Sofie and Mr Woodhouse ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen


“I am afraid I am sometimes very fanciful and troublesome”

I cannot think of one person that I know, who has read ‘Emma’ who will think that Mr Woodhouse is not a kind, soft lovable old man. Through Jane Austen’s prose, we can see him sitting near a well stocked fire, wearing a warm jacket and a cap on his head. His movements are slow and measured. He is easily flustered. He adheres to a daily routine.His most dominant characteristic is his worry about his health.

He is set in his ways and no one can change that. He only listened to the local apothecary Mr Perry. Each day he takes a a bowl of gruel and takes three turns around his garden the the weather is fine.

With a few well-chosen words Jane Austen introduces us to Mr. Woodhouse. From the very beginning his character is set. She has in fact given us an accurate psychological profile.

Mr. Woodhouse knows that he is” troublesome.” He has an insight about his condition but cannot or more exactly does not want to change. 

There is no pressure for him to change. His position of wealth and consequence in the small community of Highbury makes a him person to whom people indulge and all his character traits are thus reinforced.

He is worried not only from the sickness itself but also from the potential of it. He engages in “magical’ thinking to ward off the potential dangers. He sits by the fire to prevent a cold. He takes a bowl of gruel to prevent any digestive malaise despite of any lack of evidence that the gruel will make him a healthy or is even good for him. He adheres to a strict physical routine. Three turns around the garden when the weather is fine. The number three must have a meaning to him that eludes me.

What makes him so endearing to the reader is the fact that he also worries about all the people around him even the peripheral characters.

On a cold night Mr Knightley comes for a visit. 

“ Mr Woodhouse gratefully observed, “ it is kind of you, Mr Knightley to come out at this late hour to call upon us. I am afraid you must have had a shocking walk” “ not at all sir. It is a beautiful moonlight night….” “But you must have found it very damp and dirty. I wish you may not catch cold.”

Miss Bates mrs Bates and Mrs Goddard come for a visit. “ Mrs Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs… one of our small eggs will not hurt you. Miss Bates let Emma help you to a little bit of tart a very little bit. Ours are apple tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. Mrs Goddard, what say you to half a glass of wine… put into a tumbler of water? I do not think it could disagree with you.”

By being so careful about the health of others he is reassuring not only them and primarily himself that he shall cause no harm.

He worries even about hypothetical situations

While admiring Emma’s watercolor of her friend Harriet. “ she seems to be sitting out of doors with only a little shawl over her shoulders..and it makes one think she must catch cold.”

He has a neurotic and obsessive phobia about his and others health. He is always giving advice to the people surrounding him. This concern about the comfort of all around him makes us forgive his neurosis.

Unfortunately for Mr Woodhouse his neurosis does not stop at his worries about his everyones health but also about any kind of change in his household. He cannot part with his immediate entourage. He is miserable indeed by Miss Taylor’s marriage “Ah! Poor Miss Taylor ! Tis is a sad business.” He always predicts  a negative outcome of anything out of his own regimented routine.

He is still not reconciled with the idea of his eldest daughter being married and living in London. “Nobody is healthy in London….It is a dreadful thing to have forced to live there.”

He fortunately has Emma. But his rigidity and self centered attitude which comes out as selfishness has a deep impact on her. She has to comply for this life because of the customs of the regency times and the subtle manipulation of her father that she loves dearly. He is a tyrant with a velvet fist. He life is confined and monotonous because of his controlling behavior and that is the driving force behind her matchmaking and she in turn is projecting by trying to control other people’s lives.

 Mr Woodhouse’s characteristics

  • worry intensely about his health.
  • Worry about being away from home
  • Worry about any change in his environment
  • Worry about being left alone.

In Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen has introduced us to an ‘anxiety personality with somatic symptoms or hypochondriac’. Mr Woodhouse’s ‘anxiety’ manifests itself with a perpetual anguish about his health. His neurosis is compounded by his ‘separation anxiety’. Any disruption in his immediate family is a major catastrophe.

From sharp observations and accurate descriptions it is clear that Jane Austen drew her observations from her community. She has the genius of presenting these psychological conditions in a narrative and humane way very different from the dry and impersonal description in modern scientific literature.

So today when we meet mr Woodhouse we will not only commiserate at his neurosis but advise him to seek help. Modern medicine and pharmacology has a great impact on his condition with a high rate of success. 


Even though Jane Austen gave us an astute description of Mr Woodhouse she did not delve on the origin of it. Modern psychology and psychopharmacology will. She had of course no idea that such a thing existed. Psychology as we know it today did not emerge until the late 1800. The first DSM V diagnostic criteria was put in place in 1952.

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