Why Health and Illness Featured Prominently in Austen’s Works


By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

All of Austen’s novels are to some extent valetudinarian novels. They are fixated on health and sickness. Each of her major works includes a significant illness that shapes the plot and helps us understand the early 19th century, when death and illnesses among infants, children, and childbearing women, were so tragically frequent.

portrait of a family alongside a bed ridden woman
Austen explicitly doesn’t point out the maternal deaths rampant in the early 19th century, but her novels do hint at the tragedies. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)


In the novel, Emma, heroine Emma Woodhouse’s father is described in the very first chapter as “a much older man in ways than in years”, and “having been a valetudinarian all his life” he was “without activity of mind or body.”

When applied to Mr. Woodhouse, ‘valetudinarian’ means an invalid—a person in weak health. The secondary meaning of the word is someone “constantly concerned with his own ailments”. So, Mr. Woodhouse isn’t just a sickly, inactive man. He’s a hypochondriac.

His illnesses may or may not be real, but it’s his fixation on them—his inability to do anything other than think, talk, and worry about them—that makes his condition worse. This concept orients the novel Emma, from beginning to end. Emma’s life is shaped by her mother’s premature death and her father’s anxious limitations.

Austen’s Motherless Heroines

Austen’s fiction doesn’t show us close-ups of maternal deaths in childbirth, but she does describe motherless girls, including two in Emma: heroine Emma Woodhouse and the far less fortunate but more accomplished Jane Fairfax.

Both young women had mothers who died of illness. Emma’s mother’s illness isn’t described. We’re told that Jane Fairfax’s mother died of consumption and grief.

Sickness: A Recurring Theme

Even the relative health in Northanger Abbey features Mr. Allen’s gout, which is what prompts Catherine’s trip to Bath in the first place. Austen’s unfinished last novel, Sanditon, is all about the economic opportunism of illness and recovery.

Most of these illnesses serve as a backdrop to issues of family conflict, social relations, love, and romance. But once the pattern is noticed, these issues of health and illness in the plots are difficult to un-see.

Other types of serious illness in Austen’s fiction include fever or typhus, which is what it’s suspected Marianne Dashwood may have had when she takes ill in Sense and Sensibility.

Unknown, Fearsome Fever in Sense and Sensibility

The novel describes Marianne’s descent into serious illness very carefully. It begins with a “heavy cold”. It progresses to a sore throat, cough, fever, and even gets “violent”. Though her ailment is never diagnosed, Marianne claims that she believes that to some extent she brought her illness on herself, by not taking care of her body.

Among the other characters in the novel, there was a fear that whatever Marianne had might be contagious. The greatest worry among those characters was that Marianne’s “fever” could have been the very serious type, a “putrid fever”.

Putrid fever was believed to be highly contagious. It’s probable that what people then called putrid fever is what we now call typhus. Its symptoms are a headache, fever, and pink spots everywhere, except on the face.

People then were rightly afraid of putrid fever. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Palmer is so alarmed by her houseguest Marianne’s illness that she leaves her home and takes her baby with her—a reasonable response for this time.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Featuring Milder Illnesses

Austen’s fiction features mild illnesses, too—Jane Bennet’s cold in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Musgrove’s sore throats in Persuasion, and Fanny Price’s nervousness and fatigue in Mansfield Park.

Gout is another good example in that category. A diagnosis of gout led Northanger Abbey’s Mr. Allen to Bath, a city named after and known for its restorative bathing. It was a destination for medical tourism, as a result of its hot springs.


Austen’s novels even mention some of the remedial products of the times, including lotions and pills. Some wares were sold under brand names.

Drugs, potions and medicines laid out on a table
Austen’s novels also point out contemporary medicinal remedies. (Image: Zhuravlev Andrey/Shutterstock)

In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot recommends that the widow, Mrs. Clay, should try Gowland’s lotion on her freckles. He finds them unattractive. Gowland’s lotion is said to have “carried away”, or cleared up, Mrs. Clay’s unfortunate freckles, according to Sir Walter. But his daughter, Anne, saw no change at all in Mrs. Clay’s appearance. This may suggest Austen’s own skepticism toward miracle products and cures.

Availability of Medical Facilities

For people who needed medical care while living outside of a city, options were few and perhaps far away. In Sanditon, there’s no doctor at all in the newly established seaside resort. As the story begins, one of the resort’s main investors, Tom Parker, is on a quest to lure a doctor to live and practice in Sanditon.

In Sense and Sensibility, it’s an apothecary, Mr. Harris, who treats Marianne’s fever. He oversees her eventual cure. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, gets his medical advice from an apothecary, Mr. Perry. In both cases, the patients are away from the city and would have had few medical options.

Significance of Health Issues in Austen’s Works

Austen’s works have been a comment on health hazards, illnesses, and the medical profession of the times. Their importance goes beyond plot and structure, too. One critic of Austen claims that she was an expert at narrating illness, and that, if she’d had the opportunity, she might have made an excellent physician.

But by examining wellness, sickness, and the finer points of the medical profession in her fiction and in her day, our understanding of the genius of her books deepens. It provides the readers with an understanding of how Austen’s fiction treats health and illness, as well as the challenges she and her family members faced. These challenges may have shaped her insights into hearts, minds, and bodies.

As a running commentary on the medicinal facilities of the day, her works hold up a mirror of society.

Common Questions about Why Health and Illness Featured Prominently in Austen’s Works

Q: Which illnesses do Jane Austen’s novels focus on?

Jane Austen‘s novels deal with all common ailments of the 19th century, like putrid fever and typhus, tragic infantile and maternal deaths, and milder issues like fatigue and gouts.

Q: What kind of remedies do Austen’s works mention?

Austen’s novels mention some of the remedial products of the times, including lotions and pills. Some wares were sold under brand names, like in Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot recommends that the widow, Mrs. Clay, should try Gowland’s lotion.

Q: What is the significance of noting the health issues in her works?

Austen‘s works have been a comment on health hazards, illnesses, and the medical profession of the times. As a running commentary, her works hold up a mirror of society.