Jane Austenís use of disease in her novels is crucial to the interpretation of her work. The most current Austen scholarship continues to debate her political leanings and motivations. John Wiltshire sees an important link between illness and the fate of women in Austenís novels. This means that the instances of disease in Austen are significant to the interpretation of gender politics in eighteenth and nineteenth century England. It is important to pay attention to indisposed women in Austen for this very reason. Illness in general, and especially feigned illness, can be seen as a source of power for women, a means used by female characters in Austen to exert control over their own lives through subversive means. Disease in Austenís novels also serves to reflect the morals of her characters in the midst of a changing cultural landscape. Another critic, Mary Poovey, observes that proper morality was in a state of fluctuation during Jane Austenís life, and her writings mirror this uncertainty. Many female authors before Austen reinforced the traditional role of women in society, but Austenís ambiguity of tone and varying treatment of her heroines calls her political positions into question.
In this thesis, I seek to explore the unexamined area where the readings of Wiltshire and Poovey potentially overlap. I hope to build a bridge between Wiltshireís study of the body and Pooveyís examination of female propriety. Firstly, I examine instances in Austenís novels of men and women who are punished or reformed by disease. I find that the narratives are not set up in such a way that Austen is condemning all supposedly improper behavior. Often the women who are punished, for example, Marianne Dashwood, are the more favorably depicted characters. At other times, those who are reformed disappear from the narrative, so that the reader cannot tell whether the behavioral changes are permanent. To bring the role of disease into sharper focus, I next look into another of its aspects, the more visible role of invalids and hypochondriacs. In Jane Austenís works, hypochondriacs and invalids serve as examples of men and women who use disease to subvert their social roles. Some succeed while others fail. Why? Does Austen see danger in subversive behavior, or is she simply reflecting some of the values of her time? In order to try to resolve these questions, my last section examines how healthy characters are depicted in Austenís novels. In the end, I conclude that unlimited behavioral freedom, especially for women, is problematic. In order to find physical and social health within the society of Austenís time, women need to have a degree of physical and intellectual in order to be more productive members of society. The healthiest women have a proper man to help guide them, but that isnít to say that men should be in full control. The healthiest men need female guidance, too. Perhaps this is Austenís way of trying to increase female freedom without overturning the patriarchal order altogether.