Making a pick for ‘Q’ has been a tough one. Quill, quarrel and quandary were all considered. I begged for suggestions on Twitter. I reached out to the wonderful Jane Austen community on Reddit – who incidentally reminded me yet again that the Austen fandom is one of the loveliest corners of the Internet. But ultimately, I landed on ‘Querulous’, defined as ‘complaining in a petulant or whining manner’. Austen’s writing features a great gallery of fools and each of them subtly different. There is the vulgar ‘ageing’ spinster (barely thirty) Anne Steele who traipses valiantly after the doctor, the insipid Lady Middleton, the boorish John Thorpe, poor good-natured Miss Bates, utterly deluded Emma Woodhouse, and worst of all the cringe-making Mr Collins. But a recurrent theme across the novels are Austen’s hypochondriacs, the querulous group who are forever fancying themselves unwell. They whine, they whinge and they believe that nobody ever understands their suffering – their querulousness is a constant buzzing fingernail scratch across their respective plots. What is it about the querulous which appears to exercise Austen’s particular contempt?
Most infamously querulous is of course Mrs Bennet, played to high pitch perfection by Alison Steadman in 1995. She complains about the lack of compassion for her nerves, she shrieks, she has apparent palpitations and she is forever snivelling about her grievances to anyone from her neighbours to the servants. Upon the removal of the regiment to Brighton along with Lydia, Austen observes ironically that, ‘Mrs. Bennet was restored to her usual querulous serenity; and, by the middle of June, Kitty was so much recovered as to be able to enter Meryton without tears‘. The term ‘usual querulous serenity’ is of course an oxymoron but illustrates the fact that Mrs B is at heart one of those joyful souls who requires something to complain about to find contentment.
Even at the novel’s end, Austen admits that the wonderful marriages of the two eldest Miss Bennets is not enough to make their mother a sensible woman. She still finds things to pick over and whinge about. I can feel a sympathy for Mrs Bennet, trapped in a marriage to a man who is stubborn, feckless and rude, but Austen underlines that Mrs Bennet’s querulous personality does nothing to alleviate the family’s situation. The Bennets are playing about in a house on fire; they will have nothing after their father’s death. But just as their father failed to make financial provision for them, so too does their mother let them down by doing nothing but bask in despair. Suggestions have been made that Mrs Bennet may be a caricatured portrait of Austen’s own mother, who was known to believe herself unwell. During Austen’s final months, she had to lie on two chairs pushed together in the sitting room because her mother required the sofa. Mrs Austen lived until she was eighty-eight years old.
Over in Persuasion, we have an even bigger whinger in Mrs Mary Musgrove. One might even say that she is the queen of the querulous. Consider her fabulous first line of dialogue, as she pronounces to Anne on arrival, ‘So, you are come at last. I began to think I should never see you. I am so ill I can hardly speak. I have not seen a creature the whole morning.‘ There’s a lot to unpack here. The guilt trip. The victimhood. The reproach. The utter cognitive dissonance. Where Mrs Bennet does actually have a sincere grievance – the entail on Longbourn which threatens the future of all her children – Mary is actually sitting pretty as the wife of the sole heir to a significant estate. But you’d never know it. Her entire personality is based around self-pity. Jan Fergus points out that Mary’s personality is torn between feelings of deprivation and entitlement. She is forever complaining about how this or that person has failed to visit her or give her the consequence she believes she deserves due to her Elliot heritage and never understands that her ghastly behaviour makes people flee before her. One of Austen’s true masterpieces of characterisation, Mary is absorbed in narcissistic picking over the scabs of her grievances, locked in her martyr complex.
Towards the end of the novel, she writes a fantastically querulous letter to Anne packed with not so subtle reproach, laments and accusations. One of the best lines again concerns her health, ‘I am sorry to say that I am very far from well; and Jemima has just told me that the butcher says there is a bad sore-throat very much about. I dare say I shall catch it; and my sore-throats, you know, are always worse than anybody’s.‘ As complaints go, this is a work of art. Mary is whining about a sore throat that she does not have. And the ‘you know’ is so reproachful, calling for sympathy and implying insensitivity. Mary’s sore throats, you know, are always worse than anybody’s. How she suffers. And of course she never gets any sympathy.
Aside from Anne, all of the Elliots have their querulous side. They complain about having to retrench, they sulk over not being able to live in the style which matches their station. They whinge when Kellynch Hall has to be let. The words ‘ill-used’ crop up a lot in Persuasion and it is usually this family who are waving the term around. The family scapegoat is Anne, who ‘nothing’ to her father or her elder sister other than somebody to order around. Mary herself demands what could Anne ‘possibly’ have to do which would keep her from jumping to it when Mary snaps her fingers. The contrast here however is between the Elliot querulousness and the silent and far more sincerely felt grief of Anne for her broken engagement.
Another possible theme though is the difference between male and female suffering. Anne explicitly discusses this topic with Captain Harville, a man signalled throughout the book as one of the ‘right-thinking’ characters. Captain Benwick’s mourning has been treated with respect by all characters and yet he has been remarkably ready to set it aside when Louisa Musgrove caught his eye. By contrast, Mrs Musgrove is scorned even by the author for her ‘fat sighing’ over the death of her worthless son some years before. Following Louisa’s accident, her sister and sister-in-law are convulsed with hysterics while Charles Musgrove and Captain Wentworth behave with dignity. Mary Musgrove is clearly intended to be a comic character but she does have reasons to be unhappy. She seems to have been the least favourite child while growing up, with Elizabeth the favourite of their father and it is implied that Anne was preferred by their mother. She is not liked by her in-laws. Perhaps Austen is also intending that we ponder why exactly it is that we can’t stand Mary. Or maybe she is also venting frustration at her own irritating sister-in-law who was also called Mary.
In contrast to the ill-usage though, we have Mansfield Park where precisely nobody is querulous. Mrs Norris is too busy stamping on boundaries and poking her nose in to whinge on her own behalf. She may pretend to feel too weak to think of having Fanny come live with her but she’s clearly lying and everybody knows it. Other characters may even claim that Lady Bertram needs special consideration, or to be treated with sensitivity while Sir Thomas’ whereabouts are uncertain. But the comedy is that Lady Bertram is so placid or more likely stoned from her laudanum to notice much of anything, let alone be troubled by it. Mrs Price over in Portsmouth may be fond of complaining but even she is more of a screecher than a whiner. These characters may feign querulousness or even be accused of it, but Mansfield Park is a novel too full of scheming for anyone to let their guard down enough to show genuine weakness.
Yet Austen does have a preoccupation with hypochondria. While it is perhaps unsurprising that Sanditon features a number of querulous hypochondriacs given that Austen wrote it during her own final illness, it had featured in her writing right back to her juvenilia. In Catherine or the Bower, the heroine’s aunt Mrs Percival is convinced that she will suffer months of ill health because she stayed outside for a few moments after dusk. These characters are universally presented as absurd. But Austen’s most health-focused novel is Emma, with hypochondriacs such as Mr Woodhouse, Isabella Knightley and the unseen Mrs Churchill. There is also the enigmatic Jane Fairfax who is forever spoken of as delicate and probably ill but who never reveals enough of herself to the reader for us to make our own judgement. Austen’s recurring joke across the novel is that Highbury may be a small place but its apothecary is growing steadily rich.
Yet while the Parkers of Sanditon are grotesque creations intended to satirise faddish medical trends and quackery, the characters of Emma serve a different purpose. Ted Bader, an associate professor of health sciences and consultant in liver and digestive diseases, argues that Mr Woodhouse’s laundry list of symptoms imply that he does indeed have health issues. Bader even makes an attempt at a diagnosis, suggesting hypothyroidism as a potential source of Mr Woodhouse’s woes. Rereading after having my cholecystectomy a few years ago, I have more sympathy for Mr Woodhouse’s fussing over food. You can see that the ‘being picky’ irritates other people but it’s that or you end up suffering later on. Mr Woodhouse does not seem to use his apparent ill-health to manipulate others as Mrs Churchill does but his needs do still inconvenience his daughter, leaving Emma largely his carer. Mr Woodhouse is undoubtedly querulous, living his life in a high state of anxiety about his own health, the health of others and sincerely concerned around proposed changes to his delicately balanced routine but he is far from a malicious individual. It is hard to even accuse Mr Woodhouse of attention-seeking. Of all Austen’s querulous crew, he is the most sincere in his anxiety.
Mr Woodhouse’s eldest daughter Isabella has inherited his fear of disease but her querulousness is more centred around worries for her children. In her fleeting appearances, we see that she is a satire of a doting mother, barely aware of anything or anyone beyond her own ever increasing offspring. As a recent-ish parent, I understand how maternal anxiety can be irritating to those who are child-free and can only wince apologetically in Austen’s direction. By contrast, Jane Fairfax is another character accused of greater delicacy than she seems to possess. Mrs Elton attempts to make a pet of her, the Bateses fret over her health and Frank Churchill claims to think her sickly – but we see glimpses of a woman of greater steel. Jane Fairfax resents her position, of being an object of pity. In fact it is her lack of querulousness which frustrates Emma’s patronising attempts at friendship. Jane is quietly demanding respect, something you can never get if you are petulant or whining.
However, the flip side to the hypochondriacs is Mrs Churchill. She has been assumed to be purely querulous and manipulative throughout the novel, constantly thwarting Frank Churchill’s attempts to reconnect with his biological father Mr Weston. She holds the purse strings so when she claims to be ill, Frank Churchill has to drop everything and run to her side. Nobody takes her complaints seriously, not even the reader. But then she dies. And we realise that we have presumed her character without ever learning the truth of it. The reader is invited to wonder whether Mrs Churchill was really unwell for the whole novel or if she was simply the aunt who cried wolf. But it is also a reminder that in the midst of all these characters obsessing over their poor nerves and this or that ludicrous health recommendation, Austen was writing in an era where death was omnipresent. People did get abruptly ill and pass away with very little warning. The querulous characters of Austen are playing on this for their own reasons, whether for attention, as a symptom of deeper unhappiness or because of their own fear of the unknown. For whatever reason, Austen seems to have been amused and appalled by those who always fancy themselves ill or ill-used – but can we call them foolish or are they simply acknowledging a darker truth about mortality?
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