By Vivienne Parry, October 24, 2007
A Nasty Case Of The Vapours, BBC Radio 4
To read classic fiction is to know that if the heroine gets wet, a swift descent into brain fever and death bed scenes is assured within a chapter or so.
But, dear reader, have you ever wondered what was actually wrong with these swooning creatures?
For, I confess, part of me has always longed to grab them and say: “You only got your slippers wet. For heaven’s sake, girl, just get a grip!”
So what does modern medicine have to say about these malingering madams’ ailments?
I asked doctors of both medicine and literature to consider three heroines – Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, Cathy in Wuthering Heights and the glacial Lady Dedlock in Bleak House – and to tell me, please – what ailed them?
What were Marianne’s ailments in Sense And Sensibility?
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen published in 1811, follows the lives of the impoverished Dashwood sisters, sensible Elinor and romantic Marianne who, you will recall, sets her cap at the dashing, handsome Willoughby.
He however is revealed to be a feckless cad and by the end of the book, Marianne has realised that the man of real quality in her life is Colonel Brandon, whom she marries.
Marianne is ill twice.
In the first half of the book, it is an episode of general swooning and not eating but in the second half, it is a life threatening fever – and you may guess what caused it. Yes, tripping through wet grass. Austen tells us only that the illness was an infection of “putrid tendency”.
Dr Jane Leese, infectious disease specialist at the Department of Health, thinks that this might suggest typhus, which was also known as putrid fever.
And Marianne had just returned in a coach from London where it was rife.
However Dr Leese plumps instead for a streptococcal sore throat, followed by septicaemia.
On the other hand, Dr Neil Vickers, reader in literature and medicine at King’s College London, thinks Marianne’s illness is simply a plot device. He claims Austen needs a life threatening illness in order to return the previously overexcitable Marianne to the “sense” of the book’s title.
Meanwhile, Wellcome History of Medicine director, Professor Michael Warbuoys counsels caution in back-diagnosing.
“In Austen’s time, diseases weren’t considered by their cause but by their symptoms, so ‘fever’ could be any of the million and one things that could cause someone to become feverish.”
Everyone gets not just wet but soaked in Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s story of the elemental elements and the elemental passion between the brooding, yearning Heathcliff and the distinctly unhinged Cathy.
She dies in childbirth (having starved herself) and then proceeds to haunt everyone.
Surely Wuthering Heights, in which 11 characters die – many having had conspicuous coughs – is the classic tale of TB?
Professor John Sutherland, Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London, reminded me of Emily Bronte’s own background.
“The one thing that everyone knows about the Bronte family is that there was a virtual holocaust of TB among them.”
So Bronte was writing from experience.
But Professor Warbuoys is having none of it. “Consumption – which we always take today to mean TB – was not a medical diagnosis in the Victorian era but referred to symptoms of wasting and coughing which were common to many respiratory diseases that afflicted 19th century Britain.”
A tale of bronchitis caused by not wearing vests on the moors then?
Sutherland disagrees altogether.
“Cathy’s death is the result of self inflicted hunger,” he claims.
Dr Vickers has yet another diagnosis. A nasty attack of spirits.
“It’s a plot device to make a ghost of Cathy as quickly as possible, so that she can haunt both Heathcliffe and us”.
Bleak House is essentially a campaigning novel in which Dickens draws attention to the unsanitary conditions of big cities.
In this novel, it is London, wreathed in fog and suffused with miasmas, that is the sick heroine. Along with Lady Dedlock.
Smallpox is the disease that links all the main characters. Cholera – which was much the greater scourge at the time Dickens wrote – would have killed everyone off far too early in the novel, however, so smallpox it had to be.
But Dickens tries to convince us that Lady Dedlock too dies of smallpox, coincidentally after having walked from London to St Albans, having picked up some “deadly stains” on her bustle whilst rambling in a graveyard the best part of two years earlier.
The incubation period for smallpox is however a matter of days, so what really ailed Lady D?
She can’t have died of a 20 mile walk, even if her shoes did get sodden.
Did Lady Dedlock in Bleak House commit suicide?
Professor Sutherland puts forward a persuasive case for suicide as does Dr Leese.
And she certainly had the means – laudanum, an opium preparation much favoured by the Victorians.
So there you have it, a putrid sore throat or a crisis of sense was what ailed Marianne.
Cathy had a death wish, she definitely died in childbirth, probably had TB and there’s a query on self starvation.
As for Lady Dedlock, cause of death definitely not smallpox, definitely not walking to St Albans either but very possibly suicide.
But were they all magnificent with it? You bet.