If you have read my previous blogs posts, you will know I have an interest in developing Jane Austen’s minor and more obscure characters. I’ve enjoyed writing about Mrs. Dashwood, Mrs. Croft, Thomas Bertram and others. But one character that has always piqued my imagination is Mrs. Woodhouse, mother of Emma.
This is a challenge. I’m sure there are some that would say Mrs. Woodhouse is not really a character. Her presence in the novel is minimal. The only direct mention of Mrs. Woodhouse comes from John Knightly, who thinks many of Emma’s personality imperfections are the result of her mother’s untimely death. With these opinions about Emma’s mother, Austen conveys to the reader that Knightly is the one person that understands Emma’s true essence.
At the beginning of the story, it is said that Emma “had very little to vex her in life” in her nearly twenty-one years. This is what most of the characters in the story profess to believe; that Emma never had a care. But the truth is, no young child could possibly go unscathed by the death of a parent at such a young age. From the text, it is implied that Mrs. Woodhouse lost her life when her daughter Emma was very young. Austen writes that Emma “had no more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses.” And while the effect of Mrs. Woodhouse’s death on Emma could be construed as subliminal, for other characters who would have had a clearer memory of her, her loss appears more evident. The most obvious character that fits this paradigm would be her husband, the valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse.
I wonder what Austen’s intentions were when she created Mr. Woodhouse. Was he born this hypochondriacal man, frightened of everything from cake to the weather to drafts? If he was this paranoid recluse all his life, I doubt he would have married and had a family, or been able to manage Hartfield and his other affairs. So, is Mr. Woodhouse this way because of his wife’s death? One could surmise Mrs. Woodhouse died of some contagious affliction, which then made her husband afraid of anything and anyone that could tax his health and the health of those he loved.
The other curious thing about Mr. Woodhouse is his attitude toward marriage. He laments terribly when Emma’s governess Miss Taylor weds, and still complains about his daughter Isabella’s marriage long after it takes place. This marriage phobia is so extreme that Emma promises she will never marry, and when she does decide to accept Mr. Knightley’s proposal, almost doesn’t go through with it because of her father.
Can it be said that the union between Mr. and Mrs. Woodhouse was unhappy? Some critics believe it was. I do not. If fact, I think the opposite would be true. Instead, I would say Mr. Woodhouse wished to protect those he cares about from the kind of suffering he endured; the loss of someone as dear to him as his wife. Love and marriage make people vulnerable to pain and loss; something he was very familiar with and something he wished no one else to experience.
So again, who was Mrs. Woodhouse? I would say, only touching the surface, she was a woman, first and foremost, loved and revered by her family. In writing about Mrs. Woodhouse, and expanding on her character, that is a very good place to start.