June 2018 meeting: Medical matters and the erotic in Jane Austen

Prepared by member Jenny.

There was definitely a sense of bafflement around this topic originating from an absent member in relation to John Wiltshire’s Jane Austen and The Body and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain about people suffering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium. Unfortunately, none of us had had the chance to read either of these books.

In our researches we tapped into John Wiltshire’s “Medicine, Illness and Disease, Medicine during the Regency: Ten Interesting Facts, and Solitary Rambles and Stifling Sick Rooms and Gender in Jane Austen’s Fiction, the meaning of the word “fever”, and Parson Woodford’s diary in Jane Austen’s England.

We found it hard to find eroticism in the sickroom with one member deciding that it was the lack of eroticism or the failure of relationships that brought on sickness, except in the case of Louisa Musgrove and Captain Benwick. Anne trying to make sense of their engagement, realises: that the couple “had been thrown together several weeks…they must have been depending almost entirely on each other, Louisa just recovering from illness had been in an interesting state and Captain Benwick was not inconsolable.”

It would appear that Willoughby in rescuing Marianne, and Wentworth in assisting the tired Anne Elliott, were both responding to “maidens in distress” which could be considered erotic.

Jane Austen, EmmaHowever when we discovered that the word fever originally meant heated, restless or intense nervous excitement, it became apparent that there was a relationship between the fever of sickness and the fever evoked by love. Jane Austen uses the word “fever” in several of her books to convey disturbances to the mind caused by upset and/or passion and/or love, as in these examples:

As long as Mr. Knightley remained with them, Emma’s fever continued; but when he was gone, she began to be a little tranquillized and subdued … (Emma, Ch. 50, Emma just after Mr Knightley’s proposal)

AND

He found he could not be useful, and his feelings were too much irritated for talking. That he might not be irritated into an absolute fever, by the fire which Mr. Woodhouse’s tender habits required almost every evening throughout the year, he soon afterwards took a hasty leave, and walked home to the coolness and solitude of Donwell Abbey. (Emma, Ch. 40, Mr Knightley, after Emma discounts his suspicions about Frank and Jane)

AND

It seemed as if her eyes were suddenly opened, and she were enabled to see that Mr. Elton was not the superior creature she had believed him. The fever was over, and Emma could harbour little fear of the pulse being quickened again … (Emma, Ch. 39, Emma on Harriet getting over Mr Elton)

AND

They were more in love with him; yet there it was not love. It was a little fever of admiration; but it might, probably must, end in love with some. (Persuasion, Ch. 10, Anne on Louisa, Henrietta and Captain Wentworth)

Another fever was evoked by pure fear in the days of early 19th century medicine.

We found that in Jane Austen’s day there were few hospitals and no medical school training. To become physicians it was necessary to translate passages from a 1st century medical text, physicians did not do anything with their hands, as that was ungentlemanly and had to diagnose through hypothesis. Apothecaries prepared medicines or cordials and gave medical advice, surgeons were, of course, originally barbers. You didn’t actually need a licence to practice surgery.

In the country, medical help was hard to come by. Thus many women, like Mrs Heywood in Sanditon, learned basic nursing skills to care for their families. Martha Lloyd, Jane’s friend, collected home remedies, in a book, which we wished we could have read. One member had seen said book on the Antiques Road Show.

Violent blood-letting may well have been the cause of countless deaths after battle including that of Byron’s, suffering from a feverish cold.

We concluded that Mrs Jennings’ offering of Constantia as a cure was possibly preferable to many of the alternatives. In fact, the state of medicine at the time filled us all with horror. Even early efforts to inoculate against smallpox sounded rather ghastly not to mention implanting other people’s teeth in your gums.

Wiltshire maintained that “illness may serve as an unconscious mode of salvaging self-respect or gaining social leverage.”(Wiltshire J.A.12) This idea certainly fits Marianne, Jane Fairfax and possibly Mrs Smith. He also believed that in Mrs Bennet, Mr Woodhouse and Mary Musgrove suffering malaises of the leisured class can also “signal, and are a conversion of, frustration, including sexual frustration, and the need to obtain control of some sort.” Did Mrs Austen also fit this explanation?

Kelly Bryan Smith posits in her essay that the sickroom becomes a place where socially unacceptable behaviour was modified to conform to patriarchal norms in Jane Austen’s novels. She cites the examples of Tom Bertram, Marianne Dashwood and Louisa Musgrove, all of whom undergo fundamental personality change possibly due to the influence of those who nurse them. Tom is nursed by Edmund and later Fanny, Marianne by Elinor, and Louisa by Fanny Harville. Much reading to the sick took place.

We decided that the word “fever” preceded many psychological definitions of later times. However the mystery of the erotic appeal of the sick somehow escaped us. Perhaps it was the wisdom to be gleaned from the sickroom to which we should have attended.

Sources:

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