Sense and Sensibility: Volume III, Chapters 4 - 7 (40 - 43)

Re: S&S: Elinor's Agonized Cries & Marianne's Illness

Indeed, the interpretation I was giving the cries derives from Emma Thompson's script and its realization in the 1995 Miramax film adaptation of Se&S. I was suggesting that the movie enriched Austen by providing this dramatic moment, at the same time as Austen's inward text gives the movie more complicated psychological suggestiveness to those who've read the text. Th movie alone does not convey it all.

I was arguing that I have now convinced myself (on 3rd viewing) that the movie S&S while ultimately very unlike Austen's book, especially in its attitudes towards spontaneous expressions of feeling and feeling in and of itself as good, is, nonetheless, an inspired modern interpretation and realization of the book which changes one's sense of the book or enriches its nuances once the viewer returns and rereads.

It does seem to me Marianne needed more than aspirin. What she needed was an antibiotic. Here is a girl with a very bad secondary infection, perhaps bronchitis, maybe even rheumatic fever. In the book and movie she runs a high fever (it's implied); in the movie I remember her clutching her throat or chest. A sure sign that the virus is playing havoc with those mitral valves.

Alexander the Great is a label often given to the wrong Alexander; it was not Philip's son who conquered the world, it was Mrs Fleming's little boy, and he conquered an insidious because microscopic enemy. Before the discovery and ability to produce penicillin, it was not uncommon for people to go for walks, get a chill, and come home and die. Nothing more was needed. Physicians and apothecaries were helpless. They watched over the crisis, and pronounced it over. So too was "nursing" basically a art of medicine, not a science which could cure. Nowadays we forget the art and this is needed too of course.

Actually come to think of it, Mr Woodhouse was not such a crank as people think.

Ellen Moody

To Austen-l

July 26, 1996

Re: Marianne's Illness and Near-Death

On my comments on bronchitis, rheumatic fever, and the mitral valve, I was generalizing out from a particular case I knew very well. My father died when the walls of his heart (in the doctor's different phrases) "simply crumbled" and "self-destructed." As a boy he had had rheumatic fever, and it had occurred after a period of weeks of gradually worsening illness and weakness which I was reminded of by Marianne's long period of (in her case self-imposed or self-indulged) debilitation. He was ill for many long years, and once when my younger daughter got bronchitis, he got all excited that she was not being taken care of. Yet it did seem to others on the spot she merely had a bad cold. He insisted I take her to a doctor. These memories remain with me; for example, when I saw the movie and thought I noticed the actress hold her chest, I was again reminded of my father who used to complain of very bad pain in his chest cavity. Or maybe I imagined it out of my memories. He did have more things wrong with his heart than a "mere" deformation of the mitral valve.

It does seem as if Austen's description can fit either type of pneumonia. Of course later 18th and early 19th century terms--and therefore Austen's use of these--are vague. This is not the only novel where I have come across the term "infectious" and "putrid" and "fever" all in one package so to speak; when they come together it usually suggests the doctor fears the "worst" is possible. Anna writes:

"Antibiotics would be useful in a secondary bacterial infection complicating a viral pneumonia, but this complication would be unusual in an otherwise healthy young adult, and would develop several days after the viral illness, and usually is fairly slowly progressive."

And again:

"Antibiotics would be useful in a secondary bacterial infection complicating a viral pneumonia, but this complication would be unusual in an otherwise healthy young adult, and would develop several days after the viral illness, and usually is fairly slowly progressive."

Marianne's looking worse and worse, her growing weakness which is commented upon by more than one person who sees her (Edward as well as John Dashwood) all suggest a long period in which she would be susceptible to some infection. Her "resistance" is down as they say. Then illness she contracts take a number of days to develop fully; she arrives 4 days before it emerges, the 1st of which she does go out, and the 3rd and 4th. Then yet another passes before she is compelled even to admit she's ill, yet another day before Mr Harris is called, and yet three more before his second visit. Then we are still to wait yet another another day before she becomes incoherent, and then that long night's despair. The whole episode is meant to seem to occur over at least several days until it reaches crisis point.

This is not to say she didn't have flu. Influenza was and still is a good killer too.

Austen means us to take this illness of Marianne's very seriously. We are to feel she nearly did away with herself by her self-punishing self-scourging behavior. When the narrator writes of Marianne, "In such moments of precious, of invaluable misery, she rejoiced ..." she means it. In certain frames of mind, people can enjoy misery in a curious way; they can revel in anguish; there is such a thing as the heights of despair, but the costs of the climb may outweigh the the ecstasy of the experience. In Marianne we have the closest Austen comes to in a heroine of the experience Plath delineates so wickedly, so sardonically, with such relish in her "Lady Lazarus," e.g.,

Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call..."

On Austen-lwe have many who say they prefer Marianne to Elinor, and say they are defending her and showing their sympathy for her by various justifications and celebrations of her behavior, but I wonder if they are taking Marianne's behavior entirely realistically--which Austen is, to its real extreme, which again Austen is. In spire of Plath who tells us the act is "the theatrical
"Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout..."

sometimes we don't come back. But as we all know Plath never got the chance to learn this.

Elinor wants Marianne not only to have a first, but a second chance--many many chances at retrieval. And retrieval is itself not always possible, and never easy.

Ellen Moody

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Page Last Update 24 February 2003