Jane Austen and the Body: 'The Picture of Health' by John Wiltshire

By John Wiltshire

Jane Austen has been regarded as a novelist of manners whose paintings discreetly avoids discussing the actual. John Wiltshire indicates, to the contrary, how vital are our bodies and faces, disorder and future health, within the novels, from complainers and invalids equivalent to Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse, to the frail, debilitated Fanny rate, the weak Jane Fairfax and the "picture of health," Emma. The booklet attracts on sleek theories of the physique, and on eighteenth-century clinical resources, to provide a clean and arguable interpreting of universal texts.

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28 Grosz is a separatist feminist, whose work is designed to clear space for a challenge to orthodox scientific constructions of the body, but there is, I think, a convergence between her work and the work of the school of psychiatric anthropology of which Kleinman is representative. She writes that ' this understanding of the body as a hinge or threshold between nature and culture makes the limitations of a genetic, or purely anatomical or physiological 18 Jane Austen and the body account of bodies explicit.

For Elinor's 'sense' bears interpretation as adulthood, maturity, the necessary self-preservation of an independent being, and Marianne has not yet weaned herself from her mother. To put Austen's perception in modern terms, she has not developed an internal model of a care-giving self. Joyce McDougall describes patients in psychoanalysis whose infantile relationships have failed 'to give rise to an internal representation with care-taking functions ... 5 Marianne's disregard of elementary social politics, her carelessness of her appearance, and her violently physical enactment of her disillusionment with Willoughby (whose courtship is of course connected with the continuity of her mother's presence in their lives) is not precisely analogous to the experience of McDougall's patients but one element in it is her underlying bondage to her mother, a still infant-like dependence which inhibits her resumption of the social world on her own terms and makes her react with hostility to all Elinor's urgings, however tactfully delivered, that she should.

Her belief in intuition, her trust in feeling rather than in rational appraisal, her love of the wild and romantic: these ideas are underwritten, as one might say, by her bodily nature. Isabella Thorpe, in Jane Austen's other early novel, Northanger Abbey ^ speaks with the accents of sensibility too, but hers is merely an affectation, an insincere jargon ventriloquised to establish herself as delightfully feminine. 8 Her physical warmth and ardour, her health, spiritedness and quickness to respond are demonstrated in the first scene where she goes rambling on the hills at the back of the cottage, rejoicing in the wind that blows in her face.

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