By Deborah Yaffe, Mar 16 2020 01:00PM
No one in Jane Austen’s novels becomes infected with a coronavirus, but that doesn’t mean she has nothing to say on the subject that now occupies all of our minds. At least three important characters* in her novels experience significant bouts of infectious disease:
--Harriet Smith “was very feverish and had a bad sore-throat . . . . ‘a throat very much inflamed, with a great deal of heat about her, a quick low pulse, &c.’ ” (Emma, ch. 13)
In an early example of self-quarantining, poor ailing Harriet has to miss the Westons’ Christmas party.
--Harriet’s illness seems to be a random act of God, but Marianne Dashwood courts disaster with “two delightful twilight walks . . . . not merely on the dry gravel of the shrubbery, but all over the grounds, and especially in the most distant parts of them, where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest . . . assisted by the still greater imprudence of sitting in her wet shoes and stockings.” (Sense and Sensibility, ch. 42)
Eventually “heavy and feverish, with a pain in her limbs, a cough, and a sore throat,” she grows progressively worse, is confined to her bed, and begins calling deliriously for her mother; a week later “the fever was unabated; and Marianne only more quiet -- not more herself -- remained in an heavy stupor.” (chs. 42-43)
Rather than self-quarantining, however, Colonel Brandon sets out for Barton Cottage, risking the transport of a nasty bug across county lines. Arguably, however, bringing a mother to her child’s potential deathbed counts as essential travel.
* If Marianne’s illness stems from imprudence, Tom Bertram’s is born out of downright recklessness, not to mention dissipation: “Tom had gone from London with a party of young men to Newmarket, where a neglected fall and a good deal of drinking had brought on a fever.” (Mansfield Park, ch. 44)
By the time Tom is back at Mansfield Park, “some strong hectic symptoms, which seemed to seize the frame on the departure of the fever” leave Edmund and Sir Thomas “apprehensive for [Tom’s] lungs” and forced to nurse the patient through “nerves much affected, spirits much depressed.” (ch. 45)
On the bright side, however, there’s nothing like a scandalous extramarital elopement to encourage a family toward a bit of social distancing.
Let’s take it as a good omen for our perilous times that all Austen’s patients eventually recover their health. Happy hand-washing, everyone!
* I omit the numerous parents and parental figures who expire offstage, often before the narrative commences, and the long convalescence of Louisa Musgrove, who is the victim of an accidental injury, not an infectious disease.