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Jane Austen and Bodily Diversity in Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon: Laughter through Gritted Teeth

Long considered one of the most white bread of British authors, Jane Austen’s works are sometimes thought to provide shelter from contemporary conflict and controversy.  In truth, however, neither conflict nor controversy is very far from her compositions, buttressed as they are by the aftermath of the French revolution, the abolitionist movement, and the Napoleonic Wars.1  But what can Jane Austen’s works say today amid a pandemic that daily manifests deadly inequities based on gender, race, class, and ability?  From the dispossession of women in her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, to the commodification of the “half-mulatto” heiress Miss Lambe in her last and unfinished work, Sanditon, Austen’s writings tend to criticize self-centered privilege, but the novels’ perspectives shift as the satire matures.  Signalled through the allure of the great houses and their parks, the earlier novels promote a longing for the heroines to take their rightful, and improving, places in the estate.  Although disappointed of the opportunity to refurnish Mrs. Smith’s rooms at Allenham, Marianne Dashwood’s happy ending sees her the patroness of a village at Delaford (SS 81, 430).  During the tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners, Elizabeth Bennet gazes on the beauties of Pemberley and thinks “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (PP 271).  Fanny Price longs for acceptance into the family at Mansfield Park.

With Emma, Persuasion, and the unfinished Sanditon, the privileged center loses some of its attraction, becoming more a satiric target than a goal.  Emma begins and ends with its heroine established as the mistress of Hartfield, subject to the needs of her invalid father, although by the end the estate expands to include Donwell Abbey and Mr. Knightley.  Persuasion’s Kellynch Hall, is “made over to others” because its spendthrift and self-regarding patriarch, Sir Walter Elliot, in his daughter Anne’s view “deserved not to stay” (51, 136).  Similarly, the center of Sanditon, town and novel, vacillates between the entrepreneurial Mr. Parker’s precarious Trafalgar House and the “‘sordid’” Lady Denham’s crumbling estate (181).  While all of Austen’s works laugh at pretense, in the later works the laughter becomes more sardonic as the social and political centers of the texts lose either their necessity, in the case of Emma, or their desirability in Persuasion and Sanditon

As the traditional estate loses its luster as a destination for heroines in the later novels, so the influence of disability and illness increasingly contributes positively to the reformation of the marriage plot.  While Jane Bennet’s cold and Marianne Dashwood’s fever enable their progress toward class-enhanced marriage, debilities, temporary and permanent, take on critical roles in Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon to make “visible the forms of association and other forces that hold . . . [society] together” (Franta 132).  At the risk, in Janine Barchas’s words, of succumbing to the “perpetual recruitability of Jane Austen for this or that ideological cause” (12), I argue that in these later works, the interventions of voices traditionally on the margins, characters with bodily anomalies, bolster and promote the critique of the center.  In Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon invalids and other “disabilities” offer laughter through gritted teeth to open cracks in the smooth complexions of ableist hierarchies. 

Bodily and cognitive variations were familiar to the Austen family.  Three members—George Austen, Jane Austen’s elder brother; Thomas Leigh, her maternal uncle; and Hastings de Feuillide, her cousin’s son who died at age fifteen—all lived with cognitive and physical disabilities.  Described as an “invalid” in family trees and referred to as “poor” in the letters of family members, her brother George was boarded out with his Uncle Thomas at Monk Sherborne, Hants.2  He was excluded, because of legal disability, from his mother’s will.3  On George’s fourth birthday his mother’s letter to her sister-in-law names only Edward and James in plans for a family visit to Scarlets, and he is absent from the family’s Christmas plans later that year (Austen Papers 24, 25).  Bridget McAdam points out that the Austens’ relatively comfortable economic status made such private care possible in contrast with the public workhouses, prisons, and asylums such as Bethlehem Hospital where many disabled people were confined away from family.  But unlike the younger Hastings, George was segregated from his birth family.  Park Honan speculates that although Jane Austen never mentions her brother George in her extant letters, she had learned finger spelling to communicate with him (24), a skill she reveals when writing to her sister, Cassandra, about conversing with a Mr. Fitzhugh.  “[P]oor Man, is so totally deaf, that they say he cd not hear a Cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, & talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough” (27–28 December 1808). 

Like her letters, Austen’s novels are filled with instances of bodily dysfunction.  Readers such as John Wiltshire and D. A. Miller find in the representations of illness in the novels an organizing principle and “the source of events, of narrative energies” (Wiltshire 9).  Although Austen’s brother George was “never able to take his place in the family circle” (Le Faye, Letters 487), he haunts Austen’s writing in the shapes of these invalids, temporary and permanent, who, as Wiltshire says of Mr. Woodhouse, create “a social space which normalizes . . . invalidism” (152).  Austen’s invalids are not the marginal, exotic figures who, according to Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “become spectacles of otherness while the unmarked are sheltered in the neutral space of normalcy” (8).  Neither do they function solely as “midwives to other people’s marriages,” as Clare Walker Gore characterizes the functions of invalids in Victorian-era novels (121).  Also, unlike Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall, in which the deformed are segregated from the rest of the inhabitants, Austen’s disabled figures such as Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Smith are complicated figures who do more than “operate as spectacles, eliciting responses from other characters” (Thomson 9).  Moreover, unlike Eugenia Tyrold, whose disfigurement in Frances Burney’s Camilla is rewarded with both financial stability and exemplary education, Austen deploys disability to critique privilege.4 

Despite Bill Nighy’s spry portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse in Autumn de Wilde’s Emma, the professional invalid “without activity of mind or body” is Highbury’s focal point.  By reversing ableist hierarchies, Emma puts privilege on trial.  Except for the constant vigilance necessary for a man who hates change, Mr. Woodhouse is the still and empty center around which much of the novel’s activity circulates.  This is not simple agism:  Mr. Woodhouse has been a “valetudinarian all his life” (E 5).  He was “fond of society in his own way,” but “his horror of late hours and large dinner-parties made him unfit for any acquaintance, but such as would visit him on his own terms” (19).  Visit him they do despite those dispiriting terms, which include “trivial communications and harmless gossip” and his recommendations of an abstemious supper tray that Emma takes care to enhance “in a much more satisfactory style” (20, 24).  Even outside his home, his habits and inclinations direct social arrangements, such as the Westons’ Christmas party.  Ironically, it is the active and healthy son-in-law, John Knightley, and not Mr. Woodhouse, who voices objections when he addresses Emma in a fit of pique prior to the party:  “‘here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man’s house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow’” (122).  John Knightley is also responsible for breaking up the party earlier than necessary with his tales of “a storm of snow” and his acerbic admiration for Mr. Woodhouse’s “‘spirit’” in venturing out in such weather (136).  Despite the more accurate information that “the snow was no where above half an inch deep—in many places hardly enough to whiten the ground,” the party departs in two coaches (138). 

By contrasting Mr. Woodhouse’s affable infirmity against John Knightley’s able-bodied and barely contained aggression, the novel opens a space for debility to be understood as a critique of patriarchal behavior; both men are fathers but in quite different styles.  Mr. Woodhouse shares his daughter’s annoying habit of judging others by his own obsessions.  Hence, the same colonizing solipsism that grieves him when his guests eat the supper provided at his table also afflicts him in the argument with Isabella over the family’s autumn expedition to South End for sea-bathing.  He attributes to the Highbury apothecary Mr. Perry his own opinion that Isabella and John Knightley should have taken their five children one hundred miles to Cromer in Norfolk rather than “‘forty miles [from their home in London] to get into a worse air’” (114).  John Knightley erupts “in a voice of very strong displeasure” that Mr. Perry should “‘keep his opinion till it is asked for’” and argues that he should be allowed the use of his own judgment in the management of his family (114).  At the close of the chapter, the matter remains open, however, leaving the reader to judge not of the question of South End vs. Cromer but of the operation of patriarchal privilege.  While neither exercises his privilege with grace, John Knightley’s attempt to appropriate the invalid voice highlights its arbitrary power. 

miss bates

Miss Bates on Box Hill

A parallel moment occurs in the famous Box Hill scene when Emma singles out Miss Bates for her dullness, although the whole party is affected by “a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union” (403, 399).  Consistently the amplifier for her deafened mother and thereby associated with sensory disability, Miss Bates also experiences social disability as, according to Emma, she is very close to the caricature of the “‘disagreeable old maid’” who is “‘the proper sport of boys and girls’” (91).  On Box Hill, Miss Bates performs the same crucial role for the reader’s understanding of Emma as does John Knightley for Mr. Woodhouse’s character by making visible not only Emma’s flaws but also more generally amplifying the brutality of the exercise of privilege.  The social gap widens when, following Mr. Knightley’s reprimand, Emma is prevented from responding in her own defense.  Like the resolution of Austen’s earlier novel The Watsons, Emma ends with a daughter finding peace in her father’s home rather than in an estate of her own (James-Cavan).  Unlike her sister Isabella and Mrs. Weston, Emma will not leave Hartfield; instead, Mr. Knightley leaves Donwell Abbey, the plan made possible by Mr. Woodhouse’s fear of being vulnerable to robberies of poultry-yards, which were just then conveniently taking place (E 528).  Thus, Emma ends with social and marital arrangements concluded for the satisfaction of the invalid, overturning the usual order of things.  As Wiltshire points out, Mr. Woodhouse does indeed succeed in normalizing his disability to literally reform society.  Rather than being made a spectacle against which normalcy may be measured, Mr. Woodhouse successfully makes his definition of normal the standard. 

louisa fall

Louisa's Fall from the Cobb

In Persuasion temporary disabilities create advantages for both heroine and rival.  Anne Elliot reflects that Louisa’s fall from the Cobb “might influence her health, her nerves, her courage, her character to the end of her life, as thoroughly as it appeared to have influenced her fate” (182).  The fall that makes her a temporary invalid also transforms the giddy Louisa into a “person of literary taste, and sentimental reflection,” thus supplementing her inadequate education and rendering her a suitable spouse to Captain Benwick while also enabling Anne’s reunion with Captain Wentworth (182).  Similarly, Lady Russell’s temporary inability to see Captain Wentworth in a Bath street while she stares directly at him shows Anne her powerful friend’s duplicity, as Lady Russell pretends to be looking out for the “‘handsomest and best-hung’” drawing-room window curtains in Bath (195).  By the same token, Anne reveals her own faulty vision in the incomplete account she offers Mrs. Smith of the Assembly Room concert.  With the intelligence of “a laundress and a waiter,” Mrs. Smith, who was not present, names “several particulars of the company” of whom Anne has no recollection (209).  Conscious of there being “no want of looking about,” Anne demonstrates the truth of Mrs. Smith’s observation that she sees “‘enough for [her] own amusement,’” which is the evidence of Captain Wentworth’s jealousy of Mr. Elliot’s attentions to her (210).  Anne is adept at reading wilful blindness in others, especially her father’s inability to see Mrs. Clay’s freckles and plots, but it takes Mrs. Smith to point it out in herself.  Upon her return to her family at Bath, Anne receives her father’s praise for the improvement of her “‘skin, her complexion’” and her person, which he compares to Mrs. Clay’s freckles being “‘carried away’” by the “‘constant use of Gowland.’”  It does “not appear to Anne that the freckles were at all lessened,” just as Mrs. Clay’s questionable presence goes unnoticed (158).  While temporary disability is an influential absent presence, real debility, in the form of the informant-invalid Mrs. Smith, plays a vital role in poking holes in the novel’s hierarchy. 

Perhaps the most active and promising invalid in the Austen canon, Mrs. Smith’s immobility is strategically placed not only in Bath, but also in the novel.  “‘A poor widow, barely able to live, between thirty and forty—a mere Mrs. Smith,’” according to Sir Walter Elliot, her poverty and rheumatic legs exclude her from the social round of engagements (171).  Through her caregivers, however, such as Nurse Rooke, who circulate among Bath’s patients, she constructs narratives that she repackages for her visitors, especially Anne Elliot.  Elaine Bander points out that Mrs. Smith offers a salutary example of how a woman oppressed by poverty and ill health, without “a Captain Wentworth to support [her] spirits,” continues to engage in the world and through the sale of her handiwork offers charitable support (88).  She is the informant who in the past inspired the seemingly eligible (and ultimately very useful) Mr. William Elliot with knowledge of Anne’s merit and a desire to know her (P 204).  She knows “[e]very body of any consequence or notoriety in Bath . . . by name” (209).  Although Kathleen Anderson argues that Mrs. Smith’s admirable qualities are tainted by the fact that her wealth is derived from the West Indies, and therefore slavery (235n11), her talent for cataloguing the flaws of those at the center of power functions as a looking glass to augment the truth Anne already knows.  Even before Mrs. Smith reveals Mr. Elliot as a scoundrel, Anne knows they are not suited (P 213).  Her heart is already taken by Captain Wentworth.  The value of Mrs. Smith’s knowledge cannot be underestimated as it reveals the inequity at the heart of Bath society, a fact highlighted by the contrast between Anne’s presence in Mrs. Smith’s cramped quarters in the Westgate buildings and the simultaneous visit of her father, sister, and Mrs. Clay to Lady Dalrymple in prestigious Laura-place (170).  The satire of Sir Walter’s narcissism needs no foil to set it off; however, Mrs. Smith’s cheerful good sense provides a valuable authorial support to Anne’s independence from the Elliot family plot. 

In places like Bath and Sanditon, invented for invalids and the industries that depend on them, characters such as Mrs. Smith and Miss Lambe reign supreme.  Their illnesses provide the raw material for the economic structure upon which the social whirl of the spa or sea-bathing resort depends.  Lady Denham fairly salivates at the prospect of selling her asses’ milk to the wealthy “‘West-ingine’” half-mulatto Miss Lambe and hopes for a match with her improvident nephew, Sir Edward Denham (Later Manuscripts 170).  Such places are founded upon the ideology that privileges ability while it covets disability.  Charlotte Heywood goes to Sanditon “with excellent health, to bathe and be better if she could” and to “receive every possible pleasure which Sanditon could be made to supply” (150).  As Jason S. Farr points out, the fragment diverges from the completed works by its “indifference to the romantic prospects of . . . Charlotte Heywood” (165).  Valued as a consumer, she is not, in her healthy state as “precious” as Miss Lambe.  Begun when Austen was already seriously ill, Sanditon satirizes hypochondria relentlessly through the excessive self-doctoring of the Parker family and takes part in a popular narrative subgenre of the early nineteenth century (A. O’Connell 572).  How Miss Lambe’s contribution was to develop is a matter of speculation; however, her role functions as a culmination of those I have outlined in the complete novels.  At the intersection of race, disability, and gender she is a precious commodity, but, given the pattern of the use of bodily diversity I have traced in the later novels, she might also have been intended as the most potent thorn in the side of privilege of all her forebears. 

Although the novels tend to the satisfying closure of courtship narratives, they retain the power of resistance through the narrative gaps opened by bodily diversity.  Invalids and other queer bodies perform vital roles in the action and not just as reflections for the central characters.  In a departure from the contemporary culture that in jokebooks and ugly clubs made deformity and disability, like old maids, the source of mockery, Austen’s novels laugh with rather than at the work of anomalous bodies whose efforts support the satire.  More important, however, disability contributes to the social commentary in Austen’s narratives.  Neither sentimentalized nor deplored, the disabled body takes its place on a continuum of health alongside able-bodied figures in “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” as open to being satirized and as active in the satire as its fellows (9–18 September 1814).  With much of Highbury, we smile at the absurdity of Mr. Woodhouse’s specifications for his gruel, thin but not too thin, but I believe we also grit our teeth.



1The question of Austen’s politics has long been discussed by such critics as Marilyn Butler, Alistair Duckworth, Claudia Johnson, John Wiltshire, Maaja Stewart, Susan Fraiman, and Edward Neill.  In her Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen Jocelyn Harris connects the works to politics through their evocation of contemporary celebrities, and in The Origins of the English Marriage Plot Lisa O’Connell relates the marriage plot in Austen to political history.  Whether read as promoting radical or conservative views, the novels comment on the politics of social organization.  Hence it is not the politics of the novels that interest me but the use they make of the political structures contained in the text. 

2Writing to Mrs. Walter in midsummer, 1770, the Rev. George Austen thanks her for her good wishes for young George’s improvement but remarks, “we must not be too sanguine on this Head; be it as it may, we have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child.”  In a letter to the same dated 9 December 1770, Mrs. Cassandra Austen reports, “my poor little George” recently “had a fit” after being free of them for a year (Le Faye, Family Record 23–24).  On July 23, 1788, Philadelphia Walter remarks in a letter to her brother James the family's fears of Hastings de Feuillide “being like poor George Austen” (Austen Papers 130). 

3The distribution of the funds is described in the Austen Papers

On the death of Mrs. Austen in 1827, the South Sea Annuities were sold for £2185-14-0 and divided into parts of £437-2-9.5 among Cassandra Elizabeth Austen, the Rev. Henry Austen, Captain Francis W. Austen, Captain Charles Austen, and the fifth part to Edward Knight’s account at Messrs. Gosling and Sharpe. 

Edward Knight gave a receipt for the money “for the use of my brother George, being his full share of the £3350 Old South Sea Annuities.”  This was George the second son of George and Cassandra Austen, born in 1766 he grew up weak in intellect, and did not die till 1838.  (334). 

4Jason Farr and Sara Fernandes read Eugenia’s exemplarity through her scarring and acquired deformity as evidence for Burney’s critique of eighteenth-century assumptions about character, gender, and the body.

Works Cited
  • Anderson, Kathleen.  Jane Austen’s Women: An Introduction.  Albany: SUNY P, 2018.
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005–2008.
  • _____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.
  • Austen Papers, 1704–1856.  Ed. R. A. Austen-Leigh.  Colchester: Ballantine, 1942.
  • Bander, Elaine.  “‘Cheerful beyond Her Expectation’: Mrs. Smith, Adam Smith, and Austen.”  Persuasions 40 (2018): 76–92.
  • Barchas, Janine.  The Lost Books of Jane Austen.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2019.
  • Farr, Jason S.  Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature.  Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2019.
  • Emma.  Dir. Autumn de Wilde.  Perf. Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Callum Turner, Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, Bill Nighy.  Universal Pictures, 2020.
  • Fernandes, Sara.  “‘Grow Backwarder and Backwarder’: Fissured Surfaces and Crooked Bodies in Frances Burney’s Camilla.”  Textual Practice 34 (2020): 1933–53.
  • Franta, Andrew.  Systems Failure: The Uses of Disorder in English Literature.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2019.
  • Gore, Clare Walker.  “‘Of Wonderful Use to Everyone’: Disability and the Marriage Plot in the Nineteenth-Century Novel.”  The Routledge Companion to Literature and Disability.  Ed. Alice Hall.  London: Routledge, 2020.  120–31.
  • Harris, Jocelyn.  Satire, Celebrity, and Politics in Jane Austen.  Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2017.
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  • James-Cavan, Kathleen.  “Closure and Disclosure: The Significance of Conversation in Jane Austen’s The Watsons.”  Studies in the Novel 29.4 (1997): 47–52.
  • Le Faye, Deirdre.  “Biographical Index.”  Jane Austen’s Letters.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.
  • _____. Jane Austen: A Family Record. 2nd ed. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
  • McAdam, Bridget.  “‘Excluded and Forgotten’: Understanding the Life of George Austen through the History of Intellectual Disabilities.”  Persuasions On-Line 36.1 (2015).
  • Miller, D. A.  “The Late Jane Austen.”  Raritan: A Quarterly Review 10.1 (1990): 55–79.
  • O’Connell, Anita.  “Fashionable Discourse of Disease at the Watering-places of Literature, 1770–1820.”  Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 40 (2017): 571–86.
  • O’Connell, Lisa.  The Origins of the English Marriage Plot.  Cambridge: CUP, 2019.
  • Scott, Sarah.  A Description of Millenium Hall.  Ed. Gary Kelly.  Peterborough: Broadview, 1995.
  • Thomson, Rosemarie Garland.  Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature.  New York: Columbia UP, 1997.
  • Wiltshire, John.  Jane Austen and the Body.  Cambridge: CUP, 1992.
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