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Editor’s Note: Jane Austen in a Plague Year

It’s easy to dismiss Charlotte Palmer, as the Dashwoods do, as “a very silly” version of her mother.  She enters Sense and Sensibility “with a smile, smiled all the time of her visit, except when she laughed, and smiled when she went away.”  Charlotte laughs at “the loss of her favourite plants, unwarily exposed, and nipped by the lingering frost” and finds “fresh sources of merriment” in “hens forsaking their nests, or being stolen by a fox, or in the rapid decease of a promising young brood.”  She is “determined to be happy”—and in that determination sometimes tips over into insensibility.  Her resolute good humor, however, is tested twice in the novel.  First, in London, she is “‘sure’” that her infant is “‘very ill—it cried, and fretted, and was all over pimples.’”  Though assured by her mother that it is “‘nothing in the world but the red-gum,’” Charlotte fears scarlet fever.  Some weeks later, when Marianne falls ill at the Palmers’ estate, the apothecary, “by pronouncing her disorder to have a putrid tendency, and allowing the word ‘infection’ to pass his lips,” gives “instant alarm to Mrs. Palmer on her baby’s account.”  Charlotte—and the others—fear that Marianne may have developed typhus or diphtheria, also highly contagious and often fatal diseases.  The threat of disease is enough to—at least temporarily—disrupt her equilibrium. 

Though not front and center in Austen’s work, the awareness of mortality and the possibilities of unexpected viral and bacterial diseases must have been a constant in her life.  Jane’s niece Caroline Austen provides an account of a smallpox epidemic that broke out in 1775 in the village of Enborne, scarring her mother, Mary Lloyd, and killing Mary’s seven-year-old brother, Charles.  In 1783, Cassandra and Jane Austen contracted typhus while at school in Southampton; their aunt Jane Cooper, arriving to remove the girls and her own daughter, also fell ill with the disease and died.  There were medical advances:  Jane Austen records a day spent in November 1800 at Ashe listening (while others played cards, flirted, or dozed) to Edward Jenner’s pamphlet on cowpox.  In 1813 Caroline was re-vaccinated by Dr. Jenner.  For many years after Jane Austen’s death, of course, communicable diseases persisted, often striking down members of her family.  In 1848, for example, in the space of a week, scarlet fever killed three daughters (aged three, four, and five) of the Reverend William Knight of Steventon, Jane Austen’s nephew.  From our twenty-first-century vantage point, protected by modern medical science, we often discount the anxieties and fears of contagious disease for those living in Jane Austen’s world.  

Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we haven’t felt those fears until this year.  To read about the transmission of diseases like smallpox, scarlet fever, and diphtheria through airborne droplets or by direct contact is to recognize some part of our own situation.  Caroline Austen writes about the spread of disease through her mother’s family: 

The smallpox was brought into the house by the coachman, who concealed the fact, till too late, that it was in his own cottage.  My grandfather, when it broke out at the Rectory, separated himself from his family, and took lodgings . . . not to carry the infection into church on Sundays.  The children had never been inoculated—I know not whether from any superstitious scruple on the part of their parents, or from a negligent delay. 

In Caroline’s narrative of this portion of her family history (which includes family memories of the child who died), we might recognize some of our own experiences:  concern (or lack of it) for the safety of others, illness, death, loss and the memories of those lost, scarring, guilt.  During that epidemic, the family unit was also disrupted, as the Reverend Lloyd left his wife with his infected children and servants in order not to transmit the virus to his congregation. 

Most of us have experienced some part of these consequences this year.  We may have suffered the loss of family members or friends.  We may find ourselves necessarily distanced or isolated from the people we love.  We may have lost routines and faced the cancellation of anticipated rituals or travel.  We may be undergoing an achingly slow recovery from disease.  More than ever, we recognize what it is to live in a world beyond our control.  But this year has also been a time when we’ve had to change or adapt in order to continue living.  Somehow we begin to move forward after—and even during—loss.  We remember and honor and continue to cherish those no longer with us.  We find new ways—ways that don’t involve physical proximity—to connect to those we love.  We develop new routines, new activities, and adapt some of the old to our new circumstances.  We work toward recovery, and we work toward the future—even while we’re still afflicted by anxiety and sorrow. 

The special section of this year’s journals, “Staying at Home” with Jane Austen: Reading and Writing during a Pandemic, was proposed with our situation—and that of Jane Austen—in mind.  In this issue of Persuasions On-Line you’ll find essays on how people have used Austen during this time as well as essays on how Austen in her fiction dealt with separation and too much togetherness, illness, and death.  Persuasions 42 (to be mailed this spring) will have more treatments of this theme:  on home remedies; on the “cruel Mrs. Craven”; on letter-writing; on Austen’s use of illness and cures in Persuasion and Sanditon

As an organization, one major crisis JASNA faced this year was the impossibility of gathering for our AGM in Cleveland, Jane Austen’s Juvenilia: Reason, Romanticism, and Revolution.  Thanks to the energy and creativity of the AGM and then Virtual AGM coordinators Amy Patterson and Jennifer Weinbrecht, President Liz Philosophos Cooper, Vice President–Conferences Linda Slothouber, and Website Manger Iris Lutz, as well as to the flexibility and resourcefulness of the presenters, more JASNA members than ever before were able to enjoy the abundant program and even the sweets of virtual connection.  Essays based on many of the excellent presentations are included in this issue; there will be others in Persuasions 42. 

Both Persuasions On-Line 41.1 and Persuasions 42 also contain, as usual, a rich Miscellany.  The essays in this issue range from a consideration of the Rice portrait and the shoplifting trial of Jane Austen’s aunt to the recent series Fleabag; it includes two essays, one on Lady Catherine as a Karen and another on the connections between Austen and Adam Smith, that consider how we read Austen in moral terms.  And, finally, we have a new bibliography team:  Carol Grigas, Lise Snyder, and Claire Bellanti have taken on the overwhelming task of assembling the resource of Austen-related materials published in 2019. 

Although my gratitude to the many people whose effort goes into this journal is always deep, this year—given the trials and anxieties and limitation of resources that everyone has faced—it is particularly so.  Thank you to the authors of these essays, who poured their energy into pieces that will delight, instruct, and sustain us.  Thank you to the members of the editorial board, who devoted their overtaxed resources to evaluating essays and providing the helpful comments that strengthened them.  Marsha Huff proofread all the essays and offered editorial advice; Iris Lutz and Adam Keuer solved technical problems where they occurred; Carol Moss created all the pages, spotted uncaught error, sized and placed images, found others:  thank you all.

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