There is one crucial character to Emma rarely mentioned in the novel – the late Mrs Woodhouse. We learn in chapter one that Emma’s mother died roughly sixteen years before the novel begins, with Emma around four years of age, “too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct memory of her caresses.” Using this tantalizing piece of information, and others we have previously gleaned from Jane Austen's text, it is possible to piece together a plausible scenario about the death of Emma's mother and its effect on the mental health of Mr Woodhouse.
In chapter twelve, we learn both that Emma has yet to behold the sea and Mr Woodhouse once went on a bathing holiday: “I am sure it almost killed me once.” Mr Woodhouse doesn’t travel far, so we can assume this trip didn’t take place recently. In chapter thirty-two, Emma becomes agitated by Mrs Elton’s persistence in recommending Bath as a healthy venue for bathing; perhaps this touches a nerve for Emma.
Taking into account Mr Woodhouse’s desperate need to stay at home with his loved ones close Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainby, and his dislike of travel, we can imagine that something terrible befell Mrs Woodhouse while travelling on a long journey, as far as Bath is to Hartfield, we can understand Emma’s agitation if her mother died as a result of a coach accident while on a trip to the coast. The impact of the death devastated her father, who never recovered from the mental shock, and acts the way he does as a kind of psychic enactment of the damage the trauma of his wife’s death, imprinting this part of his character on eldest daughter Isabella, older than Emma and more impressionable, and perhaps also involved with the traumatic incident. A comic creation perhaps, but there is a hidden story to the mind of Mr Woodhouse, and that story is not comic, but tragic.
However, as we have seen, every critic approaches Emma from a different angle and, whether they acknowledge it or not, a different agenda. With Mr Woodhouse, the agenda often involves a particular illness or cause they wish to champion, be it old age (Gullette); harmless, if anxious, doting (Fiona Stafford); hypothyroidism (Bader, who believes Mr Woodhouse's fretting over food comes from the difficulty in swallowing caused by a goiter) or the old critical standby of hypochondria, even though at no point does Mr Woodhouse request medication of, or take any pills or potions from, his favored apothecary.
Even my ideas about complex phobias and Social Anxiety Disorder come from my own experiences of the condition, having first read Emma around eighteen months of my diagnosis and delighting in what I believed as a fellow spirit of sorts in a novel by the famous Austen. What all this enjoyable, fascinating and yet fruitless speculation proves is Austen's genius at creating many-faceted characters we want to know better. As Fiona Stafford says in her introduction to Emma: "If the reader finds the scene convincing or 'realistic' it is probably because of a previously formed view of the novel or its author." Or as Frank Churchill puts if of Miss Woodhouse, Austen has "the art of giving pictures in a few words."