Unlike Jane Austen, we live in an empirical, post-Freudian world; each of us can dissect and diagnose the dreams and diseases to have afflicted man from time immemorial. As such, classic novels written before the psychoanalytic revolution are often laid out upon the psychiatric couch to have the foibles of their characters poked and prodded by the amateur physician from the comfort of their reading chair. This is as true of the novels of Jane Austen as any other writer of her time, thanks to the penetrating insight into human behavior that makes Austen’s novels come alive to readers two hundred years later. Austen’s sharp, studied assessments of those she saw around her in life fed into her novels, such as Emma (1815), giving characters a dimension often lacking in those of her contemporaries.

Austen lived during the Regency period in British history, an era born of madness. With the Jane AustenCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austinreigning monarch at the time of Austen’s birth, George III, deposed due to mental ill-health in 1810, his son George, Prince of Wales, took his place as Prince Regent until taking the crown on his father’s death in 1820. During these ten years, Austen’s six novels were published, two posthumously, with Austen dying in 1817.  

The literature of the Regency era reflected this turbulence, which brought with it the earliest awareness of mental health as an issue, not just in Britain, but France also, where the work of the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris laid down the foundations of modern psychiatry. Novels such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria (1798) and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801) are just two works of the time to feature nervous breakdowns and the asylums which began to appear in Western Europe around this time, but it is Austen who provides us with individual case studies, and in this instance, I shall look at Emma and the title character’s father, Mr Henry Woodhouse, whose worrying and obsessions at first seem comic in nature, but in fact shape much of the novel’s actions.

We should first remember that what we in the twenty-first century see as symptoms, conditions or disorders, Austen and her contemporaries viewed as personality traits. Even Emma’s resident apothecary, Mr Perry, appears more as a friend and frequent visitor to Mr Woodhouse, and not in the role of a doctor attending to a patient. Margaret Morganroth Gullette reminds us: “Austen never comments on Mr Woodhouse’s behaviour as if it were a condition, and...Mr Perry never diagnoses it...thus his various symptoms – as they would certainly be called nowadays – are simply treated as personality characteristics.”

As with Lady Bertram in Mansfield Park (1814), Mr Woodhouse is an inert figure who exerts a kind of gravitational pull on upon the novel’s characters. A housebound widow whose wealth and status protect him from reproach within the novel itself, Mr Woodhouse has attracted much criticism from academic readers down the years. Sarah Rowbotham dismisses him as “a man of little sense or intelligence”; Roger Sales describes “a tyrannical invalid” who “has allowed himself to become virtually immobile so that his family and neighbours are forced to dance attendance on him,” while Marvin Mudrick denounces Mr Woodhouse as “an annoyance, with...his feeble but effective insistence that nothing, nothing at all be changed in his life or in the lives of people around him...Mr Woodhouse, after long years of invalidism...is an idiot.”

‘Invalidism,’ a growing concern in Austen’s time, spread as the result of an increase in free time and leisure among the wealthier classes, landed gentry with little to do but fuss over their physical well-being. Today, we might call it hypochondria, and critics have leveled this accusation at Mr Woodhouse on more than one occasion. Writing in 2000, Ted Bader, an associate clinical professor at the University of Colorado, disregarded hypochondria as the cause for Mr Woodhouse’s actions (or lack of): “Those who care for the elderly will recognize many common symptoms of aging. As readers of Emma age themselves, it is likely Mr Woodhouse will be increasingly perceived as having common sense in his conversation.”

Mr WoodhouseCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainHowever, this is to overlook the early authorial comment: “he was a much older man in ways than in years.” Mr Woodhouse is not as old as he the image of himself he projects, and ‘plays up’ the act of old age, as a kind of excuse for his fears and the issues he has with life.

For the most part, the inhabitants of Highbury, the nearest village to the ancestral Woodhouse home of Hartfield, treat Mr Woodhouse with patience and affectionate respect. The most notable exception is John Knightley’s outburst in chapter twelve when Mr Woodhouse badgers his son-in-law on the benefits of the sea air of Cromer over that of Southend. Roger Sales comments that the robust John Knightley “associates the need for ‘doctoring’ with women and children and he considers [Mr Woodhouse’s illnesses] to be a sign of weakness.” Roger Wiltshire points out that the male characters such as the Knightley brothers, and the farmer George Martin, associate health and masculine vigor with the outdoors and exertion, meaning Mr Woodhouse’s self-enforced confinement and lack of exercise indicate inappropriate ‘feminine’ qualities in a man and father. As we shall see, John Knightley has made an interesting choice of wife in Mr Woodhouse’s eldest daughter, Isabella.

Much of Mr Woodhouse’s medical opinion comes courtesy of the local apothecary, and trusted friend, Mr Perry, who seems to do well from what Roger Wiltshire calls his “constant attendance on the community’s richest patient,” with other characters noting the “rising in prosperity with the rise in his reputation,” such as the scene in which the observing characters note Perry’s new horse as the apothecary passes by. The wedding-cake episode at the end of Chapter Two (“There was a strange rumor in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with wedding-cake in their hands...”) does suggest that at best “Perry often simply humors Mr Woodhouse with medical advice that suits Mr Woodhouse’s own eccentric opinions,” (Paul Poplawski) and at worst, Perry is growing rich by indulging, perhaps even cultivating, his wealthy patient’s neurosis.