nearly twenty-one years

Category: Body | Type: Historical | Title: Emma (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Vol: Volume I | Ch: Chapter I

Twenty-one may seem young but it is scarcely automatic. Including infant mortality, the average life expectancy was 44.8 years. Jane Austen died in 1817 at forty-two of Addison's disease, a kidney ailment. The sixth of seven Austen children, she was the first to die.

Shortly a young woman will refer to a man between forty and fifty as "old." Jane wrote on her sister, Cassandra's, twenty-third birthday, Jan. 1, 1796, "In the first place I hope you will live twenty-three years longer." The wish expresses the understood brevity of life. Austen lived from 1775 to 1817.  

Of those 44.8 years most people must have spent a significant time in sickness and pain, such as that which afflicted Austen's face throughout the summer of 1813. There were no more effective analgesics than opium and spirits. A diarist, Parson Woodforde, writes how his tooth pained him all night, and in the early morning he sent for a tooth-puller: "he broke away a great piece of my gum and broke one of the fangs of the tooth, it gave me exquisite pain all the day after, and my Face swelled prodigiously in the evening and much pain. Very bad and in much pain the whole day long. Gave the old man that drew it however 0.2.6. He is too old, I think, to draw teeth, can't see very well" (June 4, 1776). Woodforde is thirty-six, and for the next tooth he calls upon the farrier (horseshoer), who does a better job.

For a harrowing account of life before anaesthesia there is Fanny Burney's of her mastectomy in 1811. Burney, the author of Evelina and Cecilia, was a best-selling novelist who also influenced Austen. Burney is sixty-three at the time of the operation, performed in Paris by Napoleon's doctors. Her anaestheia is a glass of wine. The operation lasted three hours and forty-five minutes. She survived it and died in 1840 at the age of eighty-eight.

Class and geography were destiny: by 1840, the nadir of the Industrial Revolution, the life expectancy in Bath of "Gentlefolk" was fifty-five, thirty-seven for trades people and farmers, twenty-five for laborers; in Liverpool it is thirty-five, twenty-one, and fifteen respectively. The infant mortality up to the age of five was close to 50%, and about one in five mothers died in childbirth.

Emma is a spirited comedy and does not dwell on sickness, pain, and death, yet Austen, no dreamer, allows them an unobtrusive place.

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