off having bad headaches and being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her, to be happy…”. In a letter of 25th September 1808 addressed to her sailor brother, Frank, Jane dismisses the wife of Mr Edward Bridges with the words “They have been all the summer at Ramsgate for her health; she is a poor honey – the sort of woman who gives me the idea of being determined never to be well and who likes her spasms and nervousness and the consequence they give her, better than anything else”. As Edward Bridges was said to have formerly proposed marriage to Jane herself, one wonders whether a few sour grapes are evident in this comment! In fairness, it should be mentioned that the next sentence of the letter proceeds: “This is an ill natured statement to send all over the Baltic!”
Any discussion about Jane Austen’s attitude to ill-health would not be complete without a mention of her creation of that perennial invalid, Mr Woodhouse, who is documented so humorously in Emma. It is quite possible that he is an amalgam of a number of Austen’s acquaintances, who exercise power over others by what to many a modern reader is a laughable obsession with real or invented illnesses. Is he an object of pity or simply an annoying and selfish old hypochondriac? Certainly his obsession with the avoidance of wet feet and draughts was more understandable to 19th century readers than to our own age, but how many of us have encountered a modern-day Mr Woodhouse (or his female equivalent) at some time or another?
Of course, Persuasion, written at a time when Austen herself was becoming increasingly unwell and published posthumously in 1818, contains many examples of real (or imaginary) ill-health. Anne Elliot’s sister, Mary, uses imagined ailments to attract sympathy and avoid any responsibilities she regards as disagreeable. In contrast to Mary, Mrs Smith, Anne’s old friend, has not only lost all her money but suffers from a debilitating illness which has reduced her to an invalid. Captain Harville’s sister Fanny has just died, as has Dick Musgrove, and Louisa Musgrove has a terrible accident falling from some steps. This work is quite dark in places, as Austen seems all too well aware not only how decisions made early in life can affect our future, but how quickly illness and accidents can strike and change the course of someone’s life, perhaps forever.
Although I’ve cited a few waspish examples of Jane’s attitude towards the illness of those outside the family – and the comment about Mrs Hall seems so breathtakingly unkind it is difficult to excuse – we surely must admit that we have all, on occasions and in private, made similar remarks to friends or family, and without knowing more about the people she mentions, we can make no valid judgment about whether there were any justifications for her comments. Within her family, we know that Jane was never other than a sympathetic and feeling daughter, sister, aunt and cousin, and as unmarried women, it was taken for granted that both Jane and Cassandra would answer any call for help to nurse sick members of the family. Jane’s grief at the death of her sister-in-law Elizabeth, wife of her brother Edward, was undoubtedly very real, as was her sadness and sympathy for Cassandra on the death of her fiancée, Tom Fowle, in the West Indies, where he was doing duty as a chaplain. We should also remember that death – particularly the death of those still young – was far more common than in our own day, largely due to lack of medical knowledge and skill. The fact that early death was more commonplace in the 19th century meant that the death of loved ones was by no means an uncommon experience for most people, making them arguably far more resilient to its occurrence.
Jane’s attitude towards her own last illness, which appears to have begun in about 1816 and would end fatally in 1817, are documented in her letters to her niece Fanny Knight, to a family governess, Anne Sharpe, and her brother Edward Austen, amongst others. There is still some debate about the cause of her death: Addison’s disease, a problem with the adrenal glands, lymphoma and stomach cancer have all been suggested. Whatever the cause may have been, documented evidence shows the courage and humour with which she faced her own ill-health and mortality, and her gratitude for the care she has received from family members is also a marked feature. In a letter written to Edward two months before her death, she concludes: “If ever you are ill, may you be as tenderly nursed as I have been. May the same blessed alleviations of anxious, sympathising friends be yours, and may you possess – as I dare say you will – the greatest blessing of all, in the consciousness of not being unworthy of their love. I could not feel this”.
Like Jane Austen herself, I was eventually forced to travel away from home in search of a cure for what ailed me – but in my case, it was not to Winchester, it was only 5 miles away to my local hospital, from where I shortly returned home in much better health, recovering fully once I was back at home. My story had a happy ending, and in this I was much more fortunate than Jane, dead at what is, by modern standards, the tragically early age of 41, her potential to provide us with many more of her wonderful works unrealised.
Margaret Mills is a lecturer in history and English literature, working mainly in the adult education sector. She also gives talks to a variety of different organisations, as well as broadcasting history notes and book reviews on a local community radio station.