That there are many opinions about the true nature and character of Dear Mr. Woodhouse, it cannot be argued. By way of acquainting the reader with the general themes and tenor of the disputes, we humbly recommend the following:

 

The General Arguments


A very enlightening thread on the Emma board started by an insightful young lady, Deborah Jane, together with responses, both in support and, surprisingly, against her position may be examined here. Another set of arguments is here. And one more that is interesting in its, er, tenor is here.

May we be so bold as to offer the follow rather charming summation of Mr. Woodhouse written by O. W. Firkins in Jane Austen (Henry Holt and Company, 1920)?

"Mr. Woodhouse is drawn with hardly less ability though with less subtley, than his daughter. The solicitudes of Mr. Woodhouse are undoubtedly caricatured -- yet that is not tantamount to saying that Mr. Woodhouse himself is a caricature. There is much in him besides the self-coddler. He is grateful and affectionate and hospitable and courteous, and his anxieties are so widened by his altruism as to include the whole body of his deplorably reckless acquaintance. Mr. Woodhouse is the mildest of men, yet being a member of the Austen world, he is precise in his mildness. If in his softness and tremors he is jelly, he is jelly in a mold. The association of cermony with flutter was an original thought, whether the orginality was nature's or Jane Austen's. Nothing in Jane's work is more endearing than the deference that is paid on all hands to a type that is normally unlucky both in its companions and its painters. Mr. Woodhouse is an egotist and fool, an exacting and trying fool, yet he is the object of unrelaxing tenderness and esteem from people who, like the Knightley's, are possessed of every excuse for impatience which health of unfeeling robustness and the curtest of tempers can bestow."

 

On Faulty Parenting


Visit this location for discussion of the charge that Mr. Woodhouse is guilty of faulty parenting and other crimes. Speaking of parenting, Annie Newman has labeled Mr. Woodhouse a Permissive-Indulgent parent, but she doesn't think he's all bad!

 

Pet or Menace?


If you are not prone to an attack of nerves and are of a hardy constitution, you may dare to read this debate about whether Mr. Woodhouse is a pet or menace (as if!). Don't miss Caroline's post which refers to a scholar's assertion that Dear Mr. Woodhouse is mentally ill (more on that theory below).

 

On His Comparative Merits


In his essay, Mr. Perry's Patients, A View of Emma (Essays in Criticism, #20, 1970, pp 334-43), J. R. Watson argues:

"The last movement of the novel begins with the death of Mrs. Churchill /..../ Up to this point, Mrs. Churchill has been useful to Jane Austen. She is, in fact, one of the main forces in the carefully balanced picture of Mr. Woodhouse and Emma: seen beside Mrs. Churchill Mr. Woodhouse bears out Jane Austen's description of him as 'everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper.' He is, of course, a great fusspot, and Emma has to exercise a tremendous restraint and tact in her dealings with him (not least in the matter of marriage); but he does not stand in the way of the party at the Cole's, the Ball at the Crown, the visits to Randalls and Donwell, or the trip to Box Hill. To emphasize this accomodating side of Mr. Woodhouse's character we have Mrs. Churchill using her illnesses and her nervous crises to send Frank scurrying up and down the country and spoiling his relationships with other people. /.../ Seen in this light, Mr. Woodhouse, self-centred and exasperating, is seen as one who might have been much worse."

Praise indeed!

 

On Hypochondria

A lifelong valetudinarian he may be, but a hypochondriac - nevah!

 


First, let us look at the difference between the meaning of the two words:

valetudinarian: *n, a person of poor health or unduly anxious about health; seeking to recover one's health.

hypochondriac: *n, a person suffering from hypochrondria (*n, abnormal anxiety about one's health, morbid depression without real cause).

(Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, Ninth Edition, 1995)

Interestingly, the Royal Standard English Dictionary, published in November 1813, says of "valetudinarian: infirm of health, weakly, sick, ill." By the 1824 edition of this dictionary, the definition had changed to "a person uncommonly careful of his health." Jane Austen wrote "Emma" between January 1814 and March 1815.



Secondly, we turn to the writing of John Wiltshire, in Jane Austen and the Body (Cambridge University Press, 1992). Wiltshire reads Emma as a novel about health (p.110) in which Mr. Perry's omnipresence is highly important. Wiltshire cites a number of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century medical writers regarding the nature of "nervous disorders," the descriptions of which, he notes, are very close to Austen's depiction of Henry Woodhouse--very hypochondriacal. Harumph! Moreover, Wiltshire cites one Avrom Fleishman as positing this latter-day diagnosis of Mr. Woodhouse:

"It's often assumed by the layman that people with evident hypochondria are really well, but Emma's father, though not organically, is really mentally ill. The diagnosis of his illness is probably premature senility, featuring acute anxiety." (p. 125).

In the notes to this citation, though, Wiltshire writes: "Fleishman intends this characterization, of course, to be absurd." (p. 233). Well, one does not not know what to think!

 

This tidbit was found in a Georgian women's journal, "The Lady's Magazine" for the year 1777 - in the section called 'The Female Physician':

" Of all the accidental causes that promote fever, there is none so dangerous as that which is brought on by suddenly cooling after vehement exercise; such as exposing the body to cold air, and thereby checking the sweat and perspiration.

This is too frequently the case with many young people, who, after having been engaged for upwards of four or five hours (nay, sometimes much longer and without intermission) in this amusement, and being of course in the highest degree of heat, have been so imprudent as to stop the perspiration, either by drinking cold water or the like, or by exposing themselves to the cold air, directly from this violent exercise, and thus have died victims to the greatest degree of rashness and folly.

The danger arising from such indiscretionary diversion is truly alarming; and I am convinced has been the bane of thousands."

Given that this was the prevailing medical advice in Mr. Woodhouse's time, it is hardly surprising that he is horrified when Frank Churchill suggests the likelihood of some young person opening a window or two to cool the room during the proposed dance at Randalls.

 


Finally, let us examine the work of Jane Austen Society of North America member Ted Bader, a specialist in liver and digestive diseases, who champions the cause of Dear Mr. Woodhouse in his aptly named article Mr. Woodhouse is not a Hypochondriac!. Well done Ted! You are, indeed, a man of information!

 

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