Descriptions of health, says author Bryan Kozlowski, run throughout the work of famed novelist Jane Austen – from the character of Mr Woodhouse in Emma to the health resort setting of her unfinished Sanditon. Writing for History Extra, Kozlowski shares four tips that can be found in the Regency-era writer’s classic novels, and what they tell us about contemporary attitudes towards healthy figures, women’s exercise and more…
While most of us have focused on the heart of Jane Austen’s novels or its portrayal of the society of the period, Austen herself was equally fascinated by something rather more functional: health. For some time now, I’ve been following the Jane Austen diet. Yes, you did read that correctly. To quote the character Mr Collins in the author’s Pride and Prejudice, “do not make yourself uneasy”. Because not only is the diet real, it’s been hiding right under our literary noses for more than two centuries.
It is incorporated into nearly everything Austen wrote, as this quote from Emma (1816) shows: “Where health is at stake, nothing else should be considered.” Themes of health are woven into her earliest stories; they continue strongly throughout Emma and Persuasion (1817); and are centre-stage in her last, unfinished novel Sanditon (set in a seaside health resort). Ironically, as Austen’s own health was fading [she died at the age of 41 after becoming ill with what is today thought to have been Addison’s disease], she wrote about cherishing true health even more.
In fact, look closer at her fiction and you’ll find that “improvement of health” has always been a part of Austen’s happily-ever-after package, freely bestowed on her most worthy characters, from Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility (1811) to Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who begins her own story a bit “faded” in the physical department. Yet to gradually regain one’s natural “bloom” is the birthright of Austen’s great and good. Even the word “health” itself pops up more than a hundred times in her six classic novels.
Yet if Austen’s passion for doling out “secure and permanent health” is news to you, join the club; I only recently discovered it myself. Though interested in Jane Austen since adolescence it wasn’t until I neared my 30th birthday that I noticed something remarkable. What Austen had to say about health more than 200 years ago, and what science says today, is astonishingly similar.
The way her healthiest characters eat, exercise and think about their bodies can be seen to have unique patterns and modern parallels to heed. The discovery led me on a personal research project that has forever transformed my image of Austen – from ‘dowdy Hampshire spinster’ to timeless health guru with a sparkling wit. So, for lack of a better description, I’ve been on the Jane Austen ‘diet’ for more than two years now, incorporating wellness strategies found her in her writing into everyday life, finding new and fascinating ways to approach old body problems. Here are just a few of the many health lessons that Jane Austen advocated in her writing…