What of Jane Austen herself? What sort of a childhood did she have? Can there be some interesting insight into this woman’s childhood that led her to be such a genius? My search seemed to be finding more truths as I began reading the very many biographies on Jane Austen. Obviously Jane’s life had held interest for many and since her death there have been an abundance of chronicles. Despite many suggesting not much is known about Austen, I was amazed just how much material there actually is about this one woman who lived over two hundred years ago and at the time of her death was anything but a celebrity.
Her first biographer, her nephew drew upon his and his family’s first-hand knowledge. I still remember the excitement I felt as I scanned the second hand bookshelves in a little country town’s second hand bookshop. There it was, a 1980’s recreated edition from an earlier time, published no doubt to try to cash in on Austen’s popularity after the BBC serialisation of Pride and Prejudice. I had looked for this book in Melbourne’s state library and had found it in the catalogue but not on the shelves. I had been meaning to return. It was like a sign that my quest was not just an idle fancy; that it was indeed meant to be; that my obsession with Jane Austen might just lead somewhere. Like any quest, a little success just spurs one on to conquering more. And of course there were so many biographies that I was to read over the time of my obsession and I found them all so full of insight that I could not stop searching. I wore my friends down and even my children started to notice that Mum was always looking at old books, it was as if I couldn’t pass a library or a second- hand bookshop, or even new bookshops ( at the time of my obsession so many new books were coming out as well) without going to the A section. I was obviously not alone in my obsession as Austen’s books would be gathering dust and nothing new would have been printed. But I digress. The search of course must start with the birth and the childhood of Jane Austen.
It seems to me that Jane herself had a rollicking free, noisy and boy-filled childhood. Her parents ran a boys’ school, a farm and two of the local parishes. As Jane was the second youngest she was probably given more freedom to roam and explore and to play with the older boys than what we might expect. After all Jane was not born in the time of the strict and straight-laced Victorian era but in the reasoned and enlightened preceding Georgian times. In this era women wore free flowing dresses and showed off their cleavages; girdles and stays and a much more restricted attitude towards bodies was to come later. Jane Austen was a representative from the reasoned and enlightened 18th Century, which although not a modern place, if we compare it to today, was certainly not the Victorian era that was to follow it.
What did Jane’s childhood look like? To begin with, she was born in the December cold of 1775, sixteenth of December to be exact, in the little village of Steventon, in Hampshire in England. She was her mother’s seventh child and she was born at home, without a doctor but with the help of a sister-in-law. Perhaps surprisingly for us, and our assumptions of the past, and to the delight of today’s breast feeding adherents, she was breast fed by her own mother. I would have assumed a wet nurse would have been a part of the accepted practice of the genteel class but Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother, was thirty six and had definite ideas about breast feeding being good for her babies. Jane was helped into the world by her father’s sister Philadelphia Hancock (nee Austen). Cassandra stayed in her bed focusing on her new baby from the birth until Christmas day, and then she didn’t leave the house and resume her chores until February. Cassandra Austen, a busy working mother, was responsible for many of the school, farm and home duties. She was, however, able to rest for three months with all of her normal chores undertaken by her sister-in-law, Philadlephia. (I cannot help but contrast this state of affairs with the modern world where women leave hospital to assume sole responsibility for their baby the next day.)
As a baby Jane stayed with her mother for about six months. But then Jane Austen’s life took a more radical turn. Jane was sent to live in a cottage, in the nearby village, where she was looked after by a local family. Part of her mother’s views about child rearing included the outsourcing of toddlers until they reached the age of reason. I am tempted to say that I can only feel absolute admiration for Cassandra Austen for such an innovative strategy to get through the terrible twos. As a mother who struggled with the downright unreasonableness of toddlers, I like the idea of someone else doing that particular part of the child rearing. However, when I think of the little Jane Austen, at only two years of age, in a little cottage without her mother, father and siblings I can only gasp at the audacity of her mother, Mrs Cassandra Austen and hope that it was not quite as harsh as it might initially sound. “Baby farms” were common at the time with some notorious for their callousness and cruelty. Perhaps, as is the case today it is the quality of the childcare that is crucial. Cassandra Austen, Jane’s mother didn’t believe in out of sight childcare but made sure that her children were being well looked after.
Cassandra, and Jane’s father George Austen, and I imagine the siblings as well on certain occasions, would visit Jane on a daily basis. Her nephew in his memoir says, “The infant was daily visited by one or both of its parents”. But her cot was set in the village as her siblings had done before her and Charles the youngest would after her. It is a little like very, very long day care and I hope it will relieve many mothers who try to juggle careers and rearing children that such an arrangement worked for the Austens.
All of the Austens lived fulfilling lives and several of them, the naval officers in particular, found fame in their own lives and of course Jane found immortal fame. There was also a disabled brother who has all but disappeared except that he lived a long life and was looked after by cottagers. When looking at the results of Jane’s mother Cassandra’s child rearing strategies she must be seen as eminently successful. Infant and child mortality, even amongst the privileged classes, was not what it is today; the fact that Jane and her siblings all survived to adulthood is a record worth celebrating. Clearly Jane’s parents were capable and practical people. They were also well educated and talented.
Jane’s exile lasted between one and two years and she returned to the family fold at around three, probably once she was potty trained and could speak in simple sentences.
Austen Leigh, J.E., A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew. London, UK: 1870.
Cecil, David. A Portrait of Jane Austen. London, UK: Constable London in association with Hitchinson Australia, 1978.
Grosvenor Myer, Valerie. Jane Austen Obstinate Heart. New York, USA: Arcade Publishing 1997.
Jenkin, Elizabeth. Jane Austen. New York, USA: Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1949.
Le Faye, Diedre (ed). Jane Austen’s Letters, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Nokes, David. Jane Austen A Life. London, UK : Fourth Estate, 1997.
Spence, Jon. Becoming Jane Austen A Life. London, UK: hambledon continuum, 2003.
Tomalin, Claire. Jane Austen A Life. London, UK : Viking, 1997.
By the way, the portrait I’ve used in this post was at first thought to be a young Jane, but then discovered not to be. It may be a relative. But Jane may have looked just a little like this.