Mr. Woodhouse is not a hypochondriac! A bold thesis about Emma that disagrees with every humanities writer who has considered the role of the heroine’s elderly father (Gorman 71; Norris 94; Olshin 320; Sales 136), except C. S. Lewis, the famous author and former chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. Remarkably, Lewis claims to have read Emma twelve times during his lifetime. This writer will avoid engaging in “chronological snobbery,” a concept coined by C. S. Lewis to describe the belief that modern interpretations, thoughts, and behavior are superior to ideas and actions of the past (Weight of Glory 50).
The medical terms and concepts in Emma generally have the same meaning today as during the Regency time period. Due to their obvious dermatological findings, measles and scarlet fever are identical. The “colds” discussed also appear to be equivalent to current usage. However, “putrid sore throat” has an uncertain modern classification. When English medical textbooks from 1817 (Thomas, Physic) and 1819 (Parr, Dictionary) are consulted, there appears to be a large overlap between putrid sore throat, measles, and scarlet fever. This author initially thought putrid sore throat could be the twentieth-century equivalent of diphtheria, but it seems more likely to represent a non-specific syndrome involving pharyngeal pus arising from many infectious disorders such as tonsillitis, laryngitis, or bronchitis.
While Regency physicians had a poor understanding of empiricism, as did everyone else in the time period, the current physician-writer is impressed with his historical counterpart’s detailed descriptions of disease and their ability to prognosticate even when only few effective interventions were at their disposal. Yet, modern writers on the subject of Regency medicine often equate inability to treat with stupidity. How might the Regency physician view our society with its astronomically higher murder rate?
Non-medical writers have satirized the discussions of medicine and environment in Emma as hypochondriacal. A chief subject of their ridicule is the character’s discussions of “bad” air in Emma (103). Is concern over air quality weak-minded? As a first year medical student at Washington University in St. Louis, I was shocked and impressed when a set of black lungs from the nineteenth-century coal-burning era were placed next to the normal pink lungs most non-smoking inhabitants of the twentieth century possess. A recent newsline from the Associated Press reads, “L.A. air could raise cancer risk.” The article reports that air pollutants in the Los Angeles area could cause as many as 426 additional cases of cancer per million exposed individuals. In this context, the long discussion in chapter twelve between Isabella and her father about air quality is not as irrational as some writers would have us believe.
Mr. Woodhouse is presented by Jane Austen as the lovable, elderly father of the heroine; he is a man who has three principle concerns: his health, the health of others, and his opposition to matrimony in his circle of friends or family. Health or psychosocial descriptions of Mr. Woodhouse include:
Rather than forcing recent concepts of hypochondriasis upon a nearly 200-year-old story, I would like to cite a medical textbook from the Regency period:
Hypochondriasis may be distinguished by the languor, listlessness, want of resolution and activity, fear of death, and suspicious disposition always being present. . . . [There is a] lowness and dejection of spirits, great desponding. . . . In short, it is attended with such a long train of symptoms, that it would fill many pages to enunciate them all, as there is no function or part of the body that does not suffer in its turn by its tyranny. . . . [T]ea and coffee are improper articles of diet for hypochondriasis. (Thomas 327)
Before a diagnosis of hypochondriasis is made, other diseases that mimic the latter condition need to be ruled out. Diseases or infections easily mistaken for hypochondriasis are thyroid and adrenal disorders, lupus erythematosis, miliary tuberculosis, and brain tumors, to name only few.
Oh, that humanities teachers would practice medicine! They seem to be able to spot non-organic illness instantaneously without the benefit of history taking, physical examination, testing, and considering a differential diagnosis. We could probably reduce the national health care budget more than 25% by employing them rather than doctors of medicine! While the foregoing is written tongue-in-cheek, in reality, the diagnosis of hypochondriasis nowadays is given very careful consideration due to the shadow specter of malpractice lawyers.
Is Mr. Woodhouse a hypochondriac? This writer thinks not. Those who care for the elderly will recognize many common characteristics of aging. As readers of Emma themselves age, it is likely that Mr. Woodhouse will be increasingly perceived as having common sense in his conversation. Further, Jane Austen is explicit as to when symptoms represent hypochondriasis, such as those of Mrs. Churchill or the psychosomatic symptoms exhibited by Jane Fairfax.
Anita Gorman suggests that the pre-twentieth century word Jane Austen uses for Mr. Woodhouse—“valetudinarian” (7)—is a synonym for hypochondriac (70-71). However, the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary defines valetudinarian as a “person weak in health” or “invalid”—descriptions substantially different from the category of hypochondriasis. A common characteristic of hypochondriascism and valetudinarianism is that both possess exaggerated fears about potential disability; the valetudinarian differs in that he actually has a number of bona-fide medical conditions (i.e., invalidism) whereas the hypochondriac, in reality, enjoys good health.
Mr. Woodhouse could easily have hypothyroidism—a common disorder, first described as “myxedema” in 1829—characterized by hormonal under-activity of the thyroid gland that leads to feeling of coldness, mental nervousness, and skeletal weakness. The most common cause of this condition, prior to the discovery of treatment in 1896, was a goiter or enlargement of the thyroid gland which often leads to trouble swallowing—thus, Mr. Woodhouse’s fondness of “thin gruel,” “small eggs,” and “thoroughly boiled pork.”
A review of the previous list of Mr. Woodhouse’s preferences shows how many of them match this condition. If not for comic relief as a hypochondriac, what then is Mr. Woodhouse’s role? He most likely serves as a contrast to make Emma appear all the more beautiful and healthy. His weaknesses also serve to exhibit the heroine’s compassion for her elderly father; she would otherwise seem to be excessively arrogant and selfish. In addition, Emma’s father is always ready to advise others on their diet or meteorological exposure. His benign condescension is accepted gratefully, for the most part, by the other characters as a sign of his patriarchal interest in them.
It is normal for elderly people to fear loss, and Mr. Woodhouse is no different. This fear leads to tension and subsequent relief about Emma’s marriage to Mr. Knightley. Mr. Woodhouse’s opposition to matrimony in others is clearly interrelated with his concerns about his own health, and he acts to restrain the wishes and desires of both Emma and Mr. Knightley. “When first sounded on the subject [of their matrimony], he was so miserable, that they were almost hopeless” (483).
Considering that Jane Austen never married and that C. S. Lewis married late in life, Mr. Woodhouse’s opposition to marriage may seem eminently reasonable to both of them. An elderly C. S. Lewis once described Mr. Woodhouse as “the most sensible character in Emma” (Letters 547). This physician-writer agrees with the Cambridge Don. Who will join us?
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933.
Gorman, A. G. The Body in Illness and Health: Themes and Images in Jane Austen. New York: Lang, 1993.
Lewis, C. S. They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963). Ed. W. Hooper. New York: Macmillan, 1979.
_____. The Weight of Glory. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949.
Norris, John. “Sam is only a Surgeon, you know.” Persuasions 8 (1986): 92-95.
Olshin, Toby A. “Jane Austen: A Romantic Systematic, or Realistic Approach to Medicine?” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 10 (1981): 313-26.
Parr, B. The London Medical Dictionary. Philadelphia: Ames, 1819.
Sales, Roger. Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Thomas, R. The Modern Practice of Physic, exhibiting the characters, causes, symptoms, prognostics, morbid appearances and improved method of treating the disease of all climates. London, 5th ed. New York: 1817.