Deborah Yaffe

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Germs and Jane

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 10 2013 01:00PM

“Jane Austen was right,” declared a headline last week in the UK’s Daily Mail, in words calculated to warm the heart of every Janeite. Apparently, the accompanying article went on to say, the early nineteenth century was rife with disease, and so the prevalence of illness in Austen’s novels has a basis in historical reality.


“The world of a Jane Austen novel was a dangerous place for a single, young woman,” claimed science reporter Nick McDermott. “Not only must they fight it out for the best husband, but they are forever falling victim to a fever -- usually as the result of something as simple as wet stockings or being caught in the rain.”


As so often happens when I read contemporary news stories about Austen’s novels, my response to this statement could be succinctly summed up as “Huh?”

Offhand, I can think of only three instances in Austen’s works of young women falling victim to fever: Jane Bennet’s cold, strategically encouraged by her mother, after a wet ride to Netherfield in Pride and Prejudice; Harriet Smith’s sore throat in Emma; and Marianne Dashwood’s life-threatening illness in Sense and Sensibility, which she contracts after taking imprudent walks through wet grass and neglecting to change her shoes and stockings afterwards.


Austen’s books include several hypochondriacs – Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, the Parker siblings in the fragment Sanditon, perhaps Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – but none of these people actually falls ill: they just use their fear of illness to manipulate the people around them. And other illnesses in the novels – Marianne’s sprained ankle in Sense and Sensibility; Louisa Musgrove’s head injury and Mrs. Smith’s chronic infirmity in Persuasion; Jane Fairfax’s mysterious, possibly depressive withdrawal in Emma – aren’t infectious fevers.


So where did McDermott get the idea that Austen’s young women are “forever falling victim to a fever”? The answer, I’d guess, is the usual culprit for misunderstandings of Austen: the movies.


It’s not that Austen movies necessarily feature so many sick-girl scenes – it’s that the scenes they do include are indelible, and therefore loom large in our retrospective memories of her stories. Who could forget the dramatic sight of Colonel Brandon heroically carrying Marianne Dashwood home through the rain, after finding her lying outdoors, unconscious and soaked to the skin? That moment, complete with dramatic background music, appears in both the most recent adaptations of S&S, by Emma Thompson and by Andrew Davies – which is truly remarkable, since no such scene occurs in Austen’s novel.


The past eighteen years have brought so many beloved filmed versions of Austen’s stories – not to mention the technology permitting us to watch them over and over again – that it’s not surprising many of us can no longer remember what was in the book and what was in the movie. Search online for “Jane Austen quotes” and you’re just as likely to find “Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another” (from Douglas McGrath’s Emma screenplay, but not from Emma) as “It is a truth, universally acknowledged.”


I’m as susceptible to this error as anyone else. Recently, I read an Austen-related book that mentioned Mr. Bingley’s marriage proposal occurring during an evening visit to the Bennets. I was convinced this was wrong: surely Bingley proposes after Mrs. Bennet maneuvers her other girls out of the room during a daytime visit? A quick check of the book proved that I was the mistaken one – the afternoon proposal comes in the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.


So, while Austen’s young women don’t really spend much time thrashing feverishly on their sickbeds, I can forgive the Daily Mail its hyperbole – if only because of that headline.


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