Health and Wealth and Miss Jane Austen

Dom. Nicholas Seymour OSB. May 1994Dom Nicholas

Prepared for the Sciteb Strategic Policy Forum on Wealth Generation in the Healthcare & Pharmaceutical Sectors.
Perhaps the seven words which you have just read seem to you to make up a very unlikely combination of subjects. And yet health and wealth are surely two of the most important things in life - and two very important themes in literature as well. Do you remember The Provincial Lady, E M Delafield, who, when she is asked, rather sentimentally, if she doesn't think that Love matters more than anything else, finds herself reflecting that good teeth and a sound bank account are really much more important? 

When your Strategic Policy Forum closes, there will be an opportunity for you to visit Jane Austen's house. She was born in 1775 and died in 1817. In 1809 she came to live in Chawton, and here, particularly, there developed in her work what Sir Walter Scott was to call her "exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting". Her house is now what has been called the best literary museum in England; and here, in the home which sheltered for the last eight years of her life the woman who is one of the world's greatest writers, you may stand in the room in which she wrote, or revised, her six great novels. Yes, in this house, in this room, Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot were reunited after many cruel years: and in this room Mrs Elton spoke for the first time (but not the last) of Maple Grove and the barouche-landau. Here genius lived. 

In these great works, these masterpieces of comedy and irony, the themes of health and wealth are of very great importance. For example, Jane Austen's heroines all face the truth about money which early nineteenth-century women all knew: to be female, and poor, and unprotected, was - well, as the heroine's sister says in one of her unfinished works, "my father cannot provide for us, and it is very bad to grow old and be poor and laughed at". A subject much discussed is a woman's fortune, or the lack of it: she needs at least £10,000 to have a really good chance in the marriage market, while £30,000 makes her an heiress. (Annual interest was calculated, apparently, at a uniform rate, so any prospective husband could estimate his prospective fiancée's income - which would usually become his.) But a poor girl has to rely on a pretty face and captivating manners, especially if, as Elizabeth Bennett does in Pride and Prejudice, she despises the idea of a loveless marriage made for security's sake. In sharp contrast, her calmly calculating friend Charlotte can say, after accepting Elizabeth's rejected suitor, the Reverend (and truly dreadful) William Collins, "I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home..". With no career possible for a woman of any pretension to gentle birth, beyond that of a wretchedly overworked schoolteacher or a lonely and humiliated governess, it is easy for us to sympathise with these girls. And what of health? Listen to what we are told of one heroine's beauty as the novel opens: "Oh! What a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance. One hears sometimes of a child being 'the picture of health;' now Emma always gives me the idea of being the complete picture of grown-up health. She is loveliness itself." 

This is surely a very poignant moment in the writing of the woman who enjoyed good health in earlier years, but who died at 42 of a disease which today is controlled by medicine, thus allowing a normal lifestyle denied to sufferers from it in the early nineteenth century. 

The Revd ( and truly dreadful) William Collins 
Of course, an obsessive interest in health can have its comic side, and Jane Austen's wit and fun seize on this with great glee: who can forget here the Parker family with their nerves and headaches and fainting fits, their salts and drops and phials of medicine? Or the wonderful valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse, with his 'benevolent nerves', his anxiety about everyone's health, his deep interest in how food should be prepared: "an egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome"? 

This gifted writer who loved good health, whose heroines enjoy their country walks, whose books have many references to good food (roast mutton and rice pudding for nursery dinner: delicate arrowroot for an ailing young lady), also took pleasure in her own ability to earn money by her books. Delightedly she writes in a private letter that one of her novels is now in a second edition, and she 'cannot help hoping that many will feel themselves obliged to buy it". 

We are told by another writer, the American Ayn Rand, that wealth is the product of man's capacity to think. As you conclude what I hope will be a very successful Forum on Wealth Generation in the Healthcare and Pharmaceutical Sectors, may I also hope that you will find it stimulating to visit the home of, and to reflect upon the life and work of, a very clever, very kindly, very perceptive and creative writer whose books are much concerned with the perennially interesting topics of Health and Wealth. 

'..Since Tuesday evening, when her complaint returned, there was a visible change, she slept more & much more comfortably, indeed during the last eight & forty hours she was more asleep than awake. Her looks altered & she fell away, but I perceived no material diminution of strength & tho' I was then hopeless of a recovery I had no suspicion how rapidly my loss was approaching ..... She felt herself to be dying about half an hour before she became tranquil & apparently unconscious. During that half hour was her struggle, poor soul! she said she could not tell us what she suffered, tho' she complained of little fixed pain. When I asked her if there was any thing she wanted, her answer was she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were "God grant me patience, Pray for me oh Pray for me". Her voice was affected but as long as she spoke she was intelligible ... Mr Lyford had been sent for, had applied something to give her ease & she was in a state of quiet insensibility by seven o'clock at the latest. From that time till half past four, when she ceased to breathe, she scarcely moved a limb, so that we have every reason to think, with gratitude to the Almighty, that her sufferings were over. A slight motion of the head with every breath remained till almost the last. I sat close to her with a pillow in my lap to assist in supporting her head, which was almost off the bed, for six hours...I was able to close her eyes myself & it was a great gratification to me to render her these last services. There was nothing convulsed or which gave the idea of pain in her look, on the contrary, but for the continual motion of the head, she gave me the idea of a beautiful statue, & even now in her coffin, there is such a sweet serene air over the countenance as is quite pleasant to contemplate. This day my dearest Fanny you have had the melancholy intelligence & I know you suffer severely, but I likewise know that you will apply to the fountain-head for consolation & that our merciful God is never deaf to such prayers as you will offer.

The last sad ceremony is to take place on Thursday morning, her dear remains are to be deposited in the cathedral - it is a satisfaction to me to think that they are to lie in a Building she admired so much - her precious soul I presume to hope reposes in a far superior Mansion. May mine one day be reunited to it.

Cassandra Austen to Fanny Knight on 20 July 1817

Dom Nicholas Dom Nicholas Alton Abbey