Jane Austen’s Birth | Pt 1

Jane Austen’s Birth | Pt 1

This is the first of a two parter exploring the life and times of Jane Austen with relation to pregnancy birth and mothering. In this series I combine the popular culture, scientific developments and politics, along with the family’s letters and Jane’s novels to gain a better understanding of what life was like for growing families in the 18th and the early 19th centuries in England.

In this part of the twofer, we are going to explore Jane Austen’s birth by looking at her mother’s reproductive history and the childcare strategies of her parents in quickly the changing culture surrounding childbirth and infant care in England’s Georgian era. 

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, 1810

But first things first: who is 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 from TB to cancer to Addison’s Disease to arsenic poisoning).

But let’s transport ourselves further back in time…

George & Cassandra Austen Start A Family

Both of Jane’s parents, George Austen and Cassandra Leigh were born in the 1730’s, a decade that brought profound changes to the business of childbirth, namely forceps and the male physicians that wielded them. The Austen’s grew up and raised their family in a century of incredible changes in scientific understanding of human reproduction– in fact, the term reproduction! Prior to 1749, scholars used the term “generation” for the process then Buffon, a medical writer coined the term “reproduction”. However, the term more commonly used was “breeding” which we will see in the Austens’ letters. 

George Austen lost his mother (apparently to childbirth) and his father before he was nine-years-old. His uncle, Francis Austen, an attorney, provided for his education and once he took Holy orders his uncle provided him with a living at Deane rectory in Hampshire, England. When he married Cassandra Leigh in 1764, her second cousin Mr. Knight provided George 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. 

Cassandra Leigh married at 25 years old (about average for the time) in 1764 and within a year of marriage she had her first baby, James, in 1765. Within around three months of giving birth she was pregnant again and gave birth to her second son George the following year, 1766. Rinse repeat, another baby 1767, Edward. 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 in a minute. 

They began their married life living in the rectory at Deane, after having three children, they moved into the parsonage at Steventon in 1771. 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.”

Cassandra 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 chicken for Phylly’s [sis-in-law’s daughter] amusement. In short, you must come, and, like Hezekiah, I will shew you all my riches.” (June 6th, 1773. AFP, p 36).

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 and the church itself was over 700 years old in their time, the churchyard dotted with white and purple violets, old elms, hawthornes, sycamores and yew trees. It was a beautiful, if a somewhat, secluded area to raise a family. 

Their Letters

We start hearing from the Austen’s via their letters to Mrs. Walter, George’s sister, in 1770, just before they move to Steventon and have Henry. In July 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” (July 8th, 1770, AFP, p23) for the birth of her nephew. The term “nurse in ordinary” likely associated to birth due to the fact that midwives held an “ordinary license”, of course, Mrs Austen wasn’t licensed but she was acting as a birth attendent– or intended to be but the baby was in a hurry to be born. More on that in a moment.

Little George 

In this letter we also hear about George, the Austen’s 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.”  (July 8th, 1770, AFP, p23)

From Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers, 1904. Google Books.

This idea that because 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 idea that children are born without civilization and therefore are more natural, thus naturally good.  He goes on to describe the other children, 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.” (July 8th, 1770, AFP, p24)

In other words, the little blighters will play nice to whoever supplies the candy. But it is clear that Mr. Austen is a kind, loving, and down-to-earth parent. 

In late August of that year, Mrs Austen writes to Mrs. Walter, discussing her premature nephew and her thoughts on London,

“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.”  (Aug 26th 1770, AFP, p 24)

Many physicians and philosophers who advocated their ideas on infant care recommended pregnant women, instead of heading into the city which was typical, flee for the countryside for their confinements because fresh air was the most important thing for them and newborns. Of course, we understand that 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 (reason for the beaks on doctors masks: they were stuffed with sweet smelling herbs). 

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.” (Dec 9th, 1770, AFP, p27)

It have been around this time that Mr. and Mrs. Austen decided that George would live apart from the family permanently, while today we would balk at this idea of banishing disabled children from their families, for them 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 do with a growing family. And 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.” (Dec 27, 1808, Brabourne, Letter 50). 

The Austens’ niece, Eliza de Feuillide (nee Hancock), who fled France during the revolution and was staying in England with her son, Hastings. Hastings also started having seizures and developmental problems. Eliza kept the boy with her and tried whatever doctors recommended. Whatever he had, Hastings died when he was 14-15 years old, while George Austen lived to be 70 years old. Of course, I am not suggesting they had the same thing but I do wonder if, 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 occuring the majority of people and even 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 humor of blood causing the inflammation. 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, the suction created by the hot air inside the cups was to help draw out the bad blood.

But the worse case of modern enlightened medicine meeting humoral theory in the family letters, was the case of Mr. and Mrs. Austen’s granddaughter, Harriet, who in 1817 at the age of 7, developed severe headaches and was diagnosed with water on the brain, the treatment for which was mercury. 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.” (March 23, 1817, Brabourne, letter 84)

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

Fostering Out and Nurse-maids

The Austen’s practiced the long held tradition of having their infants fostered out in the country, which was starting to go out of fashion as they raised their family. Henry was born in 1771 and in Nov of 1772, Mrs Austen, pregnant again, writes 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.”  (Nov 8th, 1771, AFP, p28)

And when they did come home they were cared for by nurse maids; earlier, 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” (Dec 9th, 1770, AFP p26) 

On the whole, Mrs. Austen does not seem very involved on the childcare aspect of mothering, sending her infants out to foster until they can walk and talk, and then having them cared for by nursemaids in the home, allowing her to travel. And when it comes to education, which Mr Austen managed for the boys, Mrs. Austen sent her daughters to school, or rather she sent Cassy to school at 10 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” (Austen-Leigh, 1870) and so Mrs. Austen allowed Jane to go with her at only seven years old. But the girls’ education didn’t last long due to an outbreak of typhus.

This 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 part two. It may be that Mrs. Austen had old fashioned and upper class attitudes about the roles of wives and mothers: there to be decorative and to produce children, and to manage the household which included managing the staff paid to do the childcare. She wasn’t lazy though, Mrs. Austen had two spinning wheels at home to produce yarns and threads, and we know she produced a lot of the family’s clothing, sometimes recycling her old gowns to make children’s clothing. And as her grandson explained in Memoirs of Jane Austen, she was also involved in the kitchens, doing the “higher cooking”, brewing, preparing medicines, etc. 

But Mrs. Austen’s reproductive years, there was fierce vitriol being leveled at middle and upper class women who left the care of their children up to others, William Buchan, in his 1772 book, Domestic Medicine he wrote,

“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.” (p2)

He makes a lot of Rousseau-esque observations that in nature infant animals never die from neglect or starvation, and every other creature nurses its own young, and never have alloparents. (Etc etc etc ) Of course this is completely wrong and it doesn’t take much effort to recognize that other animals neglect or abandon their young or refuse to nurse. But this is the attitude that was ramping up amongst the middle and upper classes in Western society. For a modern example, consider moms raising up their children in conventional 1970s suburbia style and then their children becoming super crunchy attachment parents.

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 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.” 

And it’s true that the Austen’s had remarkable luck not to lose one of their biological children during a time of high infant mortality and besides her 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.  

But for now, back to 1772! Where we find a very pregnant Mrs Austen, expecting to be confined in January of 1773: 


“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.”  (Nov 8th, 1772, AFP, p28)

She mentions her sister-in-law Philadelphia Hancock, who she is planning to have as her nurse in ordinary for the impending birth of Cassy. Mrs. Austen as far as we know gave birth with the help of family and possibly a local midwife but if she had a midwife, it wasn’t mentioned. There are only mentions of her having her sister-in-law, Philadelphia to nurse her, and for her going to nurse another sister-in-law during/after childbirth, but the birth being over before she arrived (so who was there to help?). But during this era, midwives were licensed by the church. Among other things the church was concerned about was that the pains of childbirth were considered god-ordained punishment for female sin, as well as for having sex. One of the things midwives had to do was ask for penance if they did anything to reduce the pain of childbirth. But what exactly could a midwife do in the 18th century? This was long before anesthesia, however, laudanum (an opiate) was around and for sure Mrs. Austen was using it in her later life for pain as Jane wrote about having the privilege of dosing it for her mother– but there is no evidence that Mrs. Austen did or didn’t use it for the pangs of childbirth. As a religious woman and parson’s wife, she may have believed that the pain was god ordained and was unwilling to lessen it for herself. 

However, booze was traditional. Following Mrs. Austen’s births, Philadelphia would have brought her caudle, a spiced, oatmeal eggnog boozey drink (recipes varied) that is supposed to help women recover after childbirth and reduce their pain, a tradition going back hundreds of years. Female friends and relations would gather around during the lying-in and share caudle. Philadelphia’s husband, Tysoe, who was in India, wrote a letter to his daughter, Eliza/Betsy in 1771:

Reynolds, Joshua. 1766. Tysoe Hancock, Philadelphia, Elizabeth, and Clarinda. Gemaldegaleriem Museum, Berlin

“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.”  (April 8th 1771, AFP, p55)

Tysoe, who was perpetually plagued with financial struggles, wrote to Philadelphia in Sept of 1772 in reply to Henry’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…” (Sept 22, 1772, AFP, p65-66)

And then again in Aug 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.” (Aug 9, 1773, AFP, p72) 


In her following letter sent June 1773 to Mrs. Walter, Mrs. Austen brags about her babies, she may not be an attentive mother but she is proud of her children: 

Tomkins, P.W. 1792. Duty. 1917, 1208.3069. British Museum

“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.”  (June 6, 1773, AFP, p29)

So little Cassandra, 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 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, barely sugar, and water or beer– 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, barely sugar and beer. 

Baby Clothes 

And then there is the mention of short petticoats: baby clothing was going through some big 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 yet 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 full mummycore, strapped-to-a-board style swaddle of the previous centuries was certainly on the way out. In 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 however– crawling is very likely to not have been part of an infant’s enrichment in this era… 


As I discussed in my post on the cultural nature of crawling, in European culture, the floors were often cold, dirty (people wore shoes inside), and in England they were likely damp, and homes were heated with open fires– a crawling infant wouldn’t be safe or sanitary even from a humoral perspective. Plus crawling was associated with animals, and everything was done to instill adult posture and bearing on infants, even little infant stays to help them sit up straight, and steady them for toddling. Toddler clothing often had built in safety features: leading strings, partly to help them walk without having to stoop and partly to act as a kid-leash and 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.” (Dec 12, 1773, AFP, p30)

Gainsborough, Thomas. c1779. Mrs Elizabeth Moody with her sons Samuel and Thomas. Wikipedia

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.” (Aug 20, 1775, AFP, p31)

Children, again of both sexes, wore dresses (or petticoats) until little boys were breached, put into their first pair of trousers at around seven years of age. Also 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.”  (Aug 20, 1775, AFP, p31)

Toilet Training

One of the biggest misconceptions about how people dealt with 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 away 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. It’s really that simple. 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 approach was likely typical, of course accidents will happen, especially if there’s a sick baby or a baby trying new foods. What we might look at and think “diaper” was more of a failsafe, when used. There are examples of infant chairs/toilets from antiquity through to the 20th century and in European art we see men and women providing infants with chamber pots and little potties.

A common infant care set up, and possibly something familiar to baby Jane and her siblings, was to strip baby down after breakfast/morning feeding in preparation for a bath, with a chamber pot on hand or infant potty chair, if they didn’t produce a BM by themselves, infant care manuals often recommend a soap stick or soap enema to “clean the bowels” (sometimes they also recommend feeding infant laxatives). Once baby had pooed, they could be bathed and dressed with hopefully only pee to worry about until the next bath time, likely in the evening.  This routine was intended to “train” the bowels and prevent constipation which they believed caused illness. This routine would have translated well from infancy to toddlerhood, the caregiver never having to break them of the habit of going into their clothes wherever they were, but rather knowing there was a time and a place to go potty. This training to time BM’s was something that would have been important as the children got older and started wearing more complex clothing. Removing adult clothing to use the facilities after one was dressed for the day was a massive hassle. 

By the time Mrs. Austen’s children came home walking and talking, toileting would be straightforward: ensuring children had access to a potty and offering whatever help they needed in moving clothing and cleaning themselves, which is something their maids or older siblings could have been responsible for until they were old enough to manage on their own. One of the reasons both male and female children wore “petticoats” until 6-7 years old was the relative ease of squatting over a potty in a skirt vs. trousers or breeches. 

Of course toileting wasn’t just about preventing a mess, they may not have understood microbiology or virology of poo but mismanagement of it could still cause diseases that could kill young children. 

Birth of Jane Austen

It was also in that letter of August of 1775 that she 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.”  (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” (emphasis added) so it wasn’t just her last 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 females who get regular periods experience cycle changes starting in their mid-30’s, 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 last three years. So honestly, I am impressed she was only one cycle off.

And no, I don’t believe that Jane Austen was a post-term baby.

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 […]” (Dec 17 1775, AFP, p32-3)

Jenny is (or was) a nickname for Jane. Mr. Austen, a clergyman of course, 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 breastfeed for the first quarter like her sister Cassy, or she might have been wet nursed at home or away. And it’s likely that Jane was also fostered out, possibly the same “good woman at Deane” that Cass went to, in order to learn how to walk and grow up a bit before coming back home.

Completing Their Family, Minus 2

Four years after the birth of Jane, Mrs. Austen had her last baby, Charles. I wonder if he was her last baby on purpose. In total she had eight children, which was just above the average of seven children for women of the time in England. However, her second son, George was considered an invalid due to some form of intellectual and possibly physical disability, and she gave up another child– her third son, Edward. Most folks paint this situation as a Cinderella kind of story… but I have very mixed feelings.

So, you recall that Tysoe Hancock, Mr 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 cousin, Mr. Knight sensed this too. It could be another reason there is a four year gap between Edward’s birth and Henry’s: the finances couldn’t take it (so either they weren’t having sex or they were practicing some form of birth control…. A subject we will get into in the next part). 

Anyway, 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 would like something of a family for themselves. So a deal was struck and Edward was allowed to be raised by the Knights and he became their heir while still maintaining a relationship with his birth family, they were after all all literally family. What’s not to like? 

The Austen’s owed the Steventon living, their house and lands, their livelihood, to Mr. Knight. So he takes a shine to their third boy because it is a culture of primogeniture, a first born son is sacred, the second so was intellectually or physically disabled, so viola, third son’s a charm.

Even if the Austen’s weren’t okay with this, how could they possibly refuse such a thing. 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 refusing him their son would put the whole family at risk of destitution. Or maybe it was an amazing deal. Certainly it improved the fortunes of Edward and he was the son who provided a home for his mother and sisters after his biological father died. 

Jane Austen used this scenario of a parent giving up a child to a wealthy relative in two of her novels, 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.” 

I wish we had more letters from her about her experiences and her children’s care. How much did her attitudes about motherhood change in the fourteen years she spent having children? If there were changes did them stem from her experience of motherhood? Or from popular culture? Perhaps she started her first born James off with a wet nurse but the time we get to Cassy, she had decided she should breastfeed her own baby because it was so trendy. Did she send all of her children to the same person? 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 the accounts do not survive. 

In the next part we’ll be looking at the next generation of Austen’s, primarily through the filter of Jane’s surviving letters and her novels to learn what she thought about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood and how that may have been the real reason why she didn’t marry. 

I hope you found this interesting! I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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Infinities of love, etc. 


  • 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.
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  • 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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