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Jane Austen's 'Emma': Did Emma's Father Have a Mental Illness? (Part Three)

By Edited Dec 27, 2015 0 0

Gillian Butler describes other signs of Social Anxiety as “avoiding difficult social situations...blushing, sweating, trembling....the aches and pains that go with being unable to relax...panicky feelings.” All are second nature to Mr Woodhouse, and we witness his turmoil in chapter fifteen, once John Knightley informs him of the snowfall, though at least this episode sees him outside of Hartfield, setting for most of Emma's small world. Mostly, Jane Austen has Mr Woodhouse stay at home, unequal to the seven miles to Box Hill in chapter forty-three; it is also notable this is the first time Emma has ventured to this ‘distant’ beauty spot.

Emma - Penguin edition
There is also a unknowing quality to how Mr Woodhouse regards himself and his relations with others. Austen tells us he “would never believe other people to be different from himself,” due perhaps to a lack of cognitive skills making him unable, or unwilling, to think of how others behave or how others perceive his behavior, possibly stemming in part from his higher status in society. Fiona Stafford comments: “one of the great preoccupations of Emma is the subjectivity of perception and the way in which judgments depend on the personality and prejudices of the judge.” True, although Mr Woodhouse seems unable to place himself in the minds of others and as a result fears everyone he does not know well and displays an irrational selfishness, leading one to sympathize with his detractors, through his frequent bemoaning of the ‘loss’ of Miss Taylor and Isabella to marriage, even though both are happily settled.

Emma at times comes second to her father’s concerns, such as when he receives a letter from Mr Elton in chapter seventeen, informing him of the move to Bath. “It pointedly makes no mention of Emma. Mr Woodhouse is shown once again to be unable to read letters which have a bearing on the happiness of his daughter. Instead of being concerned about the snub to Emma, he merely uses the note as an excuse to talk about his own concerns” (Sales). Mr Woodhouse has no concept of how foolish he seems or how his views affect others and the juxtaposition of “the lengthy process which persuades him to accept the ‘evil’ of [Emma’s] forthcoming marriage with Mrs Weston’s nursing of her newly born child” (Wiltshire) is neither unintentional or complimentary. Nor does he understand when, earlier in the novel, Emma points out the contradiction for his disrespect for marriages and his admiration of brides.

Whatever the nature of Mr Woodhouse’s mental problems, they have serious consequences for the other characters, most obviously Emma herself. As Mudrick says, “Mr Woodhouse is the living – barely living – excuse for Emma’s refusal to commit herself to the human world.” On the plus side, Emma’s intellect is sharper from the constant deploying of stratagems to get around her father’s anxieties, and her hobby of matchmaking, a stimulating distraction from the continual need to support Mr Woodhouse’s spirits, form the very heart of the novel’s story. Emma also enjoys a high level of independence, as “she is able to organise the household as well as command the carriage” (Sales). Emma’s conversational skills are far superior to her father’s, honed by years of turning expositions on boiled ham towards more entertaining topics, while her forbearance and love for her father wins her the affections of both the reader and George Knightley, who for so long acts as a kind of release-valve for Emma (“We always say what we like to one another”).

However, Emma’s good temperament at Hartfield comes at a price. Compared to the other citizens of Highbury, Emma is distinct in her inability to cope with the garrulous spinster, Miss Bates. This intolerance leads to a pivotal incident at Box Hill where (perhaps reeling from the expansive view from the hill’s summit, bringing home to her lack of physical freedom) Emma insults Miss Bates during a picnic. Emma is also aware she does not visit the Bates family as often as duty dictates, and Mr Knightley scolds Emma for mimicking the spinster in chapter twenty-six. Why does the sweet-tempered Emma hold this aversion to Miss Bates?

In my opinion, Emma's frustration comes from a father who cannot “match her in conversation” and needs no encouragement to say the bare minimum polite society expects

Box Hill
(“the kind-hearted, polite old man, might then sit down and feel he had done his duty, and made every fair lady welcome and easy”). The incessant chatter of Miss Bates riles Emma, seeing it as someone who converses fluently yet says next to nothing of intellectual worth, thereby unintentionally magnifying her father’s inadequacies. Emma may also feel her father uses Miss Bates as cover for his disinclination for spirited, challenging conversation.

If Mr Woodhouse does have a mental health problem, how did it originate? Anxiety disorders “run in families, but this is thought to be because children learn...from a family member with a similar phobia...anxiety disorders may be inherited or may be due to experiences in childhood” (Smith). This could explain Isabella’s hypochondriac tendencies (if we view hypochondria as an unaware sort of self-centeredness), her living by medical opinion and her deficiency of “strong understanding or any quickness.” In all these characteristics “she rather resembles her father, whose constitution she seems to have inherited” (Poplawski). Isabella also shares her father’s limited topics of conversation, joining his praises of gruel and disputing the benefits of healthy watering places. With this in mind, we should fear for Isabella’s children, especially little Bella “and the weakness in her throat.”

As we cannot tell if Mr Woodhouse’s inherited any condition, what could explain his behavior? I shall explore the possibilities in the concluding part of this article. 



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