Did Austen have ADHD? Or would that be Emma Woodhouse?

It’s a little-known fact that a lot of novelists have ADHD (spoiler alert: me). And it’s a still lesser-known fact that, recently, many more people are winning diagnoses – women over forty, especially. This is because, when we were young, we were almost always either (a) too brilliant at “masking” it to be diagnosed – ADHD having been wrongly considered an out-of-control-little-boy thing or else (b) misdiagnosed with anxiety/depression.

I was personally diagnosed ADHD in my late fifties, only a couple of years ago. And the UK’s National Health Service, unlike private bodies, does not diagnose lightly. (Why? Because my medication is very expensive and I don’t pay a penny for it.) Getting an NHS diagnosis takes years.

Anyway, the upshot of these two facts is a worldwide shortage of ADHD medication, as the drug companies have been ridiculously slow to realise what’s been happening. And the upshot of that is that even those of us on the priority list are having trouble getting – AUGH!!!!!!!! – our medication. So, please excuse me if this column is nutty-as-peanut-butter.

To start with, the title. Austen in no way had ADHD.  I only put that to get more of you people to read it, lol. (I know. I’m ruthless.)

How am I so sure she didn’t? Because I’ve not only read the novels a million times, but every Austen letter that survives – and it’s a tough disability to hide, from another keen and alert ADHDer, most especially. In short, whether your speciality of the ADHD maison is inattentiveness or volatility (some of us have both) it takes a genius to hide it all the time, especially from people we live with.

But, as you wish to remind me, Austen was a genius, surely one of the greatest geniuses who ever lived. 

True – or else, frankly, none of us would be here. But not even a genius could have hidden it from Cassandra, far closer to her than any other living creature was. And there would have been clues in her extensive correspondence. For example, instead of quietly laughing in her sleeve at almost every person of her acquaintance – at which Austen was sensational – she’d have lost her temper now and then. However, in the letters, there’s not a syllable suggesting anything more than common-or-garden annoyance at being held up on a journey, enduring a dull visit, or failing to find exactly the perfect ribbon for her sister’s bonnet. She’s not even as cross as she deserves to be when her publisher does her down.

Also, had Austen suffered from ADHD her brothers, instead of admiring her, supporting her and dealing with publishers on her behalf, would certainly have teased her for absentmindedness, laziness and stupidity. Her favourite niece, Fanny, would probably have kidded her for lack of attention. The Austen family, who loved to act, was exceedingly lively and very fond of teasing, Austen’s father in particular. (Many believe him to have been an inspiration for the immortal Mr Bennet). Also, there is zero evidence of lack of industry or attention evidenced in Austen’s correspondence, from practising the piano to assisting in the house to managing her social duties. 

My own guess is that, in periods when she couldn’t write, Austen instead suffered from depression, probably the most common authorial – and indeed, human – issue. There are hints of these in the letters – and in the dearth of letters, at times – but, of course we’ll never know for sure. (Especially as some were destroyed.)

However, though Austen would never have heard of it, I do have a sneaking suspicion that she knew someone with ADHD. Why? Because I believe that Emma Woodhouse had ADHD.

  1. Mr Knightley chides her for starting things and never finishing them (books, plans to improve Harriet). Untreated ADHD – excuse me, I’ve just had to go wash my hair, play tennis and plot out a short story, but I’m back – is exactly like this.

“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing.—You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.—You know you could not.”

  1. Emma can get very upset. Sometimes with reason (when she believes she’s led Harriet astray) but often without. Remember the time when, to refresh her spirits, she drives over to Randalls. There, she and Harriet are informed that the Westons have just buzzed off, on foot, to Hartfield. Emma’s reaction is notably disproportionate. 

“This is too bad,” cried Emma, as they turned away. “And now we shall just miss them; too provoking!—I do not know when I have been so disappointed.” 

Whoa… You’ve been to see your bestie and missed her, because she’s gone to see you, and you ‘don’t know when you’ve been more disappointed?!’ As Boris Becker so memorably said upon losing his Wimbledon title: “I lost a tennis match. I didn’t lose a war. Nobody died.”

  1. Emma can be snappish, even with her father, though she generally manages to hide it. Zigzags of temperament are colossally common, with ADHD, sans pills. So is masking (hiding one’s true feelings).
  1. Emma hyper focusses. Sometimes called the ADHD superpower, this is a terribly double-edged sword. YES, we can concentrate on things we like… and say, write 44 hours out of 48. I’ve done it myself, several times.

 BUT our health will suffer and our relationships can suffer and it’s far more of a weird and interesting personality quirk than it is a “superpower”. I would much rather be one of those organised writers who works sensibly from 6 to noon and then goes out and has a life than to be at the mercy of my crazy-mad hyperfocus, when it really kicks in.

Emma hyperfocusses on Mr Elton’s supposed attraction to Harriet to the extent that it distorts her judgement. It’s her project-of-the-moment and very dear to her – so dear that she can’t listen when Knightley himself talks sense to her on the subject. 

“Depend upon it, Elton will not do. Elton is a very good sort of man, and a very respectable vicar of Highbury, but not at all likely to make an imprudent match. He knows the value of a good income as well as any body. Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally. He is as well acquainted with his own claims, as you can be with Harriet’s. He knows that he is a very handsome young man, and a great favourite wherever he goes; and from his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away. I have heard him speak with great animation of a large family of young ladies that his sisters are intimate with, who have all twenty thousand pounds apiece.”

Obstinately, Emma pays no attention – and, in the end, no one suffers from it more than she.

  1. Emma misses the wood for the trees. She’s so entranced with her pet project (Harriet) that she can’t see what most readers spot right away: Knightley loves her. And he’s her ideal mate – STABLE, which ADHDers need more than anything. PATIENT: ditto. KIND: ditto. INTELLIGENT. SEXY. THOUGHTFUL. Of a station to address her (not many of those hanging around Highbury! In fact, um, there aren’t any others at all!)
  1. Emma is restless, and perilously easily bored. She starts the novel dreading the long evenings alone with her aged papa, and – sure enough – they come to pass. She is also bored and frustrated, at times, with Harriet’s slowness, with Elton’s overly gallant style, with everything to do with the odious Mrs Elton, with Jane Fairfax’s reserve, and with almost every other character in the novel. This is pure ADHD.
  1. Bright ADHDers tune out in school. Had Emma ever gone to school, she’d have done the same. There is evidence (‘You could never get her to read as you wished’) that Emma tuned out when her governess was teaching her, likewise. 

Case proved, I think?

Either way, that’s all that I have patience for!!! LOL!!!!


Alice McVeigh’s Austenesque novels are here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0BYVMR8GD?ref_=dbs_p_mng_rwt_ser_shvlr&storeType=ebooks

Alice’s contemporary novels are here: https://alicemcveigh.com/books/while-the-music-lasts/

Additional Information:

UK-Wide and Global Shortage of Elvanse and Atomoxetine

Do You Have ADHD?

13 responses to “Did Austen have ADHD? Or would that be Emma Woodhouse?”

  1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

    Very interesting theory, and well argued! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    1. Simon McVeigh Avatar

      Thanks!! V. honoured!! (Of course, I could also be up the creek without a paddle, lol!)

  2. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar

    PS Don’t know why I answered as my husband, either… XXAlice-not-Prof-McVeigh

  3. Riana Everly Avatar

    Interesting idea and definitely worth considering. I suspect, though, that she was just spoiled and lazy, and a little too focused on herself to think about the forest. She didn’t have any trouble organising the ball, and can put in the appropriate effort where she thinks its worth her while.
    Still, as we know from other neurological differences like autism, it’s not at all One-Size-Fits-All. You’ve met one person with ASD, you’ve met one person with ASD. I imagine ADHD is similar.
    (I say this as the parent of two kids with ADHD. Son was the out-of-control little boy, Daughter masked it almost completely.)

    1. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar
      Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh

      You’re absolutely right about ADHD, and I sympathise with both your children, Beverlee.

      However, Mrs Weston organised the ball, not Emma – and she always struck me as pretty well-organised, lol!! Emma was merely asked, along with others, for her opinion.

      Having said that, Emma probably COULD have organised a ball, using hyperfocus. I think she might have been hyper-focussing when Harriet interrupted her unusually ardent pianoforte practice, the day after she was so comprehensively outplayed by Jane Fairfax. (SOMETIMES we can concentrate even better than most, as you’ll know from your own family…) XXAlice

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Interesting post. I’ m sure ADHD is something that is difficult to deal with especially if you have a very active child. Glad you got diagnosed and can continue with your writing. I just got Darcy by the way.lol

    1. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar
      Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh

      Hi Cindie, I’m honoured, again!!!

      I agree that the combination of an active child and ADHD might be just as hard on the parents as on the child concerned!!!

      Yes, I spent some years ghostwriting – very good discipline, btw, and – eventually – good money, but not as interesting as writing fiction.

      A bit like being an orchestral cellist compared to a solo cellist (which I would never have been good enough to be). XXAlice

  5. Kirstin Odegaard Avatar

    Interesting theory! Enjoyed reading your evidence.

    Hope you can get the medicine you need soon–but glad to hear the price is right.

    1. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar

      Thanks, Kirstin… me, too. You’d think, after all those years of thinking 12 thoughts and feeling six emotions at once, it’d feel familiar, but – in fact – it feels very odd, instead! XXA

  6. Gianna Thomas Avatar
    Gianna Thomas

    Thank you for the info, Alice. I have some of those symptoms myself and have wondered at times. And I definitely hop from one project to another. The one thing I can do without letup is read P&P variations. Recuperating the last few months has had me reading almost non-stop for many days. And it has been instructional as well. I’ve learned more of what I like to read as to style, descriptions, etc. and will be incorporating some of that in my later books. I’m just about ready to tackle finishing EBBD. Hope you get your medicine okay. Just remember that knowledge can also be power, and we’re behind you.

    1. Alice McVeigh Avatar
      Alice McVeigh

      What a lovely note, Gianna!!! Thanks for the support!!! It’d have changed my life, had I learned earlier, let alone been treated for it, but I’m still very lucky to have learned at all… In terms of project-hopping, I think that’s what neurotypical people do too, to avoid burn-out. Most writers I know have to take breaks from mega-projects. Skittering between several hugely different projects within a day or even an hour,though, is very ADHD (even medicated). Love to you, A

  7. Anna-Maria Eriksson Avatar

    Interesting post! This makes me think of some of the famous musicals made in the 60’s. Maria in sound of music and the guy with the lead role in chitty chitty bang bang must have had adhd as well.

  8. Alice Spaulding Taylor McVeigh Avatar

    Thanks for your comment, Anna-Maria. I tend to agree with you!!! Certainly as Dick Van Dyke played him, he had every symptom…

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