In part one of this series, I covered the reproductive history and childcare strategies of Jane Austen’s parents. In this part, I will show that Jane’s attitudes about marriage were shaped– not by her desire to become a published author– but by her observations of motherhood, particularly the physiological and psychological changes involved in annual rounds of pregnancy and childbirth. Because Jane was unwilling to accept the risks and sacrifices thereof, she set her standards for a spouse so high that they prevented her marrying — but not necessarily from becoming a mother.
Who Was Jane Austen?
Jane Austen was an early 19th century English author who published six 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– fact is, we don’t know.
Be Fruitful and Multiply
In one of the first letters we have of Jane’s she makes a joke about the number of pregnant Mary’s she and Cass know,
“Mary is brought to bed of a boy — both doing very well. I shall leave you to guess what Mary I mean.”(Sept 18, 1796, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 7)
Contraception was considered sinful because the church told them that the first cause for marriage was the procreation of children (Form of Solemnization of Matrimony) but also because having a lot of babies, and it being painful and terrifying, even deadly for women, was part of God’s punishment for the sin of Eve.
“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.”
In one of Eliza’s (Jane’s cousin, then sister-in-law) letters from 1797 she speculates whether the new Mrs. James Austen (Jane’s sister in law and Jame’s second wife) is pregnant (or breeding)
“I do not hear that Mrs. James is breeding but I conclude it is so for a parson cannot fail of having a numerous progeny.”(July 3, 1797, Eliza to Miss Walter, AFP)
Ironically, of the five Austen sons who married, the two who became clergymen had the fewest children: Henry with none and James with three.
Most women expected to become pregnant soon after the wedding and to continue having new babies annually. One of Jane’s friends, William Chute, received a letter from his childhood friend Rev Wiggett on the birth of his first baby:
“I believe she has rather been in haste to make her entrance into the World, for that day nine Months was our wedding day. We have therefore you see lost no time.”(Kaplan, Jane Austen Among Women p28)
Jane’s mother had three babies in three years following her marriage. When Jane’s older brothers, James and Edward, were married, they began having children immediately as well. Her first nieces, Anna and Fanny, were born in 1793, when Jane was 17 years old. James’ first wife died in ’95 without another living child, but Edward and his wife Elizabeth, had new babies almost annually in ‘93, ‘94, ‘95, ‘97, ‘98, 1800, ‘01, ‘03, ‘04, ‘06, ‘08. When Frank married in 1806, the schedule of babies was similar, ‘07, ‘09, ‘11, ‘12, ‘14, ‘15, ‘17, ‘18, ‘20, ‘21, ‘23– and he was an admiral in the Navy out at sea for long stretches at a time during his marriage.
And these dates don’t take into account the very likely possibility that these women experienced miscarriages or stillbirths in-between the recorded births of their surviving children.
Miscarriage and stillbirth can be a tricky subject for historians because a family might experience one (or more) but not have the pregnancy or birth formally recorded. We often only get hints through letters and diaries. There is a hint that Mrs. James Austen may have experienced miscarriage or stillbirth in 1797. I believe she was married in Jan of ‘97: there’s Mrs Austen’s letter welcoming her to the family in Nov of ’96 (post upcoming) and then in Dec of ‘96 Eliza writes to Miss Walter:
“Has Cassandra informed you of the wedding which is soon to take place in the family? James has chosen a second wife in the person of Miss Mary [Lloyd] who is not either rich or handsome, but very sensible & good-humoured”(Dec 30, 1796, Eliza to Miss Walter, AFP).
Then seven months later, Eliza again writes to Miss Walter:
“I do not hear that Mrs. James is breeding but I conclude it is so for a parson cannot fail of having a numerous progeny.”(July 3 1797, Eliza to Miss Walter, AFP)
We don’t know what Miss Walter wrote to Eliza prompting this reply but it seems like there was at least a rumor afoot of the new Mrs. James Austen being pregnant in the summer of 97. But Mr and Mrs James Austen didn’t have their first baby, James Edward until November of 1798 (conceived around Feburary-March of 98). And Eliza cryptically hints at some tragedy occurring in a Dec 11, 1797 letter:
“James Austen has been very near losing his second wife…”(Dec 11, 1797, Eliza to Miss Walter, AFP)
And Eliza heard this news from Jane while they were both in Bath. Jane was aware of this event, that her best friend’s sister had married her brother and almost died because of it within the year– his second wife to die prematurely and possibly related to pregnancy or childbirth. This information casts a new light on Jane’s letter about visiting Mary the following year before and after she gives birth (post upcoming) as well as Mary’s own experiences becoming a wife and mother– and of course, how stories about other women’s reproductive experiences are shared between women…
Sometimes with tact and concern and sometimes…. not so much.
Jane had this to say about one of their neighbors in Oct of 1798:
“Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”(Oct 27, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 9)
First, not funny Jane. Second, It was believed that a woman’s emotional state could cause miscarriage or stillbirth, or even cause her own death after childbirth by being apprehensive about death in childbirth during pregnancy.
And on the subject of pregnancy loss, there is the ever controversial issue of abortion. Jane may have just been teasing her sister, but it’s just as possible that Cass had suggested that she suspected their brother’s adoptive mother, Mrs Knight, a widow for a few years at the time, to have lain-in (i.e. given birth). Jane disagrees… Mrs. Knight would have had an abor– accident.
“I am happy to hear of Mrs. Knight’s amendment, whatever might be her complaint. I cannot think so ill of her however, in spite of your insinuations, as to suspect her of having lain-in — I do not think she would be betrayed beyond an accident at the utmost.”(Jan 21, 1801, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 28)
And Lord Barbourne, with all his Victorian rectitude, thought this is what she meant too as he had omitted that second sentence in the original publication.
The trend for very large families was influenced by the royal family: King George III and Queen Charlotte had fifteen children between 1762 and 1783. Having a large family was a sign of one’s gentility, a kind of conspicuous reproduction, but of course, only if the parents could afford to keep their family in a high standard of living without going bankrupt.
Once a woman was married, the expectation was that either she was pregnant or she would be within a couple months, unless she was barren (or the couple was doing something sinful to prevent it). This world view was so ingrained in people’s minds that when Mrs. Austen’s sister, Mrs. Cooper had a two year gap in pregnancies, Mrs. Austen figured she must be done having children.
“My sister Cooper has made us a visit this spring, she seems well in health, but is grown vastly thin– her boy and girl are well, the youngest almost two years old, and she has not been breeding since, so perhaps she has done.”(June 6th 1773, Mrs. Austen to Mrs. Walter, AFP p28)
I am curious whether Mrs Austen assumes this “done-ness” was biological or intentional on the part of the Coopers. Contraception may be considered sinful, and in some cases illegal, but that doesn’t mean people didn’t use it.
Jane didn’t approve of short intervals between pregnancies or an excessive number of children in a family both due to the financial burden on the family as well as the burden on the body of the woman and the risks to her health and the health of her offspring.
“she will be worn out before she is thirty. — I am very sorry for her. Mrs. Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many children. — Mrs. Benn has a 13th.”(March 23, 1817, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 84)
“Mrs. Tilson’s remembrance gratifies me, and I will use her patterns if I can but poor woman! how can she honestly be breeding again?”(Oct 1, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 43)
These concerns weren’t unique to Jane, they were shared by many people in society, including her uncle-by-marriage, Tysoe Hancock (Eliza’s father). Around the time that Jane’s siblings Henry and Cassandra were being born he raised his concerns to his wife about Mr. Austen’s “violently rapid increase” of his family and his worry of Rev. Austen “finding it easier to get a family than to support them” especially considering that one of his children, George, was disabled and unable to care for himself (AFP).
In the context of the era– the religiosity and trend for large families — what constituted an excessive number of children? Deborah Kaplan suggested that most people in the era would have only considered some method of contraception for healthy couples once the number of children reached double digits– duty to family and god fulfilled. In Northanger Abbey Jane seemed supportive of families with ten children,
“A family of ten children will be always called a fine family, where there are heads and arms and legs enough for the number.”Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
But what church ordained family planning methods were around back then? Jane Austen advocated abstinence and of the options available at the time, likely the most effective one. When she heard of Mrs. Deedes having her 18th child, she wrote,
“I would recommend to her and Mr D the simple regimen of separate bedrooms.”(Feb 20, 1816, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 84)
Pregnancy as Illness
Jane considered pregnancy an illness, and in real life and her novels, Jane had a ‘tude about chronic illnesses (and considering the frequency of pregnancies, it would qualify as chronic).
“and provided [Lady Sondes] will now leave off having bad headaches and being pathetic, I can allow her, I can wish her, to be happy.”
(Dec 27, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 50)
In a letter she remarked about a number of ill friends and one pregnant one.
“I am sorry to hear of Mrs. Whitfield’s increasing illness, and of poor Marianne Bridges having suffered so much; these are some of my sorrows; and that Mrs. Deedes is to have another child I suppose I may lament.”
(Feb 8, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 37)
One of the first signals about someone being pregnant in a letter is that Jane says they aren’t looking their best, they must have a cold
“I cannot praise Elizabeth’s looks, but they are probably affected by a cold.”
(June 15, 1808, Brabourne letter 39)
Elizabeth was pregnant, 5-6 ish months along too. In fact, I suspect that “has a cold” might be code for “pregnancy”. It’s a common condition, perhaps as common as pregnancy. In this particular letter I think Elizabeth really had a cold because then everyone else in the house gets it too, but we know how Jane loves double meanings. Consider this update, two weeks later:
“Elizabeth talks of going with her three girls to Wrotham while her husband is in Hampshire; she is improved in looks since we first came, and, excepting a cold, does not seem at all unwell. She is considered, indeed, as more than usually active for her situation and size.”
(June 30, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 42)
Her looks have improved… but that pesky “cold”. And I wonder at the phrase “situation and size”, I’m going to get into the size issue in a second but what of the “situation” specifically. We know that in Austen’s era it wasn’t unusual for women to stay active physically and socially into late pregnancy– we have letters indicating that “confinements” often didn’t start until labor did (In the Family Way). And Elizabeth had had 10 prior successful pregnancies, so I wonder if there was something particular about this pregnancy that made her situation unique. In another letter that summer, while figuring out transportation home, Jane referenced that Edward didn’t want to be gone long, “from a very natural unwillingness to leave Elizabeth at that time.” (June 15, 1808). Perhaps he was always very attentive to his wife, or perhaps more attentive during late pregnancy, OR perhaps there was something off about this pregnancy that had him concerned. [Forshadowing]
But another example of colds as code for pregnancy, in a letter to Fanny about recently postpartum Anna:
“Anna has had a bad cold, and looks pale. She has just weaned Julia.”
(March 13, 1817, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 83)
Perhaps Anna really had a bad cold… or perhaps she has a Bad Cold and needs some ginger chews and iv fluids STAT. Anna was in fact pregnant with her second child; Jane compared her to a beast of burden.
“Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, and said she was pretty well but not equal to so long a walk; she must come in her Donkey Carriage. Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.”
(March 23, 1817, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 84)
In a letter to Cass about Mrs Frank Austen (who was only a couple months along), she is more explicit:
“F.A. seldom either looks or appears quite well. Little Embryo is troublesome, I suppose.”
(Sept 8, 1816, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 79)
Some of the symptoms of pregnancy she gathered from her sisters-in-law was rheumatism and the general feeling of being sick of being pregnant — about three days before Mrs James Austen (Mary) gave birth:
“I went to Deane with my father two days ago to see Mary, who is still plagued with the rheumatism, which she would be very glad to get rid of, and still more glad to get rid of her child, of whom she is heartily tired.”
(Nov 17, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 10)
While living with her sister-in-law Mrs. Frank Austen, in Southampton, she witnessed her fainting spells during pregnancy:
“Mrs. F. A. has had one fainting fit lately; it came on as usual after eating a hearty dinner, but did not last long.”
(Jan 7, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 36)
But perhaps the most obvious symptom of pregnancy is weight gain and Jane certainly seems to have an issue with fatness, but we need to keep in mind that in her time fatness had very different connotations than it does now. Today, at least in the US, the fattest populations are often the poorest, whereas in her time they were rich and even then, associated with excessive luxury, ala the Prince of Whales.
And then there’s the issue of changing fashions, the more body contouring gowns made advancing pregnancy– and fatness for that matter– much harder to disguise than the more unnatural silhouettes of the previous decades (or centuries really).
After two balls in 1800, Jane describes the guests to her sister, first we have
“Mrs. Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, and fat neck.”(Jan 21, 1800, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 22)
“I had the comfort of finding out the other evening who all the fat girls with long noses were that disturbed me at the 1st H. ball. They all prove to be Miss Atkinsons of En—- [illegible].”(Jan 21, 1800, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 22)
but in particular:
“Mrs. Warren, I was constrained to think, a very fine young woman, which I much regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, and danced away with great activity looking by no means very large.”
(Nov 20, 1800, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 24)
I’m still not sure if Mrs. Warren was a fat woman who looked pregnant but lost weight or a pregnant woman who invested in more robust maternity stays. What do you think?
If you’re into historical dramas you’ll know that a woman refusing to dance or ride due to pregnancy is a common trope–but dancing and having an active social life was not unusual for pregnant women in this era, even into very late pregnancy. So Jane wasn’t mocking Mrs Warren for dancing, only for looking less fat/pregnant than she had previously.
In a letter to Fanny, Jane seems to make another fat joke about a pregnant woman, her sister-in-law, once that Troublesome Embryo was about to get evicted:
“Mrs. F. A. is to be confined the middle of April, and is by no means remarkably large for her.”
(March 13, 1817, Jane to Fanny, Brabourne Letter 84)
Shame & Disgust
With so many women having annual babies, regular periods would have been unusual. There was a theory– I heard this many years ago in some class on the bible (literary history)– that the relative rarity of a monthly period and its association with a woman not being pregnant, made having a period more shameful or seemingly dangerous than it really was (or is).
In the Biblical book of Leviticus, rules are set out to avoid menstrual impurity and how periods are unclean.
“19 When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. 20 And everything on which she lies during her menstrual impurity shall be unclean. Everything also on which she sits shall be unclean. 21 And whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 22 And whoever touches anything on which she sits shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water and be unclean until the evening. 23 Whether it is the bed or anything on which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. 24 And if any man lies with her and her menstrual impurity comes upon him, he shall be unclean seven days, and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean. […] 29 And on the eighth day she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons and bring them to the priest, to the entrance of the tent of meeting. 30 And the priest shall use one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering. And the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for her unclean discharge.”Leviticus 15:19-30, KJV
And we can see this attitude from Jane about her own periods in a letter about buying flannel, generally considered to be cloth for her menstrual rags:
“I gave 2s. 3d. a yard for my flannel, and I fancy it is not very good, but it is so disgraceful and contemptible an article in itself that its being comparatively good or bad is of little importance.”
(Oct 27, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 9)
I wonder if Jane wasn’t slightly disgusted by bodies in general, or just bits associated with sex or sexuality, even naked shoulders at a ball seemed to annoy her:
“The melancholy part was, to see so many dozen young women standing by without partners, and each of them with two ugly naked shoulders.”
(Dec 9th, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 49)
and consider how that attitude would have influenced her thinking about morning sickness, the act of and recovery from childbirth, leaky breasts and other leaky bits, leakier babies, etc– let alone sexual intercourse. But then again maybe she just didn’t like the current fashions, five years later she reported:
“I learnt from Mrs. Tickars’s young lady, to my high amusement, that the stays now are not made to force the bosom up at all; that was a very unbecoming, unnatural fashion. I was really glad to hear that they are not to be so much off the shoulders as they were.”
(Sept 15, 1813, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 62)
Jane’s impression of pregnancy was that of a loss of control. Pregnancy was something inflicted on wives, “poor animals” who had “no chance of escape” — the expectation was for it to be an annual recurrence.
Becoming pregnant and what pregnancy did to women was out of their control, it made them sick and fat, exhausted and uncomfortable. When it didn’t end in the heart break of miscarriage or stillbirth, its agonizing resolution, childbirth, could be fatal.
And that will be the subject of the next installation of part two: what Jane Austen thought about childbirth.
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- 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, Richard Arthur. 1942. The Austen Family Papers 1704-1856. Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co.
- An Accoucher. 1810. Address to Pregnant Females. Davis & Co. Wellcome Collection.
- 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.
Book and Baby Historian, frolicking through archives. Panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler, peppermint tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.