From Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice who complains constantly about her “nerves” and is “taken ill immediately” when she is informed of Lydia’s elopement with Mr Wickham, to the never present but much discussed Mrs Churchill in Emma, whose illnesses the narrator notes “never occurred but for her own convenience”, hypochondriacs frequently appear in Jane Austen’s novels.
That the illness is imagined, rather than real, is often observed not just by the narrator but also by other characters. In Persuasion, Charles Musgrove speaks to his sister-in-law, Anne Elliott, the novel’s heroine, about his wife’s supposed indisposition: “I wish you could persuade Mary not to be always fancying herself ill.” Anne finds herself in an uncomfortable position, confided in by both parties in the marriage, with her sister subsequently complaining: “I do believe if Charles were to see me dying, he would not think there was anything the matter with me. I am sure, Anne, if you would, you might persuade him that I really am very ill – a great deal worse than I ever own.”
Austen makes clear that her characters’ hypochondria is an external manifestation of inner discontent and the ‘illness’ is frequently used by its victims to wield power over others. Mary Musgrove’s “ailments lessened by having a constant companion [Anne]”, suggesting loneliness is the cause of her illness, whilst Mrs Churchill in Emma uses her recurring illness to keep her adoptive son Frank with her and away from his biological father, Mr Weston. Only when Mrs Churchill dies is Frank free to marry the woman he loves, Jane Fairfax. Perhaps it is no surprise that the majority of the hypochondriacs are women who, in early 19th century genteel society, would have had few official public channels through which to exert their power: their illnesses give them a power they would otherwise be denied.
However, Austen’s hypochondriacs are not all women: in fact, probably her most famous example is Mr Woodhouse in Emma, the heroine’s father. A long-time widower, whose elder daughter Isabella has left the family home in Surrey to live with her husband and children in London, Mr Woodhouse is entirely reliant on his younger daughter for companionship. His hypochondria symbolises his dependence on her, and Emma can only embark on her marriage to Mr Knightly with a clear conscience when she has persuaded him to move into her family home, Hartfield, so that she need not abandon her father.
Mr Woodhouse’s hypochondria manifests itself in concerns not just for his own health, but that of other characters too. He reprimands Isabella for going to South End with her family since it is “an unhealthy place”, and advises Frank Churchill against holding the ball at the Crown Inn since “[a] room at an inn was always damp and dangerous” and everyone “would catch worse colds at the Crown than anywhere.”
However, it is in the area of food that Mr Woodhouse excels himself. He constantly worries about what he – and others – eat and repeatedly warns characters about the dangers of what they are ingesting. Unable to eat the wedding-cake of Miss Taylor, Emma’s former governess, because “[h]is own stomach could bear nothing rich”, “he could never believe other people to be different from himself”, and thus “earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all”. To aid his cause he seeks the support of Mr Perry, the local apothecary, who concedes that “wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many”, though as the narrator wittily notes, “[t]here was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs Weston’s wedding-cake in their hands: but Mr Woodhouse would never believe it.” Mr Woodhouse additionally reprimands Emma for passing around indigestible muffins more than once, and encourages Mrs Bates to eat an “egg boiled very soft” which “will not hurt you”, and her daughter to eat a slice of apple tart, “a very little bit”, albeit unaccompanied for, as he says, “I do not advise the custard.”
Hannah Glasse in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published in 1747, includes a recipe for “A Buttered Tart” which comprises apples cooked in a creamy egg mixture in a pastry case. Delia Smith includes a version in her Complete Cookery Course (1992) in which she adds crushed biscuits to the mixture, and there is another version in Pen Vogler’s Dinner With Mr Darcy (2013), but this is my take:
MR WOODHOUSE’S APPLE TART
4-5 cooking apples
2-4 tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
500g all-butter puff pastry
3 eggs separated
Skin, core and slice the apples and cook them in a tablespoon of water until very soft. Add the butter, sugar (to taste) and nutmeg and mash to a puree (I used a metal tablespoon).
Leave the mixture to cool slightly and pre-heat the oven to 190C (Fan oven 170C) or Gas Mark 5.
Roll out the puff pastry and use to line a 25cm pie dish.
Beat the egg yolks and stir into the apple. Whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks and fold into the mixture. Pour the apple mixture into the puff pastry case and bake for approximately 30 minutes until set.
Just before serving dust with icing sugar.