To an extent, Jane Austen’s novels can be described as valetudinarian works. Many of her novels describe health and sickness in much detail. This was, perhaps, because of her experience of the health challenges that she and her family members faced. It has been documented that she was sick for a long time before her eventual death.
Jane Austen’s Firsthand Experience
Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility, was feared to have caught a “fever” that could have been the very serious type, a “putrid fever”.
Austen knew firsthand the dangers of putrid fever. When she and her sister were girls, they contracted putrid fever at their boarding school. The woman who ran the school didn’t inform the parents about the outbreak, but the Austen girls’ cousin, Jane Cooper, in school with them, informed her mother by letter. The three girls were then snatched out of the school by Mrs. Cooper.
All three girls survived, although Austen was said to have been close to death. Mrs. Cooper rescued the girls from that boarding school full of illness. She then caught it herself, likely from them. Shortly after, she died of putrid fever, at age 47.
Knowing all of this might change our sense of how Austen narrates fevers. She must have learned from experience what it felt like to have a serious one. She certainly knew how deadly they could be.
Male Medical Professionals
Austen’s medical men rarely play more than an incidental role in the stories. Perhaps that’s because, although Austen had six brothers, none of them went into the medical field. Her extended family doesn’t seem to have had many medical professionals either.
So, Austen’s personal contact with medical men likely happened most often during her own or others’ illnesses. It’s also likely that she herself would have served as a nurse or companion to family members when they were ill. That was just expected.
Austen’s Mother’s Illness
Mrs. Austen, Jane’s mother, seems to have had her share of aches, pains, and complaints. Reports of them in Jane’s letters have led some biographers to suspect that Mrs. Austen may have had a little of the valetudinarian herself.
Austen had sisters-in-law, nieces, and nephews who required nursing and medical care. In a large family, it would have been scarce to escape having to deal with illness, injury, and death.
Perhaps that’s why so many of Austen’s female characters, especially unmarried sisters and aunts, are shown regularly performing the function of an amateur nurse. In Persuasion, Anne Elliot nurses her needy, complaint-filled sister, Mary Musgrove. Anne also serves as a nurse to Mary’s injured son, when the boy’s own mother foists the job off on her.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Austen’s Father’s Death
It is moving to think of Austen writing these lines at the beginning of what would turn out to be her own long-lasting illness. She was no stranger to illness and death by her 41st year. A dozen years before that, she’d witnessed one of her life’s most profound losses.
Her father, the Reverend George Austen, died at age 73, after what’s said to have been a short illness. His illness and death changed the course of Jane’s life.
A letter survives in which Jane Austen informs her naval brother, Francis, about their father’s death. She writes, “We have lost an Excellent Father—an illness of only eight & forty hours carried him off yesterday morning between ten & eleven. He was seized on Saturday with a return of the feverish complaint, which he had been subject to for the three last years.”
Austen calls the most recent complaint, “Evidently a more violent attack from the first, as the applications which had before produced almost immediate relief seemed for some time to afford him scarcely any.” At this time, her father was being nursed by the women in the household.
Apothecaries in Austen’s Works
Her father was being treated by a Mr. Bowen, an apothecary. As his illness became more desperate, the rest of the family sought to step up his level of care. Perhaps, this is the reason apothecaries tend to have slightly larger roles in Austen’s fiction. They are more often named characters.
In Sense and Sensibility, it’s an apothecary, Mr. Harris, who treats Marianne’s fever. He oversees her eventual cure. In Emma, the heroine’s hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse, gets his medical advice from an apothecary, Mr. Perry.
This is what she says, “A physician was called in yesterday morning, but he [that is, their father] was at that time past all possibility of a cure—& Dr. Gibbs & Mr. Bowen had scarcely left his room before he sunk into a Sleep from which he never woke.” Jane notes that the serenity of his corpse is “most delightful” and that it “preserves the sweet, benevolent smile which always distinguished him”.
Austen’s Final Years
Jane Austen was the first of the Austen siblings to die, after a long illness. Many have tried to diagnose the cause of her death, but all of them are mere conjectures.
She died on July 18, 1817, and was buried shortly after in Winchester Cathedral. Her novels, filled with wisdom and humor, and insights about health and illness, continue to speak to us.
Common Questions about Austen’s Experience with Illnesses and Its Impact on Her Works
Austen had sisters-in-law, nieces, and nephews who required nursing and medical care. In a large family, it would have been scarce to escape having to deal with illness, injury, and death. Perhaps that’s why so many of Austen’s female characters are shown regularly performing the function of an amateur nurse.
Austen knew firsthand the dangers of putrid fever. When she and her sister were girls, they contracted putrid fever at their boarding school.
In Sense and Sensibility, it’s an apothecary, Mr. Harris, who treats Marianne’s fever. In Emma, the heroine’s hypochondriac father, Mr. Woodhouse, gets his medical advice from an apothecary, Mr. Perry.