Persuasion: Serving up Illness, Injury, and Death for Your Reading Pleasure

Halloween approaches and themes of death seem to permeate everything. That’s why Persuasion is perfect for this time of year. Keep the Gothic themes of Northanger Abbey; from its second paragraph Persuasion is likely to be the most deadly of the Austen novels.

We begin with Lady Elliot and the only son born to her and her husband. “… by which lady (who died 1800) has issue … a still-born son, November 5, 1789 … “ Two deaths listed in one paragraph from Sir Walter’s fave book, The Baronetage. It came from the printer’s that stark and coldly worded. At his leisure, Sir Walter inserted the month in which Lady Elliot died, but imagine filling out a form, knowing your most personal grief’s will be listed in a national registry. How fun. Well, he was probably delighted at the prospect of such notoriety. Do you suppose there was a guy in charge of making sure the dates of death were correct?

Anyway, two down and so many to go.

I will also mention that since we know Lady Russell to be a widow, there is her husband, Sir Henry Russell to add to the count. We don’t know when or under what circumstances he died. He was a colonel, in the army, so perhaps it was a heroic death. The Colonel brings the count up to three.

To stay to the chronology, I have to mention at this point the late wife of William Elliot, heir presumptive to Kellynch Hall. (That should be heard with a slight echo to it.) We don’t have a lot of details about her, other than her grandfather made all the money by grazing animals on his land. Mrs Elliot is given no name and while she was educated we know she was thought silly as well. And now she’s dead. And all this is just in the first chapter.

Moving on, our next fatalities are the parents of Frederick Wentworth. “Frederick Wentworth…who made commander in consequence of the action off St Domingo, and not immediately employed, had come to Somerset, in the summer of 1806; and having no parent living…” We don’t know if they died before he left the country—I think the phrasing allows for that understanding—or if they died while he was gone. Either way, sadly, the Wentworth children are orphans.

Body count: Six

Jane is still dealing death cards in Chapter 6 when she spins the tale of poor Richard nothing-better-than-a-thick-headed-unfeeling-unprofitable “Dick” Musgrove. He’s actually a twofer as he “had been left ill at Gibraltar, with a recommendation from his former captain to Captain Wentworth.” At some point, Wentworth rid himself of poor Richard, and then the sad fellow died somehow. It was great party talk at Uppercross.

On a cheerier note, our next casualty is in Chapter 7 and is only injured by “a bad fall.” The strange thing is, little Charles Musgrove is only three-and-a-half at the most but manages to fall hard enough to dislocate his collar-bone. I have a granddaughter that age and while she is a whirlwind, she’s not THAT wild. In previous chapters, we’ve been informed Mary’s nursery maid, Jemima, is a gossip and a gad about trying to lead all the other serving girls astray. Might she also be horribly neglectful, or even abusive? That is the question.

We get a three chapter break from all the maiming and morbidity. What surprises me is that such an economical author such as Miss Austen didn’t take advantage of the Walk to Winthrop to inflict at least a flesh wound on one of our characters with a well-placed shotgun accident. Anyhow, a scheme to go to visit friends of Wentworth’s in Lyme is got up and the sad tale of James Benwick’s losing his fiancé is told. Poor Fanny Harville. Wentworth later days she’s a good match for the intelligent Benwick so we assume she’s a good egg. Alas, Fanny Harville becomes number nine in the queue.

We now come to one of the most dramatic events in all of Persuasion: The Fall of Louisa Musgrove. What can you say? Wentworth thoughtlessly encouraged her antics and she was stubborn. Regency brain injuries were no fun. This was a pretty dramatic plot device that gets the knowledge out that some people considered Wentworth and Louisa engaged, and to bind him to her permanently. Very effective. And depending on which of the adaptations you watch, the character of Louisa Musgrove is SO annoying that you really hope the director goes a little further and kills her on the spot. Or at least I have thought as much.

In Chapter 16 we find out all about the Lady Dalrymple and the Honorable Miss Carteret. Sigh. ALL about them. It’s kind of like having an entire textbook dedicated to a small puddle. Anyway, Lady D is a widow. The viscount died and Sir Walter, “in consequence of a dangerous illness” of his own didn’t get his condolence cards out in time. Ooops! When Lady Elliot passed away there was no sympathy card with an Irish postmark to be had.

The next chapter gives us another twofer, of sorts. Mrs. Smith, nee Hamilton, was Anne Elliot’s dear friend when she was at school in Bath. She’s now the widow of Charles Smith who was the peculiar particular friend of William Walter Elliot, that’s one, and number two is her being ill from the after affects of rheumatic fever. At least she’s cheerful despite her situation. In my book though she loses points for almost keeping secret how despicable William Elliot really is. But she gets them back for spilling all in the end. And, Austen tells us that she’s a good friend to the newly married Wentworths, even giving Frederick something to do by straightening out her late husband’s estate. So nice when things work out

Now, I’ve finished with this morbid bit of fun and realize that I’ve forgotten to mention a dearly departed. Can you name them? No hints.

Total casualty count for Persuasion: 13+1

In keeping with the spirit of the “holiday” what are your favorite Austen induced deaths?

Take care—Susan Kaye


5 thoughts on “Persuasion: Serving up Illness, Injury, and Death for Your Reading Pleasure

  1. Robin Helm

    Mrs. Clay’s husband, as well as Mrs. Smith’s husband, have put off this mortal coil.

    How did Austen get away with that? People get angry with me if I let a character suffer an injury, much less a death. I thought of having Richard die in Iraq or Afghanistan, but I knew there would be open rebellion and gnashing of teeth, so I gave him the promise of a HEA.


    1. Laura Hile

      For years readers of Mercy’s have been urging, no begging, me to kill off Mary Musgrove. Trouble is, she’s far too useful as comic relief! So I turn a deaf ear to the chants. (“Do it! Do it!”)

      My least liked Austen death is Frank Churchill’s aunt. He did not deserve to inherit her estate and money so handily!

      And Mr Willoughby should have had to wait at least a half-century more for his inheritance.

      But isn’t this the way life works? Those we want to die, don’t. And vice versa.



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