Jane Austen’s Birth | Pt 1

In my Jane Austen Thinks series, I explore the Austens’ family letters, Jane’s novels, as well as contemporary fashions, scientific developments, and politics in England to get a better understanding of what life was like for growing families in the late 18th and early 19th century; and to get an idea of what Jane Austen may have thought about marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood.

In this first part, I will cover the experience of Jane Austen’s parents as they began and grew their family in the quickly evolving culture surrounding childbirth and infant care in England’s Georgian era. 

[ do audio recording of this post and put the timing into the table of contents]

Table of Contents

But first things first: who was Jane Austen? Jane Austen was born in England in 1775 and went on to publish five novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), plus Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817) which were published posthumously as Jane died that year at the age of 41 due to something (theories range from TB to cancer to Addison’s Disease to arsenic poisoning, but we don’t know for sure). Today Jane Austen is considered one of the greatest authors of all time.

But let’s transport ourselves further back in time and get to know her parents.

George & Cassandra

from Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, 1906 edition. Archive.org

George Austen was born in 1731 and by 1733 he had lost his mother (allegedly to childbirth), then lost his father (a surgeon) in 1739. His uncle, Francis Austen, an attorney, provided for his education. Once George took holy orders, his uncle provided him with a living at the Deane rectory in Hampshire, England.

When he married Cassandra Leigh in 1764, her second cousin Mr Knight provided Rev Austen with another living at Steventon. It was controversial for a rector to have the living of two parishes, called pluralism, but his grandson, James Edward Austen-Leigh explained in his book, A Memoir of Jane Austen, that in this case, it wasn’t pluralism because the parishes were so close and so small. 

The Austens were members of the professional class with family among the landed gentry, and it was through their family’s wealth, which provided education and the livings that their comfort relied on. They were not poor relative to the population of England but they were at the poor end of their class, as they did not own property. Their home(s) were for their use so long as Mr Austen was working as the rector for the parishes.

Their Home

George and Cassandra began their married life living in the rectory at Deane, and seven years later in 1771, they moved into the parsonage at Steventon. In the book, Jane Austin’s Sailor Brothers published in 1905, Catherine Austen described it as:

“three rooms in front on the ground floor, the best parlour, the common parlour, and the kitchen; behind there were Mr Austen’s study, the back kitchen and the stairs; above them were seven bedrooms and three attics. The rooms were low-pitched but not otherwise bad, and compared with the usual style of such buildings it might be considered a very good house.”

Catherine Austen, “Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers” 1905

Their home was located in a low valley, with a dirt cart track that became nearly impassable in the winter (and the parsonage flooded easily). But there were many beautiful wooded walks and a “church walk” that went past a Tudor-era farmhouse. The church itself was over 700 years old in their time and the churchyard was dotted with white and purple violets, old elms, hawthorns, sycamores and yew trees.

Mrs Austen had a collection of farm animals and a large garden for veggies and fruits. In a letter to her sister-in-law, she wrote of Steventon in 1773,

“I have got a nice dairy fitted up, and am now worth a bull and six cows, and you would laugh to see them; for they are not much bigger than jack-asses– and here I have got jackies and ducks and chickens for Phylly’s [Mrs Walter’s daughter] amusement. In short, you must come, and, like Hezekiah, I will shew you all my riches.”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter June 6th, 1773. AFP, p 36

a short rant about names

The English have this obnoxious habit of naming their children after themselves and reusing family names ad nauseam. The Austens weren’t so bad but for example, George and Cassandra have a son, George and a daughter Cassandra. Then we have the Philadelphias: Rev George Austen’s mother was married prior to her marriage to George’s father. This union, with Mr Walter, produced a son, William Walter (b 1721), thus George Austen’s half-brother. William married Susanna Weaver and their last child, a daughter named Philadelphia (b 1763), was called Philly for short. Following me? I hope so.

Backing up a generation or two, Rev George Austen also had an older full-sister whose name was Philadephia (b. 1730). Philadelphia went to India and was married to Tysoe Hancock, they had a daughter (there are rumours that the child was really Warren Hastings’, but that is a subject for another time!) The Hancocks’ daughter was Eliza, sometimes called Bessy, who grew up to marry into the French aristocracy just in time for the French Revolution. (And yes, all this information will be pertinent as we go forward.)

To review: Rev George Austen’s half-brother’s wife is Mrs (Susanna) Walter, and she is the mother of Philadephia, known as Philly; while his older sister is Mrs (Philadelphia) Hancock and she is the mother of Eliza.

Pregnancy

Contraception

When women wed in the 18th century, there was no expectation of controlling one’s fertility, most women would be pregnant, if not already a mother, within the first year of their marriage. As part of the wedding ceremony in England at the time, Psalm 128 is read aloud,

‘Thy wife shall be as the fruitful vine : upon the walls of thy house;
Thy children like the olive branches : round about thy table.”

Form of Solemnization of Matrimony , Psalm 128

As I cover in What Did Jane Austen Think About Pregnancy, contraception, including withdrawal, was prohibited by the church and society at large, though we know from diaries that some people tried them. Besides, the methods available were not reliable because no one really understood how reproduction worked.

However, when a family felt they had enough children or wanted to slow down the growth of their family, abstinence was the only church-supported option, or as Jane put it “separate bedrooms,” but this was only acceptable after children had been produced. In short, sex was necessary to consummate the marriage and childbirth was necessary to make the sex morally acceptable. Another option that was practised by single women, was to delay marriage until closer to menopause, but that came with its own risks.

At the time of their marriage, Cassandra Leigh was 25 years old (about average for the time). Within a year of marriage, she had her first baby, James, in 1765. Within three months of giving birth to James, she was pregnant again and gave birth to her second son George the following year, 1766. Rinse, repeat. Another baby in 1767, named Edward.

Miscarriage

It was the following year, 1768 that historian Deirdre Le Faye suggests that Mrs Austen may have experienced a miscarriage because there is a gap of around four years between the birth of Edward and the birth of her next baby, Henry, 1771. But there are lots of reasons a couple might have a gap in pregnancies after three babies in three years, especially when one developed health problems, but more on that later.

Costs

Tysoe Hancock, Rev Austen’s brother-in-law, who was perpetually plagued with financial struggles himself, and only one child, wrote to his wife Philadelphia (living in England) in September of 1772 in reply to the news of Henry Austen’s birth in 1771:

“That my brother & sister Austen are well, I heartily rejoice, but I cannot say that the News of the violently rapid increase of their family gives me so much pleasure; especially when I consider the case of my godson [Little George] who must be provided for without the least hopes of his being able to assist himself…”

Tysoe Hancock to Philly, Sept 22, 1772, AFP, p65-66

And then again in August of 1773 after the birth of Cassy:

“I fear George will find it easier to get a family than to provide for them; pray give my love to them.”  

Tysoe Hancock to Philly, Aug 9, 1773, AFP, p72

Beyond the financial constriction of new babies in quick succession, there were physical limitations. When she was pregnant, Mrs Austen complained about her lack of mobility, both around the house and around the country.

“sometime in January I expect a fifth [baby], so you see it will not be in my power to take any journeys for a while.”

“I begin to be very heavy and bundling as usual, I believe my sister Hancock will be so good as to come and nurse me again, for which I am sure I shall be much obliged to her, as it will be a bad time of the year for her to take so long a journey.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Nov 8th, 1772, AFP, p28

Notice that she doesn’t have a “due date” but a due month, “sometime in January” and indeed, little Cassandra was born on January 9th, 1773. Today we know that the majority of people who go into spontaneous labour do so two weeks before or after their “due date” and only around five percent of people give birth on their due date. However, unlike today, with anatomy scans giving a fairly accurate due month, in the past, a woman might get it wrong by a month or even more- which happened to Mrs Austen in a later pregnancy.

These frequent, closely spaced pregnancies took a toll on women’s health. It was acknowledged that women would die prematurely due to frequent pregnancies. For example, the Austens’ Hampshire contemporaries, the Wiggetts, had a similarly large family. In 1801, Rev Wiggett wrote to his friend Mr Chute (a friend of Jane Austen), about his wife,

“‘She has lately been too much of an invalid. Her complaint is general weakness, the cause of which it is not difficult to conjecture when one looks at her family.’”

Kaplan, “Jane Austen Among Women” 2019, p39

The source of her physical disability was having too many children, seven in less than nine years, and her condition was grave. She died within the year, just ten years after getting married. Tysoe Hancock commented on the risks of starting a family on women:

“I scarcely know to whom I would wish my daughter married were she of a proper age; which she will not be for some years, as I am certain nothing shorts a woman’s days so much as her being married when too young.” 

Tysoe Hancock to Mrs Hancock, Sept 23 1772, AFP

While Mrs Austen was fortunate to survive her pregnancies and childbirth, she was chronically ill during the second half of her life (to the annoyance of Jane).

“My mother continues hearty; her appetite and nights are very good, but she sometimes complains of an asthma, a dropsy, water in her chest, and a liver disorder.”

Jane to Cassandra, Dec 18,1798. Brabourne Letter 13

Relatives remarked how aged she looked while still in her 40s after she had some of her teeth removed (or they fell out).

“My aunt has lost several fore-teeth which makes her look old”

Philly Walter to James Walter, July 23, 1788, AFP, pg 124
from Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, 1906 edition. Archive.org

Childbirth

The Austens grew up and raised their family in a century of incredible changes in scientific understanding of human reproduction, including the term reproduction, which wasn’t coined until 1749. Though the term more commonly used by the Austen family was “breeding”. Both of Jane’s parents were born in the 1730s, a decade that brought profound changes to the business of childbirth, first, the design of forceps coming into public use and the man-midwives that wielded them forming the new medical speciality of obstetrics.

However, the Austens’ economic situation (neither poor nor rich) and their Hampshire isolation insulated them from many of these developments. The Austens don’t mention midwives, let alone man-wives or physicians, attending births. Rather, attending births was a family affair. In July of 1770, George wrote to Mrs Walter to let her know that Cassandra had set out for London to,

“enter on her office of nurse in ordinary”

Rev George to Mrs Walter, July 8th, 1770, AFP, p23

for the birth of her sister Mrs Cooper. The term “nurse in ordinary” is a reference to the fact that midwives held an “ordinary license”. Of course, Mrs Austen wasn’t a licensed midwife but she was acting as a birth attendant, or at least she intended to… but her nephew, Edward, couldn’t wait that long and was born prematurely.

Trade card of M.Wood, Midwife c1780, British Museum.

Location

Women, unless they were homeless, gave birth at home. While maternity hospitals existed (operated by religious orders or medical schools, to support or prey upon the indigent, respectively), women had to be desperate to use them. Middle-class and wealthier women often went into “town” (London or the nearest large city) to give birth and recuperate, as town provided more resources and entertainment or company.

But “town” wasn’t to everyone’s tastes: in late August of 1770, Mrs Austen writes to Mrs Walter her thoughts on London, and of not getting an opportunity to see Mrs Walter’s son, Weaver:

“I was not so happy as to see my nephew Weaver, suppose he was hurried in time as I think every one is in town; ‘tis a sad place, I would not live in it on any account: one has not time to do one’s duty either to God or man. I had the pleasure of leaving my sister tolerably well and the child quite so; they are now moved to the country: I hope the change of air will enable her to pick up her strength.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Aug 26th 1770, AFP, p 24

Mrs Austen was joined in her opinion of town by physicians and philosophers of the time who advised that instead of heading into the city, which was typical, pregnant women flee to the countryside for their confinements. They argued that fresh air was the most important thing for them and their newborns. Of course, today we understand that urban pollution isn’t great for health but they weren’t thinking of it on those terms. Rather, they were working from the miasma theory of disease: that disease travels on bad smells (this was the reason for the beaks on plague doctors’ masks: they were stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs). 

Birth Attendants

In 1772, Mrs Austen mentions her sister-in-law Philadelphia Hancock, who she is planning to have as her nurse for the impending birth of Cassy, 

“I begin to be very heavy and bundling as usual, I believe my sister Hancock will be so good as to come and nurse me again, for which I am sure I shall be much obliged to her, as it will be a bad time of the year for her to take so long a journey.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Nov 8th, 1772, AFP, p28

Mrs Austen, as far as I know, always gave birth at home with the help of family and possibly a local midwife but if she had a midwife, they weren’t mentioned. Whereas, she does mention physicians for other issues, other servants, local service providers, and the foster mother of her children. So, why omit a midwife if she had one?

Pain Relief

During this era, midwives were licensed by the church and one of the things the church was concerned about was the pain of childbirth. The pain was considered a God-ordained punishment for original sin as well as for having sex, therefore, English midwives had to ask for penance if they did anything to reduce the pain of childbirth.

“Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Genesis 3:16, King James Version (KJV)

But what exactly could a midwife do about pain in the 18th century? This was long before anaesthesia, however, there were opiates like laudanum. However, there is no evidence that Mrs Austen did or did not use it for childbirth. As a religious woman and reverend’s wife, Mrs Austen may have believed that the pain was God-ordained herself and therefore unwilling to lessen it. Additionally, there was a long-standing belief that a woman unable to be active in birth made childbirth more dangerous, so any drugs that made one sedated would have been avoided.

While laudanum may have been taboo, booze was traditional. Following Mrs Austen’s births, Philadelphia would have brought her caudle, a spiced, oatmeal-eggnog boozy drink (recipes varied) that is supposed to help women recover after childbirth and reduce their pain. It was a childbirth tradition going back hundreds of years for female friends and relations to gather around during the lying-in and share caudle. Philadelphia’s husband, Tysoe, who was in India, wrote a letter to his daughter, Eliza in 1771, on the happy delivery of her pet cat:

“I should have been very happy to have been at the lying-in of your cat, could I have been transported thither & back again in one day: but I do not wish it for the sake of the Caudle, tho’ I believe it was very good, but for the happiness of seeing you & your Mama in health & good spirits.” 

Tysoe Hancock to Eliza, April 8th 1771, AFP, p55

Mothering

Breastfeeding

In June 1773, Mrs Austen bragged about her babies to Mrs Walter, 

“I want to shew you my Henry and my Cassy, who are both reckoned fine children. I suckled my little girl thro’ the first quarter; she has been weaned and settled at the good woman’s at Deane just eight weeks; she is very healthy and lively, and put on her short petticoats to-day.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, June 6, 1773, AFP, p29
Tomkins, P.W. 1792. Duty. 1917, 1208.3069. British Museum

Little Cassandra, called Cassy, was around five or six months old at this time. Her mother breastfed her for around three months, as was her Maternal Duty, and then “weaned” her. Mrs Austen may have been referring to weaning from her mother’s milk to be put on a wet nurse’s milk, or she may have meant weaned from breastmilk full stop. If Cassy was off all breastmilk by three months, she would then have switched to “pap” which had various recipes, but generally involved flour, barley sugar, water or beer, or maybe dairy milk. It’s very similar in constituents to Mellin’s Food. But it’s a far cry from modern infant formulas. Do not attempt to make your own infant formula with flour, barley sugar and beer, or at all.

Fostering Out and Nurse-maids

The Austens practised the long-held tradition of having their infants fostered out, which was already starting to go out of fashion as they raised their family. Henry was born in 1771. In November of 1772, Mrs Austen, pregnant again, wrote to Mrs Walter about Henry coming home from the wet nurse, bipedal and ready to mingle.  

“My little boy is come home from nurse, and a fine stout little fellow he is, and can run anywhere, so now I have all four at home, and sometime in January I expect a fifth, so you see it will not be in my power to take any journeys for a while.”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Nov 8th, 1772, AFP, p28

In Memoirs of Jane Austen published in 1870, Mrs Austen’s grandson, James remarked that the practice of fostering out infants seemed “strange” in his time (the Victorian era) but he softened it by claiming that: 

“The infant was daily visited by one or both of its parents, and frequently brought to them at the parsonage, but the cottage was its home, and must have remained so till it was old enough to run about and talk; for I know that one of them, in after life, used to speak of his foster mother as ‘Movie,’ the name by which he had called her in his infancy.” 

“It would certainly seem from the results that it was a wholesome and invigorating system, for the children were all strong and healthy. Jane was probably treated like the rest in this respect.” 

James Austen-Leigh, “Memiors of Jane Austen”, 1870

The Austens had remarkable luck not to lose one of their biological children during a time of high infant mortality. Besides Mrs Austen’s first son, James who died at 54 and Jane who died at 41, her children lived into their 70s, 80’s, and even 90’s.  

Nursemaids & Nannies

When the Austen children did come home from the foster mother, they were cared for by nursemaids and had a nanny. In 1770, we learn that Edward has his own maid,

“my little Neddy’s cough seems entirely to have left him: he was so well that I ventured to leave him with his maid for a few days, while we went to Southcote”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Dec 9th, 1770, AFP p26

On the whole, Mrs Austen does not seem very involved in the childcare aspect of mothering: sending her infants out to foster at around three months old until they can walk and talk, and then having them cared for by nursemaids in the home, which allowed her to travel.

Education

When it comes to formal education, which Mr Austen managed for the boys, Mrs Austen sent her daughters to school, or rather she tried to send Cassy to school at ten years old, but Jane threw a fit, her mother claiming that:

“If [cass] were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate”

James Austen-Leigh, “Memiors of Jane Austen”, 1870

and so Mrs Austen allowed Jane to go to school at only seven years old– but the girls’ education didn’t last long due to an outbreak of typhus.

It may be that Mrs Austen had old-fashioned and upper-class attitudes about the roles of wives and mothers: she was there to be decorative, to produce children, and to manage the household (which included managing the staff paid to do the childcare). Make no mistake, Mrs Austen wasn’t lazy: she was more or less constantly pregnant for fourteen years; and she had two spinning wheels at home to produce yarns and threads which she used to produce a lot of the family’s clothing, sometimes recycling her old gowns to make her children’s clothing. Her grandson explained in Memoirs of Jane Austen, that she was also involved in the kitchens, doing the “higher cooking”, brewing, preparing medicines, etc. 

However, during Mrs Austen’s reproductive years, there was fierce vitriol being levelled at middle and upper-class women who left the care of their children up to others:

“Nothing can be more preposterous than for a mother to think it below her to take care of her own child, or to be so ignorant as not to know what is proper to be done for it.”

William Buchan, “Domestic Medicine”, 1772, p2

William Buchan made a lot of Rousseau-esque observations that in nature infant animals never die from neglect or starvation, and every other creature breastfeeds their own young, and never have alloparents. (etc etc etc ) He was completely wrong. How limited must one’s life experience be to not recognize that other animals neglect or abandon their young, or refuse to nurse, or that lots of animals get help caring for their young, sometimes from other species?

But this was the attitude that was ramping up amongst the middle and upper classes in Western Europe. Trendy ideas about motherhood contrasted with the lack of involvement by Mrs Austen in her children’s care and education may be the reason that Jane develops such high standards for mothers, as we’ll discuss in What Did Jane Austen Think about Motherhood. For a modern example of the difference between Mrs Austen’s mothering style and Jane’s idealized motherhood, consider the typical 1970s suburban moms with their practically feral Tang-powered children and then those kids growing up to become super crunchy attachment parenting types.

Fatherhood

All this pressure on mothers, huh? Typical. And what about dad? I hear you. Rev Austen was an active father and as a clergyman, teaching was part of his profession, so as noted earlier he educated his children, including his daughters, though their education wasn’t as formalized as his sons. He taught his daughters to read and write and provided them with books from their home library and a circulating library. Rev Austen also took in boys from other families as pupils for additional income.

In a July 1770 letter to his sister-in-law, Rev Austen describes how his young children were coping while their mother was gone to London,

“[James] and his brothers are both well, and what will surprise you, bear their mother’s absence with great philosophy: as I doubt not they would mine and turn all their little affections towards those who were about them and good to them; this may not be a pleasing reflection to a fond parent, but is certainly wisely designed by Providence for the happiness of the child.”

Rev George to Mrs Walter, July 8th, 1770, AFP, p24

Based on this and many other family letters, it’s clear to me that Rev Austen was a “fond” and down-to-earth parent who cared more for his children’s happiness than his parental ego.  

Disability and Medicine 

In the July 1770 letter, we also hear about little George, the Austens’ second child, who would have been around four years old at the time. He had a history of seizures and was not developing as expected, Mr. Austen wrote,

“I am much obliged to you for your kind wish of George’s improvement. God knows only how far it will come to pass, but from the best judgement I can form at present, we must not be too sanguine on this head; be it as it may, we have this comfort, he cannot be a bad or a wicked child.”

Rev George to Mrs Walter, July 8th, 1770, AFP, p23

This idea that because little George may be intellectually disabled he cannot be bad or wicked, could be a sign that Mr Austen took a Rousseauan approach to child development. This ideology posited that children are born without civilization and therefore are more natural, thus naturally good. That old fallacious chestnut: appeal to nature.

By December, it seems that little George wasn’t living in the home, but came to visit his mother,

“My poor little George is come to see me to-day, he seems pretty well, tho’ he had a fit lately; it was near a twelvemonth since he had one before, so was in hopes they had left him, but must not flatter myself so now.”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Dec 9th, 1770, AFP, p27

It may have been around this time that Mr and Mrs Austen decided that George would live apart from the family permanently. While today we would baulk at the idea of banishing disabled children from their families, for the Austens I think it was more along the lines of providing him with specialised care, where his caregivers could focus more on him than either Mr or Mrs Austen could with a growing family.

Mrs Austen’s eldest brother Thomas was also considered an “invalid” who has been described as having a mental disability. According to an article by Vic on Jane Austen’s World, Thomas and George lived together under the care of Francis Cullum in a nearby village in Hampshire; Thomas lived until 1821 and George until 1838.

While there isn’t a definitive diagnosis for Thomas or George, it has been suggested by some historians that George may have been deaf, as Jane mentioned talking with her fingers in a letter in 1808: 

“Mr Fitzhugh […] very much the gentleman […] poor man! is so totally deaf that they say he could not hear a cannon, were it fired close to him; having no cannon at hand to make the experiment, I took it for granted, and talked to him a little with my fingers, which was funny enough. I recommended him to read Corinna.” . 

Jane Austen, Dec 27, 1808, Brabourne, Letter 50

Quackery

Rev Austen’s niece, Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), fled France during the revolution with her young son, Hastings, and was staying in England. Like George, Hastings also had seizures and developmental problems. Unlike the Austens, Eliza kept her boy with her and tried whatever doctors recommended. Whatever he had, the long-suffering Hastings died when he was just 14-15 years old, while George Austen lived to be seventy. Of course, I am not suggesting George and Hastings had the same thing but I do wonder, considering the state of medicine at that time, if sending a child to the country was more humane and healthy than keeping a child at home to be fussed over by quacks. 

Though many new breakthroughs in science and medicine were occurring at the time, the majority of people, including physicians, resorted to good old-fashioned humorally-based treatments. For example, Jane’s niece Fanny noted in her diary in July of 1813 that Jane sat with her while she had leeches on her head to treat a headache. The idea here was that the leeches would suck out the excess humour of blood which was thought to cause the headache.

During his last recurring illness, Mr Austen was treated with cupping, in which the skin was cut before heated cups were placed over the wounds, and the suction created by the hot air inside the cups was to help draw out the bad blood.

But in the Austen family letters and diaries, the worst case of modern enlightened medicine meeting humoral theory was the case of Mr and Mrs Austen’s granddaughter, Harriet. In 1817, at the age of seven, she developed severe headaches and was diagnosed with “water on the brain”, the treatment for which was calomel, or mercurous chloride (which causes mercury posioning). In a letter from Jane to her niece Fanny, in March 1817 she wrote,

“Now the reports from Keppel St. are rather better; little Harriot’s headaches are abated, and Sir Evd. is satisfied with the effect of the mercury, and does not despair of a cure. The complaint I find is not considered incurable nowadays, provided the patient be young enough not to have the head hardened. The water in that case may be drawn off by mercury.”

Jane to Fanny, March 23, 1817, Brabourne, letter 84

The result of the mercury would have been profuse vomiting and diarrhea, literally removing the excess “water” on the brain. I could be wrong but I suspect Little Harriet had viral meningitis and survived in spite of her treatment. 

Baby Clothes 

In the June 6th, 1773 letter about Cass going to the foster mother, there is the mention of short petticoats. Baby clothing was going through major changes in the 18th century, influenced by philosophers like Rousseau who encouraged naturalness— whatever you could do to resemble the Noble Savage, the better— swaddling was civilized, so swaddling was out. Liberate your infants! But physicians had been encouraging that for centuries without success. (The practice of swaddling continues to this day in some variation because it’s really effective at soothing newborns, making them easier to hold and feed, keep warm, etc.) However, the philosophers had made progress in reducing the full mummycore, strapped-to-a-board style swaddle of the previous centuries. In the images below, notice the 18th-century images of unswaddled newborns in extremely long dresses while the 17th-century newborns are tightly bundled.

Fashionable mamma’s of Mrs Austen’s time would have kept newborns of both sexes in long dresses that would keep the legs covered, then shortening them as the child was being encouraged to stand and walk.

Crawling

As I discussed in my post on the cultural nature of crawling, across western cultures from at least the middle ages to at least the early 20th century, the floors were often cold and dirty (mainly because people wore shoes inside, don’t do it, it’s nasty). In England’s climate, they were likely damp too and homes were heated with open fires; a crawling infant wouldn’t be safe or sanitary (even within a humoral framework which didn’t consider microbiology).

Crawling was associated with animals and caregivers went to great ends to reduce the animalistic nature of babies and children, everything was done to instil a civilized posture and bearing on infants and young children. Their clothing was designed for that purpose: little infant stays to help them sit up straight, and steady them for toddling. Toddler clothing often had built-in safety features, including leading strings, partly to help them walk without their caregiver needing to stoop, and partly to act as a kid leash. There were also bumper hats, to protect their noggins from bumps and bruises when gravity interfered. 

The focus on preventing them from crawling and encouraging them to walk, seemed to speed their ability to walk, by December, Mrs Austen wrote of 11-month-old Cass: 

“I thank God we are all quite well and my little girl is almost ready to run away.”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Dec 12, 1773, AFP, p30

And her next baby, Francis (Frank) born in 1774 was running unaided by the time he was 14 months old, in August of 1775 Mrs Austen wrote,

“My last boy is very stout, and has run alone these two months, and he is not yet sixteen months old.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Aug 20, 1775, AFP, p31

Breeching

Children of both sexes, wore dresses (or petticoats) until little boys were breeched, or put into their first pair of trousers at around seven years of age. In August of 1775, Mrs Austen wrote,

“Henry has been in breeches some months and thinks himself near as good a man as his brother Neddy, indeed no one would judge by their looks that there was above three years and a half difference in their ages, one is so little and other other so great.” 

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Aug 20, 1775, AFP, p31
Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons Samuel and Thomas. Gainsborough c1779. Wikipedia.

Toilet Training

One of the reasons both male and female children wore “petticoats” until six or seven years old was the relative ease of squatting over a potty in a skirt vs. removing trousers or breeches. The biggest misconception about how people dealt with an infant’s bodily waste in history is in trying to fit a diaper around the issue.

From birth, babies use body language to communicate that they need to urinate or defecate. If you have a newborn at home, next time they seem to be getting fussy and kicking with their legs, take off their diaper and support them over the toilet or a bowl you don’t intend to use for anything else. Infant potty training is really that simple. It’s about training yourself to notice the cues or timing of when your baby needs to go, then helping them to an appropriate place to go. Even parents who think they wouldn’t be able to do this will know when their baby is fussy because they need to poo, or has assumed the baby was upset about a wet diaper only to get peed on when they remove a dry diaper.

In history, this form of infant potty training was likely typical: there are examples of infant toilets and toileting around the world, from antiquity through to the present day. In European art we see men and women providing infants with chamber pots and little potties. But of course, accidents happen, especially if there’s a sick baby or a baby trying new foods. What we might look at and think of as a “diaper” was more of a fail-safe when used, but for the most part, caregivers would have tried to use a potty rather than clean diapers. Of course, toileting instead of diapering wasn’t just about preventing a mess, they may not have understood the microbiology of poo but mismanagement of it could still cause diseases that could kill young children. 

But very little of this was Mrs Austen’s problem: by the time the children came home from their foster mother, walking and talking, they would be potty trained. Their nursemaids would just need to ensure the children had access to a potty or chamber pot and provide help with their clothing and cleaning themselves until they were old enough to manage alone.

Birth of Jane Austen

In a letter from August of 1775, Mrs Austen makes note of expecting another baby: the baby that would become Jane Austen. There is a theory that Jane Austen was a post-term baby because her mother expected to be confined in November but Jane wasn’t born until mid-December.

However, by August of 1775, there’s a hint in Mrs Austen’s letters that her dates might be a little off:

“Many thanks for your good wishes; we are all, I thank God, in good health, and I am more nimble and active than I was last time, expect to be confined some time in November.”

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Aug 20, 1775, AFP, p31 (emphasis added)

She would be around six months pregnant in writing this letter but she thought she was seven months. If you recall in her letter about her pregnancy with Cassandra on Nov 8th, 1772, when she was around seven months along, she wrote,

“I begin to be very heavy and bundling as usual

Mrs Austen to Mrs Walter, Nov 8th, 1772, AFP, p28 (emphasis added)

It wasn’t just her previous pregnancy with Frank that she was less nimble and active, she was usually heavy and bundling at that point in her pregnancy.

So why was this pregnancy different? She wasn’t as far along as she thought. Oops.

Most people who normally have regular periods will experience cycle changes starting in their mid-30s, and Mrs Austen was 36 years old when she had Jane. And she wouldn’t have had much experience with her menstrual cycle anyway, having had babies on an annual basis for the previous three years. To be honest, I am impressed she was only one cycle off.

Therefore, no, I don’t believe that Jane Austen was a post-term baby. So all the speculation that Jane was overly fussy due to being post-term and that it ruined the mother-child bonding from the start, or that Jane being post-term messed up her immune system and that was the real cause for her premature death: consign it to the rubbish bin, it’s all nonsense.

So November came and went with no baby but finally, on December 17th, 1775, Mr Austen wrote to his sister,

“Dear Sister, You have doubtless been for some time in expectation of hearing from Hampshire, and perhaps wondered a little we were in our old age grown such bad reckoners but so it was, for Cassey certainly expected to have been brought to bed a month ago: however last night the time came, and without a great deal of warning, everything was soon happily over. We have now another girl, a present plaything for her sister Cassy and a future companion. She is to be Jenny, and seems to me as if she would be as like Henry, as Cassy is to Neddy. Your sister thank God is pure well after it, and sends her love to you […]”

Rev Austen to Mrs Walter, Dec 17 1775, AFP, p32-33.

Jenny is (or was) a nickname for Jane. Rev Austen, being a clergyman, christened her that day and then held a ceremony at the church on April 5th for their extended family and friends to attend, once that (historically) dreadful winter had passed and everyone could travel in.

Jane’s baptism entry, image from JaneAustenFiles.wordpress.com

Beyond that, we don’t really know much else about Jane’s birth or babyhood. It’s possible that Jane too was breastfed for the “first quarter” like her sister Cassy, then sent to the “good woman at Deane,” in order to learn how to walk and grow up a bit before coming back home.

Completing Their Family

Four years after the birth of Jane, Mrs Austen had her last baby, Charles. I wonder if he was her last baby on purpose or if her fertility was in decline. In total, she had eight children, which was just above the average of seven children for women of the time in England.

As previously discussed, George, their second child didn’t live at home, and the Austens gave up another child, their third son, Edward. Remember when Tysoe Hancock, Rev Austen’s brother-in-law, had concerns that Mr Austen couldn’t afford the number of children he was producing? Well, it’s possible that Mrs Austen’s second cousin, Mr Knight sensed this too.

Mr and Mrs Knight were very wealthy but they had no children of their own. Mr Knight wanted an heir and I am sure the couple wanted a family. A deal was struck between the Austens and the Knights, and Edward was adopted by the Knights and became their heir. But Edward still maintained a relationship with his birth family, afterall the Knights and Austens were all literally family.

Some consider this a kind of Cinderella situation, but I have mixed feelings about it.

The Austens owed the Steventon living, their home and livelihood, to Mr Knight. Therefore, when he takes a shine to their third boy, the choice of which I suspect was due to the culture of primogeniture, the first-born son is the sacred heir, and in the Austens’ case, the second son, George, was disabled, so viola, their third son’s a charm.

Even if the Austens weren’t okay with this proposition, how could they possibly refuse? Allegedly, it was Mrs Austen who said, “let him go” or “give him up” to her husband on the subject and she knew her cousin best. Perhaps she knew that refusing him their son would put the whole family at risk of destitution. Or maybe she recognized that it was an amazing deal. It certainly improved the fortunes of Edward and he was the son who provided a home for his mother and sisters after Rev Austen died. 

Jane Austen used this scenario of a parent giving up a child to a wealthy relative in two of her novels, Mansfield Park and Emma, but the one that most closely resembles this situation was in Emma. After the premature death of Mrs Weston (who married against her family’s wishes to a less wealthy man), her relations, the Churchills, make Mr Weston an offer: 

“Mr and Mrs Churchill, having no children of their own, nor any other young creature of equal kindred to care for, offered to take the whole charge of the little Frank soon after her decease. Some scruples and some reluctance the widower-father may be supposed to have felt, but as they were overcome by other considerations the child was given up to the care and the wealth of the Churchills.” 

Jane Austen, “Emma

I wish we had more letters from Mrs Austen about her experiences and her children’s care. How much did her attitudes about motherhood evolve over the fourteen years she spent having children? If there were changes, did they stem from her experience of motherhood or from popular culture? Perhaps she started her first-born James off with a wet nurse, but by the time we get to Cassy, she decided she should breastfeed her own baby because it was so trendy. Did she send all of her children to the same foster mother? Did she read the popular books on infant care at the time? These are all questions that I cannot answer because either she didn’t record her thoughts or she did and the accounts do not survive. 

So to all the moms out there, young or old, what was it like for you? Did your ideas change before, during, after the experience of motherhood? If so what influenced you? What books or magazines did you read? Did you get advice from mom-friends or family members, or strictly the professionals?


In the next part of this series, we’ll be looking at the next generation of Austens, primarily through the filter of Jane’s surviving letters and her novels to learn her thoughts about pregnancy, birth, motherhood and marriage and how they influenced her personal choices.  

I hope you found this interesting! I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. If you would like to support my research, consider becoming a patron on Patreon.

Infinities of love, etc. 

Sources

  • Jane Austen’s Letters:
    • Woolsey, Sarah Chauncy. Feb 12, 2013 “The Letters of Jane Austen Selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Brabourne.” Project Gutenberg.
    • And the Brabourne edition on Pemberly.com
  • Austen-Leigh, J.E. 1879. A memoir of Jane Austen, 4th ed. London- Richard Bently and Son. Internet Archive.
  • Austen-Leigh, Richard Arthur. 1942. The Austen Family Papers 1704-1856. Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co.
  • Buchan, William. 1772. Domestic Medicine. Wellcome.
  • Cadogan, William. 1748. Essay on Nursing. Google.
  • Kaplan, Deborah. 2019. Jane Austen Among Women. John Hopkins University Press, Project Muse.
  • Hubback, J.H. & Edith. 1906. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. London: John Lane Company. Google Books/Internet Archive.
  • Lynch, Kathleen M. and John K. Papadopoulos. Spring 2006. “Sella Cacatoria: A Study of the Potty in Archaic and Classical Athens.” Hesperia, 75(1) pg 1-32.
  • Rogers Deborah D. 1993. “Eighteenth-Century Literary Depictions of Childbirth in the Historical Context of Mutilation and Mortality: The Case of Pamela.” Centennial Review 37(2), pg 305-324 JSTOR.
  • Yeats, G. D. 1819. An appendix to the pamphlet on the early symptoms of water in the brain. Wellcome.

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