PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)

“A Nervous Man, Easily Depressed”: What Is Wrong with Mr. Woodhouse?


Nicola Cummins

Nicola Cummins (email: teaches literature and writing at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand.  In addition to Jane Austen, her research interests include technology in pedagogy and New Zealand print culture.


Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich” (5), but her father can claim to share with his daughter only the third of these delightful characteristics.  Mr. Henry Woodhouse is a case study in hypochondria:  selfish, idle, feeble of mind and body.  Derided or ignored by both critics1 and many of the characters in the novel, Mr. Woodhouse is profoundly neurotic, but I am interested in why.  A type of the obsessed philosopher or comic pedant, he is essential to the novel’s structural patterns, character interactions, humor, moral purpose, exigencies of decorum, and the requirements of the country house/village setting, but nothing in his narrated background—skimpy in typically Austenian fashion—explains why he is such a querulous misery.  He has every advantage of status and wealth, yet he is constantly discomforted.  Were he not languishing in Surrey circa 1814, Mr. Woodhouse may have been diagnosed as dyslexic, a condition which could provide a plausible physiological reason for his resistance to anything beyond a very circumscribed quotidian.


            There was, of course, no diagnosis of dyslexia when Austen wrote.  The Oxford English Dictionary’s first usage occurs in 1883 as “dyslexie” in a German medical publication.  Modern data suggests, however, that dyslexia is “the most common neurobehavioral disorder affecting children, with prevalence rates ranging from 5 to 10 percent to 17.4 percent” (Shaywitz 307).  Although only recognized relatively recently, dyslexia would have been present in similar rates in early-nineteenth-century England, though less perceptible, given the lower rates of literacy.2


            The International Dyslexia Association promulgates the following working definition of dyslexia:


Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin.  It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.  These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction.  Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge.  (Lyon 1)


In addition to the secondary consequences listed above, dyslexics may manifest deficits in other areas such as mathematics, spelling and written expression, attention (Lyon 1), verbal memory (Shaywitz 307), and movement (Chaix 368-69).  Such deficits have inevitable social and emotional consequences such as anxiety and depression (Ryan) and “low self-esteem and low perceived self-efficacy as a result of the cumulative effects of failures during schooling.  In extreme cases this can lead to low achievement motivation . . . [and] learned helplessness” (Rack 68).  Such potentially dyslexia-induced psychosocial problems are essential constituents of Mr. Woodhouse’s character.


The fact that dyslexia affects language understanding first alerted me to Mr. Woodhouse’s possible condition:  “people with dyslexia have difficulty developing an awareness that words, both written and spoken, can be broken down into smaller units of sound and that, in fact, the letters constituting the printed word represent the sounds heard in the spoken word” (Shaywitz 307).  Mr. Woodhouse does not like to read for himself; he prefers to have someone read to him, and he needs to have that information read to him slowly and several times just to be sure:  Emma reads Mr. Elton’s charade “to him, just as he liked to have any thing read, slowly and distinctly, and two or three times over, with explanations of every part as she proceeded” (78).  This passage is telling for a potential diagnosis of dyslexia.  Mr. Woodhouse’s reading disability has taught him the slippery, evanescent qualities of text.  He does not believe that he will necessarily be able to retrieve the same meaning from the text again, so he prefers to commit matters to what memory he has.  Presumably, his reading difficulties have also led him to develop the strategy of seeking another opinion on the topics revealed in the text from someone he trusts, for he does not trust himself to interpret such matters correctly.


Although he has developed strategies to counter his reading difficulties, Mr. Woodhouse is often unaware of his linguistic weaknesses.  There are further examples of his problems with language that help us understand his anxiety to grasp meaning.  For instance, Emma and her father receive a reproachfully pointed letter of leave-taking from Mr. Elton before he sets off for Bath to encounter the winsome charms and adequate dowry of Miss Augusta Hawkins.  Emma is aware immediately of the intentional rudeness of the message, but her father is undiscriminating:  “Her father was quite taken up with the surprize of so sudden a journey, and his fears that Mr. Elton might never get safely to the end of it, and saw nothing extraordinary in his language” (141).  Mr. Woodhouse has little understanding of written language itself, without repeated readings, and little sense of the nuances of language, which in Mr. Elton’s missive are not especially refined and cannot be attributed to oversensitivity on Emma’s part to matters of social protocol.


Difficulties with language also plague Mr. Woodhouse’s business dealings, again forcing him to rely upon trusted others.  Having greater linguistic facility than he, his ancestors endowed the family with a handsome estate and considerable wealth to manage.  The Woodhouses are not a land-owning family who have made their place through the labor of farming; their considerable fortune, “scarcely secondary to Donwell itself,” comes from dubious sounding “other sources” (136).  This revelation suggests that Mr. Woodhouse’s ancestors were more worldly, and almost certainly possessed more nous, for how otherwise is a good fortune accumulated?


George Knightley is among those who provide Mr. Woodhouse with trustworthy guidance in matters of business, and his behavior toward his future father-in-law further demonstrates dyslexia as his neighbor’s likely impairment:  “‘A very pleasant evening,’ [Mr. Knightley] began, as soon as Mr. Woodhouse had been talked into what was necessary, told that he understood, and the papers swept away” (170).  Mr. Woodhouse’s oral and written skills are questionable.  He is incapable of understanding business matters that are written down.  These must be delivered orally, and he must be told at some point in the explanations that he has understood, even when patently he has not.  Dyslexics tend to do poorly in tests of verbal memory, such as recalling a sentence or a narrative they have just been told (Shaywitz 309).  Mr. Woodhouse’s need to have texts of any sort explained and re-explained is a function of his extremely poor verbal memory that could be symptomatic of dyslexia.  This account of Mr. Woodhouse’s business practice reinforces some of the strategies that he and others have developed to cope with his reading/language disability.  He is read to; he is told things; he has matters recast for him to facilitate understanding; he is prepared to be told he understands by those near to him whom he trusts.  His family and close friends understand his difficulties—although they lack the word dyslexia to apply to him—and are prepared to undertake the tasks of interpretation and reassurance.


As a consequence of these difficulties in cognition and memory, dyslexics are also likely to suffer from depression, which tends to manifest in the following ways:  they have negative self-image; they view the world negatively and find it difficult to enjoy positive experiences; and they feel little hope for the future, foreseeing lives of continuing failure (Ryan).  These symptoms suggest Mr. Woodhouse’s view of life, and we are aware of them from the opening pages of the novel, following the lamented departure of the newly married Mrs. Weston for Randalls:  “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” (7).  The character analyzed here fits well with the late-twentieth-century clinical experience of the effects of dyslexia.  Mr. Woodhouse is extremely tentative and dislikes change, even such positive change as Miss Taylor’s good fortune in finding a husband and living within easy walking distance of her former employer and her greatest friends.  Moreover, ongoing support and encouragement are essential for dyslexics to operate successfully in the world, for it is an extremely variable condition with often daily fluctuations in performance (Ryan), and its inconsistencies are confusing both to the sufferer and to those in close contact with him or her.  While it is debatable whether or not Mr. Woodhouse can be described as “operating successfully,” he certainly functions at a reasonably high level in his world but, as Austen’s narrator hints, only with the considerable assistance of his household and friends.


As the novel progresses, we increasingly notice that Mr. Woodhouse relies on routine as a coping mechanism—as, for example, with his daily three turns about the garden that constitute his “winter walk.”  Mr. Woodhouse repeats himself fussily to Mr. Knightley about these three turns; clearly, this practice is of great importance to him, hence the emphasis upon the precise number of turns to be undertaken.  Mr. Woodhouse’s reactions to atypical activity can be extreme, as Emma’s relation of his response to her sketching enthusiasm reveals:  “There is my father—another of my father—but the idea of sitting for his picture made him so nervous, that I could only take him by stealth; neither of them very like therefore” (45).  Mr. Woodhouse is a superb candidate for artist’s model since posing requires no exertion on his part and is most unlikely to cause harm.  Yet his fear of the unaccustomed, rendered almost superstitious here, overpowers rational thought, and he becomes subject to his nerves to the extent that he is unable to comply with his daughter’s simple request.  Such obtuseness could be construed as congenital laziness, and, indeed, dyslexics are often accused of idleness (Ryan) because of their anxiety response to new situations, which may result in another episode of failure.  Mr. Woodhouse’s indolence could be interpreted as dyslexic avoidance-behavior.


Just as Mr. Woodhouse does not welcome change to his social patterns, so he avoids dietary change—manifested notably in his great and often remarked fondness for “‘a nice basin of gruel’” (100), which he recommends to all visitors to Hartfield.  A digestive complaint compelling him to eat plain foods does not seem to be part of his condition3, for he partakes of the Christmas Eve dinner at Randalls without a great fuss, although Mrs. Weston would know Mr. Woodhouse’s food preferences and have planned the dinner accordingly.  His bland food choices may then suggest a habituated taste for plain foods, perhaps hearkening back to his own nursery days, before dyslexia caused him to experience frustration in the schoolroom, and before the social and emotional problems consequent upon frustration began to complicate his life.


Dyslexia is recognized as having what the early-nineteenth-century inhabitant might call a “constitutional” origin.  Twenty-first-century neurobiologists are able to state that there is a heritable component to dyslexia:  the brain structure dysfunction that results in dyslexia can be passed on to the sufferer’s children, implying that the adult dyslexic may now observe his/her child enduring the same learning difficulties:  “Family history is one of the most important risk factors, with 23 percent to as much as 65 percent of children who have a parent with dyslexia reported to have the disorder” (Shaywitz 307).  Dyslexic parents tend to respond in one of two ways to their child’s problems:


They may deny the existence of dyslexia and believe if the child would just buckle down, he or she could succeed.  Or, the parents may relive their failures and frustrations. . . . [T]his brings back powerful and terrifying emotions, which can interfere with the adult’s parenting skills.  (Ryan)


Such an anxiety could be responsible for Mr. Woodhouse’s inability to control Emma and for his pronounced fears for Isabella and her children.


While Emma does not suffer from dyslexia, Isabella may have inherited aspects of the condition.  She does not manifest such severely disabling effects of dyslexia as her father; nonetheless she is described in similar terms:  affectionate and gentle, but literal-minded, and sharing his preoccupation with health.  Isabella, however, writes and reads more than her father.  She sends bulletins to Hartfield and receives letters from there in turn; for instance, she and Emma arrange Harriet’s visit to London through letters, and, once Harriet is installed in Brunswick Square, Emma receives reports of her protégée’s progress from her sister.


Whether the next generation has inherited the familial tendency to dyslexia is unknown.  We learn little of how Isabella’s children are faring with reading, apart from the fact that the older boys have been provided with a reading activity:  the alphabets, hand-lettered by Emma, which Frank Churchill cunningly deploys to apologize secretly to Jane Fairfax.  We must hope, for the sake of Emma’s children, that the Knightley genes ameliorate the Woodhouse genes at the dyslexia susceptibility loci that linkage studies have identified on chromosomes 6 and 15 (Shaywitz 307).


Dyslexia is a possible reason for the manifold symptoms that Mr. Woodhouse exhibits:  his difficulty with language understanding, especially the written word; his poor verbal memory; and his fearful insistence upon cleaving to routine.  Although dyslexia did not exist as a named condition in Austen’s time, and the charge of “chronological snobbery”4 hovers near, I maintain that the textual evidence for a diagnosis of dyslexia is credible.  No matter how many times I read Emma, I fear I shall never be able to join with C. S. Lewis and describe Mr. Woodhouse as “the most sensible character in Emma” (Letters 547).  I do believe, however, that the possibility of diagnosing him as dyslexic adds psychological acuity to Austen’s portrayal of him.





1For example, Mary Lascelles explores the kinship between Mr. Woodhouse and Shakespeare’s fools, characters who, unable to come to terms with life, construct terms for themselves (143-45); Marvin Mudrick classifies him as “an old woman” with “no single masculine trait” (192-93); Christopher Gillie characterizes him simply as “gentle and pliable” (135); Mark Schorer briefly analyzes him as a comical, “malingering egoist” (Watt 108); Terry Castle terms him “selfish as well as feeble-minded” (xxv).


2.  In 1755 the literacy rate in England was approximately 50%, rising to 60% by 1840 (West 9).


3Ted Bader suggests Mr Woodhouse’s food faddism may be due to hyperthyroidism, a condition where enlargement of the thyroid gland in the neck causes difficulty swallowing (Bader par. 11).


4See chapter 13 of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy.




Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W.Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Bader, Ted.  “Mr. Woodhouse is Not a Hypochondriac!”  Persuasions On-Line 21.2 (2000).

Castle, Terry.  Introduction.  Emma.  Ed. James Kinsley.  Oxford: OUP, 1998.  vii-xxviii.

Chaix, Yves, et al.  “Motor Impairment in Dyslexia: The Influence of Attention Disorders.”  European Journal of Paediatric Neurology 11 (2007): 368-74.

Gillie, Christopher.  A Preface to Jane Austen.  London: Longman, 1985.

Lascelles, Mary.  Jane Austen and her Art.  1932.  Oxford: OUP, 1965.

Lewis, C. S.  The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves (1914-1963).  Ed. W. Hooper.  New York: Macmillan, 1979.

_____.  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life.  London: Bles, 1955.

Lyon, G. Reid, et al.  “Defining Dyslexia, Comorbidity, Teachers’ Knowledge of Language and Reading, a Definition of Dyslexia.”  Annals of Dyslexia 53 (2003): 1-14.

Mudrick, Marvin.  Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery.  Princeton: PUP, 1952.

Rack, John.  “Issues in the Assessment of Developmental Dyslexia in Adults: Theoretical and Applied Perspectives.”  Journal of Research in Reading 20.1 (1997): 66-76.

Ryan, Michael.  “Social and Emotional Problems Related to Dyslexia.”  2004.  Learning Disabilities Online. 28 Nov. 2007 <>.

Shaywitz, Sally E.  “Dyslexia.”  The New England Journal of Medicine 29 Jan. 1998: 307-12.

Southam, B. C.  Jane Austen: the Critical Heritage.  2 vols.  London: Routledge, 1968-87.

Watt, Ian, ed.  Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays.  Twentieth-Century Views.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice, 1963.

West, Edwin G.  “Literacy and the Industrial Revolution.”  Economic History Review 41.3 (1978): 1-20.

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