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

By Edited Feb 24, 2016 0 0

As well as her personal observations (biographers believe one of her brothers, George, had some form of severe mental impairment) Austen may also have found inspiration in the growing awareness that the mind could fall ill like any other part of the body. A naval physician, Dr Thomas Trotter, wrote a treatise on this subject in 1807, entitled A View of the Nervous Temperament. Austen had a special interest in the Royal Navy, with two of her brothers becoming admirals and Trotter had risen through the naval ranks to become physician to the Channel Fleet in 1794. John Wilshire quotes Trotter’s description of a person with a complaint of ‘bad nerves’: “An inaptitude to muscular exertion...an irksomeness, or dislike to attend to business and the common affairs of life; a selfish desire of engrossing the sympathy and attention of others to the narration of their own sufferings; with fickleness and unsteadiness of temper...are the leading characters of nervous disorders; to be referred to in general, to debility, increased sensibility, or torpor of the alimentary canal.”

The Woodhouses at Church
These symptoms match with Mr Woodhouse, who while subsisting on the most frugal of diets, avoids physical and mental exertion, and new people or places. For Mr Woodhouse, almost any outdoor activity is fraught with dangers, be it a ball at The Crown (“He had never been in the room at The Crown in his life – did not know the people who kept it by sight. Oh! No – a very bad plan. They would catch very worse colds at the Crown than anywhere else.”), picking strawberries at nearby Donwell Abbey (“Mr Woodhouse, who had already taken his little round in the highest part of the garden, where no damps from the river were imagined even by him, stirred no more.”) or simply posing in the garden for a painting (“She seems to be sitting out of doors with only a little shawl over her shoulders...it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”)

Mr Woodhouse displays such an array of anxieties that I agree, for the most part, with critic Avram Fleishmann, again quoted by Wiltshire: “[Emma’s] father though not organically, is clearly mentally ill. The diagnosis is probably premature senility, featuring acute anxiety.” Gullette agrees, recognizes how crucial the paternal malady is to the novel: “There are scarcely any hints that Austen is describing in Emma’s father what many people would now call ‘mild senile dementia’ – perhaps Alzheimer’s or the result of a mini-stroke...Emma’s kind and adroit treatment of her father’s obsessive preoccupations is an almost unnoticed but immensely important aspect of the novel.”

Yet I do not feel either suggestion of dementia offers a wholly accurate reflection of Mr Woodhouse’s mental condition, although her father’s state of mind is, I believe, a major contribution to forming Emma Woodhouse’s character. With Emma in her early twenties, and Mr Woodhouse, as Austen’s narration has told us, prone to acting older than he is, I feel Emma would have noticed a gradual deterioration in her father over that time, and would remark upon this to Mr Perry or her friends, but instead she accepts her father’s behaviour as fact, as if he has always behaved in this way, with her required constant attentions never becoming notable to her as a chore. Mr Woodhouse is now as he always been, to Emma; this is important if we are to attempt to ‘diagnose’ Mr Woodhouse.

Due to the range of symptoms exhibited by Mr Woodhouse, I feel he has what is known as a ‘complex phobia.’ These, according to the DSM-IV, inflict “a pervasive pattern of social inhibition” onto the individual, and include Social Anxiety Disorder (or social phobia), agoraphobia and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Fantastical it may seem to label Mr Woodhouse with something we associate with war and disaster, but those with P-TSD can develop the condition after “a violent assault or traffic accident.” Given his difficulties with travelling, perhaps Mr Woodhouse was once involved in a more disastrous coach accident than seen in the opening of Austen’s incomplete novel Sanditon (1817). As Margaret Drabble explains, “travel at this period was both dirty and dangerous. We tend to think of horse vehicles as being safer than the automobile...but we’re probably wrong, statistically. There are several accidents in Austen’s novels.” This fear of travel influences key events within the narrative, such as Mr Elton’s rejected proposal to Emma in chapter fifteen, prolonged tortuously as the lead coach, “for fears of Mr Woodhouse, had confined them to a foot pace.”

In his 1807 treatise, Dr Thomas Trotter seems to describe those with another of the complex phobias, Social Anxiety Disorder: “They seldom mix in company; sedentary in habit, they go little abroad; their amusements and recreation are thus limited.” Once more, this sounds much like Mr Woodhouse, while agoraphobia could explain his fear of outdoor activity, a condition described by Dr Tony Smith as a fear of “being alone in an empty space or being trapped in a public place with no exit to safety...severe agoraphobics may become unable to leave the house.” Both phobias are applicable to Mr Woodhouse.

Whatever ails Mr Woodhouse (played by Michael Gambon, pictured, in the 2009 BBC

Micheal Gambon
adaptation of Emma) causes him to keep those most familiar close to hand, as seen with his “tenacious clinging” (Mudrick) to his youngest daughter Emma and his distress at losing her governess, Miss Taylor, from the household to become Mrs Weston. The opening of chapter three details more of his worries and comforts: “Mr Woodhouse was fond of company in his own way. He liked very much his friends to come and see him...he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle.”

In Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness (1999), Gillian Butler defines Social Anxiety as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people,” while another symptom includes “keeping safe: in safe places, talking to safe people, about safe topics.” We know Mr Woodhouse is “rather trying company, and in unkind eyes, positively infuriating,” (Rowbotham) from his interminable discourses on gruel with his eldest daughter Isabella, or lecturing his dinner guests on the correct way of boiling an egg.

We may ask why Mr Woodhouse is more at ease during certain social occasions than others, such as the dinner party in chapter thirty-four: “The event was more favourable to Mr Woodhouse than to Emma...Mr Woodhouse was quite at ease.” Butler explains that “socialphobics may have one or two good friends and feel comfortable most of the time within the circle of those they know well...for them, SA interferes with meeting new people, moving to new places...their lives can become painfully limited and restricted.” Mr Woodhouse’s comment in chapter twenty-five of “the sooner every party breaks up, the better,” displays the socialphobe’s more customary approach to social gatherings, with his frequent concerns over people catching colds a unknowing ‘cover’ for his fear of parties outside those of his small circle of friends.



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