Wendy Squires in The Age wrote an opinion piece, “Get a grip, girl, the reality is it’s time to stop sulking” (1/12/12). It amazes me that such an issue was relevant pre -feminism in Austen’s time as well. Are children essential for a happy life? Obviously not, as Jane Austen can attest, for she neither married nor had children. She was able to carve a life for herself that was rich in terms of family and children but did not involve herself as a mother or a wife. (And let’s not forget the literary genius role. ) The Austen Six always end with allmarriage, hero and heroine finding happiness together at last, but scattered within the stories are a number of women who follow a different path, either from choice or destiny. Jane certainly paints these women as fulfilled and independent.
It is in Jane’s last completed novel Persuasion that she paints the Admiral and Mrs Crofts in such glowing terms. She lived a wonderfully romantic and adventurous life. She has shared the Admiral’s life on “5 altogether” ships. She rejects the notion, very prevalent at the time, that women “would be too soft to be on a ship”.
“We none of us expect to be in smooth waters all our days” says our indomitable and happy Mrs Crofts . Theirs appears to be a very modern marriage based on equality and respect and this appears to have brought happiness. They do not have children and Austen makes no negative innuendo about such a circumstance. Just as the Musgroves found happiness in their children, and their children’s lives, the Crofts found happiness in their life together. This is not to say that the Crofts didn’t want children. This is never explored. Indeed they may miss their presence but like all emotionally intelligent characters in Jane Austen’s novels, Mrs Crofts has enjoyed the opportunities that life has given her, rather than lamenting what she has not. The freedom of their life shows a great deal of happiness and satisfaction.
Elsewhere Austen is able to show women happy with their life without children. Persuasion’s Lady Russell, is single, without children and without a spouse. That she “should have no thought of a second marriage, needs no apology to the public”. Austen does not pity the woman who is single as long as she is like Lady Russell and “extremely well provided for”. Mrs Smith another widow, with less provision than our lucky Lady Russell is at a disadvantage but not because she does not have children.
Of more concern in Jane’s time was the birthrate. Without the means to control one’s fertility, women were more likely to suffer from too many pregnancies. It is interesting that Jane’s Austen’s fictional mothers don’t seem to have as many as was common at the time. In Jane’s family, her brothers all had many children (with the exception of her favourite brother Henry who only had a step son). In the Austen Six there are a limited number of siblings. The Bertrams had four, the Bennets five, the Elliots three, the Woodhouses two and the Dashwoods four. These were relatively small families, as compared to the usual baby rate of a birth every 18 months as happened to several of Jane’s sister-in-laws. Four of the Austen sisters-in-law died giving birth – that must have had an effect on Jane. Perhaps the childless women saw themselves as blessed; at least they had a better chance of living until old age and not dying in childbirth.
So even though marriage may appear to be the endgame of the Austen Six, the subtext has hidden within it a number of women of independence who are either single, widowed or married without children and are indeed happy.