What was wrong with Mr. Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma?
Dear old Mr. Woodhouse. Kind and gentle, always concerned about everybody’s health and well-being, totally unable to discern that they might feel differently than he does. Giving everyone advice which you would think might drive them crazy, but somehow it doesn’t; most people are very patient with him, especially his daughter Emma, who devotes herself to his care.
Jane Austen calls Emma’s father “a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, . . . a much older man in ways than in years” who is “everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper.”
In “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!” Dr. Ted Bader says that a “valetudinarian” was someone who actually had poor health, not a hypochondriac who was well but thought they had poor health. He suggests Mr. Woodhouse may have had hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid gland, causing coldness, mental nervousness, weakness, and difficulty in swallowing, and accounting for his love of thin gruel and small portions of well-cooked food.
Dyspepsia and Melancholy?
Alternatively, Mr. Woodhouse may have had dyspepsia, a medical term for indigestion. Dr. Cullen in 1784 claimed that dyspepsia and hypochondria were often confused. Stomach problems would explain Mr. Woodhouse’s great concern over the foods that he and others ate.
Always fearful and worried, Mr. Woodhouse seems to have had a “melancholic temperament.” Dr. Cullen describes melancholics in 1786 as fearful, cautious, and holding tightly to whatever feelings they have. Such fear and dejection also sometimes accompanied dyspepsia (p. 175-6). We might call this a tendency toward depression, and Austen does say of Mr. Woodhouse, “His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind.”
Whatever his underlying problems, we don’t hear Mr. Woodhouse talking about his ailments or using them to get his own way, as Mrs. Churchill does in the same novel. He is, however, prematurely old in his ways.
Health in Old Age
Most of Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns would have been considered quite reasonable in his day, though he carried them to excess. In 1750, Dr. John Hill published The Old Man’s Guide to Health & Longer Life. Many of Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns are reflected in it. Hill recommends:
- Warmth: Avoid the damp and the cold. “Winter is the season when old men are least healthy; therefore they must then be most careful. They are colder than young persons, therefore cold more affects them. The weakness of their circulation makes them cold . . .” (8). Even in chapter 1, Mr. Woodhouse is concerned about Mr. Knightley walking on a damp road and catching cold. Throughout the novel he tries to keep everyone warm and dry.
- Exercise: Walk for exercise, on dry ground, in the middle of warm days without drafts. “The air of early morning and late evening is cold and unwholesome,” p. 31. Woodhouse goes out when “the sun is out” for his regular winter walk of three turns, presumably around the shrubbery where bushes or trees protected him from breezes.
- Light Diet: Eat lightly, with only one meal of solid food per day, at dinner time (mid-day). Breakfast and supper should be very light, generally broth or milk. Mr. Woodhouse allows only small portions of food, even to his guests (unless Emma is there to overrule!), and for supper eats thin gruel. Only his older daughter, Isabella, will join him.
- Avoid Change: Especially sudden changes, which are dangerous. Mr. Woodhouse is very upset by change, ranging from weddings to urgent decisions about a ball. Alzheimer’s and dementia patients are very stressed by changes, so resistance to change can still be part of old age.
- Clean Air: “Nothing contributes more to health and long life than pure and good air . . . It is strange, that many live to a great age in London, where the air has neither of these characters: where we breathe smoak [smoke], and the mixt stench of a thousand putrifying substances, which cannot evaporate through the thick and foul atmosphere of the place. . . . none will question the superior quality of a clear country air.” Bad air, or “miasmas,” were believed to cause diseases and even death. Mr. Woodhouse tells Isabella, “in London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be. It is a dreadful thing to have you forced to live there! so far off!—and the air so bad!” And he’s right, the air was bad in London, heavily polluted.
- Calm: Avoid violent emotions such as anger, fear, greed, even joy; they can bring on disease and death. “Ease and good humour are the great ingredients of a happy life, and the principal means of a long one” (44). Perhaps this is why Emma and all those around her are so eager to placate Mr. Woodhouse every time he seems to be getting upset; they want to protect him from the harm caused by “the passions” or emotions.
Emma is a wonderful caregiver for Mr. Woodhouse, as Carol Adams points out; Ms. Adams read Emma repeatedly while caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, and was inspired by Emma’s example. But we see that almost everyone in Highbury is sympathetic and patient with Mr. Woodhouse. It seems that being a “valetudinarian” was perfectly acceptable and something people were willing to live with.
What Did Mr. Perry do?
- Treatments: Mr. Perry, the apothecary, visits Mr. Woodhouse regularly. They share news more than talk about health. What would Perry probably do? He might check Mr. Woodhouse’s pulse and make recommendations; Hill recommends taking the pulse regularly, to see if anything is wrong. Another contemporary doctor, Dr. Reid, recommends social visits, which Mr. Perry’s visits to Mr. Woodhouse provide. Reid also recommends cheerfulness, but says, “In the instance of an aged melancholic, we might almost as well attempt to change the complexion of his grey hairs, as to brighten the dark hues of his imagination” (268). Emma is never able to truly cheer her father, unfortunately.
- Medications: Perry may also prescribe harmless (hopefully) tonics or natural medicines. Dr. Reid says a course of medicines is good for the valetudinarian because it gives him “a source of amusement” in an empty day. Because the doses have to be taken at different times, it divides up the day, helping “conquer the tedium of the day.” He continues, “Such is the power of imagination, that the result of a medicine depends much upon the respect which a patient feels for his physician. Faith will give virtue to the most inefficient remedy . . .” (342-3). On this criterion, any remedies his beloved Mr. Perry gives to Mr. Woodhouse must be very effective, since Mr. Woodhouse thinks so highly of him!
Dr. Reid’s Essays (1821) offer further advice which could have benefited Mr. Woodhouse. Reid says it’s foolish to spend our days thinking constantly about our health; in fact, taking too much care of one’s health might destroy it (406). Why attempt to live longer, if our life is “absorbed in such selfish and paltry anxieties”? “Nothing, surely, can be more idle and absurd than to waste the whole of our being in endeavours to preserve it [our life]; to neglect the purposes, in order to protract the period of our existence” (413). In other words, why work so hard on living longer if we have no other purpose in living?
Mr. Woodhouse’s life would have been better with some worthwhile occupation. Reid recommends doing good for others, particularly working for their eternal spiritual good, as a way of making our lives meaningful (and also avoiding hypochondria). “How much happier is the man whose faith can move mountains, than one whose fears are apt to magnify into a mountain the slightest unevenness in his path!” (415). Mr. Woodhouse does magnify minor issues into mountains, no doubt to the detriment of his health. However, he is also concerned about others—unable to understand their point of view, but at least trying to help them stay healthy. Perhaps if he had a deeper understanding himself, of life and faith, he might be more concerned with the true well-being of others, as his friend Mr. Knightley is in Emma. As it is, he is focused on the body, which will some day fail him. Health is important, but let’s keep it in perspective! No matter what we do, some day we will all die.
How can you and I better spend our lives? What worthwhile purposes will you pursue in this coming new year?
Next week we’ll look at Mrs. Churchill and other examples of hypochondria, as doctors would have understood it at that time.
Bader, Ted. “Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!” Persuasions On-Line vol. 21 no. 2 (Summer 2000).
Cullen, William. First Lines of the Practice of Physic. [Physic=Medicine] Volume 4. Edinburgh: Elliot, 1786.
Hill, John. The Old Man’s Guide to Health & Longer Life with Rules for Diet, Exercise & Physick for Preserving a Good Constitution, and Preventing Disorders in a Bad One. First published 1750. London: British Library, 2013.
Adams, Carol. “Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s.” Dec. 19, 2015.
Reid, John, M.D. Essays on Hypochondriasis, and Other Nervous Affections. London: Longman, 1821. Second edition.
Also recommended, on the foods Mr. Woodhouse recommended eating, and why:
Emsley, Sarah. “Why Mr. Woodhouse Takes Care About What His Guests Eat,” Jan. 8, 2016.
Note: There are modern theories that Mr. Woodhouse had syphilis; you can easily find them online. But I believe that the more obvious explanations for his behavior that I’ve given here, based on popular health recommendations of the time, are more reasonable and more in keeping both with Mr. Woodhouse’s character and with Jane Austen’s work in general.