Sunday, 8 January 2017

THE HYPOCHONDRIACS OF JANE AUSTEN'S 'SANDITON'

In Jane Austen's unfinished novel Sanditon an amusing trio of caricatures are the hypochondriacs, Mr. Tom Parker's relatives. His sisters Diana and Susan claim to suffer from any number of ailments. Unable to get much sympathy from doctors, they have taken to prescribing their own cures. Despite declaring themselves too ill to travel, they soon arrive and take lodgings at Sanditon.
Diana is about thirty-four. For all her protestations of ill-health, she proves a robust, officious person. 
She looks 'delicate' rather than 'sickly' and has 'a very animated eye'. Boasting of schemes to entice holiday-makers to Sanditon, Diana says, 'I heard again from Fanny Noyce, saying that she had heard from Miss Capper, who by a letter from Mrs. Darling understood that Mrs. Griffiths has expressed herself in a letter to Mrs. Darling...' and so on. Jane Austen is re-visiting the comic nonsense she wrote as a teenager.

Diana claims to have persuaded two wealthy parties to come to Sanditon. This turns out to have been bungling interference: the 'two' parties prove to be one and the same - Mrs. Griffiths, who runs a seminary, with three of her pupils.

Diana is so meddlesome that she has dashed around booking lodgings at eight guineas per week in Sanditon and making arrangements with cooks, washer-women and housemaids for the non-existent second group, led by a 'lady whom she had never seen, and who had never employed her'. Even after the truth comes out, Diana continues interfering on behalf of anyone with the slightest problem.

When Charlotte expresses surprise that such an invalid can be so active, Diana insists that 'it is the bounden duty of the capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape them. – My sister's complaints and mine are happily not often of a nature, to threaten existence immediately'.

The second sister, Susan, talks incessantly and, though she sits administering phials and salts to herself, appears to Charlotte to have no 'symptoms of illness which she, in the boldness of her own good health, would not have undertaken to cure, by putting out the fire, opening the window, and disposing of the drops and the salts by means of one or the other.' Though it is a warm summer day, the brother and sisters stay indoors with a 'brisk fire' and all windows closed.

Brother Arthur shares none of Diana's desire to be useful. Having discovered the efficacy of hypochondria in securing a life of ease and idleness, he has turned self-indulgence into an art. About twenty-one years old and with plenty of money, he has no wish to get involved like Tom in commercial activity. He finds it convenient to be 'so delicate that he can engage in no profession'. Charlotte is grateful that his bulk (remarkable for an invalid) shields her from the fire's heat.

Though idle and overweight, 'heavy in eye as well as figure', Arthur is pleasant company. He claims to suffer from rheumatism and nerves. Charlotte notes that he eats and drinks heartily, while attempting to conceal this trait from his sisters: '...she saw him watching his sisters, while he scrupulously scraped off almost as much butter as he put on, and then seize an odd moment for adding a great dab just before it went into his mouth. Certainly, Mr. Arthur Parker's enjoyments in invalidism were very different from his sisters' – by no means so spiritualized.’