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What Did Jane Austen Think About Childbirth? | Pt 2.2


In part one of this series, I covered the reproductive history and childcare strategies of Jane Austen’s parents. Across the five installments of the second 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 annual rounds of pregnancy and childbirth. As a result, 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 but we don’t know. 

Attending Births

Like their mother before them, Cass and Jane were expected to attend the births of their sister-in-law’s, despite not being married or having given birth themselves. Jane wrote a poem to her brother Frank just after he had set out on an 18 month voyage (China and India among his stops) when his second child was born:

British Library MS 41180

“My dearest Frank, I wish you joy
Of Mary’s safety with a Boy,
Whose birth has given little pain
Compared with that of Mary Jane.”

(July 26, 1809, Jane to Frank, BL Add MS 41180)

Jane was living with Mrs. Frank Austen at the time of Mary Jane’s birth, so it seems likely she was at least aware of it as it took place if not in the room with her. And then was possibly with her for the next birth as well. Whatever the case, Jane was aware that Mrs. Frank Austen’s (Mary’s) first birth was more painful than her second. 

In late September 1808, Cassy was on her way to Godmersham to attend the 11th birth of their sister-in-law Elizabeth Austen but arrived too late. She wrote to Jane about it and Jane replied:

“We are extremely glad to hear of the birth of the child, and trust everything will proceed as well as it begins.[…]. We are glad it was all over before your arrival […]”

(Oct 1 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 43

Attendants missing the birth was always considered a good thing because it signified that the birth was quick for the mother and child: less time suffering and less time in the risky transition between pregnancy and a babe-in-arms. In 1811, Jane wrote: 

“I give you joy of our new nephew, and hope if he ever comes to be hanged it will not be till we are too old to care about it. It is a great comfort to have it so safely and speedily over.” 

(April 25, 1811, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 56)

It wasn’t just a great comfort to have it so safely and speedily over for the mother either, it was also for the comfort of the on-lookers too. The fastest births are the ones that aren’t heard of until they’re already over, which was the case for Mrs. Austen and the birth of her grandson James Edward by Mrs. James Austen.

“I have just received a note from James to say that Mary was brought to bed last night, at eleven o’clock, of a fine little boy, and that everything is going on very well. My mother had desired to know nothing of it before it should be all over, and we were clever enough to prevent her having any suspicion of it”

(Nov 17, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 10)

In other sources, there is speculation that Mrs. Austen was finally sick of childbirth after having eight babies of her own– despite the fact that she walked from Steventon to Deane in the middle of the night to attend the birth of the first Mrs. James Austen (Le Faye)– or that there was some beef between Mrs. Austen and her daughter-in-law, and even wild stories that Mary was laboring under the same roof as the imperious Mrs. Austen and had to be very quiet so as to not let her know she was giving birth. This is all nonsense. Mrs. Austen might not have wanted to attend her daughter-in-laws birth and Mary might not have wanted her mother-in-law there– she had hired a nurse for the occasion: 

“Her nurse is come and has no particular charm either of person or manner; but as all the Hurstbourne world pronounce her to be the best nurse that ever was, Mary expects her attachment to increase.”

(Nov 17, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 10)

We don’t know how they felt about it either way.  We do know that Mary was at the rectory in Deane while Mrs. Austen had been laid up sick in her bedroom in Steventon for weeks before the birth– in fact she didn’t leave her room until Nov 31st, Jane wrote to Cass: 

“My mother made her entrée into the dressing-room through crowds of admiring spectators yesterday afternoon, and we all drank tea together for the first time these five weeks. She has had a tolerable night, and bids fair for a continuance in the same brilliant course of action to-day.”

(Dec 1, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 12). 

So Mrs. Austen wouldn’t have been able to attend the birth regardless and the stress of knowing the birth of her grandchild was underway would likely have made her condition worse, especially considering the events of the previous year in which Mrs. James Austen almost died, check out the pregnancy post for more on that. 

However, it is possible Mrs. Austen had begun to leave off attending births, as in 1807 when they were living with Mrs. Frank Austen during her first pregnancy, Mrs. James Austen invited Jane to come stay at Steventon ( Mr. and Mrs. James Austen had taken over the Steventon living when Mr. Austen retired) and then invited Mrs. Austen to stay during Mary’s confinement: 

“Mrs. J. Austen has asked me to return with her to Steventon; I need not give my answer; and she has invited my mother to spend there the time of Mrs. F. A.’s confinement, which she seems half inclined to do.” (Jan 7, 1807, Brabourne Letter 36)

(Jan 7, 1807, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 36)

Lying In

In a departure from previous centuries, in which upper class confinement might be for weeks or months prior to childbirth (and in a darkened padded cell). In the Georgian era, based on surviving letters, many women didn’t start their confinements until labor pain began (Lewis, 1986). And the term confinement applied to any illness that kept a person in their room or bed, including for a man, for example, in a letter by a relative of Mrs. Austen:

“my dearest affectionate Husband ill as he was never left me– his tenderness has been beyond description– After above 17 Weeks confinement, with his large Shoe, and unable to move but with two Sticks, has he never seem to have a thought but for me.”

(Sept 11, 1799, Jane Leigh Perrot to Mountague Cholmeley, AFP, p 182)

And then the lying-in was the month or so after the birth that a woman took to recover and get to know her baby, of course, the situation depended greatly on her wealth and status, as well as personal choices about infant care. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin didn’t approve of “the month” as it was sometimes called: 

“She was so far from being under any apprehension as to the difficulties of child-birth, as frequently to ridicule the fashion of ladies in England, who keep their chamber for one full month after delivery. For herself, she proposed coming down to dinner on the day immediately following.”

(William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of Vindication of the Rights of Women, 1798, p 178-179

During the lying-in it was normal for female family and friends to come and visit the mother, to drink caudle, and meet the new baby. It was during Mary’s (Mrs. James Austen’s) lying-in that we see 22-year-old Jane’s… snobbery?

“Mary does not manage matters in such a way as to make me want to lay in myself. She is not tidy enough in her appearance; she has no dressing-gown to sit up in; her curtains are all too thin, and things are not in that comfort and style about her which are necessary to make such a situation an enviable one. Elizabeth was really a pretty object with her nice clean cap put on so tidily and her dress so uniformly white and orderly.”

(Dec 1, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne letter 12)

Jane was comparing and contrasting Mrs. James Austen’s first lying-in (first time mother) with her other sister-in-law, Elizabeth, Mrs. Edward Austen, who had just had her fifth baby… and of course, was rich. It was relatively easy for Elizabeth to have enviable surroundings, to have her ladies maid put on her cap and ensure her dress was uniformly white and orderly. No doubt that Jane recognized that the difference between the two women was primarily financial and most importantly, for Jane, the process of pregnancy, birth, and lying-in was not for her unless her situation looked more like Elizabeth’s: i.e. rich. In a letter later that year (1798) Jane wrote:

“People get so horridly poor and economical in this part of the world that I have no patience with them. Kent is the only place for happiness; everybody is rich there.”

(Dec 18, 1798, Jane Austen to Cass, Brabourne Letter 13) 

(Kent, of course, is where her rich brother Edward’s estate, Godmersham, was located). 

We can see Jane learning about the physical process of recovering from childbirth in her letters, she’s always concerned about the health and welfare of her friends and family (and annoyed when conditions seem either chronic and/or malingering). However, inquiries into health were ubiquitous in Georgian letters, but in particular, Jane marks out days and weeks from childbirth and tracks the progress of recovery. During Mary’s lying in, she wrote:

“Mary continues quite well, and my mother tolerably so. I saw the former on Friday, and though I had seen her comparatively hearty the Tuesday before, I was really amazed at the improvement which three days had made in her. She looked well, her spirits were perfectly good, and she spoke much more vigorously than Elizabeth did when we left Godmersham.”

(Nov 25, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 11) 

And then…

I was at Deane yesterday morning. Mary was very well, but does not gain bodily strength very fast. When I saw her so stout on the third and sixth days, I expected to have seen her as well as ever by the end of a fortnight.”

(Dec 1, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 12)

In her novel, Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Jennings’s daughter Charlotte gives birth while Mrs. Jennings’s has the eldest Dashwood sisters visiting her in London. 

“Within a few days after this meeting, the newspapers announced to the world, that the lady of Thomas Palmer, Esq., was safely delivered of a son and heir; a very interesting and satisfactory paragraph, at least to all those intimate connections who knew it before.”

Sense and Sensibility, Ch 36

Here we see that Mrs. Palmer was doing social calls within a few days of her confinement. Mrs. Palmer was quite rich and perhaps had a fashionable accoucher or man-midwife in attendance and my suspicion is supported by the fact that later in the novel, she prefers the knowledge of a physician to her mother and her baby’s nurse.

But Mrs. Palmer would have her mother as her postpartum nurse, whether she wanted to or not: 

“[the birth], highly important to Mrs Jennings’s happiness, produced a temporary alternation in the disposal of her time […] she wished to be as much as possible with Charlotte, she went thither every morning as soon as she was dressed, and did not return till late in the evening” 

Sense and Sensibility, Ch 36

“She always came in excellent spirits, full of delight and importance, attributing Charlotte’s well-doing to her own care, and ready to give so exact, so minute detail of her situation, as only Miss Steele had curiosity enough to desire.”

Sense and Sensibility, Ch 36

“Mrs Palmer was so well at the end of a fortnight, that her mother felt it no longer necessary to give up the whole of her time to her; and contenting herself with visiting her once or twice a day”

Sense and Sensibility, Ch 37

And just in case you don’t know, a fortnight is two weeks. So with regards to Mary and her character of Charlotte Palmer, two weeks recovery time would seem to be Jane’s expectation, however, in a letter dated Jan 21, 1801, she considers 14 days recovery “pretty rapid”.  

“Caroline was only brought to bed on the 7th of this month, so that her recovery does seem pretty rapid.”

(Jan 21, 1801, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 28)

As far as I know, all the births mentioned in Jane’s letters and novels are vaginal births. However c-sections were performed in the 18th century (very rarely), among other forms of surgical births (I’ll spare you the grisly details… for now), but the occurrence would have been marked as extreme and likely punctuated by a funeral. In 1798, there were 17 documented c-sections in Britain, 15 of those women died, which is a mortality rate of 88%– but IMAGINE THE TWO WHO SURVIVED! (Low, 2009).

Based on everything I have read of Jane’s letters, none of the births of her friends or family mention a midwife and only after Elizabeth Austen’s last baby was born was there a mention of having the family physician called. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have a midwife present but only that if they did the midwife wasn’t referenced, while nurses and even hair stylists were. But if you know of a midwife example associated with the Austen family or novels, please let us know in comments—  and for those of you who had a vaginal birth– how long before you felt a majority (> 51%) recovered? Is two weeks “pretty rapid” or were you “as well as ever at the end of a fortnight”?

Mortality

I think the attention Jane gives to the recovery of Mary and others in her letters, and to a minor character in her first novel, shows her concerns about childbirth. Around 1800, the estimated maternal mortality rate was 12-14% per 1000 births (Rogers, 1993) and the more births one experiences the higher their personal risk of dying. So consider how Jane felt as one by one her childhood friends got married, knowing they’d likely be pregnant in a few months and possibly dead before the year is out. 

In the letter, about Mary giving birth in 1798, she also wrote: 

“I believe I never told you that Mrs. Coulthard and Anne, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary with this news.”

(Nov 17, 1798, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 10)

The concern about maternal mortality wasn’t just a private matter but a literary one too. Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (published in 1740 and considered the first “best seller”, (there was merch) it’s highly probable Jane read it and the sequel. In the first novel Pamela was a 14 year-old household servant, who kept her virtue (virginity) by fainting whenever her boss tried to sexually assault her and her reward was marrying said boss. (still a better love story than twilight).

In the sequel, Pamela in her exalted condition, published in 1742, the story catches up with married Pamela who because she is married, pregnancy is, “a circumstance I am, I think, always in.” And that has her and everyone around her terrified she will die in childbirth, especially her friend Polly, who writes to her parents,  

“I don’t think a Lady can be required [to go through with childbirth] with a less worthy [husband than Pamela’s], for all she is likely to suffer on a Husband’s Account, and for the sake of his Family and Name.” 

and then after Pamela gives birth, Polly writes home again:

“Never more, my dear Papa, talk of a Husband to me. Indeed, in the Mind I am in, I will never be marry’d”.

Spoilers: Polly gets married, dies in childbirth. Thanks Sam.

But this book, which was very influential, pretty much spells it out: ladies get the best possible, most perfectest husband, because you will suffer and prolly die for that D. And it would seem that Jane’s standards for a spouse reflected this… but more on this in the marriage installment. 

And maternal mortality wasn’t just a topic for fiction either, it was a subject of non-fiction as well. Mary Wollstonecraft, famous for her treatise, Vindication of the Rights of Women, married William Godwin in early 1797, gave birth August 31st of that year then died ten days later due to infection. Her slow painful death was detailed in William Godwin’s memoirs of his late wife, published the following year, in 1798.

Yet, the Austen family had experienced very good luck in childbirth, Mrs. Austen had eight children without (as far as I know) any major postpartum health scares and without, obviously, dying. Though she seems to have suffered poor health, losing many teeth by 1788, in a letter from her niece Philadelphia Walter to James Walter, 

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

(July, 23, 1788, Phila Walter to James Walter, AFP)

And as Jane told her niece Fanny, the “business of mothering” ages a person:

“by not beginning the business of mothering quite so early in life, you will be young in Constitution, spirits, figure, & countenance, while Mrs. Wm. Hammond is growing old by confinements and nursing.”  

(March 13, 1817, Jane Austen to Fanny,Brabourne Letter 83) 

Among Jane’s brothers’ families, it seems that there was one scare in 1797 with the second Mrs. James Austen, which I covered in the pregnancy post and then smooth sailing until 1808.

Mrs. Edward Austen, Elizabeth (Jane’s lying-in role model) gave birth to her eleventh child, a boy named Brooke John, in the last week of September, 1808. As I will discuss in the marriage installment. As previously mentioned, Cassy was meant to be there for the birth but arrived just after and wrote to Jane to say that mother and baby seemed to be doing well. 

On Oct 1st Jane replied to Cassy: 

“We are extremely glad to hear of the birth of the child, and trust everything will proceed as well as it begins. His mamma has our best wishes, and he our second best for health and comfort — though I suppose, unless he has our best too, we do nothing for her. We are glad it was all over before your arrival”

(Oct 1, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 43)

On Oct 7th another reply: 

“Your letter on Tuesday gave us great pleasure, and we congratulate you all upon Elizabeth’s hitherto happy recovery; tomorrow, or Sunday, I hope to hear of its advancing in the same style.”

(Oct 7, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 44)

But on the evening of October 8th, after eating a “hearty supper”, Elizabeth died suddenly. I wonder if her cap was tidy, curtains thick enough… 

On Oct 13th Jane wrote:


“We have felt — we do feel — for you all, as you will not need to be told: […] God be praised that you can say what you do of [Edward]: that he has a religious mind to bear him up, and a disposition that will gradually lead him to comfort.[…]We need not enter into a panegyric on the departed, but it is sweet to think of her great worth, of her solid principles, of her true devotion, her excellence in every relation of life. It is also consolatory to reflect on the shortness of the sufferings which led her from this world to a better.” 

(Oct 13, 1808, Jane to Cass, Letter 45)

“That you are forever in our thoughts you will not doubt. I see your mournful party in my mind’s eye under every varying circumstance of the day; and in the evening especially figure to myself its sad gloom: the efforts to talk, the frequent summons to melancholy orders and cares, and poor Edward, restless in misery, going from one room to another, and perhaps not seldom upstairs, to see all that remains of his Elizabeth.”

(Oct 15, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 46) 

The only thing the family could do was lean on their religious beliefs. It was a devastating loss– and so much worse because there seemed to be no cause. Jane was clearly disturbed by it: 

“I suppose you see the corpse? How does it appear? […] Was Mr. Scudmore [Family’s Physician] in the house at the time, was any application attempted, and is the seizure at all accounted for?”

(Oct 15, 1808, Jane to Cass, Brabourne Letter 46) 

Fortunately Elizabeth’s baby survived and lived to be 70 years old! 

In 1814, Jane lost another sister-in-law in childbirth, Francis Palmer, Mrs. Charles Austen. Jane and Francis weren’t very close due to her brother and his family often living aboard ships for his work in the Navy, and Francis and her family being from Bermuda– but the family still felt the loss both of Francis and of her baby girl, Elizabeth who died soon after birth. Jane had been in the middle of a letter to her niece Anna when they got the news at Chawton Cottage, 

“I am very glad, dear Anna, that I wrote as I did before this sad event occurred. I have only to add that your Grandmama does not seem the worse now for the shock.”

(Sept 9, 1814, Jane to Anna, Brabourne Letter 87) 

After Jane’s death, in 1823, Mrs. Frank Austen died giving birth to her eleventh child and the baby followed its mother to the grave within the year. 

Five of Jane’s brothers married, all of them lost wives; three (Elizabeth, Francis, Mary), possibly four (Anne Mathew, the first Mrs. James Austen), died due to childbirth. The only one that definitely didn’t die due to childbirth was Eliza, who never had a child with Henry.

In 1820, Charles went on to marry his former wife’s sister, Harriet Palmer (it wasn’t illegal yet but it was taboo) and they had four children, two died in infancy. Frank remarried Jane’s best friend and Mrs. James Austen’s sister, Martha Lloyd in 1828, who was nine-years his senior and postmenopausal at 63 years old (she delayed marriage like a boss). Edward, however, never remarried after Elizabeth died.

Conclusion

Jane’s impression of childbirth was of a dangerous, painful liminal zone between pregnancy and motherhood. Like pregnancy, there was little to no control for the person experiencing it. Recovery was not always a straightforward progress towards a prior state of health each successive confinement aging a woman.

And for Jane, even the best outcome was not enviable unless one was rich enough to do it with style. Yet wealth (nor experience in childbirth) would not save someone from the grave and in believing that it was god’s will that women should suffer and possibly die during childbirth, the best one could hope for was to have it over quickly, one way or another. Production of children was the duty of wives, surviving one birth meant suffering another likely in a year.  

Like Richardson’s Polly, who understood that marrying meant suffering and possibly death in childbirth, who taught readers that the husband better be worth it, Jane set her standards for a spouse high, perhaps not to intentionally prevent her marrying but to give her a sense of control of the process of procreation. Despite her poor opinions of pregnancy and childbirth, I believe that Jane Austen desired motherhood — on her own terms– and that will be the subject of the next installment: what Jane Austen thought about motherhood. 


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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, Richard Arthur. 1942. The Austen Family Papers 1704-1856. Spottiswoode, Ballantyne & Co.
  • Hubback, J.H. & Edith. 1906. Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers. London: John Lane Company. Google Books/Internet Archive.
  • Kaplan, Deborah. 2019. Jane Austen Among Women. John Hopkins University Press, Project Muse.
  • Lewis, Judith. 1986. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860. Rutgers University Press.
  • Low, James. 2009. “Caesarean Section- Past and Present.” J Obstet Gynaecol Can 31(2), p 1131-1136. JSTOR.
  • 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.

Categories: Birth Jane Austen Series Video

Aradia Wyndham

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.

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