Childhood in Austen’s World

What could Jane Austen possibly say about children that would have any relevance to today? As I struggle bringing up children in my very modern world, how could I rationally think of looking to Jane Austen to find some answers to my very modern dilemmas.She wrote of a world 200 years removed; a world of the rural village; a world without modern conveniences; a world where women were restricted to half a life. How different from me. I live in Australia, in a suburb just outside Melbourne, am a beneficiary of a university education, a job and a family. Yet, strangely I do find that she does have something to offer. I know I am just a little bit crazy but then all quests begin with a touch of madness!

Jane Austen was born in a little Hampshire village called Steventon, the seventh child of parents Cassandra and George. Although part of the genteel class, in the status stakes she was a ‘nobody’. Her father was a parson beholden to distant relatives for his living and her mother, although from a more aristocratic family with a small inheritance, was simply a parson’s wife. In later life Mrs Cassandra Austen, the mother of one of our most illustrious legends of literature, often embarrassed her children and grandchildren by doing her mending in public and actually getting her hands dirty in the garden. Suffice to say, they were to some extent a humble family. They may not have been the working class of servants, farm labourers or miners, but within their milieu, the educated middle class, they were pretty ordinary. And Jane, seventh child, and a girl, came pretty low in the pecking order.

Jane Austen did not marry and have children herself. Unlike one of her sisters-in-law she did not get married at a young age and, after having eleven children, on the last lying-in, die just after one would have thought the danger had passed. Jane Austen did not participate in the women’s business of her day. But she did observe very keenly and closely the often tentative tricky business of childbirth and mothering. Four of her brothers married once or twice and four of these wives died in childbirth. Although the six novels, the Austen Six, sparkle with the idealism of love and romance, just below the surface is a world where women are confined by their gender and biology; a world where women must walk a societal tightrope to maintain their mental health and happiness. She clearly understood the ramifications of being a woman in such a time and all of the Austen Six deal with children, wives and mothers.

Although Jane Austen doesn’t take you into the bedrooms and nurseries of her heroines, it is sometimes in the minor characters, whose stories are told off stage, that we learn the deep philosophical tools for wellbeing where children are concerned. As with other areas of life, she was able to show emotional wisdom in the Austen world. Some characters seemed to get the children they deserved. But some children, like wildflowers peeping through the cracks in the footpath, seemed to be born to parents that in no way deserved them.  As I struggle with bringing up my three children I realise I might raise a few eyebrows for looking to a woman who has been dead for two hundred years, had no children of her own and was assumed to have lived a very secluded and sheltered life. But so be it. If I am deluded then at least I am enjoying my delusions.I’m finding that my quest is a perfect meditation on life that in my middle age is bringing many rewards. I have this quiet little obsession that keeps feeding me to go further to delve into this woman’s life.

Jane Austen crafted her characters so that we, her readers, could feel we really knew them. Often within her own family, Jane alluded to her characters as if they were real people. She writes in a letter that when visiting the Portrait Gallery in London she spied a portrait of Mrs Jane Bingly, the former Optimistic-Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. However, Jane Austen commented that Mr Darcy would not countenance a public portrait of Mrs Elizabeth Darcy, formerly Flawed-But-Fabulous-Elizabeth Bennet, as she was too precious and he did not want to share her. To Jane Austen, her characters were real and part of what makes them so real to us is the depth of detail she gives us about each one. In particular, we know about their childhoods. And to some extent Jane Austen sees some of their faults as a direct result of their childhoods. Poor habits are begun in childhood. This allows us the readers to glean some insight into the demanding business of bringing up children. A constant theme is the over indulged child becomes the selfish adult.

Did Jane Austen like children?  Some biographers, taking a few letters out of context have assumed she didn’t. Rubbish! Jane Austen was a revered Aunt; she was a loved Aunt; she was a sought-after aunt. You don’t get to be such an aunt if you do not like children. It is just that she didn’t idealise children. In one of her letters to her brother James she says, we saw “a countless number of Postchaises full of Boys pass by yesterday morng – full of Heroes, legislators, Fools & Villains.”  In the privileged world in which Jane was an observer, children were often put on pedestals by their affluent parents. It was not so very different from today when parents think little Josh is just so creative and what a shame Ms J at school doesn’t quite understand his genius. Children of the gentry in the 18th Century seemed too often to get much of what they desire. It is similar today. And parents become advocates in any battle. Jane loved her nieces and nephews but she didn’t wear rose coloured glasses.

Jane Austen was not sentimental about children, she cared deeply for the children she knew.  We can be certain of this. When little Anna, Jane’s niece’s mother died, it was to Steventon, to the Aunts that Anna was sent. And later when one of the Lloyds, an old friend became Anna’s stepmother and treated Anna poorly it was Jane and Cassandra who tried to make it up to her and protect her fragile sense of self. When Elizabeth Austen, a loved sister-in-law died suddenly, two of her boys were first sent to their uncle but it was then decided it would be better if they were with their aunts. In these circumstances Aunt Jane made sure that they had enough fun and games to take their minds of their grief. She shares and indeed relishes in their games of Splikins. She did not stand on ceremony and wanted the boys to be boys and be allowed to pursue their boyish joys as much as was possible under the sad circumstances. And of the two aunts, Cassandra and Jane, there is ample evidence amongst the next generation of nieces and nephews that Jane was the favourite. She was the one who made up the stories and games. She was the one who attracted the children like women to an Austen novel or film.

Perhaps another reason some have assumed that Jane didn’t like children was that she was worried about the effects on the mothers of too many births. She observed closely the effects of producing a baby every 18 months on the women in her family. As already mentioned – four sisters in law died in or from childbirth. When one cherished niece was pregnant again, Jane wrote to another niece, “Poor animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty. – I am very sorry for her – Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children.” Surely this statement is evidence of an early feminist sentiment that believed in women being in control of their bodies rather than expressing a dislike of children. She had a modern woman’s attitude to procreation; that babies and children should not define a woman’s existence; that women should be in control of their fertility; and that women have to be careful to act appropriately because of the double standards that applied in the world she lived in

So in my Quest, to find happiness – Austen style- what do I ask of Jane Austen in relation to children? Some persistent and pertinent questions crop up. They are the sort of questions that have been asked since time began.

  • What effect does our childhood have?
  • Can we praise too much?
  • Should parents be a friend to their child?
  • Is there a problem with being the tiger mother?
  • Do my children need to be geniuses to have a happy life?
  • Is it okay if my children are proud?
  • Do bickering parents affect children?
  • Can happiness thrive without children?

I am asking these questions of Jane Austen. Some questions are embarrassing so we do not ask them to anyone but ourselves. They are not all my questions and many are near neurotic. But it is in bringing these questions to light, the questions of the everyday, I hope to find some of Jane’s answers to a happy life.

See my next blog for answers to these questions gleaned from my obsessive reading and re-reading of Jane.

1 Comment

Filed under Childhood

One response to “Childhood in Austen’s World

  1. Greg Beel

    apparently, Joan Austin, Jane’s great neice who went to school with me said “bugger the kids, I’m off for a night out on the town, gonna get blotto!!”
    Wise words.

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