What 19th century novels got right about seasonal viruses

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Left: Jane Bennet on the rainy horseback ride that gave her a cold. Drawing by Maria Ter-Mikaelian, based on the 1995 BBC miniseries Pride & Prejudice. Right: Photo by Quality Stock Arts/Adobe Stock.

“MY DEAREST LIZZY, I find myself very unwell this morning, which, I suppose, is to be imputed to my getting wet through yesterday.” So lamented a character in Jane Austen’s 200-year-old novel, Pride and Prejudice. In that story, unlucky Jane gets caught in the rain while riding on horseback and promptly comes down with a bad cold, setting off a series of important events.

Jane is not alone among Austen characters: in Sense and Sensibility, melodramatic teen Marianne goes on long walks in the wet fields and ends up with a cold so violent as to make her family fear for her life. Nor was this way of getting sick a unique invention of Austen’s. Decades later in Tsarist Russia, Tolstoy’s wife, who was having a particularly bad day, wrote in her diary, “I sat for a long time in the icy water with the idea of catching a cold and dying.”[1] …


Maria Ter-Mikaelian

Maria has a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and writes about animal behavior, the brain, and scientific odds and ends. Follow her on Twitter @MariaTerScience

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