Rereading Austen is always fun, and Emma particularly so, not least – as P.D. James pointed out – because so much of the pleasure of that novel involves reading both the hidden and the explicit plots alongside each other, which you can only do once you know the twist. This time around a couple of things caught my eye about the early pages, and the one I’d like to discuss in this post is concerned with perspective.
Mr. Woodhouse’s obsession with his own health and comfort comes across as more and more culpable every time I open the novel. The first few times I read or saw the story he seemed a necessary establishing character, like Cher’s hardworking but absent father in Clueless, and a mere relict of the missing mother who provides space for Emma to take over the estate make her own mistakes. He apparently stood in the direct line which ran through Menander and Ben Jonson: a comic old man with a monomania who gets in the way of the young people’s desire to remake society in their own image. His stated antipathy to marriage makes this appearance even stronger, lending him the air of a “blocking” character from the same tradition, an impediment to the romantic plot which will work itself out in ways which transmit money and family lineage safely and legitimately to the next generation (to pick one particularly conservative model of comedy.)
However, rather like Mr. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Woodhouse is pretty strongly condemned for his failure to command his own household and live up to the demands of his role. The “space” which the incompetent or lazy or introverted paterfamilias provides to an Austen’s heroine is also a gap in the protection afforded her by society against exploitation or danger. Because Mr. Bennet is a relatively attractive character who is surrounded by gossipy people and prefers the quiet of his library and the conversation of a young woman who has definite ideas – all surely calculated to appeal to many modern readers of the novel – I think we can sometimes overlook his dereliction of duty. It is not just an over-scrupulous conscience which makes him blame himself when one of his daughters elopes with a man whose last romantic adventure involved trying to marry a fifteen year-old girl in order to financially exploit her. Of course Mr. Bennet then goes to another extreme, execrating the social networks which he has shunned for an easy life, and declaring his intention to impose a positively Puritan lifestyle on his family.
Mr. Woodhouse’s care for his own person is rather like Mr. Bennet’s for his comfort and his quiet hours in the library. He is, as the narratorial voice informs us, “a much older man in ways than in years” and though amiable, “his talents could not have recommended him at any time”. He is basically pointless and of no use to anyone else. It’s a surprisingly harsh judgement, and one which reminds us that being nice isn’t a virtue which Austen’s novels rate particularly highly. Certainly not in those who have a duty to others, and whose indulgence of their own pleasantness can have disastrous consequences. My students are often surprised at how conservative Austen can be when you stop and examine her, and I know the feeling… Her world’s scorn for a desire for personal comfort at the expense of one’s proper place in society suddenly jumped out in Persuasion when I realized that Anne Elliot is horrified that her father can be happy in apartments in Bath, that he isn’t snobbish enough to be appalled at the drop in his circumstances. Though she’s often read as exalting love over social convention and social position, Austen can be damning to those who find themselves at the top and exert themselves only to enjoy the situation.
There’s another flaw lurking in Emma’s father, which I think I totally misread in the past. Mr. Woodhouse’s dislike of marriages, Christmas parties and rich foods is well attested in the book: when Miss Taylor has been Mrs. Weston for quite some time he is still remarking when she visits them “poor Miss Taylor. She would be very glad to stay”, and he cannot believe the “story” he hears that the doctor’s children were seen eating wedding cake. I’ve always seen this as the monomania of humours comedy – even more so because he is literally concerned with his humours, or at least his health – but there’s a telling aside that it stems from “his habits…of never being able to suppose that other people could feel differently from him”. This is an actual vice in Austen, I think. In her work, which is so concerned with the way we recognise and misrecognise others, and the potential of novels to expand the range of a reader’s sympathies, the inability to imagine someone else having seriously different thoughts verges on a crime. It’s a trait which Emma herself comes very close to at times, and Mr. Woodhouse is introduced early in the novel as an illustration of the persistent lack of imaginative sympathy which nearly derails people’s lives throughout the book. His daughter’s glib assumption of the right to map, inhabit and direct other people’s psyches – and love lives – is only a transposition of Mr. Woodhouse’s characteristic flaw into another key. Perhaps we can read the novel as partly about her lucky escape from becoming as narrow and obsessive as her father by a process of moral and emotional education. Of course the way that education takes place is another matter…
Sarah B. Hood said:
Interesting. I have sometimes thought that Mr. Woodhouse might well have a fairly specific and quite diagnosable form of anxiety disorder. He’s not just an amusing hypochondriac; he has real anxiety about leaving the home. In this interpretation, his inability to see that other people don’t share these fears is a little less culpable, more a symptom of his disorder. But it’s certainly damaging to Emma and others in their sphere.
Thanks Sarah – that’s an intriguing speculation. It would make us consider Austen’s notion of “sociability” in a slightly different way, as well as the house as a focus of social life!
I always find it really creepy near the end when Mr Knightley declares that he believes he’s loved Emma since she was twelve years old, or something along those lines. Ew, ew, ew.
Yeah, it’s a disconcerting plotline – “Gosh, Emma’s father has failed in his duty. Let’s rectify that by finding a different father for her. Or husband. Or both.”
Many, many apologies for responding 10 months after the event, but I only discovered your excellent and thought-provoking blog three days ago. I have adored Mr Woodhouse for most of my life and am horrified that he is so misunderstood! A crime! A crime you accuse him of!
To complete the quotation of which you give the second part: “…though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and the amiableness of his temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.” Friendliness of heart, amiableness of temper and being everywhere beloved are not negligible qualities anywhere, least of all in Austen. If one of our first responsibilities is to love our neighbour as ourselves then Mr Woodhouse emphatically does not neglect his duties. He offers Miss Taylor — a penniless woman, not related to him, whose original role in his household no longer exists — a permanent home for the rest of her life. And he doesn’t do it in the manner of Sir Thomas Bertram offering a home to Fanny — a self-admiring, charitable gesture to a social inferior. In a novel full of snobbery Mr Woodhouse is perhaps the most indifferent to class. Unlike his daughter, he treats Harriet, Miss Taylor, Mrs and Miss Bates, Miss Fairfax and Mrs Goddard all as equals, almost as members of an extended family; it never seems to occur to him to do differently.
Mrs Goddard is described as “having formerly owed much to Mr Woodhouse’s kindness.” The implication here is that he has helped her in some substantial way. He is very far from being, as you say, “of no use to anyone.” When the pig is killed, Emma and Mr Woodhouse’s first concern is to decide which of their neighbours would benefit from some pork. He is very slightly reconciled to Miss Taylor marrying because it provides an opportunity for him to get his coachman’s daughter a job (“… she is a pretty, civil-spoken girl: I have a great opinion of her,” he says). The needs of his friends and servants are something he considers and supplies in his duffle-headed way. This is nothing like Mr Bennet.
As you rightly say Mr Woodhouse hasn’t a shred of imagination, but he is compassionate. His lack of imagination in Miss Taylor’s case (that he cannot believe she wants to leave Hartfield) doesn’t result in harm to her, but good (he gives her a home). This is odd to us as nowadays we tend to think of compassion as depending on imagination (or at least I do). You are also right to point out that he hasn’t a clue what other people are thinking, but for him this means consistently thinking better of them than, say, Emma (with her acute perception) would. At several points in the book he attributes better motives to Emma than she actually has. I think this is a clue to his character.
The intelligent characters, Mr Knightley, Mrs Taylor-Weston and Emma, all seem quite simply to love him. In fact pretty much everybody in the book seems to love him (“everywhere beloved”), so when you say that “Mr Woodhouse is pretty strongly condemned…” I’m struggling to understand who is doing the condemning. I find it hard to believe that it’s Austen and yet there isn’t a hint of it in the reaction of any of the other characters.
To go back to: “…though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and the amiableness of his temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.” You read this (I do hope I’ve got this right) as a harsh judgement. I read it as the opposite: a hint from Austen that there may be things more important than talents. I think Emma’s treatment of the completely talentless Miss Bates later in the book followed by her deep, heartfelt repentance of that treatment bears this out. Emma and Mr Knightley agree that Miss Bates is good *and* she is ridiculous; in the end Emma decides, that as with her father, the good is what matters.
Thank you for making me think so hard.
Thanks for this terrific comment – Susanna, and for such a careful refutation!