A comfortable home: Charlotte’s own happiness

Lady Susan might be described, following Thackeray, as ‘a novella without a heroine’ – which I must confess I find rather refreshing. What I like best about it is the open ending:

Whether Lady Susan was or was not happy in her second choice, I do not see how it can ever be ascertained; for who would take her assurance of it on either side of the question? The world must judge from probabilities; she had nothing against her but her husband, and her conscience.

The latter doesn’t seem to have troubled her before, so why should it now? And the former, though a complete fool, is loaded. So, personally, I think that nothing would prevent his wife from spending his money while she gets a little comfort on the side …

As Jane Austen’s major novels approach their conclusion, however, we’re not allowed to harbour any doubts about the marital bliss of her heroes and heroines. A leap of faith is required and disbelief must be suspended. But as far as secondary characters go, we may judge for ourselves.

***

Charlotte Lucas is not romantic, as she tells Lizzie Bennet in chapter 22, Vol. I. Sour grapes, perhaps, but she knows she cannot afford to be. At 27, she’s past her best-by date – at least Marianne Dashwood would say so, and Lady Russell entertains no hope that Anne Elliot might, at that age, be ‘tempted’ into marriage ‘by some man of talents and independence.’ Charlotte is also rather plain, and her parents can give her ‘little fortune.’ Her father used to be in trade, but, having been ‘‘risen to the honour of knighthood,’ quitted business, bought a new house, and now occupies himself ‘only in being civil to all the world.’ Nor is the daughter particularly accomplished – we don’t see her play the pianoforte or sing at parties. Thus,

Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

As Jane Austen herself acknowledges, ‘single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of Matrimony.’ What other schemes could Charlotte have devised to avoid future poverty?

A knight’s daughter couldn’t possibly work for a living during her father’s lifetime, and then she might have been too old to start as a governess or a companion. On the other hand, applying for a position would have reflected on her brothers and they might not have liked it. Therefore, she would have had to depend on them for her livelihood and be content with whatever they gave her. The Lucas boys wouldn’t have been particularly generous, if their relief at her engagement to Mr Collins is anything to go by.

***

‘There certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them’ –  imagine if you’re not even pretty. On average, twenty thousand men were killed or injured every year during the Napoleonic Wars, and many thousands more were fighting overseas. To put it quite bluntly, ‘There was a scarcity of Men in general, & a still greater scarcity of any that were good for much.’

Charlotte is under no illusions, and her expectations are rather moderate: ‘I ask only for a comfortable home,’ she acknowledges. To achieve this goal she must follow certain rules:

  • ‘A woman had better shew more affection than she feels.’
  • ‘It is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.’
  • You mustn’t let your fancy for a poorer or socially inferior man make you ‘appear unpleasant in the eyes’ of another ‘of ten times his consequence.’

Unfortunately, Mr Collins’s shortcomings are too obvious for a clever girl like her to miss … Lizzy does not take her friend’s views seriously, which makes you wonder about her skills as a ‘studier of character’: ‘You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.’ When she finally does, Elizabeth can’t believe it:

She had always felt that Charlotte’s opinion of matrimony was not exactly like her own, but she could not have supposed it possible that, when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage.

Mr Collins wants ‘a gentlewoman … an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way’ – fortune not essential, mince-pie experience an advantage. In exchange, he offers a ‘highly desirable’ establishment. He’s also heir presumptive to the Longbourn estate. Deal! ‘Love and eloquence’ are really not necessary – the recipient of his protestations might even think ‘his attachment … imaginary.’

Sir William Lucas
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

Charlotte seizes her chance. She knows Lizzy will never accept what looks like an imminent proposal, so she starts by talking to him at the Netherfield ball. The following day she pops in at the Bennets’ just as her friend’s suitor is

meditating in solitude on what had passed. He thought too well of himself to comprehend on what motive his cousin could refuse him; and though his pride was hurt, he suffered in no other way. His regard for her was quite imaginary; and the possibility of her deserving her mother’s reproach prevented his feeling any regret.

Charlotte soon learns about the latest developments, and is ready to be ‘detained first by the civility of Mr Collins, whose inquiries after herself and all her family were very minute, and then by a little curiosity,’ which leads her to eavesdrop on his conversation with Mrs Bennet:

You will not, I hope, consider me as shewing any disrespect to your family, my dear Madam, by thus withdrawing my pretensions to your daughter’s favour, without having paid yourself and Mr  Bennet the compliment of requesting you to interpose your authority in my behalf.

This is all she needs to know. Now she must listen to him: ‘Such was Miss Lucas’s scheme.’

The following morning,

In as short a time as Mr Collins’s long speeches would allow, every thing was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house, he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waved for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness.

True, he’s neither sensible nor pleasant, but she’ll be saved from want. Lizzy, however, thinks she can never be ‘tolerably happy.’

***

Charlotte is confident:

Considering Mr Collins’s character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.

Yet she holds that

Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation.

None of this will satisfy her friend, though Miss Bennet is willing to hope for the best:

You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr Collins’s respectability, and Charlotte’s prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for every body’s sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin.

But nothing can reinstate her in Lizzy’s good opinion:

‘Were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding, than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man; you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger, security for happiness.’

‘I must think your language too strong in speaking of both,’ replied Jane, ‘and I hope you will be convinced of it, by seeing them happy together.’

This is precisely what her friend seeks to achieve by inviting her to Hunsford. In the meantime, she writes cheerfully about her new life, taking care to mention only what might be praised. Lizzy decides she’d better wait and see for herself.

***

Personally, I find Charlotte’s perceived need to justify herself rather pathetic – after all, friends shouldn’t sit in judgement, should they? Still, if Lizzy were somehow to be persuaded that things are not so bad as she may have thought, Charlotte would perhaps stop wondering whether she’s made the right choice …

The Parsonage was, indeed,

rather small, but well built and convenient; and everything was fitted up and arranged with a neatness and consistency of which Elizabeth gave Charlotte all the credit. When Mr Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte’s evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten.

mr collins & Charlotte
Illustration from http://www.mollands.net

The Collinses have a ‘comfortable income,’ but few servants, and cannot afford frequent journeys or a pianoforte. Though they dine at Rosings twice a week, ‘the style of living of the neighbourhood’ is much higher than theirs and therefore their social life is limited. In spite of Lady Catherine’s petty objections, it appears Charlotte is a good manager, and nothing is done extravagantly.

Lizzy  acknowledges

Charlotte’s degree of contentment, … her address in guiding, and composure in bearing with her husband, and … that it was all done very well.

Mr Darcy thinks the house looks ‘very comfortable,’ and Elizabeth admits that her friend ‘seems perfectly happy’

On parting, she reflects:

Poor Charlotte! — it was melancholy to leave her to such society! — But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion. Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, and all their dependent concerns, had not yet lost their charms.

Elizabeth appears to take it for granted that at some point she’ll grow bored with her usual employments. Actually, there is no evidence to support her assumption. Furthermore, by the end of the book Charlotte is pregnant, so we may imagine her children will soon occupy her mind and time. And, eventually, she’ll become mistress of Longbourn, which will pose new challenges and involve new responsibilities – plenty to look forward to.

Charlotte set herself a goal, thought out a plan, and pursued a strategy. Her efforts have been crowned with some success: Mr Collins may be a bit of a nuisance, but a career path has opened up for her. She shouldn’t be pitied.

***

Dr Johnson defines happiness as ‘felicity; state in which the desires are satisfied.’ The third example for the word is taken from John Locke’s An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Here’s the full quote:

The various and contrary choices that men make in the world do not argue that they do not all pursue good; but that the same thing is not good to every man alike. This variety of pursuits shows, that every one does not place his happiness in the same thing, or choose the same way to it.

‘Know your own happiness’ is Mrs Dashwood’s advice to Edward Ferrars. Charlotte may just have found hers: her reality-checked aspirations have been fulfilled, and she deserves all the credit for it. And however irksome Mr Collins’s society may be, deep down she must be grateful to him for having provided her with a home – a feeling that might grow into some kind of regard.

References

Jane Austen’s novels quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Johnson, Samuel. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Locke, John. (1689). An Essay concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved from https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/locke/john/l81u/

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Recreating Richard III: the Georgian stage and The Hollow Crown

I’ve always loved Richard III – ever since I first read it as a teenager. As I grew older, I realised that Shakespeare’s histories may be no more than legends, that he might have been biased, even a Tudor propagandist. But he’s given us some of the best historical fiction – and quite a few facts as well.

On the one hand, he follows his sources closely. Events may be conflated, their order changed, their interpretation simplified, comic relief introduced, the number of real-life characters reduced, speeches made up. But on the whole he keeps to the chosen narrative, which would place him rather near the fact side of the fact/fiction continuum. On the other hand, the dramatic architecture is impressive: he knows how to build up a good story, how to play on our emotions and our imagination to reach a climax, how to construct a fascinating tale from a dull chronicle. He selects just the material he needs and structures it so that the scenario unfolds seamlessly – a people’s history book of sorts.

Though we have perhaps become more critical than his first audiences, each generation finds its own way of enjoying English history through his stirring pageants. I’ve recently watched the Hollow Crown production of the Wars of the Roses, which comprises the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, my favourite. I loved it. I thought the photography was amazing. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is the last Plantagenet King’s third cousin 16 times removed, has not disappointed me. He’s magnificently human: still bad, but not just the calculating monster we’re used to – his rendering of the ‘there is no creature loves me’ line is actually quite moving. The hump, the withered arm, the uneven gait, the stumbling as he climbs the throne are all pretty convincing but not overdone. The soliloquies and asides are soberly expressive, and the camera is just where it should be, whether to stress personal feelings or to contextualise the action.

I liked all the actors. Judi Dench is perhaps quieter than I expected as the Dowager Duchess of York, the young princes are very good, and Sophie Okonedo is superb as Margaret of Anjou – she almost steals the show. There is too much blood on the battlefield to my taste, but then again that’s what mediaeval close quarter combat must have looked like. Queen Margaret has been made to wander it after Richmond’s victory, surrounded by the strewn corpses, a silent, haunting symbol of the senseless waste brought about by war. This may not have been Shakespeare’s idea, but I thought it a stroke of genius: in the final moments the focus is on tragedy itself.

***

Jane Austen must have enjoyed Shakespeare’s histories tremendously. In Mansfield Park, Fanny has been reading Henry VIII to Lady Bertram.

Crawford took the volume. Let me have the pleasure of finishing that speech to your ladyship,’ said he. ‘I shall find it immediately.’ And by carefully giving way to the inclination of the leaves, he did find it, or within a page or two, quite near enough to satisfy Lady Bertram, who assured him, as soon as he mentioned the name of Cardinal Wolsey, that he had got the very speech. Not a look or an offer of help had Fanny given; not a syllable for or against. All her attention was for her work. She seemed determined to be interested by nothing else. But taste was too strong in her. She could not abstract her mind five minutes: she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had been long used: her uncle read well, her cousins all, Edmund very well, but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always alight at will on the best scene, or the best speeches of each; and whether it were dignity, or pride, or tenderness, or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram.

782px-Microcosm_of_London_Plate_100_-_New_Covent_Garden_Theatre
New Covent Garden Theatre, by Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin

The heroine is mesmerised, just as Austen must have been when her brother Henry read Shakespeare aloud to the family:

Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needlework, which at the beginning seemed to occupy her totally: how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it, and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day were turned and fixed on Crawford–fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him, in short, till the attraction drew Crawford’s upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken.

Unlike his namesake, Mr Crawford is not particularly familiar with the Bard’s works. He doesn’t even remember whether he saw Henry VIII at the theatre. But this is a powerful scene, a joyful break in a wearisome tale of woe. Fanny’s suitor has ‘a great turn for acting,’ and a great zest too, as he makes plain in his reaction to the idea of private theatricals:

‘I really believe, said he, ‘I could be fool enough at this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shylock or Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat and cocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could rant and storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the English language.

***

Richard III is also mentioned in Austen’s letters. ‘Prepare for a Play the very first evening,’ she suggests to her sister on 9 March 1814, ‘I rather think Covent Garden, to see Young in Richard.’

Charles Mayne Young was born in 1777. He impersonated a variety of roles in Liverpool and Manchester before appearing at the Haymarket Theatre as Hamlet in 1807. He joined the Covent Garden Company in 1810, as second to John Kemble, leading in his absence.

Jane and Cassandra would have watched Colley Cibber’s adaptation of the tragedy, which was usually performed from 1700 to the end of the 19th century, replacing the original text. It would have begun with the murders of Edward Prince of Wales and Henry VI, to provide some background for those who were not quite familiar with the histories. Cibber’s version was much shorter than Shakespeare’s, and about half of the lines were his own. Many characters had been removed, among them Edward IV, Clarence, Queen Margaret, and Hastings, thus simplifying the production. This might have been one of the reasons behind Cibber’s success, another being his focus on the title-role. The princes were killed on stage, like in The Hollow Crown, presumably to increase the pathos, but Richard tended to be a bit over didactic about his schemes and motives, which must have made it all rather boring.

Charles Mayne Young
Charles Mayne Young as Hamlet, by George Clint

Though Cibber himself enacted the part rather indifferently, his version was hugely popularised by David Garrick, always a favourite with Georgian audiences. His portrayal of the main character suited their taste, eliciting sympathy and compassion, but stopped short of condoning vice.

The Covent Garden house could accommodate around 3000 people. It would have been lit by wax candles during the whole performance, as it was actually impossible to dim the lights. The actors would have stood on the forestage that jutted out into the auditorium, and the Austens would have watched it all from a box. It would be interesting to know whether they did go see Richard III and what they thought of the acting – some believe they didn’t.

***

If they had, Jane might have smiled remembering what she’d written as a young girl in The History of England, or the heated argument between Kitty Percival and Mr Stanley in Catharine, or The Bower – ‘upon my honour, you are entirely mistaken.’ Was she? Can anyone be? Shakespeare got at least one thing right. After all, whatever we may think of his reign, his role in the War of the Roses, or the Tudor spin doctors, forensic anthropologists confirmed that the King was indeed hunchbacked.

Fact and fiction intertwine in curious ways and we try to make sense of both as we go along. Each generation has its own Richard Plantagenet. Shakespeare’s words are resignified  in different contexts. Our experience of the play can never be the same after the Leicester car park discovery, after the anxious wait to know whether it was really him that lay unceremoniously buried in the city centre, and the final scientific corroboration. The Bosworth scenes have certainly taken on new meaning. Richmond’s prayers and protestations sound more hypocritical, his promises emptier.The opening lines have always had multi-layered connotations: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun/son of York.’

Austen’s novels were written to be read, Shakespeare’s plays to be performed. Both have been adapted for the stage and screen at various times. Whatever our opinion of the merits of particular renditions, they are works of art in themselves, recreations aimed at different audiences, ways of understanding their world as well as ours.

References

Jane Austen’s Juvenilia quoted from http://www.janeausten.ac.uk/manuscripts/blvolsecond/153.html

Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park quoted from www.mollands.net

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Hammond, Antony, ed. (1989). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare

Kane, Kathryn. (2009). The Glittering Regency Theatre. Retrieved from https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/the-glittering-regency-theatre/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Siemon, James, ed. (2009). King Richard III. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

Tomalin, Claire 1999. Jane Austen. A Life. New York: Vintage Books.

A valetudinarian all his life: what is wrong with Mr Woodhouse?

I have always believed Mr Woodhouse was one of those sad creatures whose purported ill health provides the perfect pretext for them to rule other people’s lives and enjoy their constant attention. My opinion has never materially changed, though I have become more aware of his many good qualities and grown rather fond of him over time – you may say he is now an ‘old acquaintance.’ But while Emma may be commended for looking after him as if he were truly sick, he might not be that poorly as he would wish us to think.

The evil of the actual disparity in their ages (and Mr Woodhouse had not married early) was much increased by his constitution and habits; for having been a valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body, he was a much older man in ways than in years.

For a long time I took it for granted that he was, therefore, a hypochondriac – someone unduly anxious about health issues. Forever afraid that someone might catch cold, he is also overcautious about food, and gets a kick out of consulting the apothecary. Yet some learned members of the medical profession disagree, and I would certainly not presume to override their clinical judgement. On the other hand, Jane Austen was not a physician and her novels were intended for the general public. She might have been more concerned with describing typical comic traits that might be recognised in ordinary people than with accurate diagnosis.

In order to settle the matter, I turned to Dr Johnson. According to him, the word ‘valetudinarian’ is an adjective that means ‘weakly; sickly; infirm of health.’ But then, among the examples, is a quote from Jonathan Swift: ‘Valetudinarians must live where they can command and scold,’ which shows the term might even then be used as a noun and applied to those who were not that frail. Dr Swift goes on to say:

I must have horses to ride, I must go to bed and rise when I please, and live where all mortals are subservient to me. I must talk nonsense when I please, and all who are present must commend it. I must ride thrice a week, and walk three or four miles, besides, every day.

Valetudinarians might therefore actually be or fancy themselves unwell – the ambiguity remains. Austen’s reference to Mr Woodhouse’s constitution is also equivocal, as it may be taken in either a physical or a psychological sense. In this case the former would seem more appropriate, as she distinguishes it from his sedentary habits.  All in all, he is not quite hale and hearty, though it may look a bit like a chicken-and-egg problem: is he too feeble for physical or mental exertion or is it idleness that has turned him into an invalid?

As the author remarks, he has been like that all his life. We may assume his faculties have declined with age, but he appears to have been born an old man. His memory, for instance, has never been good, as he tells his daughter:

Ah! it is no difficulty to see who you take after! Your dear mother was so clever at all those things! If I had but her memory! But I can remember nothing;—not even that particular riddle which you have heard me mention; I can only recollect the first stanza; and there are several.

800px-Thomas_Rowlandson_-_Comforts_of_Bath-_The_Pump_Room_-_Google_Art_Project
Comforts of Bath: The Pump Room, by Thomas Rowlandson

He does not say: ‘If only I could remember things as I used to,’ as many elderly people do – he must always have been slow.

A comparison with his elder daughter might be enlightening:

She was not a woman of strong understanding or any quickness; and with this resemblance of her father, she inherited also much of his constitution; was delicate in her own health, over-careful of that of her children, had many fears and many nerves, and was as fond of her own Mr Wingfield in town as her father could be of Mr Perry.

Yet Isabella leads an active, fulfilling, and happy life – in other words, similar constitution, different habits. Se does not seem to be ‘easily depressed’ or hate change. She is certainly no enemy to marriage.

After Harriet’s encounter with the gypsies,

It was some comfort to him that many inquiries after himself and Miss Woodhouse (for his neighbours knew that he loved to be inquired after), as well as Miss Smith, were coming in during the rest of the day; and he had the pleasure of returning for answer, that they were all very indifferent–which, though not exactly true, for she was perfectly well, and Harriet not much otherwise, Emma would not interfere with.

From this excerpt I gather that her father might not be in the pink of health – or at least that he has succeeded in convincing her of that. On the other hand, his dialogue with Isabella in chapter 12 shows that he thinks everybody else as sickly as he believes himself to be.

What exactly is wrong with him, apart from his low spirits and endless apprehensions? In chapter 2 we find out that ‘his own stomach could bear nothing rich.’ Then we learn that the sea ‘almost killed’ him on one occasion. In chapter 32, Emma tells Mrs Elton that he has tried Bath ‘more than once, formerly; but without receiving any benefit; and Mr Perry … does not conceive it would be at all more likely to be useful now.’

He may suffer then from some kind of chronic digestive disorder, which his fears might have worsened – if  you eat something believing it may upset your stomach, it probably will. We do not know whether he went to the seaside or Bath on medical advice or just because he thought it might help. During the Regency, treatment involved drinking sea or spa water, which might not have agreed with him. And he might have caught his death taking a swim, or, more likely, being dipped in the freezing waves during the winter months, which were considered the best time of year for such practices.

In Northanger Abbey Mr Allen is ‘ordered to Bath for the benefit of his gouty constitution.’ Plenty of others experiencing similar ailments did the same, as we can see in Jane Austen’s letters. Her brother Edward was one of them:

Edward has not been well these last two days; his appetite has failed him, & he has complained of sick & uncomfortable feelings, which, with other Symptoms make us think of the Gout – perhaps a fit of it might cure him, but I cannot wish it to begin at Bath.

But over a fortnight later, his sister writes:

Edward has seen the Apothecary to whom Dr Millman recommended him, a sensible, intelligent Man, since I began this – & he attributes his present little feverish indisposition to his having ate something unsuited to his Stomach. – I do not understand that Mr Anderton suspects the Gout at all; – The occasional particular glow in the hands & feet, which we considered as a symptom of that Disorder, he only calls the effect of the Water in promoting a better circulation of the blood.

That made me think there might have been some confusion in Mr Woodhouse’s case too. As there does not seem to be anything particularly unusual in an elderly man’s walking rather slowly or dozing off occasionally after dinner, it would appear gastrointestinal trouble is all he is really afflicted by – physically, that is.

Foundling_Hospital,_London__Etching_by_H__Roberts,_1749,_aft_Wellcome_V0014672
Foundling Hospital on Brunswick Square. Etching by H. Roberts after J. Robertson after T. Jacobsen. Source: http://www.wellcomeimages.org

On the other hand, he is melancholy, obsessed with disease, afraid of storms as well as of thieves, terrified of change, scarcely able to look beyond his own navel, and utterly dependent on his younger daughter. ‘“What is to be done, my dear Emma?—what is to be done?” was Mr. Woodhouse’s first exclamation, and all that he could say for some time,’ incapable as he was of making up his own mind. Should they stay at Randalls for the night or get back home braving the drifting snow? I must admit I feel sorry for him this time: after his son-in-law’s alarming description any elderly person would have been frightened. Nor are his worries about the quality of London’s air in general, quite apart from Brunswick Square, altogether groundless – on the contrary, the combination fog, smoke and soot would have been truly detrimental to the respiratory system.

Poor Mr Woodhouse is not very clever: everything has to be read and explained to him several times over, whether it is charades or business matters. It seems he has never exercised his brain, and this is one of the reasons why he looks older than he is. Perhaps he should have been treated more like a normal person instead of being overindulged as an invalid …

Though gentle, benevolent, and polite towards his neighbours, he is also selfishly controlling and prevents Emma from leading a full life. She is made to feel she always comes first and is always right, and allowed to do as she pleases as long as he remains at the centre of her thoughts and schemes. Ill health keeps him there, while inactivity reinforces helplessness and ensures permanent compassion.

Unlike Emma’s, his is the story of someone who refuses to embrace, often even to acknowledge, change or diversity. He cannot be persuaded to venture beyond the metaphorical shrubbery to see how the other half lives, whose pleasures he is unable to understand. The happy ending is brought about by playing on his fears rather than by his conquering them.

References

Emma text quoted from http://www.mollands.net

Adams, Carol. (2015, Dec. 19). Jane Austen’s Guide to Alzheimer’s. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/20/opinion/jane-austens-guide-to-alzheimers.html?_r=1

Adkins, Roy and Lesley. (2014). Jane Austen’s England. Daily Life in the Georgian and Regency Periods. New York: Penguin Books.

Bader, Ted. (2000). Mr Woodhouse is not a hypochondriac! Persuasions, vol. 21, No. 2. Retrieved from http://www.jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol21no2/bader.html

Johnson, Samuel. (1755). A Dictionary of the English Language. Retrieved from http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/

Kinney, Cheryl. (2016). Mr Woodhouse and What Matters in the End. Retrieved from https://sarahemsley.com/2016/02/05/mr-woodhouse-and-what-matters-in-the-end/

Le Faye, Deirdre, ed. (2011). Jane Austen Letters. Oxford: OUP.

Swift, Jonathan. (1741). Letters to and from Dr J. Swift, D.S.P.D, from the year 1714, to 1738. Dublin: George Faulkner.