Seeking for health : a medical reading of Jane Austen
This thesis discusses Jane Austen’s medical knowledge and shows that the representations of health and sickness in her fiction precisely voice the medical discourses of her time and her exquisite use of them in her satire and criticism. The Introduction explains the general background of medicine in that period: the standard of medicine, the popularization of medical knowledge, the enhancement of the medical market. Chapter 1, with focus on the doctoring and regimen of the characters, analyzes the extent to which medical knowledge was disseminated among the lay public. The chapter also considers Austen’s artistic use of medical events in creating her fiction. Chapter 2, by surveying the development of neurophysiology, deals with the sense that nervous disorders were widespread in the eighteenth century, and sees this sense as a response to the spread of neurological knowledge and the rising living standards of the middle classes. Chapter 3 advances the hypothesis that Fanny Price suffers from an actual physical condition, chlorosis, and rereads Mansfield Park as a radical feminist novel. Chapter 4 examines eighteenth-century gender politics in the question of exercising the body. The chapter considers that Austen’s views are similar to those of early feminists who argued for the woman’s right to be active and healthy. Chapter 5 reads holidaying in watering places as the epitome of the newly acquired wealth of the time, and of the commercialization of medicine and leisure. The chapter clarifies Austen’s critical stance as regards the obsessive pursuit of health and pleasure which characterized the Regency middle classes. Austen was a well-informed lay woman who had internalized up-to-date medical knowledge. She dismisses ignorance and obsession, and recommends an enlightened and rational attitude to healthcare. Moreover, she uses her knowledge and insight to enrich her characterization and to support her feminism persuasively.