Jane Austen, in EMMA, taught me a new word
Emma, by Jane Austen, is a delightful story with vivid characters, challenging interpersonal relationships, but overall a backdrop that encourages doing one’s duty, being principled, caring for others, and ultimately doing what is right.
In this reading of the story, I was struck by a new word that I learned:
Valetudinarian: A person of poor health or unduly anxious about health.Oxford Reference English Dictionary
After introducing the term, Austen illustrates it accurately in the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.
Before I describe him for those who have not read Emma recently, I think it’s important to distinguish Valetudinarian from Hypochondriac. A hypochondriac imagines he has a serious disease. I suppose when those fears are disproven, fear of another raging, illness emerges.
A valetudinarian, such as Mr. Woodhouse, does not necessarily believe he is ill at the moment, but rather evaluates every activity, every relationship, and every interaction from the perspective of the health implications. So, for example, when others are enjoying a hearty meal, Mr. Woodhouse insists on a thin gruel. When guests are coming over, he insists Emma make sure they are not ill. Children are seen as carriers of disease and travelling is to be avoided if there is any chance of cold, rain, or snow.
Austen does not overtly criticize Mr. Woodhouse, but simply shows how his valetudinarianism constrains his own life and the lives of those around him. Still he is much loved, and understood. Emma cheerfully looks after him. Even Knightley acknowledges this duty as an important obligation.
When I look at my own life in 2020 and 2021, the tendency toward valetudinarianism is very strong. I seem to have been conditioned to see every relationship, every activity, every human interaction from the perspective of health. Like Mr. Woodhouse, this long term focus, this application of a health filter to every aspect of my life is not beneficial and constrains me much as it did Woodhouse. Indeed, it naturally engenders a constant feeling of vague fear.
So what’s the answer?
While I was reading Emma, I was also reading George MacDonald’s The Seaboard Parish. MacDonald, like Austen, lived in an era when medicine could do very little to improve health. The recipe seemed mostly to rest and wait to see if the patient is able to recover. MacDonald’s personal experience with illness and death, should have made him a prime candidate for valetudinarianism, but he was not like that at all, even though he suffered many sorrows from disease.
Sickness, particularly Tuberculosis, was no stranger to the MacDonalds. George would christen it as being “the family attendant” in later years. It took the lives of four of his children and some of his grandchildren as well.http://georgemacdonald.info/children.html
MacDonald lived the idea that God is supremely good and we can trust the future to him, including whatever confronts in the way of illness or death. Our job is to do our duty in the present and leave our future (over which we really have no control) in the hands of the Almighty.
In The Seaboard Parish, there is a massive storm which casts a great ship on the rocks just off the coast of Walton’s parish. At great peril, some sailors and passengers are rescued but many were not. A battered sailor with a broken leg believes he is dying (he was not) and asks Vicar Walton what he should do. Here is what what MacDonald said through the character of Walton:
Trust in Christ and do not be afraid.George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Kindle Edition (Unabridged).
He did not lie to the man as perhaps some would today, to make him hopeful of recovery and easier. He gave the unvarnished truth and I believe it was the best thing to say, since MacDonald had a hope that transcended even the prospect of imminent death. So, as I continue to hear the never-ending news reports on Covid strains as they move through the Greek alphabet, like hurricanes moving through alphabetical names in September, I’ll remember George MacDonald’s admonition and try to live a life of faith, unintimidated by the government, the health agencies, and the news media.