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.

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 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.


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.

2 thoughts on “A valetudinarian all his life: what is wrong with Mr Woodhouse?

  1. Mr Woodhouse is a tedious one man who is fortunate enough to have enough to have inherited an estate and income that enables him to live a privileged lifestyle which he could not command by his own abilities. .

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Stephen, for commenting. I agree. I think it’s interesting that others in Highbury are rising on their own merits. The Coles, who are in trade, are now second only to the Woodhouses ‘in fortune and style of living,’ while Mr Weston has been able to purchase Randalls with the fruits of his labour, and Mr Martin is expected to become ‘rich in time’.


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