Emma: A World of Anxiety

Anxiety may appear to be a strange topic to choose to focus on when looking at an Austen novel, but I was struck on my most recent reading of Emma by the constant undercurrent of worry in many of the characters’ lives, not to mention the constant use of vocabulary to do with fear and anxiety. Mr Woodhouse is the most obvious embodiment of this; his often rather selfish behaviour is dictated by his intense fear of illness or accident happening either to him or to those he loves. He keeps to a strict diet, preferring gruel over a proper dinner, and tries his best to dissuade his friends and relations from eating the food they enjoy in case it makes them unwell. The mere thought of anyone sitting outside to eat or- God forbid – enjoying a little afternoon sun on a garden bench – sends Mr Woodhouse into paroxysms of nerves that take poor Emma hours to soothe away. Mr Woodhouse hasn’t been to Mr Knightley’s house – a mere 15 minutes’ walk away – in over two years and he rarely ventures outside of his own gardens for fear of catching cold or having an accident in his carriage during the short journey to one of his neighbours’ homes. The language Mr Woodhouse uses is full of vocabulary associated with fear – words such as danger, afraid, risk, hurt – and is invariably negative. He sees evil lurking on every corner and even the most innocuous of activities suggest sinister consequences.

On the surface Mr Woodhouse is a caricature, someone to be laughed at in his hypersensitivity and selfishness. However, his behaviour is really no laughing matter. His terror of the slightest change in routine prevents him from leading a full life and it prevents those around him from living a full life, too. On many an occasion Emma must deny herself opportunities to see more of the world and have the fun she should be having due to her father’s fears. She has also been negatively affected by his desire to keep her at home and away from danger, which has given her a narrow experience of the world and a limited education.  Guests at Hartfield cannot eat what they like or walk where they like for fear of upsetting Mr Woodhouse, who sees indigestion in every bite of something that is not gruel. Mrs Weston cannot enjoy the outing to Donwell because she must sit inside with Mr Woodhouse while everyone else picks strawberries and basks in the sunshine. She is also made to feel guilty about getting married and her joy in this occasion is marred by the distress she knows she is giving her former employer. Mr Knightley must give up his much beloved home and his independence on marrying Emma, because Mr Woodhouse cannot cope without her. Mr Woodhouse might seem to be a mild and harmless old man, but really he is a bit of a tyrant, allowing his personal fears to restrict the lives of those he loves and causing quite significant damage to the happiness of others.

Where do all these fears stem from, one wonders? Mr Woodhouse is wealthy, with a beautiful home in a lovely village filled with old friends who think very highly of him. He has two attractive and healthy daughters, one of whom is blissfully married with five children of her own, and the other never leaves his side and cannot do enough to secure his comfort. He is not a man who would typically need to live in fear. However, if we go back to the beginning of the novel, the biggest clue to his outlook on life lies in the fact that he is a widower. His young, clever and sensible wife died when his daughters were young, leaving Mr Woodhouse at the mercy of his low intelligence and melodramatic disposition. It also meant the heart of his home was gone, and his children were motherless, which must have been immensely painful to him. We aren’t told how Mrs Woodhouse died, but it wasn’t in childbirth, so we can assume her death was caused by some form of illness or infection. The shock and grief ensuing from this has undoubtedly made Mr Woodhouse fearful of experiencing such pain again. In the early 19th century, the average life expectancy was under 50 and medicine was still primitive at best. Without antibiotics or other medications, illnesses that we would struggle into work with, accompanied by some aspirin, could kill a formerly healthy adult in the blink of an eye. Therefore, to a certain extent, Mr Woodhouse’s seemingly trivial fears are justified; illness was not something to be trifled with. His fear of change is also intriguing as it’s not really change as much as marriage that terrifies him. He didn’t like Isabella or Miss Taylor getting married – and always refers to them as ‘poor’. This is undoubtedly partly due to him missing their company now they are no longer part of his household and not wanting to be alone like he must have felt after his wife’s untimely death, but perhaps also because of the unspoken implications of marriage. Invariably a married woman would become pregnant; in the 1800s, when births took place at home and any ensuing complication could be fatal, a woman dying in childbirth was commonplace. Mrs Weston’s impending labour brings much anxiety, after all, and everyone is relieved when she is found to be ‘safe’. Mr Woodhouse’s experience has shown him that life is precious and can very quickly be snuffed out , though ironically his fear of death has prevented him from enjoying his life to the full.

In general, the early 1800s was a time of war and upheaval and just a few decades earlier the revolutions in America and France had demonstrated that the rigid class systems that had been the status quo for hundreds of years were no longer as stable as previously thought. In Emma, we see the likes of the Coles, Hawkins and the deliciously named Sucklings able to raise themselves through trade from humble backgrounds to great prosperity. The Sucklings’ much mentioned estate in Bristol, Maple Grove, is bigger than Hartfield and the Coles have rapidly become second only to Hartfield in Highbury society, encroaching on the landed gentry who have been ruling the roost for several generations. The likes of Mr Robert Martin are also rapidly ascending the social ladder and could hope for a better life than they were born to through hard work and access to education. Highbury may seem to be a microcosm of a traditional, safe and unchanging rural English community, but dig a little under the surface and you find a very different picture.

This is reflected in the fact that Mr Woodhouse is certainly not the only Highbury resident to be living in fear. Miss Bates is forever afraid of Miss Fairfax’s health and her prospects and reads her letters over first so that she does not say anything to alarm her mother. Mrs Weston almost calls the ball at The Crown off for fear of her guests having to pass through draughty passages and works herself into a state of much anxiety over Frank’s safety when he is late for his appointed visit. Emma worries about Harriet and her state of mind constantly. Mr Knightley is fearful of the consequences of Emma’s influence on Harriet. He is also afraid of her having an affection for Mr Churchill that will end his hopes of marriage. Jane Fairfax is terrified of her secret engagement being found out and also made ill with the terrible prospect of having to leave her family and friends behind to have to take the lowly position of governess in a stranger’s house. Mr Churchill is ever nervous about his aunt’s capricious temper and also worried about getting found out and disappointing his father. Isabella is perpetually nervous about her children’s health and Mr John Knightley almost calls off Christmas because of his concern for the safety of driving a few yards down the road to Randalls. No one in Highbury is ever resting easy, even if what they are worrying about is trivial. Fear and anxiety run underneath the surface of this otherwise immensely lighthearted and joyful book, and this tone of worry is a reminder that Jane Austen was not, as many of her critics suggest, oblivious to the contemporary world around her. Look carefully and you see a perfectly clear reflection of early 19th century England in her pages, and this makes the reading experience even richer.


  1. Booksnob, there is as much darkness in Emma as there is in Mansfield, the only difference is that in Emma, it is almost entirely submerged beneath the surface, because everything you see in Emma is filtered through the clueless mind of Emma herself.

    The shadow heroines of Emma are Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates, who are both autobiographical representations of Jane Austen herself, as viewed through the eyes of clueless Austen relatives.

    Read here for a sampler, but there more than 100 posts at my blog just about the shadow story of Emma:





    Emma’s shadow story is like Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, 12-part celestial harmony, in two counterpoised but independent stories.

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Arnie, I look forward to reading your articles!

  2. Lucy says:

    Oooh, how intriguing! I’ve never approached Emma from this perspective and now I’m really itching to read it again. I love how Austen’s novels may appear light on the surface but always have so much more bubbling underneath. Genius!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Every re-read highlights something new, Lucy! It’s like reading a different book each time! I know – Austen was such a genius and I only wish she had written more!

  3. I am enjoying your commentary on Emma, Rachel. Poor Mr. Woodhouse.

    These illustrations are luscious, aren’t they?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Penny, glad to hear it! I know, I do feel sorry for Mr Woodhouse. Nerves and anxiety are very disabling.

      I know! I love my copy, the illustrations are so fun!

  4. dianabirchall says:

    Wonderful, Rachel – I love the way you zeroed in on the fear and danger lying just under the surface in one of the seemingly coziest villages in fiction! By the way, would you like to read my Emma pastiche, “In Defense of Mrs. Elton”? JASNA (the Jane Austen Society) has put it online so it’s easy to read: http://jasna.org/publications/defense/index.htm
    Your post especially hit home for me today, with the very true assumption that the average age of death then was under 50 and we’re safer now, etc. One of the long time, stalwart members of the Janeites@yahoogroups.com list, Jeannie Lugo, just died suddenly of a brain aneurysm, and she was not yet 50. Life is precious, was then, and is now.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Diana! Indeed I would, I shall pop over and have a read right now! How sad, I am so sorry to hear that and for you, to lose a friend. Life is precious indeed.

  5. Diana says:

    It’s interesting that this undercurrent of fear/danger/etc. is lurking throughout the novel, because Emma, more than any other novel Austen wrote, makes me feel warm and secure. It’s like drinking a steaming mug of tea on a chilly evening. It makes me feel safe — as though if I could merely escape to Highbury and stay at Hartfield, nothing bad could hope to follow me there. Its sunshine seeps into my heart. I turned to adaptations of Emma (and P&P) whenever I need cheering up. What a curious paradox!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes, me too Diana. I think Emma is cosy and very community minded, which gives it a sense of stability and warmth that is quite unique to the novels. Despite the undercurrent of anxiety, I still do find it an overwhelmingly cheerful novel and I had never really noticed the tone of negativity before this re-read!

  6. What an interesting theme to highlight in Emma. I’m so enjoying all your JA reviews and want to return to them myself now! Btw, I just bought Harriet yesterday and am so looking forward to starting it!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Miranda! Ooooh glad to hear you have Harriet ready to start – I know you’ll love it!

  7. Jenny says:

    What an interesting perspective on Emma! I think this is one of the great things about Austen — the real fears of being alone or unwanted or just generally not right with society underlie everything the characters are doing, in Emma as well as Pride and Prejudice etc. That’s what gives P&P such excellent stakes, to me: Austen satirizes the Bennet family and everyone else, but those girls really do need to marry or they’ll just be at the mercy of Mr. Collins or other relatives. (Like poor Charlotte!)

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Jenny! You are quite right – the whole preoccupation of every novel is marriage and partnership because without it the lives of the women would be unstable and unpredictable, forever, as you say, at the mercy of others to ensure their comfort. It’s a frightening thought that they genuinely had no power to provide for themselves.

  8. Lisa says:

    What an interesting post on Emma. Reading it with your thoughts in mind I am at least relieved that Mr. Woodhouse has many redeeming qualities, a ‘good nature’, a love of ‘anything that pays women a compliment’ and a sincere love for Emma. He is rather indulged in his behaviour by all those around him. Austen appears to have many flawed parental figures in her novels. Thankfully Mr. Woodhouse’s flaws don’t prevent people wanting to be around him or partaking of his hospitality. Emma provides a nice counter balance to his behaviour. Although I read Northanger Abbey a long time ago, General Tilney still sends shivers up my spine as a parental figure. I still can’t believe that he sent Catherine Morland out of his house in the middle of the night! I should read it again as my imagination has built up this scene in my mind to be particularly horrible!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes, Mr Woodhouse’s nerves and anxieties do make him a bad parent in some respects and also a bad friend – but his heart is in the right place and his kind and largely generous nature have obviously won him great respect which says a lot about how Austen means for him to be understood. I haven’t read Northanger Abbey in so long…you have intrigued me now! It’s next on my list to re-read though so I am very much looking forward to reading about this ogre of a parent!

  9. Nicola says:

    You’ve given me food for thought as always Rachel. I read one critic who thought Mr Woodhouse was an absolute monster which always seems a little far-fetched to me. I wonder if the gypsies/travellers are a manifestation of anxiety, too? Unusual in an Austen novel

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Nicola. Yes I wouldn’t go that far – he isn’t perfect but his behaviour is certainly not cruel or monstrous! YES that is such a good point – I totally forgot to mention that. The gypsies is a very interesting interlude – partly a device to introduce confusion over Harriet’s new choice of lover as we can easily misread her reference to being rescued, as Emma does – but also a sign that Hartfield isn’t just a safe and sleepy village and does have an unsavoury side. I’d be interested to learn more about the social history side of this – I wonder whether at the time Austen was writing, there was a particular problem with gypsies?

  10. Angela says:

    Thanks for the interesting read. I just finished re-reading Emma last week, os it was fun to reminisce. 🙂 (although I *think* the reason Mrs. Weston stayed with Mr. Woodhouse instead of going to Donwell was partly because she was expecting!)

    1. bookssnob says:

      You’re welcome, Angela! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed your re-read. Yes you are right – it was part of the reason – but Mrs Weston did walk there on purpose so that she could give the excuse that she was tired and so could sit with Mr Woodhouse without him feeling guilty at her staying with him. So kind!

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