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August 26, 2009 1:40 AM   Subscribe

NinteenthCenturyLiteratureFilter: Why do upper-class types in classic novels always seem so incredibly frail?

I've long wondered about this, and a recent reading of Wuthering Heights brought the question to the forefront of my mind again. It seems like almost every character in that novel gets some kind of long, wasting illness, often incurable, filled with weakness and fever and confinement to bed for weeks or months. Sometimes it's from exposure, sometimes from emotional shock, and sometimes because they were "born frail". Other examples would be the profusion of fainting spells (though that can partially be explained by tight corsets, I'd imagine), and conditions such as 'nervous exhaustion' and 'brain fever'. This is obviously not confined to the aforementioned novel, as I've seen it in stories from Dickens to Doyle to Austen and Wilke and beyond.
What's the explanation for this? Were people just less healthy, or more fragile, back in the day? It seems much less common with the lower classes (again, in literature), so is this just a case of the wealthier types being melodramatic, or so accustomed to a sedate life that a relatively small thing could cause such an upset? I'd love to know, as this has baffled me since I was a child.
posted by the luke parker fiasco to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Inbreeding / Drafty mansions / Lack of aerobic exercise & exposure to sunlight ?
posted by @troy at 1:46 AM on August 26, 2009

Frailty was considered a status symbol in those times.
posted by 0xFCAF at 1:53 AM on August 26, 2009

Prior to antibiotics, I suppose many people had chronic infections that just lingered for months or even years. (Also, life expectancy was around 38 years.)
posted by Rhomboid at 2:30 AM on August 26, 2009

(Also, life expectancy was around 38 years)

Thats a good example of lying with statistics. Victorians lived just as long as we did. That is assuming they survived their childhood (i.e. living past age 10) - since infant mortality was a lot higher.

To answer the original question. Don't discount the prevalence of tuberculosis.
posted by vacapinta at 2:49 AM on August 26, 2009

Victorians lived just as long as we did

Okay, remove infancy and early childhood from the equation. There's still a huge difference. Life expectancy at age 10, 1847: 55 years. Life expectancy at age 10, 2006: 80 years.
posted by Rhomboid at 3:06 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm agreeing with 0xFCAF, it was considered that the 'working classes' had much stronger constitutions than the wealthy. And a lot of it can be traced back to physical things, as you said, the corsets, the air quality of the time, the fact that young women were often fed diets with very little protein because it would 'weaken them.'

You might like this book 'Inside the Victorian Home' by Judith Flanders. It's a good overview of Victorian society using the rooms of the house as a jumping point. The chapter on the 'Sick Room' spends a lot of time getting into the sickliness-as-a-status-symbol concept.

One of the points Flanders brought up that I thought was especially interesting was 'being sick' as a way of getting a little privacy and down time. A Victorian woman was supposed to put everyone else before herself, and being sick was the only time she could have a rest without being seen as selfish and improper.
posted by Caravantea at 3:06 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've long been fascinated by the same question (and why is a slight cold or injury grounds for universal concern in any Jane Austen novel?). Judith Flanders' excellent and highly readable The Victorian House provides several clues to the seemingly endemic ill-health of the age: a poor understanding generally of nutrition and the importance of exercise, especially in children and young ladies; chronic damp and under-heating in the houses of the time; the many many toxic chemicals casually used in food, clothing dyes, paints and household implements; the sheer weight of the clothing an undernourished, physically unfit and probably anemic lady had to haul around (up to 40 lbs. in the age of petticoats!); the prevalence of tuberculosis; and the absence of effective interventions to stop small ailments (a cold) from turning into serious ones (lung infection).

As to the role of frailty in the novel: like OxFCAF says, frailty was a mark of a lady's gentility (working women couldn't afford long or frequent illness) and sensitivity (note that it's Marianne, the "sensible" [ie sensitive] sister in Sense and Sensibility, and not Elinor, who suffers all the illness in that novel. It was considered unfashionable to be too robust -- witness the disgust of the feminine Bingley faction at Elizabeth Bennet's ability to walk three miles through the mud and suffer nothing worse than a becoming flush.

I also wonder whether illness isn't overrepresented in Victorian novels because the feasible plot devices were in short supply. After all, the number of things that could actually happen to an unmarried lady in those days -- confined to her parent or guardian's house, debarred from any profession, shielded from exposure to the outside world and severely circumscribed in her reading, education and social life -- was so limited.
posted by stuck on an island at 3:12 AM on August 26, 2009 [8 favorites]

I always assumed that the "lower" classes seemed healthier because, if you were born poor and got some kind of disease, you'd likely die of it; if you were wealthy, you could be cosseted to the point of traveling for months of a "rest cure by the sea". The weak would be culled from the lower classes, to a point.
posted by amtho at 5:44 AM on August 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Life expectancy at age 10, 1847: 55 years.

Benjamin Disreali: 77 years (1804-1881)
Charles Darwin: 73 years (1809-1882)
Arthur Conan Doyle: 71 years (1859-1930)
Thomas Edison: 84 years (1847-1931)
William Gladstone: 89 years (1809-1898)
Thomas Hardy: 88 years (1840-1928)
Florence Nightingale: 90 years (1820-1910)
Alfred Lord Tennyson: 83 years (1809-1892)

Any average that mixes the lower and upper classes is going to be highly misrepresentative.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:06 AM on August 26, 2009

Liza Picard illustrates the reality of life expectancy figures neatly in Dr. Johnson's London by likening the lifespan to a foot race in which varying numbers of people drop out at various hurdles like early childhood and childbirth. It's not that everybody lived for a shorter time, just that fewer people made it into their 70s (many fewer, if they belonged to the lower classes).
posted by stuck on an island at 6:10 AM on August 26, 2009

Many people have wondered about this. Gwen Raverat, in her memoir Period Piece, describes life in the Darwin family in the late nineteenth century, and the 'cult of ill health' among her grown-up relatives:

The trouble was that in my grandparents' house it was a distinction and a mournful pleasure to be ill. This was partly because my grandfather [= Charles Darwin] was always ill, and his children adored him and were inclined to imitate him; and partly because it was so delightful to be pitied and nursed by my grandmother .. Hundreds of letters of Grandmamma's exist, and hundreds more of Aunt Etty's, and every single one of them, however humdrum, contains some characteristic and charming phrase; and every one of them also contains dangerously sympathetic references to the ill health of one, or of several, of the family. Many of their ailments must have been of nervous, or partly of nervous, origin; of course, there was real physical illness too, though no one now will ever know how much, for a great deal of illness was left undiagnosed in those days. But of one thing I am quite certain: that the attitude of the whole Darwin family to sickness was most unwholesome. At Down, ill health was considered normal.

Miriam Bailin, in her book The Sickroom in Victorian Fiction: The Art of Being Ill ('limited preview' available on Google Books), has an interesting discussion of this phenomenon, and offers some possible explanations for it:

The 'cult of ill-health' that Gwen Raverat describes among the elder Darwins and their many descendants was common among the middle classes despite the co-existent imperatives of self-discipline, will-power, and industriousness. It is most likely that they were related phenomena. Illness authorized the relaxation of the rigidly conceived behavioral codes which governed both work and play within the public realm. And as many memoirs of the time suggest, illness suspended the often draconian measures taken to instill 'character' in Victorian middle-class children. The positive associations adhering to both the pleasure and the pain of illness contributed to a strong social sanction for invalidism in Victorian England. As late as the 1880s Alice James noted how much easier and more pleasant it was to be ill in England than it was in a more disapproving America.

Judith Flanders is right, of course, to point out that people really did get sick, for a variety of reasons (tuberculosis, poor nutrition, etc), so that to some extent, fiction was simply mirroring real life. But this isn't the whole explanation. In middle-class Victorian society, illness was culturally acceptable, and even a state of chronic invalidism might seem attractive and rewarding. 'The sickroom in Victorian fiction is a haven of comfort, order and natural affection', to quote Bailyn again. And this also had a religious and moral dimension. Sickness was seen as part of God's plan, and pain and suffering were felt to bring out the best in people: which helps to explain fictional characters such as Margaret May, in Charlotte M. Yonge's novel The Daisy Chain, whose sickbed becomes the moral centre of the household after she is injured in a riding accident. 'Delicate, sensitive, sickly,' (Bailyn again) 'these characters preside over the events of the novel with a moral authority and saintliness of manner for which pain is both the origin and the sign.'
posted by verstegan at 6:11 AM on August 26, 2009 [9 favorites]

I suspect it was a literary device to show that being poor had some advantages- by having to fight and claw to maintain existance, you made yourself a stronger person. As opposed to the upper class twits, who melt at any meeting with discomfort.
posted by gjc at 6:12 AM on August 26, 2009

My guesses:

1. If you were wealthy you would tend to assign many everyday activities to servants - cooking, cleaning, getting dressed for example. Get too used to this and it can make you physically (or mentally) frail.

2. If you were wealthy you could be nursed through diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, smallpox, etc. This would leave you frail. If you were poor then you would simply die.

3. As a plot device frailty+wealth works nicely. It gives you both a strength plus a believable character flaw (that can perhaps be overcome).
posted by rongorongo at 6:19 AM on August 26, 2009

I always assumed that the "lower" classes seemed healthier because, if you were born poor and got some kind of disease, you'd likely die of it; if you were wealthy, you could be cosseted to the point of traveling for months of a "rest cure by the sea".

Primarily, I think, this.
See also: Why don't temps get sick as often as permanent employees?
posted by Methylviolet at 9:27 AM on August 26, 2009

Yes, plot device as well as reality. Illness can lead to all sorts of things - visits to spas, meeting doctors, character change because of time spent alone or keeping still (see What Katy Did, for instance), consideration of mortality and religion ...

But as several people have pointed out, people were iller - things we think of as minor could kill. Saw a gravestone recently (1860s I think) where ten children had died before their parents.

Also, no painkillers, so headaches and period pain - Virginia Woolf, for instance, stayed in bed when she had her period (though I don't expect her servants did).
posted by paduasoy at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2009

Okay, remove infancy and early childhood from the equation. There's still a huge difference. Life expectancy at age 10, 1847: 55 years. Life expectancy at age 10, 2006: 80 years.

fwiw, the many signers of the Declaration of Independence popped off at an average age of ~68.
posted by @troy at 3:58 PM on August 26, 2009

There's also the argument that, especially for young ladies, long periods of illness were really bouts of depression or other mental illnesses. Being bedridden is a pretty solid way to get out of a) marriage/children and b) domestic service or factory labor, especially when you have literally no other option.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:09 AM on August 27, 2009

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