Jane Austen and Her Times

Chapter 2 - Childhood

Of Jane Austen's childhood in the quiet country rectory we know little, probably because there is not a great deal to know. It was the custom in those days to put babies out to nurse in the village, sometimes until they were as much as two years old, a point often overlooked when the mothers of what is now extolled as a domestic period are held up as patterns to a more intellectual and roving generation. Certainly it was an easy and cheap method of getting rid of the care and trouble involved by a baby in the house, and it probably answered well, as the child would learn to do without too much attention, and at an early age, faddists notwithstanding, could hardly suffer from any influence of its surroundings, other than physically, and it may be taken for granted that the material necessities were well provided and kept under supervision. Nevertheless, a mother who adopted this course at the present day could hardly escape the epithet of "heartless," which would assuredly be levelled at her.

In the time of Jane's childhood the old days of rigid severity toward children were past, no longer were mere babies taken to see executions and whipped on their return to enforce the example they had beheld. In fact a period of undue indulgence had set in as a reaction, but this does not seem to have affected the Austen family, who were brought up very wisely, and perhaps even a little more repressively than would be the case in a similar household to-day. Jane herself was evidently a diffident child.

She says of a little visitor many years afterwards: "Our little visitor has just left us, and left us highly pleased with her; she is a nice natural open-hearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility one sees in the best children in the present day; so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment and shame.

"What is become of all the shyness in the world?" Moral as well as natural diseases disappear in the progress of time and new ones take their place. Shyness and the sweating sickness have given way to confidence and paralytic complaints."

Her own attitude toward children is peculiar. Though on indisputable testimony she was the most popular and best loved of aunts, the fact remains that she had no great insight into child nature, nor does she seem to have had any general love of children beyond those who were specially connected with her by close ties. She loved her nieces, but much more as they grew older than as children.

Mr. Austen-Leigh says: "Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous; but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising, and amusing," and he quotes "the testimony of another niece-- 'Aunt Jane was the general favourite with children, her ways with them being so playful, and her long circumstantial stories so delightful.'" And again, "Her first charm to children was great sweetness of manner . . . she could make everything amusing to a child."

The truth probably is that her innate kindness ofheart and unselfishness compelled her to be as amusing as possible when thrown with little people, but perhaps because she took so much trouble to entertain them she found children more tiresome than other people who accept their company more placidly. However this may be, it is undeniable that the attitude she takes toward children in her books is almost always that of their being tiresome, there never appears any genuine love for them or realisation of pleasure in their society; and she continually satirises the foolish weakness of their doting parents. It is recorded as a great feature in the character of Mrs. John Knightley "that in spite of her maternal solicitude for the immediate enjoyment of her little ones, and for their having instantly all the liberty and attendance, all the eating and drinking, and sleeping and playing, which they could possibly wish for, without the smallest delay, the children were never allowed to be long a disturbance to him [their grandfather] either in themselves or in any restless attendance on them."

Poor Anne in Persuasion is tormented by "the younger boy, a remarkably stout forward child of two years old, as his aunt would not let him tease his sick brother, [he] began to fasten himself upon her, in such a way, that busy as she was about Charles, she could not shake him off. She spoke to him, ordered, entreated, insisted in vain. Once she did contrive to push him away, but the boy had the greater pleasure in getting upon her back again directly."

Perhaps to Anne this annoyance was a blessing in disguise, as it brought forward the whilom lover to her assistance, but that is beside the point!

The children of Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility are particularly badly behaved and odious.

"Fortunately for those who pay their court through such foibles, a fond mother, though in pursuit of praise for her children the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant, but she will swallow anything, and the excessive affection and endurance of the Miss Steeles towards her offspring were reviewed therefore by Lady Middleton without the smallest surprise or distrust. She saw with maternal complacency all the impertinent encroachments and mischievous tricks to which her cousins submitted. She saw their sashes untied, their hair pulled about their ears, their workbags searched and their knives and scissors stolen away, and felt no doubt of its being a reciprocal enjoyment.

"'John is in such spirits to-day,' said she, on his taking Miss Steele's pocket-handkerchief and throwing it out of the window, 'he is full of monkey-tricks.'

"And soon afterwards on the second boy's violently pinching one of the same lady's fingers, she fondly observed, 'How playful William is!'

"And here is my sweet little Anna-Maria,' she added, tenderly caressing a little girl of three years old, who had not made a noise for the last two minutes; 'and she is always so gentle and quiet, never was there such a quiet little thing!'

"But unfortunately in bestowing these embraces a pin in her ladyship's head-dress slightly scratching the child's neck produced from this pattern of gentleness such violent screams as could hardly be outdone by any creature professedly noisy . . . her mouth stuffed with sugar-plums she still screamed and sobbed lustily, and kicked her two brothers for offering to touch her.

"'I have a notion,' said Lucy [to Elinor] 'you think the little Middletons are too much indulged. Perhaps they may be the outside of enough, but it is so natural in Lady Middleton, and for my part I love to see children full of life and spirits; I cannot bear them if they are tame and quiet.'

"'I confess,' replied Elinor, 'that while I am at Barton Park I never think of tame and quiet children with any abhorrence!'"
Those children in the novels who are not detestable are usually lay-figures, such as Henry and John Knightley, rosy-faced little boys not distinguished by any individuality. Others are merely pegs on which to hang their parents' follies, such as little Harry Dashwood, who serves his parents as an excuse for their unutterable meanness. The fact remains there are only two passable children in the whole gallery, and one is the slightest of slight sketches in that little-known and half-finished story The Watsons. Here the little boy, Charles, spoken of as "Mrs.Blake's little boy," is a real flesh-and-blood child, who at his first ball when thrown over remorselessly by his grown-up partner, though "the picture of disappointment, with crimsoned cheeks, quivering lips, and eyes bent on the floor," yet contrives to utter bravely, "'Oh, I do not mind it!'"and whose naive enjoyment at dancing with Emma Watson, who offers herself as a substitute, is well done. His conversation with her is also very natural, and his cry, "'Oh, uncle, do look at my partner; she is so pretty!'" is a human touch.

The other instance is a sample of a very nervous, shy child, perhaps drawn from the recollections of Jane Austen's own feelings in childhood, this is Fanny Price, whose loneliness on her first coming to Mansfield Park is carefully depicted, but Fanny herself is unchildlike and exceptional. Her younger brothers rank among the gallery of bad children, for by "the superior noise of Sam, Tom, and Charles chasing each other up and down stairs, and tumbling about and hallooing, Fanny was almost stunned. Sam, loud and overbearing as he was, . . was clever and intelligent. . . . Tom and Charles being at least as many years as they were his juniors distant from that age of feeling and reason which might suggest the expediency of making friends, and of endeavouring to be less disagreeable. Their sister soon despaired of making any impression on them; they were quite untamable by any means of address which she had spirits or time to attempt. . . . Betsy, too, a spoilt child, trained up to think the alphabet her greatest enemy, left to be with servants at her pleasure, and then encouraged to report any evil of them."

But Jane Austen's abundant pictures of over-indulged, badly-behaved children are not the only ones to be found in contemporary fiction; in Hannah More's Caelebs in Search of a Wife the children come in for dessert, "a dozen children, lovely, fresh, gay, and noisy. . . the grand dispute, who should have oranges, and who should have almonds and raisins, soon raised such a clamour that it was impossible to hear my Egyptian friend the son and heir reaching out his arm to dart an apple across the table at his sister, roguishly intending to overset her glass, unluckily overthrew his own brimful of port wine." And of another and better behaved family it is observed as a splendid innovation that the children are not allowed to come into dessert, to clamour and make themselves nuisances, but are limited to appearing in the drawing-room later.

One of the characters in Caelebs is made to observe, "This is the age of excess in everything; nothing is a gratification of which the want has not been previously felt. The wishes of children are all so anticipated, that they never experience the pleasure excited by wanting and waiting." He speaks also of the "too great profusion and plethora of children's books," which is certainly not a thing we are used to attribute to that age.

Several of the children's books of that date are kept alive to the present day by a salt of insight into child nature, and are published and re-published perennially. Many a child still knows and loves The Story of the Robins, by Mrs. Trimmer, first brought out in 1786; and as for Sandford and Merton, by Thomas Day, which was at first in three volumes, published respectively in 1783, 1787, and 1789, many a boy has revelled in it, not perhaps entirely from the point of view in which it was written, but with a keen sense of the ridiculous in the behaviour of the little prig Harry. Mrs Barbauld's (and her brother's) Evenings at Home still delights many children; and Miss Edgeworth's Parent's Assistant, of which the first volume appeared in 1796, is a perennial source of amusement in nurseries and schoolrooms. The Fairchild Family suffers from an excess of religiosity, and a terrible belief in the innate wickedness of a little child's heart, which is not now tolerated. When Emily and Lucy indulge in a childish quarrel, they are taken to see what remains of a murderer who has hung on a gibbet until his clothes are rotting from him, and the warning is enforced by a long sermon; but in spite of much that would not be suitable according to present ideas for a child to hear, The Fairchild Family, the first part of which came out a year subsequently to the death of Jane Austen, contains much that is very human in behaviour and action. Though later in date than the others mentioned as surviving, it really is quite as early in treatment, as it is a record of what Mrs. Sherwood, born in the same year as Jane Austen, remembered of her own childhood.

The book contains many examples of the spoilt-child phase, in contrast with which the strict upbringing of the young Fairchilds is shown as the better way. What Mrs. Sherwood puts into the mouth of Mrs. Fairchild about her childhood is probably autobiographical, and may be quoted as an instance of the sterner modes which were then rapidly passing out of vogue.

"I was but a very little girl when I came to live with my aunts, and they kept me under their care until I was married. As far as they knew what was right, they took great pains with me. Mrs. Grace taught me to sew, and Mrs. Penelope taught me to read; I had a writing and music master, who came from Reading to teach me twice a week; and I was taught all kinds of household work by my aunts' maid. We spent one day exactly like another. I was made to rise early, and to dress myself very neatly, to breakfast with my aunts. After breakfast I worked two hours with my aunt Grace, and read an hour with my aunt Penelope; we then, if it was fine weather, took a walk; or, if not, an airing in the coach, I and my aunts, and little Shock, the lap-dog, together. At dinner I was not allowed to speak; and after dinner I attended my masters or learned my tasks. The only time I had to play was while my aunts were dressing to go out, for they went out every evening to play at cards. When they went out my supper was given to me, and I was put to bed in a closet in my aunts' room."
A modern child under such treatment would probably develop an acute form of melancholia.

The home education of the time, for girls at least, was very superficial. We gather something of what was supposed to be taught from the remarks of the Bertram girls in Mansfield Park when they plume themselves on their superiority to Fanny--

"'Dear mamma, only think, my cousin cannot put the map of Europe together--or my cousin cannot tell the principal rivers in Russia, or she never heard of Asia Minor, or she does not know the differences between water colours and crayons! How strange! Did you ever hear anything so stupid?'

"My dear,' their considerate aunt would reply, 'it is very bad, but you must not expect everybody to be as forward and quick at learning as yourself.'

"'But, aunt, she is really so very ignorant. Do you know we asked her last night which way she would go to get to Ireland, and she said she should cross to the Isle of Wight. I cannot remember the time when I did not know a great deal that she has not the least notion of yet. How long ago is it, aunt, since we used to repeat the chronological order of the kings of England, with the dates of their accession, and most of the principal events of their reigns?'

"'Yes,' added the other, 'and of the Roman Emperors as low as Severus, besides a great deal of the heathen mythology, and all the metals, semi-metals, planets, and distinguished philosophers.'"
The rattle-pate, Miss Amelia, in Caelebs thus gives an account of her education:
"I have gone on with my French and Italian of course, and I am beginning German. Then comes my drawing-master; he teaches me to paint flowers and shells, and to draw ruins and buildings, and to take views.... I learn varnishing, gilding, and Japanning. And next winter, I shall learn modelling and etching and engraving in mezzotint and aquatinta. Then I have a dancing-master who teaches me the Scotch and Irish steps, and another who teaches me attitudes, and I shall soon learn to waltz. Then I have a singing-master, and another who teaches me the harp, and another for the pianoforte. And what little time I can spare from these principal things, I give by odd minutes to ancient and modern history, and geography and astronomy, and grammar and botany, and I attend lectures on chemistry, and experimental chemistry."
Jane's early childhood was probably a very happy one; what with the companionship of Cassandra, with the liveliness and constant comings and goings of the brothers who were educated at home by Mr. Austen himself, with all the romps of a large family having unlimited country as a playground, it can hardly have failed to be so. While she was still too young to profit much by school teaching on her own account, she was sent to a school at Reading kept by a Mrs. Latournelle, because Cassandra was going, and the two sisters could not bear to be parted. How long she was at this school I do not know, but the subjects taught were probably those scheduled in the comprehensive summary of smatterings given by the two Miss Bertrams. This school was a notable one, and among the later pupils was Mrs. Sherwood, who followed Jane after an interval of nine years. She probably went to school as late as Jane went early, which would account for the gap in time between two who should have been contemporary.

Miss Mitford was also a pupil; she went in 1798 when the school had been removed to Hans Place, London. She gives a lively account of it. It was kept by M. St. Quintin, "a well-born, well-educated, and well-looking French emigrant," who "was assisted, or rather chaperoned, in his undertaking by his wife, a good-natured, red-faced Frenchwoman, much muffled up in shawls and laces; and by Miss Rowden, an accomplished young lady, the daughter and sister of clergymen, who had been for some years governess in the family of Lord Bessborough. M. St. Quintin himself taught the pupils French, history, geography, and as much science as he was master of, or as he thought it requisite for a young lady to know; Miss Rowden, with the assistance of finishing masters for Italian, music, dancing, and drawing, superintended the general course of study; while Madame St. Quintin sat dozing, either in the drawingroom, with a piece of work, or in the library with a book in her hand, to receive the friends of the young ladies or any other visitors who might chance to call."

Miss Mitford says further that the school was "excellent," that the pupils were"healthy, happy, well-fed, and kindly treated," and that "the intelligent manner in which instruction was given had the effect of producing in the majority of the pupils a love of reading and a taste for literature."

Juvenile Retirement

Juvenile Retirement

Of course Jane, being such a child when she went, can hardly have taken full use of the opportunities which were afforded her, but perhaps she laid at school the foundations of that cleverness in neat sewing and embroidery which is manifested in the specimens still in the possession of her relatives.

There is a portrait of Jane painted when she was about fifteen. It shows a bright child with shining eyes and one loose lock of hair falling over her forehead; not particularly pretty, but intelligent and with character. She is standing, and is dressed in the simple white gown, high waist, short sleeves, and low neck which little girls wore as well as their elders, and round her neck is a large locket slung on a slender chain. Her portrait was painted by Zoffany when she was about fifteen, on her first visit to Bath, but whether this reproduction, which appears in the beginning of Lord Brabourne's Letters of Jane Austen, is from that picture I have not been able to ascertain.

Mr. Austen-Leigh says of her--

"In childhood every available opportunity of instruction was made use of. According to the ideas of the time she was well-educated, though not highly accomplished, and she certainly enjoyed that important element of mental training, associating at home with persons of cultivated intellect. "He says in another place," Jane herself was fond of music, and had a sweet voice, both in singing and conversation; in her youth she had received some instruction on the pianoforte. . . she read French with facility, and new something of Italian."
In French she had at one time a great advantage in the continual association with Madame de Feuillade, her cousin, and afterwards her sister-in-law, who, as already mentioned, had been married to a Frenchman.

The illustration on p. 26 is a portrait group of the children of the Hen. John Douglas of the Morton family. It was painted by Hoppner, who lived 1758-1810; and, in the costumes of the little boy and elder girl especially, gives a good notion of the dress of the better-class children of the period.

This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.