One thing that has always struck me as bizarre when reading the likes of Austen or the Brontes, for example, is how pathetically fragile they make ruling class women. Get caught in the rain or go a day without food? You're on death's door!

Is there evidence outside of novels (medical advice, magazines, anything really) that indicate whether people really believed ruling class women were so fragile?

Is there a class dependence? I.e. did a significant portion normal women, who were perfectly capable of living in poor conditions and missing meals, believe that if a Lady were thrown into their situation she'd be dead in a day or two? Did the upper class women themselves raise an eyebrow at the portrayal of their reaction to a little bad weather or hardship? Were such events widely accepted as a useful plot device, perhaps because describing actually life-threatening events may have raised objections?

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  • Mortality in young adulthood was much higher then than it is now, even for the well-off. For women this was particularly due to childbirth, but mortality from accidents and disease were also much higher than we are familiar with. When the possibility of death is ever-present minor risks loom large.
    – antlersoft
    Apr 30, 2020 at 13:35

2 Answers 2


Although focused on the United States and a little bit later in the 19th century then the novels you mention, Nancy M. Theriot has a relevant book, Mothers and Daughters in Nineteenth-century America: The Biosocial Construction of Femininity. On the one hand she quotes physicians like Edward Clarke who argued in the 1870s that women were biologically frail and needed to be sheltered from exertion. On the other hand, there were many reformers who argued that this apparent frailty all came from their upbringing and environment and that if "girls were given a different sort of education... they would grow in to strong women." An interesting primary source Theriot gives to support this is a book called Health and Strength For Girls published in 1884. Clearly socioeconomic class would have been a factor in such attitudes, since only upper and middle class women had the luxury of avoiding physical exertion in the first place.


In 19th century, influenza and especially pneumonia were much deadlier than they are now (there were no antibiotics). Several examples come to my mind from reading biographies of famous scientists. Sofia Kowalevska died at the age of 41 when she walked under rain from a train station, and caught an influenza, which caused a pneumonia. This applies not only to women, though. Many 19th century famous middle class people died early (by modern standards), at the age of 40-50. A trivial bruise or sore could also cause death from sepsis (composer Alexander Skriabin, for example died of sepsis in 1915 at the age of 43.) Most of such deaths are prevented now due to antibiotics and vaccination.


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