By Margaret Hernon (Vanderbilt University)
Literary critics have been trying to diagnose the feverish Marianne Dashwood, heroine of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilty, for decades. Marianne becomes dangerously ill after being spurned by her lover and taking a long, melancholic walk in the rain, and her illness forms the climax of the novel itself. Though many critics read this moment as a way to demonstrate the power of Marianne’s emotional turmoil, far older currents of medical thought are also at play, currents which may help to explain the prevalence of ill and invalid women in nineteenth-century works of literature.
When analyzing Marianne Dashwood – the overly-emotional embodiment of “sensibility” within Austen’s text – it is important to remember that, in the eighteenth-century, “sensibility” was far closer in meaning to “sensitivity” than “sensible.” Many critics such as Barbara K. Seeber read Marianne’s fever as a way to symbolically depict her transition from foolish, excessive sensibility into sense (225-226). After the fever, Marianne does vow to change her ways: “My illness has made me think…I saw in my own behavior…nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others” (Austen 244).
Austen, however, is writing from a centuries-old cultural paradigm in which women were held to be irrational and infirm due to their wombs. A 1670 text, for example, elaborates on the sufferings of women in “Hysterik Fits”: “Their Dreams are frightful, their Eyes are fixt and staring…they cough without intermission, spit in vast quantities for weeks” (Anon. 36). Though it may seem counter-intuitive for doctors in the age of Enlightenment to still hold the womb responsible for such vagaries, this was clearly not the case. As the eighteenth-century French physician Louyer-Villermay demonstrates, hysteria was “an ill of which the womb is the seat and which is entirely distinct from all the disorders that can exist in the genital organs of men” (Williams 252).
Marianne Dashwood, then, is not suffering solely in response to her thwarted love affair. She – as well as numerous other literary lady invalids – is ill simply because she is a woman and must be ill.
Anonymous. An account of the causes of some particular rebellious distempers. London: 1670
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.
Seeber, Barbara. “I See Everything as You Desire Me to Do: The Scolding and Schooling of
Marianne Dashwood.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction. 17 (2004): 87-110
Williams, Elizabeth A. “Hysteria and the Court Physician in Enlightenment France.”
Eighteenth-Century Studies. 35 (2002): 247-255.
Image: Sketch of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, 1810. Wikimedia Commons