Jane Austen and the Body: 'The Picture of Health'

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Jane Austen has been read as a novelist of manners, whose work discreetly avoids discussing the physical. John Wiltshire shows, on the contrary, how important are faces and bodies in her texts, from complainers and invalids like Mrs Bennet and Mr Woodhouse, to the frail, debilitated Fanny Price, the vulnerable Jane Fairfax, and the 'picture of health', Emma. Talk about health and illness in the novels is abundant, and constitutes community, but it also serves to disguise the operation of social and gender politics. Behind the medical paraphernalia and incidents are serious concerns with the nature of power as exerted through and on the body, and with the manifold meanings of illness. 'Nerves', 'spirits', and sensibility figure largely in these books, and Jane Austen is seen to offer a critique of the gendering power of illness and nursing or attendance upon illness. Drawing both on modern - medical and feminist - theories of illness and the body as well as on eighteenth-century medical sources to illuminate the novels, this book offers new and controversial, but also scholarly, readings of these familiar texts.